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Spirit as field of force

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 January 2014

Theodore James Whapham
St Thomas University, School of Theology and Ministry, Miami Gardens, FL 33054,
E-mail address:


It is a familiar refrain in various theological conversations that pneumatology has been woefully underdeveloped in Western theology since the time of Augustine. However, some theologians are working to correct this situation and to develop new ways of understanding the person of the Holy Spirit in ways which are faithful to traditional theological sources. Wolfhart Pannenberg is one such theologian. One way in which he seeks to revitalise contemporary pneumatology is by appealing to field theory as it has been developed in modern physics. Pannenberg justifies such a move by investigating the etymological and philosophical roots of both field theory and pneumatology in the Stoic understanding of the doctrine of the πνεῦμα as the field of all material existence. While the Stoic notion of field was rejected by the apologists as a way of understanding, because of its inherent materialism, this possibility has been reopened by modern physicists who have developed field theories as a way of understanding the animating and binding qualities of nature which are devoid of materialism. Pannenberg takes up this language in a distinctive way to describe the unity of the Godhead in order to avoid modalism and to undo emphasis on rationality which has been the central feature of much of modern Western pneumatology. He also draws upon field theory to understand the activity of the Spirit in creation as its animating and unitive property, while preserving the freedom and individuality of creaturely existence. The author argues that this distinctive feature of Pannenberg's use of field theory in pneumatology has laid the ground work for a renewed understanding of the role of the Spirit in creation and a new avenue of conversation between theology and the natural sciences. In particular, field theory should be seen as an important way of understanding the loving relations between persons which is grounded in a mutual self-giving which respects the individual, in contrast to those who ground love primarily in compassionate suffering.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2014 

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1 Key preliminary essays in which Pannenberg develops the field analogy include: Pannenberg, Wolfhart, ‘Doctrine of the Spirit and the Task of a Theology of Nature’, Theology 75/619 (1972), pp. 821CrossRefGoogle Scholar; ‘Theological Questions to Scientists’, in Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), pp. 3–16; ‘The God of Creation and Natural Science’, CTNS Bulletin 7/2 (1987), pp. 1–10; Pannenberg, Wolfhart and Musser, Donald K., ‘Spirit and Energy in the Phenomenology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’, in Beginning with the End (Chicago: Open Court, 1997), pp. 80–9Google Scholar; Pannenberg, Wolfhart, The Apostles’ Creed in the Light of Today's Questions (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), pp. 128–43Google Scholar; ‘God as Spirit – and Natural Science’, Zygon 36/4 (2001), pp. 783–94; ‘Response to John Polkinghorne’, Zygon 36/4 (2001), pp. 799–800.

2 Pannenberg, Wolfhart, Systematic Theology (Systematische Theologie), trans. Bromiley, Geoffrey W., 3 vols (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991)Google Scholar. (Hereafter abbreviated as ST.)

3 Copleston, Frederick, A History of Philosophy, vol. 1, Greece and Rome: From the Pre-Socratics to Plotinus (New York: Image Doubleday, 1946), p. 26Google Scholar.

4 Sambursky, Samuel, Physics of the Stoics (London: Routledge & Paul, 1959), p. 29Google Scholar.

5 Ibid., pp. 21–8.


6 See Pannenberg, Wolfhart, ‘The Doctrine of Creation in Modern Science’, in Toward a Theology of Nature (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1993), p. 39Google Scholar. He is drawing upon the work of Jammer, Max's Concept of Force (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957)Google Scholar and Berkson, William's Fields of Force (New York: Wiley, 1974)Google Scholar.

7 Association between the divine mind and the Spirit remained very influential in the history of Christian thought and reached a high point in the Hegelian understanding of Geist. Pannenberg is well aware of this historical influence and seeks to avoid reducing the concept of God to the notion of rationality.

8 More will be said about Pannenberg's critique of the conflation of πνεῦμα with νοῦς later.

9 Stoeger, William R., ‘Field Theories’, in van Huyssteen, J. Wentzel Vrede (ed.), Encyclopedia of Science and Religion (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003), p. 333Google Scholar.

10 While this critique could be applied to many significant figures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is particularly apropos of G. W. F. Hegel, whose notion of Geist was briefly discussed in the previous section. This in some ways helps to respond to Pannenberg's critics who have accused him of being too rationalistic and dependent on Hegelian pantheism. Examples of those who criticise Pannenberg for his rationalism and dependence upon Hegel include Hill, William J., The Three-Personed God: The Trinity as a Mystery of Salvation (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1982), pp. 155–66Google Scholar, and Bradshaw, Timothy, Trinity and Ontology: A Comparative Study of the Theologies of Karl Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg (Lewiston, NY: Published for Rutherford House/Edinburgh by Edwin Mellen Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

11 Pannenberg, ST, vol. 1, p. 373.

12 Ibid., pp. 379–80.


13 Ibid., p. 381.


14 Ibid., p. 382.


15 ‘The person of the Holy Spirit is not himself to be understood as the field, but as a unique manifestation (singularity) of the field of the divine essentiality’. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 83.


16 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 427.


17 Pannenberg asserts that Rahner's thesis regarding the identity of the immanent Trinity with the economic Trinity ought to be understood to mean that the eternal essence of God must be constantly linked to God's historical revelation. Moreover, he states, ‘Extending the thought of Rahner, one might thus say that creation is brought into the relations of the Trinitarian persons and participates in them’ (ST, vol. 1, pp. 327–8). This statement should be interpreted in the light of the Eastern theology of theosis, rather than as a concession to a Hegelian form of pantheism.

18 ST, vol. 2, p. 86.

19 Ibid., p. 89.


20 Ibid., p. 92, cf. ibid., vol. 1, pp. 403ff.


21 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 98.


22 Ibid.: here he cites Rom 8:23, 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5, cf. Eph 1:13ff.


23 ST, vol. 2, p. 102.


25 Ibid., p. 83.


26 Ibid., p. 63. This certainly does not mean that science is without value, nor does it mean that theology cannot benefit from insights garnered through scientific method. Quite the contrary, the entire purpose of this article is to demonstrate one important way that Pannenberg feels theology can learn from the insights of modern physics. Nevertheless, Pannenberg argues that the importing of scientific concepts into the realm of theology cannot take place uncritically, given the difference in methods, sources and governing principles. He states, ‘Theology has to have its own material reasons for applying a basic scientific concept like field theory to its own philosophical rather than scientific presentation. Only then is it justified in developing such concepts in a way appropriate to its own themes and independently of scientific usage’ (ST, vol. 2, p. 83). Neither is this statement intended simply as a rule for cooperation with the sciences. It should be seen instead as a principle which governs all interdisciplinary research for the benefit of theology. On Pannenberg's interdisciplinary method and its connection to relationality cf. Schultz, F. LeRon, ‘Theology, Science and Relationality: Interdisciplinary Reciprocity in the Work of Wolfhart Pannenberg’, Zygon 34/4 (2001), pp. 809–-25Google Scholar.


27 Polkinghorne, John, ‘Fields and Theology: A Response to Wolfhart Pannenberg’, Zygon 36 (2001), p. 796Google Scholar.

28 Ibid., pp. 795–6.


29 Pannenberg, Wolfhart, ‘Response to John Pokinghorne’, Zygon 36 (2001), pp. 799800CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Hefner, Philip, ‘Pannenberg's Fundamental Challenges to Theology and Science’, Zygon 36 (2001), pp. 804–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti, ‘The Working of the Spirit of God in Creation and the People of God: The Pneumatology of Wolfhart Pannenberg’, Pneuma 26 (2004), pp. 31–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Hefner, ‘Pannenberg's Fundamental Challenges’, pp. 807–8.

32 Kärkkäinen, ‘Working of the Spirit’, p. 32.

33 Grenz, Stanley, A Reason for Hope: The Systematic Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), pp. 114–6Google Scholar, and Taylor, Iain, Pannenberg on the Triune God (New York: T&T Clark, 2007), pp. 7980Google Scholar.

34 The inverse of this statement is also true. God cannot be understood apart from his act of self-disclosure in relation to the world, yet God truly transcends humanity's capacity to completely understand him.

35 Pannenberg does not reject completely the notion of divine suffering. Rather, he argues that the suffering of Christ on the cross affected his entire person, in both its humanity and divinity. Nonetheless, he feels that it is strictly speaking incorrect to speak of the death of God on the cross. He views such language as a sort of reverse monophysitism. However, he also argues that it is improper to say that the Father and the divine Son are unaffected by the suffering of the cross. Pannenberg, ST, vol. 1, p. 314.

36 Pannenberg, ST, vol. 1, p. 428.

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