Presently Professor of Systematic Theology in the Faculty of Protestant
Theology, Munich, Pannenberg has become a widely-known theologian both in
Germany and the United States.
His writings encompass a wide range of subjects and, as seems usual with
German thinkers, can appear somewhat complex - often to the point of
incomprehensibility. Some say that this is partly due to the difficulty of
translating theological German into English. But in Pannenberg's case, the
difficulties of expression may well have their origin in the nature of the
central subject he attempts to address.
Pannenberg's development was strongly influenced by Karl Barth, as was the
development of many of Pannenberg's contemporaries. Barth's theology sprang from
a powerful and influential affirmation of revelation as the mainspring of all
Christian truth. In contrast, many others (among them Bultmann and his
disciples) stressed the a-historical nature of much of that foundational
Christian record, the Bible.
If these documents, especially those of the New Testament, comprise a
mixture of myth and history, they ask in what sense the Bible can reveal God.
Barth's answer is that history takes us only to a certain point in discovering
the truth about Jesus. The remainder consists in Christian affirmation -
or faith, as Barth would put it.
There was considerable interest, therefore, when Pannenberg published
Revelation as History (1961). The title suggests that he might have an
answer to the apparent contradiction between analytical history and the
What was Pannenberg trying to achieve when he wrote,
All theological questions and answers have meaning only within the framework
of the history which God has with humanity, and through humanity with the whole
creation, directed towards a future which is hidden to the world, but which has
already been revealed in Jesus Christ?
It seems that his main point is that Christian theology is based on an
analysis of history as events which have universal applicability and are
accessible to all. So, for example, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead
(that is, his physical resuscitation) is an historical event, so he thought,
which requires that every person come to some sort of conclusion about it.
Pannenberg's critics assert that his approach "reduces" faith to insight,
denying God the Holy Spirit a role in revealing the truth. On one hand,
Pannenberg seems to hold that faith is grounded upon revelation as history. The
meaning of revelation therefore can't be claimed as self-evident. On the
contrary, revelation (in his sense) is naturally a matter of contention.
On the other hand, he says that we must go behind the kerygma to
Jesus the historical person to find the meaning of Jesus, which is grounded on
is in history. Even so, it seems that Pannenberg falls back on
interpretation as his keystone. Revelation finds an almost traditional
form in the "correct" interpretation that Jesus is to be identified with God.
Pannenberg attempts to side-step this by a second circumlocution. Jesus is
"proleptical" or "retroactive" in that, just like history as a body of
knowledge, his full meaning will only be realised at the end-point of
history. Jesus is the "proleptic disclosure of the end of history".
This approach is thought of by commentators as Pannenberg's
"eschatological" emphasis. The resurrection of Jesus makes no sense on its
own, but only within the context of an apocalyptic
world view. It must therefore be interpreted as the anticipation
of a general resurrection of the dead at the end of time. It is thus
organically linked to God's self-revelation in Jesus. He writes:
Only at the end of all events can God be revealed in
his divinity, that is, as the one who works all things,
who has power over everything. Only because in
Jesus' resurrection the end of all things, which for
us has not yet happened, has already occurred can
it be said of Jesus that the ultimate already is present
in him ...
These are, in my opinion, high-sounding words which collapse at the
question, "How do you know that?" At very best, his meaning survives only in the incestuous circle of those who write theological shorthand.
Pannenberg is no mean biblical scholar. But his conclusion that
accounts of the resurrection in the gospels stand up as history is
nevertheless somewhat surprising, given that only a tiny minority of historians
would confirm it and almost none would regard it as a unique historical event.
A pivotal argument in this respect was advanced by Ernst Troeltsch and
others. It is that history is essentially homogeneous, a system of cause and
effect which is unbreakably bound together in a seamless web. Any event
which is intrinsically impossible at one point in history remains that way
throughout history. There is thus no room for a unique, un-reproducible
event such as the resurrection of Jesus. This is known as the principle of
Pannenberg argued that this is an unjustified "constriction of
historico-critical enquiry" which assumes that human perceptions are normative.
Analogies are always analogies viewed from the standpoint of the human
observer. As a working tool it cannot be allowed to restrict the scope of
historical enquiry. The resurrection of Jesus must be approached without prior
This argument opens up once again the possibility of a unique
historical event such as the resurrection. One of Pannenberg's theses on
the doctrine of revelation is therefore that it is not completely apprehended at
the beginning, but only at the end of revelatory history. As such, it is
available to anyone who can perceive it.
Pannenberg's assertion remains that, however. For in the sense that he uses
the word "unique", all historical events are unique - though many may be
similar. All historical events are part of a seamless web of cause and effect.
Why should one resurrection be unique? If the physical process which causes one
resurrection is common to the entire web of history (as is rain, for
example) why should it not occur again to a different person in differing
One explanation of this resurrection is that its cause lies outside
creation. It is a direct act of God, and in that sense Jesus is a unique person
in a way in which none of us is unique. But if that is the case, then the
seamless web has been fractured in at least one case, and history as an
analytical discipline necessarily falls apart.
Pannenberg's argument is weak, to say the least.
The historical argument underpins Pannenberg's work. His Christology is
extensive and - in terms of traditional theology - illuminating. But it
appears to be an extensive manipulation of theological jargon because
his historically-based conclusions about the person and meaning of Jesus
don't make much sense in terms of contemporary historical theory.
Pannenberg attempts to bring the concept of the Absolute (God) into
harmony with the theory of science. In terms of science, he says, "God" is
an hypothesis. Theology is ultimately about that hypothesis - though we mustn't
separate specific assertions about God from the totality of meaning. He calls
this "fundamental" theology as distinct from specific revelations of God.
Such hypotheses are not substantiated, he says, unless
- They reflect the implications of biblical traditions;
- They are adequately related to the whole of reality;
- They can be integrated with human experience;
- And they are "adequate" in terms of current
Looking at the overall reach of Pannenberg's thought my own
conclusion is that his brave attempt to harmonise the radical break
of modern thinkers who reject the past as authoritative in its own
right, with those who claim that faith in the received tradition (kerygma) is
paramount, has failed.