Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Systematic Theology: Volume 3
By Wolfhart Pannenberg, Translated by Geoffrey Bromiley
Eerdmans. 713 pp. $49

Authors often await reviews with considerable anxiety, knowing that their work’s impact and survival much depend on them. We may not picture Wolfhart Pannenberg so awaiting this piece. That he will have a place in future histories of modern theology is long since assured, by the extent of his scholarship, the energy of his speculation, and by his work’s relation to modernity’s canonical figures. Moreover, the exact nature of that place will be determined by historical factors very little to be deflected by reviewers. In my review of Volume 2 for this journal (May 1995), I suggested that his place in history depends on the fate of modernity. If post-modernity really turns out to be something new, Pannenberg may not much figure in its theology; if it turns out to be simply the negative phase of modernity, he will be essential.

Volume 3 covers church and eschatology. The part on the Church is long, and the part on eschatology is”by Pannenbergian standards”short. This may surprise those acquainted with his thinking, since in its formative period it was little concerned with the Church, and since the concept of history’s completion has always been his great key to theological understanding. But just this last point explains one side of the phenomenon: his theology is throughout so very eschatological that most of what might have been expected under that label has already been discussed. What remains are certain particular problems, often more formal than material.

As for the formidable mass of his treatment of the Church, it can only be said that once Pannenberg turns his attention to something, he goes all out. The turn of attention itself has a double explanation. In a speech a few years ago, Pannenberg movingly described it as a growth of his own faith. And he has been much caught up in the great ecclesiological events of recent decades.

As Pannenberg notes, ecclesiology has become a major theological enterprise only in this century, most decisively in the ecumenism that began after World War II. For most of the Church’s history, the Church was understood as a presupposition of theology rather than as a problem for it; and until Vatican II no great council had thought to promulgate doctrine about the Church herself. It was as the division of the Church came to be seen in a new light that the Church became a theological problem; once those on the other side of a schism come to be regarded as also church, so that reconciliation with them must be explored, the questions of what the Church is and how she may be identified become urgent. When the fact of the ecumenical dialogues made ecclesiology urgent, ecclesiology understandably became their dominating concern.

Of recent prominent German Protestant systematic theologians, Pannenberg is the only one to have been himself much involved in the ecumenical movement”recent debates with Gerhard Ebeling or Eberhard Jüngel have been debates between a major participant and intermittent armchair observers. It is not accidental to the structure or positions of the present volume that Pannenberg was co-chair of the study commissioned by the German Catholic and Evangelical bishops which produced the volume Lehrer urteilungen”kirchentrennend? ( The Condemnations of the Reformation Era”Do They Still Divide? ) This report demonstrated point by point that the Catholic-Reformation condemnations of the sixteenth century should no longer be considered church”divisive. (In my view, these results stand even though they have now been sharply criticized by the Roman curia.)

The present volume’s ecclesiology may then be described as an effort to develop, within the speculative trinitarianism elaborated in earlier volumes, an ecumenical”and so, among other determinants, catholic”understanding of the Church, without abandoning the German Protestant church-concept. (German theologians like to talk about various confessional Kirchenbegriffe , or “church”concepts.” Others of us may doubt that “ the Catholic church-concept” or “ the Protestant church-concept” actually exists, but that a German Protestant Kirchenbegriff exists is”perhaps all too”plain.)

The catholic aspect of Pannenberg’s ecclesiology appears first in its organization. His treatment of the Spirit’s saving work in individuals, of faith, hope, and love, is not, as often in Protestant exposition, a topic of its own, but is instead one section within the chief long chapter of explicit ecclesiology, on a level with and coordinated to sections on the communion of believers, sacraments, churchly office, and the relation of the Church to the total “people of God.” Pannenberg is catholic too in his ecumenically comprehensive discussions of sacraments and churchly office, which for the most part would surely be acceptable to the Catholic Church.

The continuity of Pannenberg’s ecclesiology with his general system appears in that this chapter is bracketed by chapters on the Spirit and on “Election and History.” The former is a speculative development of the connection between creation and the Church, in the “ecstatic” inner-trinitarian reality of the Spirit. The function of the latter chapter is tipped by the title of its final subsection, “The God of Election and God’s Governance of the World in the Process of History” (emphasis added).

Pannenberg’s loyalty to a Protestant understanding of the Church is then explicit throughout, and we must spend our remaining space on this. In the very first paragraph of the foreword, after noting the catholic outline mentioned, he writes, “Nevertheless, the focus of the discussion is on individual participation in salvation, with the church and sacraments simply as signs of its future consummation” (perhaps more clearly translated “ . . . since [emphasis added] church and sacraments are merely signs of future consummation”).

That the Church and its constitutive institutions are “signs” of the salvation to which individuals will attain is Pannenberg’s chief ecclesiological axiom. The language is, of course, not his innovation; as he notes, Vatican II described the Church as sacramental “sign and instrument,” and he adheres to the catholic principle that sacramental signs contain what they signify. Nevertheless, what all that means depends on what is signified. For Vatican II, it is the final unity of humankind that is signified; for Pannenberg it is individual entry into that unity. The difference is not as subtle as a first reading may suggest.

This ordering of church-community and individual believer pervades the volume: “It was typical of Jesus’ proclamation of the imminent coming of God’s reign that he addressed it directly to individuals, and did not . . . attempt to achieve a gathered eschatological remnant community . . . . To this . . . corresponds in the . . . life of the Christian church the immediacy of individual believers to Jesus Christ, notwithstanding . . . that their faith is mediated by the church’s proclamation and its administration of the sacraments.” For though the Church’s tradition and teaching make faith possible, “the act of faith” itself “individualizes . . . focusing totally on the personal relation to Jesus Christ.” Therefore the Church’s mediation of the gospel by tradition and teaching reaches its goal “only when by it recipients achieve their own independent relation to the matter, and hence a relation of immediacy” which allows them to “forget the communication process.” All in all, It would be hard to formulate a more direct contrary to, for instance, Cardinal Ratzinger’s definition of “the Christian soul” as “the anima ecclesiastica , that is, a personal self through whom the integral community of the Church expresses itself.”

Perhaps the chief decision is made in the section “The Fellowship of Individuals with Jesus Christ and the Church as the Fellowship of Believers.” The question of the section is about the union between the two fellowships of the title. Pannenberg begins with a basic move of ecumenical communion”ecclesiology: believers’ “fellowship with the one Lord by Word and sacrament” unites them “into the church’s fellowship”; because in the Eucharist they are one body with one Lord, they are one body with one another.

So far, all ecumenical hands will say, so good. But some may start to worry when discussion of the point is summarized: “Individual believers are united to the church by their common relation to Jesus Christ.” Is it indeed sufficient to think of the Church as a society united by individuals’ shared interest, even if that interest is their individual unions with Christ?

The worry may deepen as Pannenberg emphasizes repeatedly the one-way causation between fellowship with the Lord and fellowship with each other. Or when he insists that although “Jesus Christ meets believers in the church,” the concern of that meeting in word and sacrament is properly ( eigentlich ) “individual fellowship with Jesus Christ.” For of course it would be possible to see the matter just the other way around, and say that although it is individuals who hear the gospel and receive the sacraments, the concern of their hearing and reception is precisely the creation of a holy community. And to note that the fellowship of loaf and cup is in itself already a human communion, which then mediates fellowship with the Lord.

Indeed, according to the passages from 1 Corinthians on which all such discussions depend, perhaps one should order the matter neither way. For in those passages the reality received by individuals in the Eucharist and the community which the rite creates are the very same “body of Christ.” In the loaf and cup we receive at once Christ and one another; in the language of Augustine, we receive “the whole Christ” ( totus Christus ), the Head with the body. Perhaps there are no such things as an “individual fellowship with Jesus Christ” and a fellowship of the Church to be contrasted with each other.

Here readers will probably pay their money and take their choice. Some will find in Pannenberg’s ecclesiology the sharpest and most widely informed clarification of their attitude to the Church. Others will find in it the best possible presentation of a Protestantism which almost but not quite transcends its difference from Catholicism.

Robert W. Jenson is Senior Scholar for Research at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey.