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.

Thanks to the witness of this faithful literature teacher, Pannenberg’s wordless, mystical experience led to a lifetime of theological study. Surely, on the lips of one of the most diligent students of Christian doctrine in modern times, “it made me think” is a classic understatement! Pannenberg studied theology in Berlin, Göttingen, Heidelberg, and Basel, and he held several professorships, including a 25-year career at the University of Munich.

Books of Lasting Value

Pannenberg left a legacy of books that are all expansively conceived, exactingly researched, and rigorously argued. For these reasons, Pannenberg has been a theologian’s theologian. He always wrote remarkably clear prose for an academic, with no obfuscation and with an evident desire to clarify every subject. But he wrote about enormous subjects with relentless attention to detail. Theologian Robert Jenson said this “unwillingness to leave anything out” is part of “the chief literary and scholarly characteristic of Pannenberg’s writings—what makes them sometimes so complexly rewarding, and sometimes so utterly exasperating.”

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Pannenberg wrote encyclopedically, as Jenson notes: “It is possible to use Pannenberg’s major writings as works of general reference, and I sometimes do.” For example, Jesus: God and Man simultaneously argues a novel approach to Christology (“from below”) while providing a history of the doctrine. Theology and the Philosophy of Science canvases the entire field, and Metaphysics and the Idea of God is a deft narration of the development of Western thought on ontology. Pannenberg’s career-capping Systematic Theology had a tendency to sprawl into longer historical discussions as it grew from the first volume to the third, but the happy result is that the massive work remains highly useful even for theologians who disagree with him on some of his distinctive theological commitments.

The Historical Validity of the Resurrection

Pannenberg’s theological starting point was the conviction that since Christianity’s key truth claims are about historical events, theology must never hide its reasoning away in some “invulnerable area” of subjective truthiness, off limits from historical-critical investigation. If the church claims Jesus Christ rose from the dead and is seated at the right hand of God, then at least the “rose from the dead” part of that claim ought to be verifiable or falsifiable by historians. Accordingly, Pannenberg marshaled the available evidence and argued that the most rational interpretation of it is that Christ actually rose from the dead. That a high-level German theologian would defend Christ’s resurrection as a knowable fact was headline news in the religious press of the 1970s. It’s no surprise, then, that Pannenberg’s emphasis on the historical reliability of the Resurrection attracted students like apologist William Lane Craig.

With his philosophical training, Pannenberg knew better than to accept the standards of critical investigation indiscriminately. As 19th-century theologian Ernst Troeltsch pointed out, academic historical research often embodies a complete worldview. Pannenberg questioned the dogmatic and absolutizing tendencies of some historical-critical precepts. For example, assumptions of historical homogeneity and argument by analogy practically ruled out the possibility of miracles. Pannenberg wanted theology to recognize its accountability to historical reason, and he always considered subjectivism—whether of the existentialist or pietistic variety—to lack confidence in the truth of the gospel. Often when N. T. Wright elaborates the motivations behind his own historical methodology, he sounds a very Pannenbergian note, especially in his work on the Resurrection.

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When the time came for Pannenberg to write a systematic theology, he offered one in which the public demonstration of Christian truth was the central task. He set forth all of his arguments as provisional, welcoming of critique, and to that extent hypothetical. His whole system stands or falls with judgments about historically demonstrable claims, and Pannenberg has earned his right to be heard by offering a trio of supporting arguments: one from human nature’s openness to the transcendent (anthropology), one from our non-thematic awareness of the infinite in which we all exist (metaphysics), and one from the development of the idea of God in all of human history (the history of religions). Each of these arguments takes up a long chapter of the first volume of his Systematic Theology.

Authority and Revelation

Many evangelicals see Pannenberg as a valuable ally and are grateful for both the positions he defended and the bracing manner in which he argued. But there were always signs that he was more of a helpful guest than a permanent resident of the evangelical household. Early in his career, he made the provocative statement that “theology cannot maintain the idea of Jesus’ virgin birth as a miraculous fact to be postulated at the origin of his earthly life.” He considered the Virgin Birth (oddly, it seems to me) to be incompatible with a theology of pre-existence. But he also viewed it as weakly attested in Scripture, a mythological accretion.

It doesn’t take much speculation to deduce what kind of doctrine of Scripture undergirded such judgments—he believed that human writings fallibly interpreted divine actions—and appreciative critics like Carl Henry were quick to note the deficiency in Pannenberg’s thought. Indeed, even in his three-volume Systematic Theology, Pannenberg never developed a doctrine of Scripture robust or traditional enough to stabilize his other positions. He was persuaded that “the Scripture principle” had undergone a total crisis since the Enlightenment and that theology had to move forward on another foundation altogether. Arguments from authority were no longer admissible, and Scripture arguments, in particular, needed to be handled not as givens but as things to be established on other grounds. Behind this position was Pannenberg’s view that divine revelation takes place in history, indirectly. For Pannenberg, God does not make himself known through speaking actual words, or through an interior, existential encounter, or in any other way. We know God because he makes himself known indirectly through historical events which are open to all observers, not just the eyes of faith.

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God’s Presence and the Consummation of History

Of course, Pannenberg added, the history in which God is made known is not any isolated little bit of history, but the totality of history. The truth about anything comes out in the end, not along the way, and the truth about God will come out when God’s work is completed at the eschaton—the climax of history.

This insight is the key to all of Pannenberg’s theology. He defined God as “the all-determining power” and declared that as long as all things were not manifestly determined by God, God’s reality and identity were dubious. As he notoriously phrased it in his early book Theology and the Kingdom of God, “It is necessary to say that, in a restricted but important sense, God does not yet exist.” This rather drastic way of making his point was attractive to process thinkers, panentheists, and Hegelians of various kinds, with whom he disagreed but welcomed dialogue. In some ways, he spent the rest of his career either buttressing, nuancing, or—as in at least two cases in the 1990s when I heard him give public lectures and respond to questions—seeming to almost retract his claim that “in a restricted but important sense, God does not yet exist.”

Christians, even academic theologians, can hardly be expected to wait until the end of the world to find out if their God-talk has any warrant. But Pannenberg insisted that “only with the consummation of the world in the kingdom of God does God's love reach its goal and the doctrine of God reach its conclusion.” Picturing all of reality, including its temporal succession, as a unified whole, Pannenberg pointed to its final totality (“the eschatological consummation of history”) as the location of God’s demonstrated reality. Crucially, once that reality and totality are achieved, it will turn out that history not only was always moving toward it but was in fact determined by it all along, though retroactively. And the final “retroactive permanence” of God’s all-determining rule is present to us here in the course of history through Jesus Christ. In Christ, God is truly present and he makes available in advance what will be experienced in the future. This concept, known as prolepsis, is thus the juncture point of Pannenberg’s theology: We have in Christ’s resurrection the reality of God himself acting in history. The theological destiny of the world lives among us now as we make our way to the final resurrection. Pannenberg argued that his account of prolepsis “combines the concept of the kingdom of God with the Platonic idea of the good to the effect that the temporal structure of the latter is emphasized.”

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No doubt, Pannenberg’s theology is heady, high-powered, and quite thoroughly worked out. But his thought is strangely isolated today. While Pannenberg has influenced many areas of academic theology, with his passing he leaves behind no identifiable school of Pannenbergians committed to continuing his vision. His quest for universal truth was idiosyncratic in 20th century theology: who else attempted so much? Whether his work continues to be read depends on whether academic theologians ever again undertake something so ambitious, rather than assigning themselves other sorts of tasks. Whenever and wherever theology addresses the task of making its case in the court of public rationality, Pannenberg’s works will be read with instruction.

Fred Sanders is professor of theology at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute and author most recently of John Wesley on the Christian Life (Crossway).