God’s Presence in History

by Wolfhart Pannenberg

Dr. Pannenberg teaches theology at the University of Munich, West Germany.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 11, 1981, pp. 260-263. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


There is no direct conceptual approach to God, or from God to human reality, but God’s presence is hidden in the particulars of history.

Anyone engaged in the systematic construction of ideas should react with puzzlement to an invitation to report on the change of his or her mind. As with any other human being, it is only natural that such change occurs. But in the constructive thought of a systematic thinker, admission of change seems to indicate an acknowledgment of inadequacy and error.. Therefore, it often occurs that such persons overestimate the degree of continuity in their own thought -- and the reader may find me guilty of a similar fault.

On the other hand, even systematic human thought develops in time and can never be complete. An awareness of this fact and of the limitations it entails is itself a condition of the credibility of any system of ideas, and that may finally be so because time belongs to the essence of truth and of reality itself.

Nevertheless, when I search my memories and other evidence, I find it difficult to discern any fundamental change in my theological perspective since 1959, when I published an article on "Redemptive Event and History." It was the first public evidence of the project that had gradually taken shape in my mind during the preceding years: to work out on the level of systematic theology the ancient Israelitic view of reality as a history of God’s interaction with his creation, as I had internalized it from the exegesis of my teacher Gerhard von Rad, after I had discovered how to extend it to the New Testament by way of Jewish eschatology and its developments in Jesus’ message and history. When I began to understand that one should not set history and eschatology, nor (therefore) history and God, in opposition to one another, the general direction of my further thought was determined.

And yet, it never occurred to me simply to draw conclusions from such a premise. Rather, I found myself attracted to the searching study of the actual world of human experience and of the Christian tradition in the confident expectation of retrieving there the evidence of God’s action that I assumed to be constitutive of all finite reality. Thus there were many occasions for changes of opinion in later years, but these changes were not in the least comparable to those that had occurred before.

To Probe the Christian Tradition

The most incisive change of mind happened when I became a Christian. Since I had not enjoyed the privilege of being raised in a Christian family, commitment to the study of Christian theology could not come about by a smooth and imperceptible process. Nor did it follow from a unique experience of conversion. Rather, it was the result of a series of experiences.

The single most important experience occurred in early January 1945, when I was 16 years old. On a lonely two-hour walk home from my piano lesson, seeing an otherwise ordinary sunset, I was suddenly flooded by light and absorbed in a sea of light which, although it did not extinguish the humble awareness of my finite existence, overflowed the barriers that normally separate us from the surrounding world. Several months earlier I had narrowly escaped an American bombardment at Berlin; a few weeks later my family would have to leave our East German home because of the Russian offensive. I did not know at the time that January 6 was the day of Epiphany, nor did I realize that in that moment Jesus Christ had claimed my life as a witness to the transfiguration of this world in the illuminating power and judgment of his glory. But there began a period of craving to understand the meaning of life, and since philosophy did not seem to offer the ultimate answers to such a quest, I finally decided to probe the Christian tradition more seriously than I had considered worthwhile before.

When I began to study theology as well as philosophy at Berlin in 1947, I was not yet certain that I wanted to become a theologian rather than a philosopher. But I was impressed by the Barthians’ emphasis on the sovereignty of God in his revelation, and it seemed self-evident to me that God was to be conceived of as utterly sublime and majestic if there was any God at all, and when I came to Basel in 1950 to study under Karl Barth himself, I was almost convinced of the appropriateness of his approach.

On the other hand, I was troubled by the dualism involved in his revelational positivism. It seemed to me that the truly sovereign God could not be regarded as absent or superfluous in ordinary human experience and philosophical reflection, but that every single reality should prove incomprehensible (at least in its depth) without recourse to God, if he actually was the Creator of the world as Barth thought him to be. Increasingly it seemed to me inconsistent with that assumption that Barth presented God’s revelation as if God had entered a foreign country instead of "his home," as the Gospel of John tells us (1:11). Therefore, I felt that my philosophy and theology should not be permitted to separate, but that within their unity it should be possible to affirm the awe-inspiring otherness of God even more uncompromisingly than Barth had done, since he returned to reasoning by analogy.

After I transferred to Heidelberg to complete my studies, my inclination to combine philosophy and theology was greatly encouraged by closer acquaintance with patristic thought. At the same time I came to realize that history presents that aspect of the world of our experience which, according to Jewish and Christian faith, reveals God’s presence in his creation. In this discovery, I owed much to Karl Löwith’s lectures on the theological rootage of modern philosophies of history as well as to Gerhard von Rad’s interpretation of the Old Testament.

Turning Point

It was a decisive turning point. Until that late period in my theological studies I had been unable to make much sense of biblical exegesis. The subject matter that fascinated me was the reality of God and the consequences to be derived from the affirmation of that reality in philosophy and in dogmatics. But now historical experience, tradition and critical exegesis, together with philosophical and theological reflection on their content and implications, became the privileged medium to discuss the reality of God. That meant that there is no direct conceptual approach to God, nor from God to human reality, by analogical reasoning, but God’s presence is hidden in the particulars of history. In the regular meetings of a circle of friends at Heidelberg, after almost ten years of discussions, we finally arrived at the conclusion that even God’s revelation takes place in history and that precisely the biblical writings suggest this solution of the key problem of fundamental theology.

Before that conclusion could be reached, a new way of relating the person and history of Jesus to the Old Testament’s theology of history was required. That approach was found in apocalyptic thought, then commonly despised; further in a reassessment of the terminology related to "revelation" and of its history; and finally in an integration of all that with the problems of the philosophy of history. A new systematic category had to be explored (prolepsis) in order to describe the place of Jesus’ history and especially of his resurrection within this framework, and in the end it became discernible that it is in history itself that divine revelation takes place, and not in some strange Word arriving from some alien place and cutting across the fabric of history.

This result, of course, could not fail to arouse violent and malign reactions from the leading schools of the day, Bultmannians as well as Barthians. It was as if we had committed a sacrilege. We were naïve enough then not to have expected any such reaction, but rather some enthusiastic acclamation.

Other Fields of Learning

Since that time, change and development have occurred on a different scale. The obligation of covering the entire field of systematic theology in my academic lectures brought to my attention not only new facts and perspectives, but also complete fields of learning that I had scarcely noticed before. They helped to put my theological project in a broader and more differentiated context. Thus I started to work out its implications for anthropology in an attempt to integrate the different disciplines of secular anthropology into a Christian interpretation of human nature and destiny that, in the context of contemporary thought, seemed to present the inevitable starting point for any attempt at theological reconstruction.

This concern alarmed some of my friends, as it seemed to indicate a shift in my general outlook, and in some way there was indeed a new picture emerging. But it was more a matter of methodological considerations in developing a systematic theology, together with explicit discussion of the implications involved in a program of "revelation as history." These implications being philosophical as well as theological in character, I spent considerable time and energy in exploring what the new concept of revelation meant to the problems of truth and knowledge in general as well as to the problems of a general theory of being and reality that, among other things, had to take account of the importance of the natural sciences in any serious concept of reality.

When I finally postponed the project of a comprehensive theological interpretation of human reason in order to confine myself to a particular section of it -- the philosophy of science with special attention to the place of theology -- there were again comments to the effect that a complete shift in my theological position had occurred. Many friends asked whether I could still identify with the position of my book Jesus -- God and Man, the most obvious development and exposition of the program of Revelation as History. In my own mind, there was no question. I simply felt the obligation of working my way through those other regions in order to substantiate my claims concerning history, and especially that of Jesus as God’s revelation.

Ecumenism and Universalism

Nevertheless, there were also real changes in the design itself. In the first place, I should mention the ecumenical experience. Since my early days as assistant at my teacher Edmund Schlink’s Ecumenical Institute at Heidelberg and afterward during many years of regular ecumenical discussions, especially with Roman Catholic theologians, I became increasingly aware that Christian theology today should not limit itself to some narrowly defined confessional loyalty inherited from the past but should help to build the foundations of a reunited, if to some degree pluralistic, Christian church that should become more and more visible within the foreseeable future. This vision seems to match other universalistic aspects of the Christian tradition, especially its claim to universal reason, and it constitutes the most important practical application of my theological project.

Second, strong claims in some of my earlier statements concerning the universal intelligibility of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ have been replaced by more restrained formulas that take more account of the intricacies of human language and belief. Of my original assertions, none encountered more uncompromising rejection than did my claims concerning the rationality of the Christian faith in God’s revelation. Therefore, I felt obliged to ponder these criticisms with particular care, even if their polemical form made that more difficult than necessary.

What was the element of truth in such criticism? The result of my reflections was not a surrender of my claim to the rationality of faith but a revision of its form. If some of my early assertions sounded a bit triumphalistic, it may have been because of a too naïve way of referring to Scripture as fulfilled in Jesus Christ. As I revised my use of the idea of fulfillment of the Old Testament promises in Jesus Christ, I also developed more scrupulous ways of accounting for the truth-claims of the Christian tradition, including a more critical attitude toward the faith’s tendency to dogmatism. This task also induced me to be more careful in my description of the relation between Christianity and Judaism.

To the degree that there was a change in my attitude, however, it meant an increase in critical rationality, rather than its limitation in order to make room for faith. I could never understand the argument that faith was in danger if it was in agreement with the judgment of true reason. I rather suspect that the real danger for faith lurks in its estrangement from rationality. But precisely the concern for rationality induced me to emphasize the provisional character of the knowledge of faith more than I did in earlier days.

Religious Language

Closely connected with this point is another: my sensitivity developed as to the functions of religious language that are not open to definitive proof or falsification, but nevertheless indicate in symbolic form the presence of the ultimate. Even in my early statements I emphasized that revelational history is always connected with language, and I tried to relate it to the ultimacy of the meaning claimed for a revelational event. Only on that assumption does it seem understandable why later interpretations can miss the meaning inherent in the events themselves. But my view on religious language was too narrow, and I too readily assumed that all religious language was transferred from secular use. Today I think that the religious dimension of human life is one of the irreducible roots of language, and I suspect that quite a few of our words developed from religious origins.

In recent years, the doctrine of God has taken more and more definitive shape in my thought. Whereas in earlier years God to me was the unknown God who came close only in Jesus Christ and could be approached only in him, "from below," but could not be adequately characterized in human language, I increasingly realized that there is other than conceptual language which nevertheless is not noncognitive.

Hence today I feel much more confident to develop a doctrine of God and to treat the subjects of Christian dogmatics in that perspective. That doctrine will be more thoroughly trinitarian than any example I know of. For many years I felt that the doctrine of God constituted the final task of Christian theology, although, of course, everything in it is related to God. Such a doctrine, however, seemed to presuppose a sufficient degree of clarity in many other areas, because talking about God involves everything else. Therefore, the appropriate way to present it will be in the form of a Christian systematic theology.

Religion Outlasts Ideology

I should not close without noting a change in my political attitudes. In my earlier years I had little doubt about not only the moral superiority but also the historical future of the values of the liberal democratic tradition. A little more than 15 years ago, I became considerably less optimistic. The course of the students’ revolution in Europe, especially the unexpected susceptibility to Marxism on the part of many educated youth, made me more keenly aware of the unpredictability of irrational factors still shaping the course of history. In another way the political decline of the West in recent decades suggests similar conclusions.

However, the more insecure the future of a liberal, secular society appears to be, the more confident I feel about the future of religion -- not a future in relation to emancipation and economic and/or political liberation. Much of the enthusiasm in such movements seems to me an unintentional contribution to accelerating the spread of oppressive regimes. But religion in the strict sense of the word can feel more secure today than it has for a long time. It will outlive every ideological regime. And the only serious challenge to Christianity will not be secular society, which is badly in need of religious support in our days, but rival religions.