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Wolfhart Pannenberg

Wolfhart Pannenberg

While teaching that nothing less than the whole of reality is the proper horizon of theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg (born 1928) insisted that the resurrection of Jesus provides the best key for understanding that reality. His broad interests and creativity distinguished him as one of Germany's most important Protestant theologians of the 20th century.

Wolfhart Pannenberg was born in 1928 in the city of Stettin (today part of Poland). Growing up during the Nazi era, he was pressed into military service during the final days of the Third Reich—an experience which helps account for his wariness of all ideological and political promises. His interest in religion developed after the war as the result of study and reflection during his university days, first at Berlin, then at Gottingen, Basel, and Heidelberg, where he received his doctorate in 1953, writing on the idea of predestination in the thought of Duns Scotus. In 1958 he was appointed professor of systematic theology at Wuppertal, a theological seminary of the Confessing Church. Important university positions followed, first at Mainz (1961) and then at Munich (1968).

Pannenberg insisted that it was rational reflection that led him to Christian faith. He believed that faith should be based, not upon feeling or supposed authority, but upon what is known, most reasonable, or most probable. There is such a thing as revelation through which God becomes known, but revelation is not something selected for a few chosen people or even for a chosen nation. Rather, as G. W. F. Hegel suggested at the dawn of the 19th century, God is revealed through history (or reality) as a whole, and God's revelation can be recognized and understood by reason. Of course, no human being actually knows the whole of history, being limited by time and space. Furthermore, history is not yet complete, and therefore cannot be completely understood. But it is possible for reason to discern in the life, the death, and (especially) the resurrection of Jesus a key to the meaning and an anticipation of the goal of universal history. Pannenberg believed, as Reinhold Niebuhr once argued, that Christianity can be shown to be empirically superior to all alternative interpretations of the meaning of life and history.

One must not, however, begin with supernatural doctrines about the person and work of Jesus—that he was the incarnate Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, or the Divine Logos. Rather, this traditional Christology "from above" must be replaced with the conclusions that result from established methods of historical scholarship, or Christology "from below." It is only when one studies the New Testament with such utter honesty that the event of Jesus' resurrection becomes acknowledged as objective historical fact, thereby confirming the high Christology of the New Testament that Jesus was "descended from David according to the flesh, " but was "designated Son of God … by his resurrection from the dead" (Romans 1:4).

The significance of that fact becomes clear when we ask about the meaning of our own lives. Death would seem to cancel any meaning to life. The promise of a future earthly utopia, so popular among Marxists, leaves past generations out of any participation in the final fulfillment. But the New Testament understands the resurrection of Jesus to be an anticipation of the end and goal of history, the first fruit of a larger harvest, which will be the general resurrection of the dead. Then, as written words only have meaning in relation to a sentence, and as sentences find their meaning in relation to a book, so too the lives of individuals and the history of nations will fulfill their meaning in this transcendent solution, the general resurrection, judgment, and the life everlasting. New Testament eschatology in general, and especially the "Kingdom of God" which Jesus proclaimed, is this retroactive power of a future fulfillment to bring to completion the fragmentary character of life as we know it. In Jesus there pre-occurred what will finally occur for all of us—the consummation of personal life in the eschatological future.

Pannenberg was a brilliant and creative intellect, interested in the broad spectrum of academic knowledge. His thought was far too complex to be easily categorized. In the mid-1960s he was often cited as a leading proponent of the "theology of hope" because of his interest in the future. But Pannenberg disassociated himself from most proponents of that school, both because they were too dependent upon the philosophy of Ernst Bloch rather than on the resurrection of Jesus and because they were too easily deceived by the premature and idolatrous promises of socialism.

These judgments would seem to mark Pannenberg as a conservative. But consider that he bases his faith in the resurrection not upon the authority of the Bible or of the church but upon its demonstrability to rational investigation. Furthermore, he considered authentic religion to be a response to reality as a whole, including world religions, not just parochial and institutional Christianity. Therefore, Pannenberg argues, the proper home for theology is not the institutional church but the university, where the theologian's propositions must be defended and corrected, not just asserted. The church, however, is the home of spirituality and community, where both depend upon the Eucharist—received not as a church supper (owned by an institution), but as the Lord's Supper (transcending all denominational boundaries) and anticipating God's plan for the fullness of time to "unite all things" (Ephesians 1:10).

Pannenberg married Hilke Shütte in 1954. He has served as a professor of theology at the University of Heidelberg, Kirchiliche Hochschule Wuppertal, University of Mainz, and the University of Munich. He has had visiting professorships at the University of Chicago, Harvard University, and the Claremont School of Theology. He became the head of the Institute of Ecumenical Theology, Munich, in 1967. Pannenberg has also received honorary doctorates in theology from universities around the world.

Pannenberg's translated works include What is Man? (1962); Jesus: God and Man (1968); Revelation as History (1969); Theology and the Kingdom of God (1969); Basic Questions in Theology, Vol. I (1970); Basic Questions in Theology, Vol. II (1971); The Apostle's Creed (1972); Theology and the Philosophy of Science (1976); Human Nature, Election and History (1977); Anthropology in Theological Perspective (1985); The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg: Twelve American Critiques, with an Autobiographical Essay and Response (1988); Christianity in a Secularized World (1989); Metaphysics and the Idea of God (1990); Systematic Theology, Volume I (1991); An Introduction to Systematic Theology (1993); Toward a Theology of Nature: Essays on Science and Faith (1993); and Systematic Theology, Volume II (1995). Pannenberg has also served as an Erasmus Lecturer and contributor to theology journals.

Further Reading

For Pannenberg's views on Christian political involvement see his Ethics (1981). And, for his appreciation of the role of institutional Christianity, see The Church (1983). For early evaluative studies see E. Frank Tupper, The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (1973), and Don H. Olive, Wolfhart Pannenberg (1973). Also see Contemporary Authors (1995); and The International Who's Who (1993). □

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