Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-)
Presently Professor of Systematic Theology in the Faculty of Protestant
Theology, Munich, Pannenberg has become a widely-known theologian both in Germany
and the United States.
His writings encompass a wide range of subjects and, as seems usual with
German thinkers, can appear somewhat complex - often to the point of
incomprehensibility. Some say that this is partly due to the difficulty of
translating theological German into English. But in Pannenberg's case, the
difficulties of expression may well have their origin in the nature of the
central subject he attempts to address.
Pannenberg's development was strongly influenced by Karl Barth, as was the
development of many of Pannenberg's contemporaries. Barth's theology sprang from
a powerful and influential affirmation of revelation as the mainspring of all
Christian truth. In contrast, many others (among them Bultmann and his
disciples) stressed the a-historical nature of much of that foundational
Christian record, the Bible.
If these documents, especially those of the New
Testament, comprise a mixture of myth and history, they ask in what sense the
Bible can reveal God. Barth's answer is that history takes us only to a certain
point in discovering the truth about Jesus. The remainder consists in Christian
affirmation - or faith, as Barth would put it.
There was considerable interest, therefore, when Pannenberg published Revelation
as History (1961). The title suggests that he might have an answer to the
apparent contradiction between analytical history and the kerygma.
What was Pannenberg trying to achieve when he wrote,
questions and answers have meaning only within the framework of the history
which God has with humanity, and through humanity with the whole creation, directed towards a future which is hidden to the world, but which has already
been revealed in Jesus Christ?
It seems that his main point is that Christian theology is based on an
analysis of history as events which have universal applicability and are
accessible to all. So, for example, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead
(that is, his physical resuscitation) is an historical event, so he thought,
which requires that every person come to some sort of conclusion about it.
Pannenberg's critics assert that his approach "reduces" faith to
insight, denying God the Holy Spirit a role in revealing the truth. On one hand,
Pannenberg seems to hold that faith is grounded upon revelation as history. The
meaning of revelation therefore can't be claimed as self-evident. On the
contrary, revelation (in his sense) is naturally a matter of contention.
On the other hand, he says that we must go behind the kerygma to Jesus
the historical person to find the meaning of Jesus, which is grounded on what he
is in history. Even so, it seems that Pannenberg falls back on
interpretation as his keystone. Revelation finds an almost traditional form in
the "correct" interpretation that Jesus is to be identified with God.
Pannenberg attempts to side-step this by a second circumlocution. Jesus is
"proleptical" or "retroactive" in that, just like history as
a body of knowledge, his full meaning will only be realised at the end-point of
history. Jesus is the "proleptic disclosure of the end of history".
This approach is thought of by commentators as Pannenberg's
"eschatological" emphasis. The resurrection of Jesus makes no sense on
its own, but only within the context of an apocalyptic
world view. It must
therefore be interpreted as the anticipation
of a general resurrection of the
dead at the end of time. It is thus
organically linked to God's self-revelation
in Jesus. He writes:
Only at the end of all events can God be revealed in
his divinity, that
is, as the one who works all things,
who has power over everything. Only
Jesus' resurrection the end of all things, which for
us has not
yet happened, has already occurred can
it be said of Jesus that the ultimate
already is present
in him …
These are, in my opinion, high-sounding words which collapse at the question,
"How do you know that?" At very best, his meaning
survives only in the
incestuous circle of those who write theological
Pannenberg is no mean biblical scholar. But his conclusion that
the resurrection in the gospels stand up as history is
surprising, given that only a tiny minority of historians would confirm it and
almost none would regard it as a unique historical event.
A pivotal argument in this respect was advanced by Ernst Troeltsch and
others. It is that history is essentially homogeneous, a system of cause and
effect which is unbreakably bound together in a seamless web. Any event which is
intrinsically impossible at one point in history remains that way throughout
history. There is thus no room for a unique, un-reproducible event such as the resurrection of Jesus. This is known as the principle of analogy.
Pannenberg argued that this is an unjustified "constriction of
enquiry" which assumes that human perceptions are normative. Analogies are
always analogies viewed from the standpoint of the human observer. As a working
tool it cannot be allowed to restrict the scope of historical enquiry. The
resurrection of Jesus must be approached without prior dogmatic supposition.
This argument opens up once again the possibility of a unique historical
event such as the resurrection. One of Pannenberg's theses on the doctrine of
revelation is therefore that it is not completely apprehended at the beginning,
but only at the end of revelatory history. As such, it is available to anyone
who can perceive it.
Pannenberg's assertion remains that, however. For in the sense that he uses
the word "unique", all historical events are unique - though
many may be similar. All historical events are part of a seamless web of cause
and effect. Why should one resurrection be unique? If the physical process which
causes one resurrection is common to the entire web of history (as is rain, for
example) why should it not occur again to a different person in differing circumstances?
One explanation of this resurrection is that its cause lies outside
It is a direct act of God, and in that sense Jesus is a unique person in a way
in which none of us is unique. But if that is the case, then the seamless web
has been fractured in at least one case, and history as an analytical discipline
necessarily falls apart.
Pannenberg's argument is weak, to say the least.
The historical argument underpins Pannenberg's work. His Christology
extensive and - in terms of traditional theology -
illuminating. But it appears
to be an extensive manipulation of theological jargon because his
historically-based conclusions about the person and meaning of Jesus don't make
much sense in terms of contemporary historical theory.
Pannenberg attempts to bring the concept of the Absolute (God) into harmony
with the theory of science. In terms of science, he says, "God" is an
hypothesis. Theology is ultimately about that hypothesis - though we mustn't
separate specific assertions about God from the totality of meaning. He calls
this "fundamental" theology as distinct from specific revelations of
hypotheses are not substantiated, he says, unless
- They reflect the implications of biblical traditions;
- They are adequately related to the whole of reality;
- They can be integrated with human experience;
- And they are "adequate" in terms of current
Looking at the overall reach of Pannenberg's thought my own
that his brave attempt to harmonise the radical break
of modern thinkers who
reject the past as authoritative in its own
right, with those who claim that
faith in the received tradition (kerygma) is paramount, has failed.