Second of Two Parts

Clark Pinnock’s aim in this article, he says, is “to highlight a few of the basic themes important both to Pannenberg and to us evangelicals.” In Part One (November 5 issue) he discussed a theology of reason, revelation as history, and revelation as Scripture.

Jesus and the Kingdom

In his theology Pannenberg places tremendous stress on the future, seeing in the concept of the coming kingdom of God the most important truth about reality, a truth that overshadows all others. According to Jesus’ message, the future is not an enemy to be feared but the blessed goal toward which history is moving under the hand of God. For some time New Testament scholars have been aware of the apocalyptic element in the teaching of Jesus, but they have been uncertain what to do with it. The idea of an end event in which all the dead are raised and the glory of God is finally revealed for all to see seemed strange to modern thinking and a point of embarrassment to the exegetes.

True to his calling as the reverser of theological trends, Pannenberg has intervened in the discussion, arguing boldly that this very motif in the teaching of Jesus must be recovered as the key of the whole Christian message even for today. Jesus was open to the future God had promised, and calls all men to faith and hope. In a final event at the end of history, God will be vindicated as God of all peoples, and the hopeful longing of all the ages will finally be realized.

Pannenberg has managed to hoist apocalyptic out of oblivion and give it an honored place in a systematic theology of universal history. One might hope that the centers of interest in prophecy and apocalypticism in North American evangelicalism will take note of Pannenberg’s contribution in defense of their concerns, and allow him to teach them how to relate their insights to a broader theological context and in a more obviously intelligible and relevant way.

As to the person of Jesus, Pannenberg insists that we develop a “Christology from below.” This means simply that, instead of starting with preconceived notions derived from authoritative sources such as creeds or even epistles, we should begin with the man Jesus himself and strive to understand what he proclaimed about his own significance. Fortunately Pannenberg, unlike Bultmann, is quite optimistic about what we can discover about the life and ministry of Jesus. The knowledge gained in such an investigation is clear and definite enough, he thinks, to permit confident conclusions that can serve as an anchor for reasoning faith. As a result of his study, Pannenberg presents Jesus asserting a claim to divine authority in the context of preaching the kingdom of God, a claim that had to be either blasphemy or else the true fulfillment of the promises of God. But this claim to an authority belonging only to God was linked to Jesus’ expectation that God would vindicate him in the near future by the coming of the kingdom and the resurrection of the dead; it was not a bare authoritarian claim devoid of all truth conditions.

Article continues below

Pannenberg’s handling of the death of Jesus is much less satisfactory. Although I am grateful for his emphasis on vicarious substitution, I am troubled by his insistence that Jesus had no clear preconception of the significance of the death that lay before him, and was not an active agent in that death. The theology of atonement and sacrifice in the Gospels was read back into the life of Jesus by the post-Easter community, Pannenberg claims. This view exposes not only Pannenberg’s slight regard for apostolic Scripture but also the depth of his radical criticism, which can excise from the text of the Gospels as fundamental an element as the suffering-servant-of-God motif in the life of Jesus. Jesus’ final visit to Jerusalem apparently was not to offer himself as a sacrifice for sins; it was only to precipitate a decision regarding his claim about the nearness of the kingdom and about his own centrality in anticipation of it. The interpretation of his death in terms of atonement was arrived at later. Therefore, Pannenberg strives to expound the meaning of that death on the basis of severely edited Gospels and apart from the rich teaching about the cross in canonical Gospel and epistle. Given that limitation, I suppose we should admire the results all the more!

But this view leaves Jesus’ execution basically unforeseen, and therefore unclarified in its essential relation to what Jesus did proclaim and, strictly speaking, unnecessary to his mission. It cannot satisfy those who glory in Christ’s cross and treasure the teaching of the apostles and, we trust, of Christ himself on it. It does not seem reasonable to me, if I may appeal to Pannenberg’s norm, to divest Jesus of the awareness he so obviously possessed as the soon-to-be-offered sacrificial lamb of God.

On the Third Day …

On the subject of the bodily resurrection, Pannenberg’s optimism about the results of “life of Jesus’ research extends to unheard-of lengths, at least in the circles of academic theology. He boldly contends, to evangelical applause, that the resurrection of Jesus can be validated by historical research. In this he contradicts a virtual dogma held by liberal critics, dialectical theologians, and every shade of fideist. Before Pannenberg, the most a prominent theologian could be expected to say was that the resurrection was an event of history; that alone would win him a chorus of abuse from the Bultmann school and other skeptics in the church and outside it. But to go on and say that the resurrection can be proved to have occurred is breathtakingly bold: it refutes all positivists who see history as a closed system of natural causes and effects and at the same time rebukes a multitude of timid Christian thinkers who retreated decades ago into the safe haven of unverifiable “salvation history.” For this single achievement, Pannenberg deserves our undying praise and gratitude. Of course, some evangelical scholars have said as much before, but critical scholarship was affected by our weak initiatives about as much as a lion is terrified by a BB gun. At last a major, respected theologian has said it.

Article continues below

And Pannenberg, being the scholar that he is, does not leave it at the level of a bare assertion. He pursues the point at great depth, offering an extensive historical argument in defense of the resurrection and detailing an entire alternative historical methodology that makes room for such a case (Jesus—God and Man, Westminster, 1968, chapter three). While not suggesting that the issue is beyond controversy, Pannenberg believes that the historical evidence sustains the credibility of the Christian message beyond reasonable doubt. Furthermore, he rejects the cynical objection—by Schubert Ogden, for example—that the resurrection, even if it did happen, would mean nothing to modern man. Pannenberg argues strongly for its significance: it validates Jesus’ claim, signifies the inbreaking of the kingdom, and shows that the covenant with Israel is now open to all the nations. Above all, it signifies fulfillment to man, whose being is structured in such a way that he hopes for salvation beyond death.

Obviously, according to Pannenberg, Jesus is a unique person if he claimed divine authority, was raised bodily from the tomb, and is expected to reign in judgment in the coming kingdom of God. What then is Pannenberg’s understanding of the person of Jesus?

The title of his weighty book on Christology, Jesus—God and Man, shows quite clearly that he wishes to affirm the two natures of Christ in one person. However, his method of working from Jesus outward, rather than starting with creeds or even epistles, means that Pannenberg attempts to formulate his own statement in terms arising from the historical situation of Jesus’ mission. We cannot blame him for that; we wish him well. Pannenberg therefore emphasizes Jesus’ communion with God, expressed in his utter obedience to him; this relationship exhibits an identity with the eternal Son or Logos, who eternally stands in this position with the Father. In this way Pannenberg hopes to conceive of the deity of Christ without violating his true humanity.

Article continues below

His efforts in Christology, I think we should recognize, spring not from any impulse to deny the orthodox confession but, quite the opposite, from a strong desire to ground belief in the deity of Christ in original biblical categories rather than veiling it in more dubious Greek terminology. But this effort, coupled with his reluctance to make use of the rich materials on Christology found in the apostolic writings (a reluctance that springs from his inadequate doctrine of Scripture noted above), inevitably results in some hesitancy and unanswered questions. Yet there is no doubt in my mind that Pannenberg views Jesus’ relation to the Father as unique, and that he believes we gain a relationship with God only through communion with him and in hope of the resurrection.

What then is his view of other world religions? In a context of increasing pluralism, this is a question that anyone who, like Pannenberg, holds to the finality of Jesus must answer. Can the unevangelized, for example, share in the benefits of Christ’s reign, or are they automatically excluded from his kingdom?

Pannenberg develops two ideas bearing on the issue. First, he argues, in a long essay entitled “Toward a Theology of the History of Religions,” that we should regard other religions not as mere fabrications of man’s striving after God but as occasions of the appearance of the same God who revealed himself through Jesus, though they may present him in a fragmentary way, even at times resisting the infinity of the divine mystery (Basic Questions in Theology, II, 115f.). Second, looking to First Peter 3:19 and 4:6, he argues that salvation is made available in the realm of the dead to those who during their lifetimes never encountered Jesus or the gospel message. The meaning of Jesus’ descent into hell in the Apostles’ Creed according to Pannenberg is that the salvation he achieved applies also to the vast multitudes who never came into contact with his story. This viewpoint, I suspect, does not divide evangelicals from Pannenberg so much as it divides evangelicals among themselves. I myself find it basically acceptable.

Article continues below
The Doctrine of God

With Pannenberg there is no “death of God” nonsense. Everything hinges on the reality of the sovereign God who has raised Jesus and promised to bring in his kingdom. In another sharp contrast to Barth, Pannenberg also develops a kind of natural theology without calling it that, based not upon the classical “proofs” of God’s existence but on the nature of man as one open to the future and filled with hope for ultimate salvation. In this Pannenberg is endeavoring to establish a universal point of contact, a preliminary knowledge of God that the Gospel can presuppose. Anthropology is the sphere in which he thinks the question of God arises, and Pannenberg is optimistic that a point of contact can be established with all men in this way. We may expect greater development in this area of his thought.

In understanding God’s being, Pannenberg is boldly innovative in conceiving God as the “power of the future,” and at the same time soundly traditional in defending an essential trinity in the eternal being of God. If Jesus was raised from the dead, and is a revelation of the essence of the true God to be finally manifest at the end of history, it follows that the distinction experienced between Father and Son in Jesus’ earthly life belongs also to the inner life of God. His serious effort at constructing a viable trinitarian dogma for our time is welcome, and it reveals the essential orthodoxy of his theology. Here is no liberal theologian setting aside the Trinity, or treating it as a mere appendix to the system. Pannenberg can fairly be compared with Athanasius and Augustine, Calvin and Barth, for like them he strives to exalt the triune God and to preserve the divine origin of our divine salvation through Father, Son, and Spirit.

But in the same breath, and without withdrawing my respect, I must register a strong protest at some of the unwise modes of expression Pannenberg has used to draw attention to the importance of the future. I have reference to his striking notion of “the futurity of God,” in which he is determined to connect God’s deity with his rule. “The being of God is his lordship.” Therefore, until the rule of God is universally established, in a certain sense “God does not yet exist” (Theology and the Kingdom of God, Westminster, 1969, p. 56). Fortunately, Pannenberg later explains his meaning. The end of history will reveal God’s deity, which until then will remain wrapped in considerable mystery. The future will make evident what has been true all along. If that is his meaning, he would be wise to avoid expressions that obscure it, especially when process theology delights in seeing God as still developing.

Article continues below

There are rich benefits in store for those prepared to enter into dialogue with Pannenberg. A theological genius of his caliber, particularly one who expresses so strong a commitment to the basic biblical message and expects it to be vindicated in the face of all criticism, is a rare occurrence. Perhaps we ought to note, too, that his theology is not the labor of a solitary scholar working alone but has developed out of a team effort: he and other scholars from various disciplines met together, especially in the early years, to hammer out their positions. Likewise the evangelical theology we need, if it is to prove adequate for our day, will not be written by a “prima donna” but will arise out of a communal effort.

In essence, Pannenberg’s theology is a creative synthesis of the classical biblical themes and a modern critical posture. That accounts for both the delight and discomfort we feel in our interaction with him. But evangelical theology, represented by CHRISTIANITY TODAY, is not a monolithic and normative confessional position that can easily serve as a measuring rod for evaluating a theology like Pannenberg’s. Our roots are legion: Calvinist, Lutheran, anabaptist, Wesleyan, dispensational, pentecostal, and others linked together by a shared respect for the givenness of divine revelation and the finality of canonical biblical teaching and by our experience of the grace and command of the scriptural God. Because our precious unity masks so much important disunity, we cannot with a single voice reply to Pannenberg’s thought. His development of a theology of reason, for example, exposes a considerable rift among ourselves, delighting the wing of evangelical opinion that advocates a strengthening of our rational apologetic, and infuriating a fideistic wing that feels something vital is being lost.

The point most certain to gain widespread approval among evangelicals is one that charges Pannenberg with neglecting the inspiration and authority of the Bible, using it only as a historical source, and not submitting to its full cognitive authority. But in most of the other areas, we should think of Pannenberg not as a theologian to refute so much as a respected teacher in the Church who has a great deal to teach us, not least in the singlemindedness and love of the truth he displays in his pursuit of the theological task.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.