The third volume of the Systematic Theology comprises Pannenberg's ecclesiology and his eschatology. His treatment of the church documents his commitment to the ecumenical process. His specific aim is to offer a reassessment of the doctrinal differences between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism in order to examine and, if possible, to overcome the doctrinal obstacles for achieving greater visible unity of the church. This ecumenical emphasis follows from Pannenberg's view that the church is to be interpreted as the anticipation and sign of the community of humankind in the Kingdom of God. This eschatological horizon for discussing the church as the "sacrament of the Kingdom"11 relativizes all exclusive claims that might be made for any historical ecclesial community, and it forms the background for Pannenberg's ecumenical hermeneutic for ecclesiology, which is designed to show that apparently contradictory doctrinal positions can be seen as complementary aspects of a more comprehensive truth.
Pannenberg combines traditional Western and Eastern emphases by arguing that the church is constituted by the Son and the Spirit together. This trinitarian approach also shapes the systematic structure of Pannenberg's ecclesiology. Pannenberg gives priority neither to the appropriation of salvation by the individual believer nor to the communion of saints. Both are integrated in an ecclesiological perspective which sees individual and communal aspects of salvation as related dimensions of the work of the Spirit. The personal communion of believers is mediated through participation in the sacraments as the means of grace. Eucharistic communion demonstrates that for Pannenberg most clearly: membership in the body binds the relationship of believers with Christ inextricably together with their relationship with one another. The Spirit is interpreted in this way as the focus of various relationships that make up the church, enabling the immediacy of every individual Christian to God and joining them together in the communion of the body of Christ, where they receive in the Spirit their fundamental orientation towards the Kingdom of God.
Pannenberg's discussion of the doctrine of justification is shaped by the ecumenical intention of his ecclesiology. Over against an exclusively forensic understanding of justification, Pannenberg argues that the Pauline treatment of the notion of righteousness of faith shows that being declared righteous must have its basis in the righteousness of faith, it does not constitute it. Righteousness of faith, he argues, is to be understood as living in communion with Christ by participating in his death and resurrection through baptism. From this perspective the doctrinal differences in the treatment of justification between the Reformers and the Council of Trent can no longer be seen as fundamental differences that could be allowed to serve as a justification for the continuing division between the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church.
With his interpretation of justification Pannenberg has brought baptism and justification closely together. The point of baptism is to be found in the participation of the believer in the death and resurrection of Christ. The celebration of the Eucharist is, for Pannenberg, the symbolic anticipation of the coming reign of God in the presence of the risen Lord. This is the basis for asserting the ecclesiological primacy of the local church: wherever the Eucharist is celebrated, there is the church. Pannenberg follows the approach of recent ecumenical eucharistic theology by stressing that the real presence of Christ cannot be exclusively located in the elements of bread and wine. It must be seen as being mediated in the whole act of eucharistic worship. The link between anamnesis and epiclesis requires a consistently trinitarian interpretation. The Spirit as the transforming power of the world is at work where we are drawn into the movement of Christ's self-giving love. Because the sacraments are indications of the mystery of salvation in Christ, and since the sign indicates the presence of the reality signified, Pannenberg can argue for a wide notion of sacra-mentality. If the character of a sacrament depends exclusively on whether something can be shown to be included in or ordered towards the mystery of salvation in Christ, as Pannenberg argues, it follows that the files on the case of the recognition of the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church by the Protestant churches must be reopened.
A similar ecumenical thrust can be found in Pannenberg's discussion of church leadership. Church leadership in all its forms is in his view rooted in the notion of apostolic leadership, which is called to serve the unity of the church. Since unity is for Pannenberg the first and foremost of the essential attributes of the church, he attempts to correlate different levels of leadership with different levels of church unity, from the local church to the worldwide church. It is consistent with this approach that Pannenberg's reflections conclude with a call for the recognition of the historic function of the bishop of Rome to act as the representative for the whole of Christianity. However, this is for Pannenberg not to be justified by appealing to divine right. It is a matter of historic authority.
The doctrine of election is according to Pannenberg the link between ecclesiology and eschatology. For him, the biblical image of the "people of God" is the central term of the doctrine of election. It is systematically displaced, he finds, if it is employed only in the context of the church. The notion of the people of God helps to see election in its concrete historical circumstances as God's call to particular people to be the church and so to be an anticipatory representation of the universal character of God's will of salvation for the whole of humankind. Pannenberg sees this mediation of particularity and universality as the basis for a comprehensive theology of history which attempts to develop a theological interpretation of church history.
The Systematic Theology concludes with a discussion on "the perfection of creation in the Kingdom of God." The Kingdom of God is, first of all, the consummation of the community of humankind, and this, radically conceived, includes the resurrection of the dead. Secondly, it is the end of history which in the context of Christian faith cannot mean its abolition and transition into nothingness, but can only mean the inclusion of history in God's eternity. Therefore, the Kingdom of God is, thirdly, the entering of eternity into time. This last aspect has central significance for Pannenberg: everything in eschatology revolves around the relationship of time and eternity. If eternity is understood as the future of perfection of everything, then this future is present in the processes occurring in time as the aim of these processes. Everything that occurs and perishes in time, Pannenberg claims, is preserved in God's eternity, which includes all temporal events. The identity of every created being is preserved by their being included into God's eternity and it is reconstituted after their death in the resurrection.
The metaphor of the "Last Judgment" in Pannenberg's interpretation expresses that the participation of created beings in God's eternity requires their radical transformation. The point of divine judgment is therefore not the annihilation of the world but its purification by the light of God's glory to enable its participation in God's eternal life.
Eschatology is also the place in the systematic structure of a Christian theology where the question of theodicy must be answered.12 Pannenberg emphasizes with
Hegel that all theoretical attempts at offering justification of God in view of the evil in the world remain pointless unless there is a real history of reconciliation, of the overcoming of evil by the rule of God. This history of reconciliation culminates in the eschatological perfection of creation. However, the ultimate perfection of creation is for Pannenberg already present in the time of creation, because the whole of the divine economy reflects the self-prevenience of the future of God in the time of creation.
In this way divine love is seen by Pannenberg as the ground for the distinction of the immanent and the economic trinity and the foundation of their unity. God's love goes beyond the immanent trinitarian life to recreate, to reconcile, and to bring the created world to perfection. Conversely, in the economy of salvation, the created world is taken beyond itself in order to be included in the unity of God's own trinitarian life. The distinction and the unity of the immanent and the economic Trinity, which will be fully disclosed in the eschaton, is therefore for Pannenberg the heartbeat of divine love, the ground and destiny of the created world.
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