Wolfhart Pannenberg: Theologian of God’s History
Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg died at age 85 on September 4, 2014, in Munich, where he had taught for thirty years before his retirement in the mid-1990s. For those who were familiar with the man and his work recognize his death as the passing of a monumentally significant Christian theologian.
This is a personal reflection, brief and not intended to be comprehensive. It grows out of my study and interaction with the man, which began in 1960, when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Our contact ebbed and flowed over the years. He and his wife, Hilke, visited with us in the States, we visited them in Germany. He lectured several times at my school, I lectured twice at his. I am writing out of my interaction with him and his thinking. I will say at the outset that I was always awed by the man, always aware that I was in the presence of an extraordinary man. I will not focus on my personal relationship with him. Rather, I describe what I consider to be the basic ideas that he contributed to us. This the most fitting tribute I can offer–appropriate, since he considered thinking and reason to be central to his theological work. I hope my enduring affection and esteem for Wolfhart Pannenberg shines through.
Pannenberg proposed an original idea of revelation as history. I will describe that idea itself and then show how he applied that idea to the interpretation of Christian tradition–our understanding of Jesus Christ–and to his dialogue with secular science.
In the late 50s, I was writing my dissertation about the idea of history and the role it played in 19th and 20th century German theology. My final constructive chapter appropriated that understanding of history for my own theological work (published in 1966 as Faith and the Vitalities of History). The source for me then was the early work entitled Revelation As History (published in Germany in 1961), in which Pannenberg and a group of colleagues–who came to be known as “the Pannenberg circle” –proposed an alternative to Karl Barth’s theology of the word. It hit the theological scene with great impact, and became a breakthrough publication for Pannenberg himself.
The idea of history presented in this work was fleshed out over the years: (1) History is a continuum, a narrative, with a beginning and an end. (2) The meaning and purpose of this narrative becomes clear only at its end; the end, therefore, becomes the hermeneutic for interpreting the whole–history is what it is by referring it to its end, the end reveals the meaning. (3) The continuum is made up of contingent moments in time, to which the term “historicity” is sometimes applied. The book’s title states the proposal that revelation is constituted by this history. To say that meaning and purpose is revealed at the end is also to say that it lies in the future. Other theologians used the term future, including many liberation theologians. The power of the future is God; so that the concept of history reveals the purposes of God.
It would turn out, by the time Pannenberg wrote his great work on Christology, that Christ is the appearance, in proleptic fashion, of the end of history–that is, Christ is the foretaste or first fruits of the end. To be in unity with Christ is therefore to be in touch with the meaning and purpose of history, which turns out also to be the will and purpose of God.
Jesus–God and Man (1964 in Germany) is a powerful interpretive tour de force. It has two major components. (1) The first is Pannenberg’s use of the apocalyptic framework. He argues that the apostolic witness presents Jesus as the key figure in the apocalyptic world view. Apocalypticism presents an interpretation of cosmic history that takes place in the hand of God, in which the turning point, the revelatory axis, is the coming of the Son of Man. All that history aims at is present in this figure. This worldview is not credible in the 20th century, but it can be translated into a viable framework, and Pannenberg does exactly that–by asserting that the idea of history that I elaborated above is in fact what the first century apocalyptic intended to convey. Thus he presents the apostolic witness in contemporary thought forms. (2) The second component is an argument concerning the resurrection as historical fact. Pannenberg will have nothing to do with a resurrection that is available only to the eyes of faith. On the contrary, the resurrection is public historic fact. An event is considered to be historical fact if the entire network of events that comes afterwards requires it. The network of events that is relevant here is the emergence and ongoing persistence of the church. There is no explanation for the appearance of the church and its history without the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection is evidence that Jesus is the proleptic presence of the end of history–the foretaste of its meaning and purpose.
The book on Jesus demonstrates how the idea of history that Pannenberg set forth early in his career throws light on a central piece of Christian tradition. The same idea of history was employed in dialogue with the sciences. He argues that both science and Christian faith are concerned with empirical fact. Science presents a secular rational interpretation of this empirical reality. By scientists’ own admission, their theories are provisional representations, occurring in a deeper matrix which is continually revealing itself in new and surprising ways. Scientific theories of quantum physics, as well as those of evolution, exemplify this description. As it approaches science theology attempts to explore that deeper matrix and reach a less provisional understanding. In his words, “theology seeks to take the measure of science.” While science assumes that events of nature are contingent events within a larger continuum, theology suggests that this larger continuum is the continuum of history unfolding towards its end. The events of of nature occur within the field that is in fact God. Some scientists consider Pannenberg’s thinking at this point to be credible and provocative (Frank Tipler, for example), while others considered it to be a mistake from the outset (John Polkinghorne).
Pannenberg insisted that reason is part and parcel of faith, faith is not something that is understood only in an enclave of pious believers–rather, it is open, public affirmation to the world and in the world. It is an affirmation the world should be able to understand, an affirmation that can be elaborated and defended in the public square. Traditionally, we have spoken of the content of faith, the creed (fides quae), and the energy of faith or trust which relies on God (fides qua). Pannenberg held firmly to this traditional bipolar understanding of faith. He devoted his brilliant and profound theology to understanding and clarifying the content of faith–in order to make the believers’ trust in God a more viable and public witness.
This is what justifies the claim that he is great, a monumental thinker: the brilliance and comprehensiveness of this framework, and the freedom it gives to Christian faith and its witness in the world.