On Thursday, September 4th, Wolfhart Pannenberg, the greatest theological mind of German Protestantism in the second half of the 20th century, breathed his last. May he find rest in the peace of God.
Rest certainly did not characterize his earthly life. To read Pannenberg is to engage a Christian intellect at full throttle. As a young man he helped change the contours of the theological conversation within Germany. His argument that God revealed himself in events open to historical scrutiny created a third position beyond the Christian Existentialism of Rudolf Bultmann and the Neo-Orthodoxy of Karl Barth. For the next forty years, he would produce a storm of publications of the highest theological caliber.
My introduction to Pannenberg’s project came during one of Avery Dulles’s somewhat dry surveys of theological opinion. As he began to describe the position of this Lutheran thinker, my slackening attention snapped tight: finally a contemporary theologian who took the truthfulness of divine revelation seriously. I went on to write a dissertation on Pannenberg’s concept of truth, spending two summers in Munich under his guidance. I had heard that he had a special affection for Americans and Catholics, and that proved true.
The fact that Pannenberg was interested in the truth of divine revelation might not seem so radical to Catholics who came of age during the papacies of St. John Paul II or Benedict XVI, but I can tell you it was absolutely bracing to a graduate student during the 1980’s, the dog days of post-conciliar Catholic theology. This was a time when Rahner’s late musings about the prethematic character of divine disclosure were widely seen to give support to the religious pluralism of Paul Knitter and John Hick. A time when the continued viability of the Church’s proclamation that Jesus Christ was Son of God and savior of the world seemed to be at the mercy of theologians at play. There was a general loss of confidence that theological language was capable of expressing objective truths about divine reality. Wouldn’t it be less offensive if dogmas were nothing more than the way we Christians speak amongst ourselves?
Standing against such trends like a wall was this world-class intellectual who combined devotion to the traditional teachings of the Christian faith with confidence in reason’s capacity to illuminate the truth of things. Pannenberg’s commitment to the power of reason led his longtime friend and interpreter, Richard John Neuhaus, to christen him a “Christian knight of the Enlightenment.” The honorific fits . . . somewhat.
There is no question that Pannenberg was convinced that the emergence of a critical form of reason in the modern era constitutes a singular challenge to Christian theology. Accordingly, he was critical to the point of being dismissive of all attempts to secure the truth of Christian doctrine by authority, whether biblical, ecclesial or experiential. While the Enlightenment got a lot of important things terribly wrong, its best representatives correctly saw that authority is often an obstacle to seeing things are they are. Reason’s capacity to reveal the truth of things requires the freedom to explore, debate, and challenge received opinion.
Yet, it is too limiting to cast Pannenberg’s commitment to public reason as primarily motivated by a desire to demonstrate the credibility of the faith before the bar of modern rationality. From the beginning of his career Pannenberg argued that the character of biblical revelation, whereby the God of Israel demonstrated the truth of his divinity by often surprising historical acts, mirrors the scientific quest to allow the truth of nature to determine what is said about it. In each case, human rationality functions best when it operates in ways that give priority to the truth of reality over all subjective or communal prejudgments. Thus Pannenberg saw a deep affinity between the critical rationality that brought forth modern science and ancient Israel’s willingness to allow the God of Abraham to define who he is and what he desires through his revealing actions in their history.
This is how best to understand Pannenberg’s well-known historical defense of the resurrection of Jesus. Apart from the potential of this event to have overturned the despair of the apostles and the confidence of Jesus’s opponents, the resurrection has no legitimate claim to our attention. In other words, when Christians are unable or unwilling to marshal publicly accessible arguments for the truth of Easter, the faith’s basis in reality is inevitably undermined. Contrary to what is usually thought, Pannenberg was not primarily interested in proving the resurrection by rational argumentation, but in avoiding the disastrous and all too common opinion that the resurrection is an event that cannot be argued for or against. A faith thus separated from reality cannot long survive in a secularized world.
The arc of Pannenberg’s celebrity tells us something important about the recent past and current state of Christian theology. The zenith was the 1970’s, during which he published the first two volumes of his Basic Questions in Theology and his groundbreaking work on Christianity, Jesus, God and Man. However as the night of pluralism descended in the following decades, Pannenberg went from representing something new and exciting to something traditional and stifling. Who needed Pannenberg when you had Pannikar? Serious theologians read his Anthropology in Theological Perspective, a work of breathtaking sophistication, but for many it seemed too orthodox, too intellectual. When his three-volume Systematic Theology began to appear in the early 1990’s, one reviewer asked whether Pannenberg was still relevant. A major strike against the work was that it was too difficult for the typical seminarian or student of theology to understand.
What about now? It is almost always true that theologians outlive their initial popularity. Theology is faddish and always has been. Sometimes you hear that only the “virtuoso theologian” falls victim to changing tastes, but the reality of theological history is more complex. Every great theologian introduces new ways of thinking about the faith; the only question is how many followers he or she can gather and over how long a period. Often this is a product of factors beyond the intrinsic merits of the work. Pannenberg, he certainly had his share of novel formulations concerning the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, faith and reason, and some of these ideas have been picked up by notable theologians. There is even a small but steady stream of interesting monographs devoted to Pannenberg’s thought by youngish scholars.
It would be impossible deny that by the time of his death Pannenberg was markedly out of fashion, especially in his native Germany. For obvious reasons his work is of little interest to theologians concerned primarily with class, race, and gender or to those who shy away from any hard dogmatic claims. For less clear reasons few of the young traditional theologians read Pannenberg. These seem to prefer their theological heroes long dead and focus their energies on retrieving and reconstructing the work of their favored past master. Given the vagaries of contemporary theology it is quite understandable that the young would rather study Gregory of Nyssa or Thomas Aquinas.
However, there is a danger that retrieval of the past equates to a retreat from the kinds of challenges to the credibility of faith that Pannenberg dedicated a lifetime to meeting head on. He rightly insisted that the truth of Christianity is a central theme of systematic theology and that the Church has no option but to relate its truths to all else considered true in every era. There is no legitimate retreat into a more comfortable past before the distinctively modern difficulties began to assert themselves. One need not become a follower of Pannenberg, of course, but his knightly model is well worth emulating today.
James F. Keating is associate professor of theology at Providence College.