“The task of theology is not only to investigate the origin and the original content of the Christian faith and of the doctrine of the church, or the changes they underwent in the course of history, but also to determine the truth which is contained in that tradition. All theological disciplines share in this task, but undoubtedly it is the special task of systematic theology, and to the degree that the question of the truth content in the documents of the Christian tradition is dealt with in biblical exegesis and in church history, those disciplines share in the special task of systematic theology.
The content of truth that is inherent in the documents of the tradition has to be determined again and again, because in each historical situation a new effort is needed to distinguish the truth of the gospel and of the dogma of the church from the evanescent forms of language and thought that at one time served to express such abiding truth. To make that distinction is possible only in terms of one’s own thought and language, rooted in a contemporary setting. Therefore, the task of distinguishing in a particular traditional assertion the core of truth from the passing forms of language and thought arises again and again. In each historical epoch, systematic theology has to be done all over again. And yet, the task is always the same, and the truth which systematic theology tries to reformulate should recognizably be the same truth that had been intended under different forms of language and thought in the great theological systems of the past and in the teaching of the church throughout the ages.
The task of the theologian in relation to the traditional language of Christian teaching is a critical one as well as a systematic one. It has to be critical, because the distinction has to be made between what is historically relative in the traditional teaching and what is its abiding core. This task arises even in biblical exegesis, because the biblical writings are also historical documents. Therefore, time and again the substantial content of the biblical witness has to be reformulated. But the truth content of traditional teaching cannot be determined in dealing with details only. It needs systematic presentation. Systematic presentation is itself a test of the truth claims of each of the specific assertions that enter into a comprehensive account. The reason is that truth itself is systematic, because coherence belongs to the nature of truth. Therefore, the attempt at systematic presentation is intimately related to the concern for the truth that is searched for in the investigation of traditional teaching.” (Introduction to Systematic Theology, 6–8)
It seems to me that there is a lot to like about this account. There are some worries, to be sure. I am not quite comfortable with the way Pannenberg speaks of Scripture. I think the way in which Scripture depends upon and is consequently limited by historically contingent language forms needs to be more carefully specified, though I take the basic point. But what I like about this is the honest acknowledgement that we need theology because we need to see how Scripture, and the gospel, are true. We know that they are; but we don’t always see how they are. Seeing how they are, though, does indeed involve expressing this truth in language and ideas that make sense today. This is why we cannot simply retain one exposition from the past but need, as Pannenberg says, to again and again restate it.
In my view, it is meaningful to speak of our time as a different historical epoch from, say, the post reformation period. This is why I think that we cannot be content with the way the gospel was articulated then, though we may and must be respectful of it. But we need to express it in our own time as well. Otherwise, we will struggle to see the truth of the gospel and will be weaker for it. Just before this Pannenberg writes of this weakness:
“If theology does not properly face its particular task regarding the truth claims of the Christian tradition, then it easily happens that the clergy of the church are the first to become insecure and evasive about the message they are supposed to preach. When they become doubtful about the truth of the gospel, they will tend to replace it by other ’causes’, and the believers will be disturbed, because they no longer get to hear in church what they rightfully expect to be taught there.”
Could theological liberalism and liberal church practice, then, indeed be rooted in a failure of Protestant systematics to “move with the times”? Not in the sense of changing the content of the gospel to fit the assumptions and attitudes of the day (God spare us); but in the sense of failing to adequately reärticulate the same gospel in the new historical epoch.