An 'open-ended distinctiveness': the contemporary relevance of Wolfhart Pannenberg's participatory ecclesiology and ecumenism for World Christianity
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Embargo end date31/12/2100
Wen, Clement Yung
This thesis contributes to the wider discussion surrounding the viability of the emerging theological paradigm of ‘World Christianity’ by arguing that Wolfhart Pannenberg’s participatory ecclesiology and ecumenism are of ongoing critical and constructive relevance for the movement—not so much from the angle of Pannenberg’s programmatic relationship to the twentieth-century ecumenical movement that centred upon the ‘visible unity’ of the churches around the Lord’s Table, but instead from the angle of the various ways in which his ecclesiological and ecumenical thought not only maintained a necessary ‘distinctiveness’ to both Christianity and the church in the world, but also an ‘open-endedness’ that allowed for genuine possibilities for the contextualizing of Christian faith and its ecclesial expression. Whereas the paradigm of World Christianity has, to date, prioritized the notion of ‘open-endedness’ through its emphasis upon that which is local, particular, and also often ‘marginal’, some within the movement are beginning to realize a need to recover a greater sense of Christianity’s definitional boundaries. What Pannenberg models through his eschatologically-oriented and historically-rooted programme is not only a thought-through ‘open-endedness’ for Christian and ecclesial expression, but importantly, a requisite emphasis upon the definitional ‘distinctiveness’ of Christian and ecclesial identity as well. Along such lines, the main argument of the present study is that a critically constructive consideration of Pannenberg’s eschatologically-oriented and historically-rooted ecclesiological and ecumenical concerns and proposals can, in both direct and indirect ways, aid World Christianity in its maturation as a theological paradigm—one that is very much poised to definitively mark the twenty-first century. Towards that end, the thesis begins in chapter one with a broad-brushstroke account of how ecclesiology—from the time of its inception as its own theological loci around the time of the Protestant Reformation on to the present era of World Christianity—has continued to ‘widen’ in a manner that has blurred certain requisite distinctions which are needed in order for Christianity and the church to retain their inherent meaning and significance. Because a critically constructive consideration of Pannenberg’s participatory ecclesiological and ecumenical proposals in their ‘openended distinctiveness’ is being suggested as a corrective to this conundrum, in chapter two, the biographical and socio-historical context of Pannenberg’s eschatologically-oriented and historically-rooted ecclesiological and ecumenical thought are traced to show how the themes of ‘open-endedness’ and ‘distinctiveness’ came to be concerns which underlay his programme. Chapter three then seeks to show how Pannenberg’s eschatological orientation for ecclesiology was expressed by his Vatican II-inspired rendition of ‘the church as sign and tool of the kingdom’ (i.e., his ‘sign-signified’ distinction) and especially his conception of the church’s ‘ecstatic participation’ in the gospel and the sacraments. Along the way, with reference to the definitional problems facing the emerging theological paradigm of World Christianity, it is argued that the theme of ‘participation in Christ’ ought to be the minimum baseline for all of Christianity, for such a theme not only safeguards the ‘distinctiveness’ of the faith and its ecclesial expression but is also applicable in an ‘open-ended’ way. Further, it is contended that the robustness of Pannenberg’s participatory formulations make him a worthy conversation partner for World Christianity to constructively engage with. Such a conversation continues in chapter four, which is focused on ‘church and world’. Attention in this chapter is drawn to Pannenberg’s negative reception of liberation theology to highlight how his eschatologically-oriented ‘sign-signified’ distinction continues to be of critical relevance for the World Christianity paradigm that, at present, is predominantly marked by a liberationist ethos. In this vein, Pannenberg’s ‘sign-signified’ distinction serves not only to safeguard Christian and ecclesial ‘distinctiveness’ but also the church’s evangelistic missionary task to the world. At the same time, Pannenberg’s other proposals regarding ‘church and world’, though vague in terms of concreteness and therefore practical applicability, will nevertheless also be shown to be of constructive ‘open-ended’ relevance for World Christianity—ironically through his ‘Constantinianism’ and more directly by way of his notion of ‘creative love’. That said, amidst the chapter’s discussion, it will also be suggested that Pannenberg’s programme would benefit from an increased attention to and further development of his mostly latent ‘social’ thought-structure—this, for the purpose of more effectively complementing the thought-structure of his ‘Christian personalism’ that is more explicitly on display. Finally, in chapter five, Pannenberg’s historical-rootedness for ecclesiology and ecumenism is displayed through an expository treatment of his view of contextualization and of his view that the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 ought to be seen as bearing universal ecumenical significance. A direct engagement with the World Christianity paradigm then follows through a brief dialogue with Dale Irvin’s programmatic work, Christian Histories, Christian Traditioning (1998), which features a ‘genealogical’ methodology for history and a proposal for the Christian tradition to be redrawn by way of a ‘rhizomatic’ rather than a ‘tree-like’ structure. The dialogical section with Irvin argues that if one is required at present to choose between ‘Global Christianity’ and ‘World Christianity’, then on theological grounds, the former is the only option. The thesis then concludes with a short summary of its main points and key advances.