The Strange Legacy of Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg

He vehemently defended the Resurrection but denied the Virgin Birth. He was hugely influential but leaves few disciples. What you need to know about the German giant who died this month.
The Strange Legacy of Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg
Image: German Federal Archive / Wikimedia Commons

On September 5, an important voice in academic theology was lost. Wolfhart Pannenberg, one of the most significant theologians of the 20th century, died peacefully at 85 at his home near Munich, Germany.

Born 1928 in Stettin, Germany, Pannenberg was raised as an atheist under the Nazi regime, more fluent in modern criticisms of Christianity than in Christian doctrine itself. “I was nourished on Nietzsche’s philosophy,” he said. Yet at age 16, as World War II was nearing its end, Pannenberg had a life-changing, mystical experience as he walked home from a piano lesson:

The sun was setting, and, though I had experienced many sunsets before, there was a moment when there was no difference between myself and the light surrounding me. This is not easy to describe. It may be the kind of experience that young people at the age of sixteen have otherwise (I don’t claim uniqueness to that experience), but it made me think. It opened me to the mystery of reality.

Shortly thereafter, he and his family became refugees after the Russian invasion, and he was drafted into the Nazi army, to be saved from the front lines only by scabies. As soon as he returned to school, he began studying philosophy and soon became intrigued by Christianity. He said,

I became interested in studying Christianity because our teacher in German literature, though a Christian, did not fit the picture of Christian mentality which I had received from Nietzsche. Contrary to my expectations, this teacher obviously enjoyed and appreciated the fullness of human life in all its forms, which he was not supposed to do, according to Nietzsche’s description of the Christian mind. I decided that I had to find out about this.

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