Wolfhart Pannenberg turns 60.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, the American theological climate has been characterized by shifting winds. The Barthianism of the 1950s gave way to “pop” theology in the 1960s with its search for relevance in the “secular city” where God was thought to be dead. Then the “theology of hope” found God once again beckoning from the divine habitat in the absolute future. This in turn gave birth to liberation theology in the 1970s, first imported by spokespersons for the economically marginalized as a gift from the Third World to the theologically impoverished North. But “liberation” was quickly co-opted by establishment theologians in America and made, together with “process,” a shibboleth for all truly revelant theology.
In spite of these “winds of doctrine,” the 1980s have witnessed a new interest in the systematic presentation of Christian doctrine, a task all but ignored after the writing of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Among the voices in the current emphasis on systematic theology is one of the most renowned theologians of the latter half of the twentieth century—Wolfhart Pannenberg, who celebrates his sixtieth birthday this month.
Faith Without History Is Dead
Since the Enlightenment, many theologians have moved away from basing Christian faith on the historical events of Jesus’ life. Some of them chose rather to make faith self-authenticating, to base faith on faith itself. Pannenberg, however, has clung to the reality of these historical events—including Jesus’ miracles and his resurrection—as the necessary basis for faith. Thus his critics have called him a rationalist.
“Perhaps if you have heard anything about my work you have learned that I’m accused of being a rationalist by some people,” Pannenberg told a group of American theology students in 1975. “Others call me a fundamentalist. But there is one thing I am certainly not, I am certainly not a pietist.”
This description, now 13 years old, remains an accurate portrayal of the program this important German theologian has been developing throughout his career of nearly four decades. When viewed within the context of the German academic community, Pannenberg’s outlook does bear some resemblance to both fundamentalism and rationalism; but it is neither. And his program is directed against pietism, by which he means approaching the theological enterprise from a decision of faith (even though Panneberg himself is a man of faith).
Pannenberg’s statement about his theological identity must be understood within the context of his appraisal of the theology of the last two centuries. His main concern is one that moves modern theology as a whole: the necessity of dealing with the Enlightenment. This era is important for theology because it brought an intellectual revolution that drastically altered the understanding of the basis of the Christian faith. Before the Enlightenment, theologians accepted the events of salvation-history that provided the foundation for faith on the basis of the authoritative witness of God—mediated either by the teaching office of the church (the Roman Catholic view) or by the Bible (the Reformers’ position).
In the Enlightenment, however, the understanding of an authoritative testimony to historical knowledge was replaced by science and a newer historical methodology that sought to reconstruct past events by employing scientific and critical tools. As a result, people were no longer certain about the historicity of events, and the historical basis for Christian faith was called into question. In the post-Enlightenment world, then, humanity lives without “revelation” (in the sense of a Word from beyond history by means of which reality can be viewed through the eyes of God).
In Pannenberg’s estimate, the attempt by post-Enlightenment theology to deal with this monumental revolution has tended in the wrong direction. To avoid making faith uncertain and dependent on historical research, theology has unfortunately moved the foundation for faith away from historical events to the experience of conversion, which is seen as providing its own certainty. A shift has been made from the rational appeal to historical fact to the subjective experience of the believer.
This basic position has given birth to two distinct alternatives, both of which Pannenberg believes share in a basically pietistic orientation. Some theologians dismissed the historical content of the Christian tradition as irrelevant (the position of the radical pietists in whose ranks Pannenberg includes Rudolf Bultmann and Herbert Braun). Others follow the path of what he terms “conservative pietism.” Here the plausibility of the historical aspects of the faith is grounded in the experience of faith. Thus, for example, the conversion experience itself is made the basis for the certainty of such events as Jesus’ miracles and the resurrection.
Pannenberg rejects both options, asserting that neither can claim the legacy of the Reformation. Luther and the other Reformers, he argues, clearly knew the necessity of grounding faith in the objective historical events of salvation-history.
At the heart of Pannenberg’s proposal is Luther’s thesis that by nature faith cannot be derived from itself, but only beyond itself in Christ. From this Pannenberg concludes that faith is dependent on a historical basis. Specifically, the historical revelation of God must form the foundation for the act of trust if faith is to be trust in God and not in itself. He admits the revelation that grounds faith remains contestable in this world, but he adamantly declares that only careful argument and not an irrational decision of faith can meet the philosophical and historical challenge to the Christian claim to knowledge of God.
Pannenberg’s theology, then, is essentially an attempt to place Christian faith on firm footing once again, and this despite, and even by means of, insights from the Enlightenment. He seeks to offer an alternative to the subjectivist approach of persons as widely diverse as Bultmann and the conservative pietists—an approach he finds present even in Karl Barth.
Flooded By A Sea Of Light
This theological program, which has been central to Pannenberg’s work, was shaped early in his life. A crucial factor in this molding process was the path that led him to faith, as well as to his choice of theology as his life’s pursuit. A series of experiences launched him in this direction.
The first experiences occured when he was about 16 years old. While browsing through the public library, Pannenberg happened on a book by atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Thinking it was a work on music, his first love at the time, Pannenberg read it. Although Nietzsche’s writings convinced Pannenberg at that time that the influence of Christianity was responsible for the disastrous shape of the world, they were of lasting importance as the spark for his interest in philosophy.
At about the same time, what Pannenberg has termed “the single most important experience” occurred. While walking home during sundown one winter afternoon, he reports, he experienced being flooded by a sea of light. As Pannenberg now reflects on this experience, he sees in it Jesus Christ making claim on his life, even though he was not yet a Christian. Over the ensuing years, this experience became the basis for his keen sense of calling.
His first positive experience with Christianity itself came in his final school years through a literature teacher who had been a lay member of the Confessing church during the Third Reich. Pannenberg saw in this professing Christian a contradiction to his earlier view that Christianity is responsible for the distortions of human life. Because he was at this time wrestling with the question of the deeper meaning of reality, Pannenberg decided to look more closely at the Christian faith by studying theology and philosophy. It was from this study that he concluded that Christianity is the best philosophy. This launched him both as a Christian and a theologian.
As the war was coming to an end, Pannenberg was among the many youths forced to participate in the desperate attempt to defend Germany from the advancing Allied armies. Soon after the experience of light, the Pannenberg family left their home east of Stettin, now a part of Poland, in the wake of the Soviet offensive. Two years later he began studies at the University of Berlin. His initial fascination with Marxism gave way to opposition as he subjected the system to rigorous intellectual scrutiny. At the same time, Marxists were conducting their reign of terror. These two experiences of the evils of human social orders—Nazi Germany and Stalinist Eastern Europe—formed part of the background to Pannenberg’s conclusion that no human political system can ever fully mirror the social structure that one day will come as a divine gift in the kingdom of God.
Pannenberg’s theology is essentially an attempt to place Christian faith on firm historical footing once again.
As a student in Berlin, Pannenberg was impressed with the work of Karl Barth. He saw in Barth’s early writings an attempt to establish anew the sovereignty of God and to claim all reality for the God of the Bible. But subsequent study with Barth himself resulted in Pannenberg becoming uneasy—not with his goal, but with what he perceived to be a dualism in his teacher’s thought between natural knowledge and the divine revelation in Christ.
Out of this reaction to Barth has grown one important aspect of Pannenberg’s theological program: the attempt to show that God’s revelatory work does not come as a stark contradiction to the world, but is the completion of creation. In other words, Pannenberg seeks to draw out the religious implications found in all secular experience, for there is a continuity between redemption and creation, a continuity he found in the historical process.
One Church In A Secularized World
Pannenberg has carried with him these lessons of experience. However, he has come to determine more exactly the ultimate goal of his program, a goal that relates to the unity of the church and to the place of the one church in a secularized world.
Pannenberg has been able to distinguish himself not only through his theological writings, but also through his untiring efforts on behalf of ecumenism. For over 30 years he has offered important service to the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue in Germany. As a member of the Faith and Order Commission, he was involved in the drafting of the monumental ecumenical document, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.
However, Pannenberg has been no friend of the political orientation of the World Council of Churches in recent years. Not only do such activities constitute a type of Christian imperialism, he declares, but they take away from what he sees as the central task of the ecumenical movement: the establishment of eucharistic fellowship among the churches. This understanding combined with his critique of Marxism formed the basis for his cautionary stance toward liberation theology, which he believes is fraught with dangers (CT, May 15, 1987, p.44).
Behind Pannenberg’s work to promote church unity lies a broader purpose. Christian unity, he believes, is the only way the church’s voice can speak with credibility in contemporary secular society. His intent, however, is not to reestablish the church’s past pattern of dominating society. Rather, Pannenberg sees the function of the church in the world as being a witness to the temporality of all human institutions before the coming of the kingdom of God. As it gives expression to fellowship among humans and between humans and God, he declares, the church becomes the sign of God’s eschatological kingdom, which is the hope of the world. Theology, in turn, is a servant to this task.
Pannenberg is more than a theologian, although his theological task pervades his entire life. He and his wife have been married for over 30 years, evidence of his high view of marriage. In fact, insofar as Christian marriage serves as a testimony to the coming kingdom, he is willing to speak of it theologically as “sacramental.” For this reason, Pannenberg bemoans the breakdown of marriage in society, especially among Christians, and the rise of abortion on demand.
He is also the epitome of the renaissance ideal. With his wife, he shares a deep appreciation for the cultural heritage of the world, especially its music and art. This too has theological overtones. Pannenberg sees these cultural treasures as an important inheritance belonging to the church as a whole. Therefore, European art and music may be claimed by the church elsewhere—not as an outgrowth of imperialism, but as part of the common heritage of all Christians. At the same time, he calls on the churches in other culturally rich lands, such as India, to place the treasures of their national heritage at the disposal of the body of Christ in worshiping the King of Kings.
In a certain sense, then, Pannenberg agrees with his critics that he is a rationalist, if this label is seen in contrast to the term pietist. In response to what he sees as a wrong turn made by theology at the post-Enlightenment fork in the road, he is seeking to return to a balanced understanding of the role of reason in establishing faith. While before the eschaton only a debatable answer can be made to the question of life’s meaning, Pannenberg claims that Christians can obtain a greater degree of certainty than is often admitted. They have good reasons to affirm their faith, which need not be based on an irrational decision.
Pannenberg admits that humans do not live only on the basis of reason, and cautions against thinking that through rational arguments people will be brought to faith. Nevertheless, he points out that if the reasonableness of Christianity is not made clear, the step to faith is made difficult.
Pannenberg has set himself the task of changing the climate that presupposes that Christianity fails the test of reason. Pannenberg at 60, like Pannenberg at 30, stands as a formidable defender of reasonable Christianity.
Stanley J. Grenz is professor of Christian theology at North American Baptist Seminary, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Grenz wrote this article from Munich, where he has been on sabbatical writing a book on Pannenberg s systematic theology.
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