Some theologians are mirrors of their time. The mid-twentieth century rises from the pages of Tillich as palpably as Combray rising from Proust’s tea and madeleines. Other theologians have a more conflicted relation with their age: engaged, but cutting against the grain; in their time, but not quite of it. Wolfhart Pannenberg, one of the most gifted Protestant theologians of his generation, has never seemed quite to fit his surroundings, which may say more about his surroundings than about him. The German theological world has been far less shaken than the English-speaking world by the changes in academic culture of the last decades: feminism, the hermeneutics of suspicion, the dismissal of truth-claims as disguised assertions of power. Even by German standards, however, Pannenberg’s theology has an oddly old-fashioned air.
Pannenberg is not a man who follows fads. Postmodernity seems to have passed him by. Jean-François Lyotard famously characterized postmodernity as incredulity toward metanarratives, the comprehensive stories—Marxist, Enlightenment liberal, religious—that make us confident that we have the Big Picture. Pannenberg is convinced that without a metanarrative, we are lost. Until you have the Big Picture, your understanding of the details will always be deficient. He seems to have self-consciously rejected postmodernism as a style of reflection. He has sought, in notable contrast to the majority of his theological peers, to address universal human reason.
Politically, Pannenberg has also stood apart. He does not belong to the academically fashionable left. He studied Marx as a philosophy student in the late 1940s in Berlin and found him wanting. He was disturbed by the sympathy for totalitarian dictators shown by fellow theologians during the 1970s and 1980s, and he made his concerns public. Though for years he was a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, he was sharply critical of the liberationist turn in the World Council as a whole.
In recent years, he has been outspoken in his opposition within the Evangelical Church in Germany to any approval of homosexual relations. He said that a church that approved homosexual relations had by that act ceased to be a true church. In 1997, he created a public stir when he returned his Federal Order of Merit after the order was bestowed on a lesbian activist. He argued that the constitution of the Federal Republic committed the state to uphold marriage and family and that by honoring a lesbian activist, the state was acting in contradiction to its own basis. This action did not increase his popularity in academic circles.
He has also stood apart ecumenically. When German Protestants were increasingly worried about an alleged loss of a distinct Protestant identity, he promoted an ecumenical opening to Catholicism. While on occasion he wrote as a Lutheran on Lutheran topics, he has never been attracted to what George Hunsinger has called “enclave theology,” theology done within strictly defined confessional limits, in which those limits are taken as given. For Pannenberg, it does not follow that because a proposition is authentically Lutheran it is therefore correct.
He was one of the most prominent academic defenders in Germany of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, the 1999 agreement on the doctrine of justification between the Catholic Church and the churches of the Lutheran World Federation that was violently attacked by a significant portion of his colleagues. More disturbing to many, especially in the difficult ecumenical situation in Germany, where the shrinking number of Christians is almost evenly divided between Protestant and Catholic, he has said that the unity of the church perhaps requires a papacy and that quite possibly the only churches that will survive far into the third millennium are Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical rather than mainline Protestant.
All of this may make Pannenberg attractive to readers of First Things. His close friendship with Richard John Neuhaus, who wrote an introduction to one of Pannenberg’s first books translated into English, led to his writings appearing regularly in these pages. There is much to commend in Pannenberg’s theology, but there are also some warnings and object lessons in his work, both in his difference from and in his similarity to his immediate predecessors and colleagues.
Pannenberg was born in 1928, in Stettin, Germany (now Szczecin, Poland), the son of a German civil servant. Religion played no role in his upbringing, but in autobiographical sketches, he recounts a decisive moment in his early life, an epiphany that in fact occurred on Epiphany. “On January 6, 1945, on my way home from music lessons, a long walk from one town to another, I had a visionary experience of a great light not only surrounding me, but absorbing me for an indefinite time. I did not hear any words, but it was a metaphysical awakening that prompted me to search for its meaning regarding my life during the following years.”
In this brief description can be found two foci of Pannenberg’s lifelong outlook: on the one hand, an openness to the miraculous, the supernatural, to what a reductivist natural science would dismiss, and on the other, a deep desire to understand revelation, and to understand it rationally, even “metaphysically.” The late William Placher entitled a review of the first volume of Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology “Revealed to Reason,” and that title catches the deep structure of an outlook already visible in this account of his teenage experience. As with most of the Protestant theologians who came before him, “revelation” was a central category of his theology, but unlike them, he did not share in the rejection of a rational metaphysics that so shaped (and skewed) their work.
He was drafted into the German army in the last days of World War II and was briefly a British prisoner of war. Following the war, he studied philosophy and theology at German universities, including a brief time with Karl Barth at Basel (not a happy encounter: “I learned . . . that Barth did not like criticism from his students”). His studies did not follow the standard paths trod by Protestant students. His doctoral dissertation was on Duns Scotus on predestination and his habilitation (the second dissertation required to teach in the German universities) addressed the concept of analogy from the ancient Greeks through the medieval period. Under his doctoral adviser at Heidelberg, Edmund Schlink, who had been a Protestant observer at Vatican II, he imbibed an orientation to ecumenism that was to characterize his theological work.
More immediately important for his development were the lectures at Heidelberg by the Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad, who emphasized how for the Old Testament God is revealed in his acts in history: the Exodus, the reception of the Promised Land, the return from exile in Babylon. God might speak to Elijah in a “still, small voice” heard only interiorly, but the great promise is that God will act publicly so that the “nations” will “know that I am the Lord.”
A group of graduate students met regularly to discuss the broader theological significance of von Rad’s approach, and in 1961 they produced a small volume of essays with the provocative title Revelation as History, with Pannenberg as the editor and the author of the systematic essay that summarized their understanding. He insists that he had no idea the book would create waves. German Protestant theology had been dominated since the early 1920s by various theologies that had stressed and interwoven the concepts of revelation as foundational to theology and of the Word of God as a concrete address calling for a radical decision of faith or unfaith, with varying emphasis on whatever the address might actually say. That Word was not open to rational investigation, and classical apologetics was not just useless, it was a betrayal of the sovereignty of the Word which allows no space for such reflection. The post-World War II struggles between the followers of Barth and of Rudolf Bultmann took place on territory marked out by these concepts.
Revelation as History questioned the tight correlation of revelation with the concept “Word.” The writers insisted that God’s Word is about something and what it is most immediately about is a historical event: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the inbreaking of the kingdom he inaugurates. We may need God’s Word to understand the event, but the event is fundamental, for it reveals the agent who performs it.
But what event could definitively reveal the one God who is Lord of all? The only possibility is an event that sums up and gives meaning to all events. And that is what we find in Jesus as the one who is the final Kingdom he brings. He is himself the End, the eschaton, the event in whose light all events are rightly seen. Jesus may be a great teacher, and he may atone for our sins, but his teaching and suffering are of decisive significance only because he is the Lord who comes “to unite all things, . . . things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). As such, he is the revelation both of God and of the meaning of history.
Such an event cannot be private; it does not have its primary home in human interiority, but “all flesh shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:5). That full publicity will only be realized when Jesus returns, but in the “between times” after the resurrection and before the return, those who receive Jesus have the key to reality. That key is not private; if it is the key to truth, it is not removed into its own sphere, immunized from rational investigation and critique. Pannenberg insisted that even the resurrection is open to historical inquiry and that the open-minded historian should conclude that the resurrection is at least plausible and perhaps probable.
Pannenberg carried this youthful commitment to both revelation and reason into his mature theology. Revelation as History vaulted him into prominence. Professorships followed at Wuppertal, Mainz, and then, for the longest span of his career, beginning in 1968 and ending with his retirement in 1994, at Munich. A constant stream of essays was punctuated by large studies of Christology (Jesus—God and Man, 1964), theology and science (Theology and the Philosophy of Science, 1973), theological anthropology (Anthropology in Theological Perspective, 1983), and the three volumes of his Systematic Theology (1988 to 1993).
The Systematic Theology is certainly his crowning achievement, bringing together his staggering learning, theological and otherwise, in a unified vision of the meaning of the faith. Pannenberg has remained remarkably consistent over the years. Systematic Theology can be read as a much fuller account of the vision first put forward in Revelation as History twenty-five years before: Eschatology remains the key theological locus; Jesus continues to be understood as the anticipatory realization of the final reign of God over all things; Christianity is rational, though this claim is somewhat chastened. New perhaps is the emphasis on ecclesiology. The church is the foretaste of the future unity of humanity and of all things, the place where the future impinges visibly, sacramentally, on the present. (And hence the division of the church is so scandalous; Pannenberg’s ecumenical commitments are of a piece with his theology.)
New and more determinative for his later theology is its thoroughgoing trinitarian character. In a way similar to some other recent theologians—most notably, in their different ways, Karl Rahner and Karl Barth—Pannenberg does not begin with a discussion of God as one and of the divine attributes, both understood without reference to God as triune, but begins with God as Trinity and allows that understanding to frame both the presentation of God’s unity and the elaboration of the divine attributes. Against that background, God’s act of creation is presented as analogous to the differentiation of the Son from the Father (hence, creation is through the Word) and salvation is participation in the life of the Trinity (an idea more familiar to Catholic than to modern Protestant theology).
In most of these themes—the centrality of eschatology, a renewed interest in the church as theological locus, Trinity as determinative for all that is said about God, salvation as participation—Pannenberg is in line with much recent theology. The way he elaborates them is at times idiosyncratic (for example, his understanding of the divinity that the persons of the Trinity share as analogous to a force field), but he shares these themes with many other theologians.
Distinctive in his theology is the commitment to the claim that the Christian metanarrative, the all-encompassing, eschatologically focused story, is the key to the meaning of each and every thing. Theology backs up that claim by presenting a comprehensive, systematic account of reality in which all other knowledge can find a home. Pannenberg’s project required that his works culminate in a systematic theology. The revelation of God in Christ is either the one truth in relation to which all things makes sense, or it is false. If that revelation is true, then “[e]very single reality should prove incomprehensible (at least in its depth) without recourse to God.” The theologian’s task is to make that truth evident by showing, at least illustratively, the explanatory power of the Christian perspective.
Pannenberg’s project is breathtaking in its audacity. The theologian must stand ready, at least in principle, to discuss every topic. “A doctrine of God touches upon everything else. Therefore, it is necessary to explore every field of knowledge in order to speak of God reasonably.” Theology so understood seems to require a universal genius, a Leibniz or a Newton. Pannenberg’s range of knowledge is so extensive, one is tempted to believe the job possible. As Placher noted, “It’s hard to think of anything he doesn’t know.” But does the project succeed?
Doubts inevitably creep in. Perhaps because he views history as the final context of all meaning, Pannenberg tends to begin any topic in the Systematic Theology with a brief history of its discussion. These histories are a monument of learning, but even Pannenberg cannot be an expert on everything and the specialist scholar spots mistakes, small and sometimes not so small.
The greater limitation in Pannenberg’s work is its continuing orientation to the German philosophical and cultural context. When Pannenberg began his career, the German dominance of Protestant theology, dating back to Friedrich Schleiermacher at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was still firmly established. That dominance has since faded. Pannenberg has been far more open than most of his generation of German theologians to the wider world, but he engages that world from the perspective of a German tradition increasingly foreign to American readers. Pannenberg’s relation to that German Protestant tradition tells us much about how his theology does and does not point toward new possibilities.
The succession of German Protestant theology that runs from Kant through Schleiermacher and Hegel, Ritschl and Harnack, Barth and Bultmann represents a great intellectual achievement. Pannenberg seems to stand at the end of this tradition; no figures from the generation following him in Germany seem to be working at the same level. Pannenberg has not simply continued this tradition, however; he has also called it into question. His ambiguous relation to this tradition tells us much and ironically links him to his least favorite teacher, Karl Barth.
A driving force in this tradition has been the philosophical “turn to the subject,” a shift of focus from the thing known to the knower who knows it. Kant set the problem with his argument against any knowledge of the Ding an sich, the thing in itself, and Schleiermacher represents the first great attempt to accept that turn and still talk about God in a meaningful way. For
Schleiermacher, theology is not directly about God, but about us, and most immediately about our faith. Faith (or, precisely, feeling) is the point where God dwells in the self, and so, it is claimed, by speaking about faith, we can in fact speak about God. In varying ways, most liberal Protestant theology after Schleiermacher followed his lead. The anthropology changed, but the path through humanity to God remained constant. The danger of a reduction of God to an aspect of humanity and its religiosity has always lurked in the background, however, and all too often taken over the foreground.
Pannenberg, like Barth, challenges the dominance of the “turn to the subject.” This challenge became explicit in a revealing interchange that occurred in 1989 between Pannenberg and Eberhard Jüngel of Tübingen, his most ponderable German Protestant contemporary. Jüngel wrote an extended essay-review of the first volume of Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology in which, while praising his achievement, he raised some fundamental objections to his program. The title of his essay points to his most basic question: “Nihil divinitatis, ubi non fides: Is Christian Dogmatics in a Purely Theoretical Perspective Possible?” (the Latin phrase, which translates as “Nothing of God where there is no faith,” is a quotation from Luther). Jüngel’s question is about the relation between the content of faith, that which is believed, and the act of faith. He agrees with Pannenberg that the content of faith is foundational for the act of faith, and not vice versa; what we believe is more important than our act of believing it.
But Jüngel also insists that in explicating the content of faith, the theologian must make clear that the content of faith can only be the content of faith (Jüngel uses just this pattern of italics). The gospel, revelation, God in Christ, are not just there for the knowing. There is a theoretical knowledge of the content of faith, but it is inseparable from a practical knowledge, a transformation of the knowing self in the very act of knowing. There can be no true knowledge of God without a radically altered human self-understanding. The new knowledge of God and the new knowledge of the self are, he insists, “co-original.” Quoting Luther’s commentary on Galatians, he writes that “God and faith belong together so inseparably that one cannot avoid saying: ‘Outside faith God loses his righteousness, glory, abundance, etc, and there is nothing of majesty, of divinity where there is no faith.’” It is this existential dimension of the content of faith that he misses in Pannenberg’s dogmatics.
Pannenberg’s response, entitled “To Grasp and Understand Faith in Itself: An Answer,” grants Jüngel’s point that true knowledge of God is impossible apart from faith, but counters that when Jüngel makes knowledge of God and a new self-understanding “co-original,” he endangers the priority of God to the human response of faith, the priority of the content of faith to the act of faith.
Behind this somewhat obscure dispute lie basic questions about the character of theology.
Theology is about God, but God is not an object of investigation and knowledge simply there for human scrutiny. How does theology reflect God’s sovereignty even in being known? In the 1960s the Protestant theologian Otto Hermann Pesch characterized the theological styles of Luther and Aquinas as “existential” and “sapiential.” Luther’s theology seeks to stay close to the perspective of the self addressed by God’s words of judgment and promise; Aquinas’ theology seeks to view all things as much as possible from the viewpoint of God’s all-encompassing wisdom, in which the human mind is allowed to participate. Much German Protestant theology since the early twentieth century has, in this sense, been programmatically “existential.”
The turn to the subject influences the way theology speaks. Since the early twentieth century, German Protestant theology has sought forms in which first-person confession and second-person address, or, in other words, witness and proclamation, can shape the exposition of Christian theology. In this way, theology can talk about God while its form of discourse shows that God is known only as he gives himself to be known by faith. Theology must not only say that, it must show it by the way it speaks. Thus, for example, the quasi-homiletical rhetoric of Barth’s Church Dogmatics is not “mere style” but a sign of the inseparability of theology from witness and proclamation.
The “existential dimension” is what Jüngel cannot find in Pannenberg’s theology. And he is right. Pannenberg’s theology is more sapiential than existential. In turning away from the “existential” mode, however, Pannenberg has done more than choose a different style of language. His turn to a public history and a shared reason oriented to that history is the most significant attempt in his generation of German Protestant theology to break with the turn to the subject that has been so determinative for over two hundred years. He represents a sort of new objectivity. In this regard, his turn to history shares much, at least in intention, with Barth’s turn to a Word of God who creates its own conditions of being known. Barth and Pannenberg represent the two figures in the German Protestant tradition over the last century who point beyond the focus on the human that has proven so inadequate.
This objectivity, this strong sense that theology is about God first and foremost and only then, because of what God does, about us and our religiosity, sets Pannenberg apart from much theology as done among mainline Protestants, both in Europe and North America. This objectivity gives Pannenberg’s writing, especially his Systematic Theology, a scholastic tone, in the best sense of the word, the slightly old-fashioned air I referred to at the outset. He analyzes issues, makes distinctions, discusses the options, entertains objections. One senses that the subject matter at hand is determinative. This quality makes Pannenberg’s work attractive as a conversation partner for Catholic and Evangelical theologians.
But a certain ambiguity haunts Pannenberg’s work. While he calls the recent German Protestant tradition into question in some respects, he stands firmly within it in others. A curse of recent theology has been the cult of the virtuoso theologian, the creative mind who recasts the field, the Schleiermachers and Barths of the discipline, Promethean figures who blaze the path others are to follow. Much academic work in modern theology seems less the study of God or of the Christian message about God, and more the study of the creativity of great theologians.
When Pannenberg broke onto the scene in the 1960s, he was treated as the new candidate for these laurels, the latest thing from Germany, the land of giants. His program of a thoroughgoing interpretation of the Christian message under the rubrics of history and eschatology looked like another interpretive tour de force, another exercise in killing the Oedipal father (or fathers, in the form of Barth and Bultmann) so that the children are free to pursue their own projects. The actual shape of Pannenberg’s achievement has been somewhat different. The quasi-scholastic tone points at least to a different intent, a more humble subjection to the subject matter.
Nevertheless, the manner of the virtuoso has never quite disappeared, no more than it disappeared from the work of Barth. The unique interpretive vision rooted in eschatology continues to color all that is said. As a friend has noted, what Pannenberg will not do is outline the tradition on a theological topic and then simply conclude that the tradition got it right and move on. The subject needs to be reshaped by the unique perspective of the system, like the pianist who insists that somehow, somewhere, her own unique interpretation must shine through.
Are great theologians always good things? Should we bemoan that there are no giants of the field around today? Certainly, mediocrity is not to be celebrated. Theology must be more than simply cataloging the answers provided by our forebears. But the enterprise of systematic theology is inherently dubious. It necessarily elevates the theologian to systematizer, to master of a subject matter that should not be mastered.
This critique is not new. Barth himself insisted that “systematic theology” is an oxymoron on a par with “wooden iron.” More searching questions need to be asked. What are the historical, institutional, and ecclesial factors that foster the cult of the great theologian? What is the connection between the rise within Protestantism of the idea of the heroic theologian over the last two hundred years and the decline within Protestantism of a stable doctrinal tradition that could guide thought and practice? Are the unique and comprehensive perspectives of a Pannenberg or a Barth (or a Schleiermacher or a Luther) called upon to perform a function that should be performed by a normative communal sense of the faith?
What is theology called to do in the life of the Church? The vocation of the theologian does not exist in a vacuum. The needs, the strengths and deficiencies of the concrete church being served, will shape that vocation, and the individual theologian can break out of the resultant mold only with difficulty. (The Protestant theologian who broke out of the mold most thoroughly, Kierkegaard, is proof of the difficulty and the cost.) A critique of the sort of theology that fits the cult of the great theologian must inevitably be a critique of the ecclesial life that produces the cult. Theology can accomplish much, but it cannot make up for essential deficits in the life of the church it serves.
Wolfhart Pannenberg has produced an impressive range of work that is learned, intelligent, and faithful. His ambiguous relation to his time is itself instructive. It should make us think about what theology is, what it is called to do, and how theology and church inevitably reflect one another.
Pannenberg is now well into his eighties and we can expect that his theological work is complete. From the beginning of his career, he has employed his formidable intelligence and scholarship in the service of careful thought and writing about the God present in Christ and the Spirit. Lives and talents so spent are blessings.
Michael Root is professor of theology at the Catholic University of America.