An Old/New Theology of History

by Richard Lischer

Richard Lischer is professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School. He is the author of The Preacher King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Word that Moved America (Oxford University Press).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 13, 1974, pp. 288-290. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Pannenberg revives Hegel’s philosophy of history. Hegel’s influence on Pannenberg is explored here. Pannenberg’s theology relies too heavily on a philosophy from which anything can be and has been proved.

Over a decade ago Wolfhart Pannenberg surprised the theological world with what appeared to be a new theology of history. In his contribution to the volume translated under the title Revelation as History and published here (by Macmillan) only in 1968, he insisted that the true revelation of God, as distinguished from mere theophany or verbal commandment, is grasped indirectly via reportage and analysis of history. But Pannenberg did not limit the self-revelation of God to the history of Israel. In his view all history becomes, at least in principle, the bearer of God; he who has eyes to see, let him see. The corollary (or the presupposition?) of this program he enunciated several years later in his book on Christology, translated as JesusGod and Man (Westminster, 1968): The resurrection of Jesus not only provides a preview of mankind’s apotheosis and, as such, a mini-model of world history; it is also verifiable according to the usual canons of historical research.

What is new in Pannenberg? New — and refreshing — is his awareness of the historiographical revolution that has taken place. In face of the many dialectical attempts to avoid the spotlight of history (by dividing it into Historie, Geschichte, Heilsgeschichte, Urgeschichte, Geschichtlichkeit, etc., etc.), Pannenberg takes the unity of history seriously. Buried in his dry-as-dust erudition is the common-sense observation that what has not happened in history cannot legitimately be said to affect my history.

And what is old in Pannenberg? Old — and ultimately damaging — is his revival of Hegel’s philosophy of history. It is Hegel’s influence on Pannenberg I want to explore here.


Hegel read history as a vast philosophical exercise, an exhibition of Spirit’s war with itself for absolute consciousness, and ultimately as the autobiography of God. Today he has found his second wind in a new German theology of God’s developing essence in time. In chiding the historical critics and the subjectivists of his own day (e.g., D. F. Strauss on the one hand and Schleiermacher, his colleague at the University of Berlin, on the other), Hegel assumed responsibility for proving the existence of God and justifying divine providence. His rationalistic approach issued in his caricature of world history in which select civilizations were made regularly to appear and disappear like performers in a variety show. Pannenberg shares both Hegel’s rationalistic approach and his desire to see providence in history and in so doing to prove the deity of the God of Israel. But in him that desire has not been fleshed out by any kind of world-historical demonstration of providence. Hence, when it comes to examining the actual texture of past occurrences, the historical cliches of Hegel have resulted only in the theological truisms of Pannenberg. The program of Pannenberg’s “Dogmatic Theses on the Doctrine of Revelation” can never fully be realized, for Christians trust but do not see God’s authority in history.

At the beginning of The Philosophy of History, Hegel says that the rationality of history “is not a presupposition of study; it is a result which [he adds without apology] happens to be known to myself because I already know the whole.” According to Hegel and Pannenberg, the whole of history is to be interpreted only in terms of its end. Hegel’s famous “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk” is more prosaically rendered in Pannenberg’s Thesis No. II: “Revelation is not comprehended completely in the beginning but at the end of the revealing history.” In both thinkers the “end of history” appears within history as the model for the interpretation of all history. Hegelian history progresses dialectically as nation after nation identifies itself and emerges into fuller self-consciousness via self-differentiation and conflict — processes we know as racism, nationalism and war. Remembering that such flesh-and-bloody realities are but Hegelian explications of Spirit, we agree with what the language-analyst Sir Karl Popper once said: “It was child’s play for [Hegel’s] powerful dialectical methods to draw real physical rabbits out of purely metaphysical silk hats.”

The Hegelian dialectic derives ultimately from the Christian dialectic of death and resurrection. For Pannenberg, Jesus’ resurrection provides an equally comprehensive but less explicit clue to universal history. Pannenberg’s affirmation of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection has about it the earthiness of John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter” (first published in The Christian Century, February 22, 1961, p. 236; later included in Telephone Poles and Other Poems [Knopf, 1963]):

Make no mistake: if He rose at all

it was as His body;

if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse.

the molecules reknit, the amino acids


the Church will fall. . . .

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;

making of the event a parable, a sign

painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.

For Pannenberg, resurrection does not represent a miraculous interruption of nature and history. Only those for whom history is blandly homogenized will say that because resurrections do not happen now, the resurrection of Jesus was a miracle or an intersubjective experience, or else a hoax. Pannenberg rejects all three alternatives. He prefers to call Jesus’ resurrection a unique historical event which, investigated by the usual historical methods, must be accepted like any other event of history: reason sees the fact. Faith, in Pannenberg’s use, awaits the future. Resurrection makes history in the sense that it establishes a goal and an overall meaning for everything that happens. And it answers man’s universal longing for life after death.

Insofar as it is a theology of history, Pannenberg’s theology is burdened with the old Hegelian liabilities. Jürgen Moltmann in his Theology of Hope (Harper & Row, 1967) makes a fine distinction between awaiting the resurrected Christ and awaiting a resurrection like his. In opting for the latter Pannenberg reveals his own tendency to subsume the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus under a more comprehensive reality; namely, revelation. But when an event becomes a model for all reality, its radical uniqueness is endangered. If all history is revelatory, none of it is. The faith which participates in the resurrected Jesus and clings to the promise of his return does no research and creates no philosophy. It is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.


In Hegel’s system the need to see rather than trust, to justify rather than be justified, destroys the uniqueness of creation, fall and redemption. From the simple dialectic of death and resurrection issues a monstrous system which denies the absolute validity of Christ’s death and resurrection and, in the final analysis, cannot explain the absolute authority of Jesus in history. For Hegel, the incarnation effects a speculative unification of Spirit and world, rational and real, theory and practice, while the death of Christ provides the universal expression of Spirit’s self-alienation and, at a different level, makes us conscious of the power of negation in all reality, including God. Thus only the dynamic of his system is absolute; the dialectic of Christ is but an illustrative stage of a greater and more comprehensive truth known only to Hegel.

But when history is understood (after Hegel’s fashion) as the self-revelation of God, the result is a kind of aestheticism which in benign comprehension largely disregards the contours of history — nations, races, people, even the sufferings of individuals. In the light of the Great Plan, these are of little importance, and in any case “they too will pass.” For, in Hegel’s system, evil arises as a metaphysical necessity and is judged not according to its causes and effects in persons but in view of the whole, be it state or world history. “Die Weltgeschichte ist die Weltgericht” ‘The history of the world is the judgment of the world.”

Even the concept of “God” is secondary in Hegel’s philosophy of history, for behind the term “God” Hegel discerns a larger metaphysical truth: a Spirit that does not create ex nihilo but alienates its own being into nature and thence into history; a Spirit that, strictly speaking, loves only itself. The Hegelian Spirit that reveals itself through history is not the Christian God; rather, God serves that Spirit.


“The greatness of Hegel,” said Paul Tillich, “is that he created the categories in terms of which others could attack him.” In his later life Hegel embodied the Protestant and Prussian establishment. But his dialectical method of antagonism and supersession could not logically be laid to rest with Germany’s Prussianism and state church. The leftist Hegelians and, later, the Marxists effectively exploited Hegel’s own method to prove that the old religion and the old politics must go. Pannenberg has shown little sensitivity to the political uses of Hegel. He has separated content, from method and consistently ignored the, revolutionary and ultimately atheistic implications of Hegel’s dialectical method. Indeed, in his Revelation as History piece he explicitly rejects as un-Hegelian that openness to the future which is integral to the dialectical method.

Theology usually draws on philosophy to clarify itself, and sometimes — as in the case of Pannenberg’s proof of God from history — to introduce the unbeliever to the true God. This means that the philosophical trappings of the gospel must carry some contemporary meaning. But Hegel as Hegel has always been unintelligible, and in Pannenberg’s use of him — as a kind of philosophical backdrop — he is even more incoherent. Outside college and university philosophy departments, the only currency Hegel enjoys today is among Marxists (e.g., Herbert Marcuse) and others who use his system to destroy the same truths that Pannenberg would defend. No one seems to have noticed the irony of dialoguing with Marxists on the basis of a God whose essence can be known only in the future. It was that very notion of revelation that Marx condemned as religious alienation.


William Hamilton has called Pannenberg’s assumption that Everyman thirsts for immortality a “religious a priori which no longer applies to secular man, and has accused Pannenberg of creating a neat theology that bypasses real life and ignores real unbelief (metaphysical rabbits from real silk hats). Taking Hamilton’s criticism a step further, I would say that the form and presentation of Pannenberg’s theology rely too heavily on a philosophy from which anything can be and has been proved. The old but astonishingly new proclamation of Christ’s resurrection will make its way in the world without benefit of a Hegelian entourage. The extreme relevance of Pannenberg’s irrelevant Hegelianism lies in its timely recognition of theology’s perennial problem: God’s relationship to history.