Achievement and Debate

When one attempts to summarize the achievements of Pannenberg's theological conception three characteristics seem to be most notable. First of all, Pannenberg's theology is an attempt to meet the challenge of the atheistic critique of religion in the modern era without seeking refuge in strategies of intellectual immunization, and on the reflective level that is required by the intellectual standard of the critique and by its pervasive influence in contemporary culture. Secondly, Pannenberg seeks to realize this aim by developing his theology in close contact with the findings of biblical exegesis and against the background of a comprehensive analysis of the Christian tradition. Thirdly, one of the distinctive marks of Pannenberg's theological reflection is the awareness of the necessity for interdisciplinary cooperation with the human sciences and, to a certain extent, with natural science, in which Christian theology interacts with the intellectual efforts of its time. All three characteristics illustrate the conviction underlying Pannenberg's entire conception that Christian theology will only be able to fulfill its task adequately if it develops a comprehensive view of reality that is authentically Christian as well as intellectually plausible and that provides ethical orientation in the complexities of the modern situation.

It is precisely this view of the task of theology which can provoke a number of critical questions with regard to the conceptual framework in terms of which Pannenberg attempts its execution. The development of a comprehensive view of reality in Christian theology seems to require some kind of ontology which explains what there is and how it is to be interpreted. If the activity of determining how something is to be interpreted is to be capable of resulting in genuine truth-claims, it is necessary to establish that it can correspond to the determination of what there is. Especially in Pannenberg's earlier writings, we encounter at this point a twofold indeterminacy in Pannenberg's conception: what something is is only established in what it becomes in the future; and every act of determining how what there is is to be interpreted has an irreducibly hypothetical status. Is this a necessary corollary of Christian eschatology or does it introduce an unnecessary element of indeterminacy into the Christian view of reality, which would have to be seen as self-defeating? This problem is further illustrated by Pannenberg's proposal of comprehending both God's creation and his self-revelation in the concept of the futurity of God. If the existence and nature of God are finally determined and made evident only in the eschatological self-demonstration of his kingdom, it would seem that God's relation to the world remains - at least penultimately - indeterminate.

The Systematic Theology does not only document Pannenberg's awareness of these difficulties, it also demonstrates his attempt to overcome its problematical consequences. This is illustrated by the determinative role of the doctrine of the Trinity not only for the understanding of God, but also for the entire dogmatic conception. If everything that is is ultimately grounded in God's trinitarian relation to his creation, and if God's relation to the world is the repetition or reenactment of his eternal being as Father, Son, and Spirit, then the apparent indeterminacy has its limit precisely in the eternal identity of the triune God.

This leads to the second problem that seems to underlie many of the crucial and much debated features of Pannenberg's theological methodology. Pannenberg has from the outset attempted to find a middle way between the Scylla of a "dogmatic" exposition of Christian doctrine based on revelation, which fails to offer sufficient reasons for its assertions, and the Charybdis of a "rationalist" treatment of theology which only allows such statements that can be justified by means of reason alone. The Systematic Theology presents his most developed attempt to mediate between the internal perspective of faith and the external perspective of reason. His approach to start from the description of religious and theological claims and to identify within this framework the concept of revelation as the irreplaceable foundation of all theological claims from which the reconstruction of the contents of revelation can then proceed, is certainly one of the most interesting proposals for the solution of this thorny problem in modern theology. It documents Pannenberg's insistence that faith is not grounded in itself and can therefore not be treated as self-justifying, and it illustrates the determined effort to give reasons for the assertions of faith that are intelligible and rationally plausible within the framework of reason. But at least some would disagree with the conclusions which Pannenberg draws from this for the conception of Christian theology. For Pannenberg, it is essential that the theologian can establish certain foundational principles outside the perspective of faith that would support the claims to universality made within that framework. Therefore, he attempts to reconstitute the traditional insights of natural theology in his conception of the non-thematic awareness of the Infinite that is given in the factual constitution of humanity. The use of anthropological and epistemological reflections as a modern praeambula fidei would seem to provoke the danger that these considerations are made subject to far-ranging theological reinterpretations that would reduce philosophy to an ancillary role for the constructive theological task. It would also appear that if the theologian employs non-theological considerations as foundational principles for theology, the categories developed from the perspective of reason would have a determinative effect for the conception the theologian develops in the reconstruction of the contents of faith from the perspective of faith.

The problems of Pannenberg's attempt at combining the perspective of reason and the perspective of faith in his theological conception could be summarized in the following question: is it necessary to try to establish the basis for the claims to universality in Christian faith from the perspective of reason, before one turns to the explication of the contents of faith as they are grounded in revelation, or would it be more adequate to treat the universality of theological truth-claims as an implication of the Christian revelation that can only be developed in terms of a rational reconstruction of its contents from the perspective of faith?

Is Pannenberg's theology the type of theology that will determine the future of theology? With regard to its conception of the task of theology in presenting an authentically Christian and intellectually plausible view of reality, developed in intradisciplinary theological cooperation and tested in interdisciplinary dialogue with other sciences, it is to be hoped that many theologians will follow the inspiration of Pannenberg's enterprise. The intellectual rigor of Pannenberg's theological thinking and the willingness, documented in the development of his thought, to subject his arguments to constant reexamination, require to be taken so seriously that one should not hesitate to criticize the execution of this program in Pannenberg's own work. However, Pannenberg's work has set standards which also his critics should attempt to meet.


1 The original group of Rolf Rendtorff and Klaus Koch (Old Testament) and Ulrich Wilckens and Dietrich Rössler (New Testament), which was later joined by Martin Elze (church history) and Trutz Rendtorff (social ethics), represented together with Pannenberg almost a complete faculty, and this interdisciplinary cooperation constituted an effective counter-move against the growing alienation of dogmatic, exegetical, and historical theology.

2 For a biographical portrait, see R J. Neuhaus, "Pannenberg: Profile of a Theologian," in Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God, pp. 9-50. See also Wenz, Wolfhart Pannenbergs Systematische Theologie, pp. 9-14. Pannenberg's own account can be found in Braaten and Clayton, The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg, pp. 11-18.

3 Cf. "Dogmatic Theses on the Doctrine of Revelation" in Revelation as History, pp. 125-58.

5 Cf. "Eucharistic Piety: A New Experience of Christian Community," in Christian Spirituality and Sacramental Community, pp. 31-49, esp. 38ff

6 See also "The Kingdom of God and the Church," in Theology and the Kingdom of God, pp. 72-101.

7 Cf. ibid, pp. 331ff. Pannenberg criticizes Barth (who argued programmatically for the same approach) for not following his own program, since he develops the doctrine of the Trinity from the formal notion of revelation as expressed in the statement "God reveals himself as the Lord." With this approach, Barth renews Hegel's conception of describing the three persons of the Trinity as "moments" or "states" of the divine self-consciousness by talking about "modes of being" in the one divine subjectivity. Pannenberg interprets this strategy as a renaissance of Augustine's psychological theory of the vestigia trinitatis (which Barth had explicitly rejected), since its interpretive key is the imago trinitatis in the human soul. Instead of starting from the formal notion of revelation, Pannenberg proposes to develop his trinitarian conception from the content of God's revelation in Christ.

12 The problem is raised in the context of belief in God the creator; cf. Vol. 2, pp. 189-201. It is only possible to attempt an answer in the context of eschatology; cf. Vol. 3, pp. 679-89.


A complete bibliography of primary and secondary works up to the year 1988 can be found in Vernunft des Glaubens. Wissenschaftliche Theologie und kirchliche Lehre. Festschrift zum 60. Geburtstag von Wolfhart Pannenberg. Mit einem bibliographischen Anhang herausgegeben von Jan Rohls und Gunther Wenz (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1988), pp. 693718. This bibliography has been continued by Friderike Nüssel in the journal Kerygma und Dogma 43 (1999), 143-54. Pannenberg's writings from 1998 to 2002 are listed in Wenz, Wolfhart Pannenbergs Systematische Theologie, pp. 296-300.

"Dogmatic Theses on the Doctrine of Revelation," in Wolfhart Pannenberg (ed.), Revelation as History (New York, 1968); also in Human Nature, Election and History (Philadelphia, PA, 1977).

Theology and the Kingdom of God, ed. R. J. Neuhaus (Philadelphia, PA, 1969).

Basic Questions in Theology: Collected Essays, 3 vols. (London, 1970, 1971, 1973). (Volume 3 is also published under the title The Idea of God and Human Freedom, Philadelphia, PA, 1973.)

What Is Man? Contemporary Anthropology in Theological Perspective (Philadelphia, PA, 1970).

The Apostles' Creed: In the Light of Today's Questions (Philadelphia, PA, 1972).

Theology and the Philosophy of Science (London, 1976).

Reality and Faith (Philadelphia, PA, 1977).

Christian Spirituality and Sacramental Community (London, 1984).

Anthropology in Theological Perspective (Edinburgh, 1985).

Metaphysics and the Idea of God (Edinburgh, 1990).

Systematic Theology Vols. 1-3 (Edinburgh, 1991, 1994, 1998).

An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Edinburgh, 1991).

Toward a Theology of Nature: Essays on Science and Faith (Louisville, KY, 1993).

Grundlagen der Ethik. Philosophisch-theologische Perspektiven (Göttingen, 1996).

Theologie und Philosophie. Ihr Verhältnis im Lichte ihrer gemeinsamen Geschichte (Göttingen, 1996).

Problemgeschichte der neueren evangelischen Theologie in Deutschland. Von Schleiermacher zu Barth und Tillich (Göttingen, 1997).

Beiträge zur Systematischen Theologie: Band 1: Philosophie, Religion, Offenbarung (Göttingen,

1999). Band 2: Natur und Mensch - und die Zukunft der Schöpfung (Göttingen, 2000). Band 3: Kirche und Ökumene (Göttingen,


Carl E. Braaten and Philip Clayton (eds.), The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg: Twelve American Critiques, with an Autobiographical Essay and Response (Minneapolis, MN, 1988). This contains an excellent bibliography.

D. McKenzie, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Religious Philosophy (Washington, DC, 1980).

E. F. Tupper, The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg, postscript by Wolfhart Pannenberg (London, 1974).

Gunther Wenz, Wolfhart Pannenbergs Systematische Theologie. Ein einführender Bericht (Göttingen, 2003).

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