Pannenberg, Wolfhart (1928–)

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The thought of Wolfhart Pannenberg follows in the tradition of twentieth-century German systematic theology in replying to the secularizing nature of post-Enlightenment thought. Pannenberg's writings, however, unlike those of his near contemporaries, most notably Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, do not reject the characteristic intellectual developments of Enlightenment thought. Rather, Pannenberg seeks to incorporate many of the key components of the Enlightenment into his comprehensive theological world view. Born in 1928, Pannenberg began his education as the University of Berlin. In 1950 he studied theology under Barth in Basle, and in 1951 he moved to Heidelberg where he completed his doctoral studies on the doctrine of predestination in Duns Scotus. Following this, he took up a teaching post at Heidelberg, later becoming Professor of Systematic Theology successively at Wuppertal, Mainz, and finally, in 1968, Munich.

Pannenberg's philosophical development was transformed by what he has described as an "intellectual conversion" to Christianity. This conversion, which was driven by his reading of philosophical as well as theological texts in his youth, has had two important influences on the development of his thought. First, Pannenberg's initial concerns are not with the Church and ecclesial theology. Instead, his thought centers on the role of religious experience on the individual within a created world defined by God. This anthropological aspect to Pannenberg's thought lies at the heart of his theological and philosophical system. Second, Pannenberg has been more receptive than many of his contemporaries in understanding and the developments in secular philosophical thought. Through all his writings, Pannenberg argues that many of the problems of modern secular thought can be resolved if God is reestablished as the defining principle of all creation. Pannenberg's most profound contribution to this debate has been through his dialogue with the secular aspects of critical history and latterly with the philosophy of science.

The Anthropology of Religious Experience

The starting point of Pannenberg's thought is his anthropological account of religious belief. Pannenberg's thought is based on the belief that God can be found naturally and freely within all aspects of human experience. This anthropological approach comes out most clearly in Pannenberg's 1983 work Anthropology in Theological Perspective. His main impetus in approaching theological questions in this manner is to address directly the implicit atheism of much post-Enlightenment thought. Pannenberg argues that the philosophical atheism of the Left-Hegelians, especially Ludwig Feuerbach, is in essence misguided anthropology. The philosophical atheism of Feuerbach defines God as merely the creation of the historically developing human mind. Pannenberg takes issue with this, arguing that it crucially misinterprets the place and role of God in human thought. By concentrating on the social and cultural uses of religious forms and structures, Pannenberg argues that the Left-Hegelians were able to dismiss these as constructs of the alienated human mind. Therefore Feuerbach, in particular, was able to collapse theology into anthropology, asserting the form of the divine as God simply a construct of the human mind (Pannenberg 1973, p. 87).

To counter this powerful philosophical criticism of theology and religion, Pannenberg argues that we must consider humans in the first instance without recourse to religious categories or structures. He argues that such an approach is a necessary part of thinking about religion in the post-Enlightenment world, because the Enlightenment moved humans away from the traditional structures and forms of religious belief. Consequently, Pannenberg argues, we must look for God in all parts of human experience, not simply those that are exclusively religious. This approach, which he characteristically describes as coming to God "from below," places Pannenberg in opposition to the theology of Barth. Barth's solution to the dilemma presented by philosophical atheism was to stress God as "Wholly Other," inaccessible to man accept through the initiative of Jesus Christ.

Pannenberg argues that it is self-contradictory to talk of God in a manner that makes him completely inaccessible to humans. If God is the creative force of all creation, he must be accessible to people in all parts of creation. In the first instance one is able to come to this realization, Pannenberg argues, through a process of self-examination. By carrying out this anthropological enquiry, Pannenberg believes that people are able to recognize in themselves transcendent categories such as imagination that draw the human mind above and beyond a simple, mundane corporeal existence. It is through grasping this natural sense of transcendence that the human mind first comes to comprehend the existence of God. In doing this, Pannenberg is not rejecting traditional theological forms; rather he argues that the natural human desire to comprehend the divine is driven by very real human characteristics that God places in the human mind. Pannenberg's anthropology of religious experience places him between the philosophical atheism of the Left-Hegelians and the Christian supremacy of Barth, stressing the real existence of the divine in all parts of the created world, a world in which humans are intimately and definitively involved.

History as Revelation

Pannenberg's primary contribution to the philosophy of religion has been in his attempts to build on this anthropological position to show the unity of human history with the experience God. Pannenberg's work on this subject is, in the first instance, a reaction to post-Enlightenment critical history. It is also defined in reaction to the rejection of historicism as a category within theology by Barth and, in particular, Bultmann. Pannenberg rejects the belief that historical research, even in areas such as the historical Jesus, do not provide any theological insight. Pannenberg argues that if God is the author of creation, he must be discernible in all parts of creation. Therefore to stress the eschatological and a historic nature of Christ as Bultmann does, is to remove God from the created world that is, by definition historical in form (Pannenberg 1970, p. 87).

The culmination of this work was the publication in 1961 of Revelation as History. In this collection of essays, which Pannenberg edited and contributed to, Pannenberg argues that theology, correctly understood, can reconcile the Hegelian understanding of history as the self-disclosure of the Absolute with twentieth-century developments in secular critical history. Pannenberg believes he is able to reconcile these two opposing understandings of history by stressing what he believes to be the defining principle of the human history: the desire to comprehend oneself within the created world in which we live. This essentially dialectical understanding of history, Pannenberg argues, underpins the subject areas, method, and approach of secular, critical history. At the most basic level, he argues, the modern secular historian makes judgments about the place and role of actions and events on history. Through this intellectual judgment the historian is implicitly assuming, Pannenberg's argues, that human history has a fundamental source and purpose. Consequently, the narrowly defined terms of critical history always assume, even at the most basic level, the existence of a suprahistorical intellectual structure. No historical person or event can define this structure; this can only be achieved by God who transcends and encompasses all history within himself. Pannenberg therefore believes one can reconcile theology with history if one accepts that they are different methods of understanding the self-disclosure of God within history. Therefore when we engage with the historical world in any way we are, by definition, understanding something of God's revelation to the world.

The Hegelian basis of this argument is clear; however, Pannenberg differs crucially from Hegel in two key components with his argument. First, looking back to his anthropology, Pannenberg asserts a narrower understanding of human reason than the version of reason we find in Hegel. This allows Pannenberg to retain a greater critical distance between the rational nature of God and ability of human reason to comprehend form and nature of God. Second, Pannenberg argues that although God reveals himself to humankind through the process of history this is, unlike in Hegel, not a necessary, but rather a contingent relationship. This more orthodox understanding of the human faculties and of God's relation to creation allows Pannenberg to reclaim something of the Hegelian understanding of universal history from the Left-Hegelian conflation of the God of universal history into anthropology.

This historicism has, inevitably, created new problems that Pannenberg's thought has not fully answered. Most importantly, Pannenberg's view of the contingent nature of God to human history opens up the problem of how to account for the existence of evil in a divinely ordained world. Pannenberg has countered, and to a limited extent answered this criticism by stressing that one has to understand the positive nature of human endeavor and action before one can understand the perversions. That is, we can only understand why humans turn from God if we first know how we are defined in relationship to God in the first instance (Tupper 1973).


The culmination of Pannenberg's intellectual output came with the publication of his three-volume Systematic Theology between 1988 and 1993. In this work, which completes the intellectual process begun in his earliest writings, Pannenberg argues that the pursuit of truth, the fundamental object of theology, can only come about within a rigorous and thoroughgoing philosophical framework. Through this framework Pannenberg has argued that it is possible to reconcile scientific research to theology in much the same way as he argues the critical history can be brought into the theological understanding of universal history. By stressing the systematically metaphysical form of theology, Pannenberg argues that theology can save science from intellectual narcissism by providing the overarching structure of truth within which the specific insights of scientific research can be comprehended. Although perhaps not as influential as his writings on theology and history, this engagement with modern science highlights the refreshing willingness, identifiable in all Pannenberg's work, to enter into dialogue with those intellectual disciplines of the post-Enlightenment world that sit outside the traditional corpus of religious and theological thought.

See also Barth, Karl; Bultmann, Rudolf; Duns Scotus, John; Enlightenment; Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegelianism; Historicism; Philosophy of Religion; Philosophy of Science, History of; Philosophy of Science, Problems of.


works by pannenberg

JesusGod and Man. Translated by Lewis L. Wilkins and Duane Priebe. London: SCM Press, 1968.

Revelation as History, edited by Wolfhart Pannenberg. Translated by David Granskou. New York: Macmillan, 1968.

What Is Man? Translated by Duane A. Priebe. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.

Basic Questions in Theology. 3 vols. Translated by George H. Kelm. London: SCM Press, 19701973.

Theology and the Philosophy of Science. Translated by Francis McDonagh. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1976.

Anthropology in Theological Perspective. Translated by Matthew J. O'Connell. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985.

Christianity in a Secularized World. Translated by John Bowden. London: SCM, 1989.

Systematic Theology. 3 vols. Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Edinburgh, U.K.: T and T Clark, 19911998.

works about pannenberg

Galloway, Allan D. Wolfhart Pannenberg. London: Allen and Unwin, 1973.

Tupper, Frank E. The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973. Contains a postscript by Wolfhart Pannenberg.

Benjamin Carter (2005)