Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014)


03.02.1983 Friedenskongreß der CDU im Konrad-Adenauer-Haus, Bonn.

[written in September 2014] On September 4, 2014, Wolfhart Pannenberg, one of the leading German Protestant theologians, died in Munich.

Some refences to his book “Confessions of a Trinitarian Evolutionist” caught my attention. Here is one:

“God always used creatures to bring about other things. Think of the function of the earth in the first part of Genesis. The earth is addressed by God to assist in His act of creation. First, the earth is addressed to bring about vegetation. So we may wonder, ‘How can the earth, an inorganic reality, bring about an organic reality, vegetation, and then bring about the  self organization of organisms from inorganic materials?’ Yet, this is the Christian creation story. The second address of the earth is even bolder than that! God addresses the earth to bring about animals. And the text means higher animals. Such boldness does not really characterize even Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin wouldn’t have dreamed to have higher animals spring immediately from the earth, from inorganic matter. Darwin is much more moderate than that. In criticizing the doctrine of evolution, our creationist friends among Christian theologians should read their Bibles more closely.“

Ulrich Wilckens, bishop emeritus, Bible translator and professor of New Testament, wrote an obituary “The resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact”  that I transferred into English.

With Wolfhart Pannenberg’s death, a very learned and at the same time very pious teacher of theology has left us. On September 4, God has called him to himself. Undoubtedly Wolfhart Pannenberg is one of the most important theologians of the 20th century. In the first half of the 20th century, it was Karl Barth who stood out as the teacher who has broken down the broad interdependency of Protestant theology and church and the liberal tradition of the 19th century. With the theology of the autonomous “Word of God” he had prepared for Theology a new foundation on which the speaking of God can take the place of human religion. In the second half of the century Wolfhart Pannenberg  extended Barth’s teaching on the Word of God to include the truth of God’s saving action in  history. He saw in Barth the risk of self-isolation of theology as pure revelation knowledge of all “worldly” knowledge, a danger he wanted to fight through a novel connection between faith and reason. At the same time he wanted to oppose the beginnings of a return to the tradition of liberalism. He was one of the few who have done so with courage and prudence. Certainly, together with Barth, a number of other well-known theologians have contributed with their own conceptions to allow European Protestantism to proclaim God again as the Father of Jesus Christ and to experience the Church as a spiritual fellowship of believing and practicing Christians. The same is certainly true also for Pannenberg. But as far as the authority and power of the position of these two theologians, so there are good reasons to call them respectively the first.

A new substantiation for the Trinity

Pannenberg studied after the war with Barth, wrote his PhD thesis in 1953 with Edmund Schlink and his habilitation thesis in 1955 in Heidelberg where learned decisive aspects from in the Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad. It was von Rad, whose theology of salvation history and view on the historical perspective of the Old Testament as a whole, who influenced Pannenberg deeply in dealing with biblical texts in the context of his systematic theology. To Pannenburg, God himself chose Israel as his people, and  had been shown in history as an active God. Faith in Him is only possible in an ever trusting hope in His future action, as seen in the specific experience of the Old Testament. This is essentially linking together with what is proclaimed in the New Testament of Jesus Christ. The only-one God has completed His saving action with Israel in Jesus of Nazareth: in him the ultimate future of the eschatological reign of God has already occurred as present anticipation and in his resurrection from his crucifixion for our sins (1 Corinthians 15.3-5), God’s saving action with Jesus as His Son has become one. Therefore, in Pannenberg, not only is Christology the center of all theology, but from that center he has given a new foundation for the Trinity of God.

God and history belong together

Pannenberg quickly became known for representing and establishing the thesis that the resurrection of Jesus should not be judged as a theological construct, but was to be taken seriously as a historical fact. There is for him no contrast in this to reasonable natural knowledge. The natural history of all processes in nature cannot be understood without the interference of random contingent events that cannot be explained as laws of nature. Therefore, Pannenberg dared to see in this context of contingency and regularity in natural processes a memorable analogy to the biblical experience of the creative action of God in his faithfulness thus proven. In this way, he tried to give a reasonable sense to the accounts of God’s miraculous acts witnessed in the Bible  – especially the resurrection of Jesus. While discussing this hypothesis with physicists in highly intelligent mutual respect, constant accusation of theological illicit marriage of God and history reached him from the Bultmann school.

The center of world history

But Pannenberg never dodged conflict. On the contrary, when he felt that relevant truth of theological thought was at stake, he even provoked discussions. “Revelation as History” was the title of a series of essays, which he published along with a circle of like-minded colleagues in 1960. The basic idea was: “self-revelation” of God, in the sense of Barth, cannot be thought as theologically meaningful in a fundamental contrast to historical circumstances, but only in the closest connection.  This is Because the biblical God does not manifest Himself in transcendent “distance”, from which His Word descends “vertically from above” into in world affairs, but vice versa: In transcendent closeness of real actions, God himself determines the course of history that gives him meaning. The history of Christianity is thus to be understood as the meaningful center of world history. This in turn is the reason that the church must not retreat in its own special borders, but has to give her testimony of Jesus Christ to the whole world. And only in this “Leitaspekt” (leading motive) can and must assist them in the social and political life.


[I am thankful to my friend Peter Ross, Wayne, NJ, for his help in bringing this text into English. Das deutsche Original ist auf idea.de   erschienen.]


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