Pannenberg on Marxism: Insights and Generalizations

by Stanley J. Grenz

Stanley J. Grenz is professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at North American Baptist Seminary, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 30, 1987 pp. 824-826. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


According to Pannenberg, Christians cannot use Marxism as a scientific, sociological tool in the task of understanding the dynamic of oppression in contemporary societies.

Over the past three decades Wolfhart Pannenberg has distinguished himself as a theologian of world renown. The German professor came to prominence in America in the late 1960s in part because of his stalwart commitment to the historical nature of Jesus' resurrection as foundational for theology. He was also hailed as an early proponent of the "future" orientation in theology, which offered fresh insights into the understanding of God. Pannenberg, together with other Europeans such as Jargen Moltmann and Johannes Metz, spoke of God as "the power of the future." This attitude earned their views the perhaps somewhat erroneous labels "theology of hope" or "political theology. "

In recent years, however, Pannenberg has voiced caution concerning one of the offspring of European political theology, South America's liberation theology. In his Taylor Lectures at Yale in 1977, for example, he criticized Gustavo Gutierrez's understanding of liberation. His willingness to speak against this movement has not endeared him to some members of the American theological community, who have become increasingly supportive of liberation theology and increasingly willing to use Marxist categories in criticizing social structures. As a result, Pannenberg's reputation as a progressive theological innovator has in many circles faded, or he has been reevaluated as a neo-conservative. This interesting development has led Gary M. Simpson to ask, "Whither Wolfhart Pannenberg? " (Journal of Religion, January 1987).

Pannenberg has recently explained why he has absented himself from the "Marxist Christian project." In his address "Christianity, Marxisn - Liberation Theology," prepared for his United States tour this past spring, Pannenberg declared his strong opposition to Marxism and by implication any theology that appeals to Marxism for philosophical or sociological insight. By analyzing the Marxist system, he offered the philosophical basis for his cautionary stance toward liberation theology-a position prefigured in his discussion of alienation in Anthropology in 7heological Perspective (Westminster, 1985). His criticism did not focus directly on liberation theology itself, but on the philosophical Marxism it employs as a sociological tool.

Pannenberg's opposition to Marxist thought is not surprising, given his own European experience. During his life he has been exposed to various negative features of Marxism-Leninism. He spent his youth in a province of eastern Germany, which at the end of World War II the invading Russian forces made part of Poland. This experience afforded him firsthand knowledge of the Stalinist Marxism exported to post-World War II eastern Europe. His early student years were spent at the Free University of Berlin, established in the western sector of the city when the older city university fell under communist control. He later observed what he considered the institution's ironic shift toward Marxism. More recently, as a professor in Munich, Pannenberg has observed the power tactics of Marxist student groups who have bullied their way into university classrooms and sought to intimidate those professors who refuse to allow them to take over class sessions. As a result of these factors, Pannenberg finds Marxism to be the archenemy of the open, liberal, tolerant society he advocates.

Pannenberg contends that there are two basic reasons why Christians cannot use Marxism as a scientific, sociological tool in the task of understanding the dynamic of oppression in contemporary societies. First, building on the work of the Polish philosopher Adam Schaff and the Swiss theologian Fritz Lieb, Pannenberg; declared that Marxism harbors a flawed understanding of the person, an understanding that is irreconcilable with Christianity. Marxism declares the person to be a function of society. Each individual is the product of social interaction and therefore thoroughly dependent on social context. This idea gives rise to the Marxist rejection of religion. The religious claim that each person is endowed with dignity from his or her relation to God alienates the person from his or her true nature. To the Marxist, therefore, the church's existence testifies to the continuing presence of alienation in the social system, an alienation that ought to vanish after the socialist revolution.

That Pannenberg himself understands the social context's significant role in the development of the person is evidenced in his Anthropology. However, he concluded in his recent lecture that from the perspective of Christian personalism, it is actually the Marxist proposal that results in alienation. By suggesting that the individual is exclusively social, Marx alienates the individual "from the constitutive center of his or her human life, i.e., from God." In so doing Marxism deprives persons of autonomy and human dignity.

Further, the Marxist understanding of human nature views social history as the process of the human species' selfcreation. Christianity sees in this proposal a disastrous attempt to emancipate humanity from divine providence by setting the creation above the Creator. This Marxist proposal is too optimistic concerning human nature, for it fails to recognize the problem of sin as pride.

According to Pannenberg, this atheistic orientation "is not an accidental element in Marxist thought," but is intimately connected with the anthropology underlying its social theory. For this reason one cannot "use Marxist economic descriptions without buying their atheist implications. "

Pannenberg's assertion, of course, runs directly counter to the position of liberation theologians. They claim that they can employ Marxist categories to diagnose their nations' sociopolitical order without giving up their Christian commitment. But Pannenberg points out that Christians who use Marxist categories to appraise contemporary societies must address these difficulties in the Marxist philosophical anthropology. The theologian must always be on guard against unholy alliances with philosophical systems. There are signs that some theologians have already begun this reevaluation. J. Emmette Weir, for example, has cited Juan Luis Segundo's criticism of the social ineffectiveness of the Marxist concept of religion ("The Bible and Marx", Scottish Journal of Theology, August 1982) and has also noted that current exponents of liberation theology have shifted away from dependence on Marx- ("Liberation Theology Comes of Age," Expository Times, October 1986).

Pannenberg's second point, although not as significant theologically and philosophically as the first, is also formidable. He claims that as an economic theory Marxism is an unscientific oversimplification of complex realities. Contrary to Marx's theory, labor is not the only source of economic value, especially in the current technological age. On the basis of this observation, Parmenberg asserts that the question of economic and social justice is far more complex than Marxist categories would indicate. Marxism, therefore, is not an ideologically neutral, analytic instrument, as liberation theologians claim. Nor is it scientific, as its historically false prediction of the demise of the middle class has shown.

In spite of its flaws, Marxism, Pannenberg admits, is undeniably appealing to both Western and Third World intellectuals. He maintains that this is probably so because the system imparts moral value to political involvement in the class struggle. But in the end those who engage in this movement "turn out to be victims of the seductive power of an ideology."

Although he is sharply critical of Marxism and any theology that appeals to Marxist categories, Pannenberg is not unconcerned about social justice in Third World countries. In the closing section of his lecture, he affirmed recent Vatican statements on social justice. He also called for involvement in the struggle against "examples of clear injustice" in the world. He admitted that his proposal appears modest compared with "the quest for justice in the full and complete sense of the word." But in its defense he cited Alasdair MacIntyre's conclusion in After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) that no generally accepted concept of justice is available therefore, "even justice can only be provisional this side of the eschatological fullness of the kingdom of God."

In the question-answer session that followed the lecture, Pannenberg called on Christian theologians to follow the lead of the early church fathers and offer a more creative approach to the task of doing theology in the face of the world's injustices than that found in Marxist-oriented liberation theologies.

Marxism is certainly flawed, and its anthropological foundations are inimical to the Christian world view. At the same time, however, the picture has other aspects-to which Pannenberg did not give full due.

First, he seemed to assume too quickly the virtue of the capitalistic system and one of its foundational presuppositions the goodness of private property-over against the Marxist contention that money is one objectivation of human alienation. He appealed to the teaching of Jesus, who, he suggested, decried the idolization of money, but not its function as a medium of exchange. Although Pannenberg is technically correct, both Jesus' attitude toward money and the relationship between the accumulation of money and exploitation are more complex than he admits. There is no indication that Jesus advocated a Marxist-style elimination of money. Yet the Gospels quite obviously indicate that he thought the monied classes oppressed the poor and ought to put their wealth to good use by giving it to those in need. In this sense, then, Jesus did see the possession of wealth itself as a source of injustice and a sign of alienation (cf. Mark 10: 17-25; Luke 6:20-2 1; Luke 19:1-10).

Second, Pannenberg faults the Marxist historical analysis as unscientific, claiming that it has been disproved by historical events: the middle-class has increased, not dissolved, and the predicted socialist revolutions have not occurred. Yet Pannenberg's assumption that these unfulfilled predictions prove the falsehood of the system oversimplifies a complex historical development. In his lecture he failed to outline the important political, sociological and economic factors that account for this "unexpected" turn of events. The capitalism whose demise Marx predicted has survived in part because it was adequately flexible to adapt to changing conditions: it simply co-opted certain crucial aspects of socialism. This is evident,not only in democratic-socialist European countries such as Sweden but in Germany as well, where the working class shares greatly in the wealth produced in the land. In fact, some mix of capitalism and socialism is found in nearly all industrialized nations.

Finally, Pannenberg's analysis was most suspect when he spoke of the Third World situation. He completely rejected Lenin's contention that the industrialized world was saved from breakdown only by exporting its economic contradictions to overseas colonies and later to an economically dependent Third World. Lenin's theory, in spite of Pannenberg's disclaimer, does have some historical credence. Although colonial rule may have cost the European powers more than they gained economically (as has recently been maintained concerning the British experience), colonialism undoubtably had profound sociological and political effects on the industrialized nations.

In some unfortunate remarks Pannenberg laid the responsibility for poverty and human misery in the Third World at the feet of those countries themselves. He claimed, for example, that the acceptance of foreign credit and the activities of international corporations are dependent on the cooperation of the Third World governments. This naive contention fails to acknowledge the clout wielded by large banks and transnational corporations. In contract negotiations, Third World governments often deal with corporations whose incomes are larger than that nation's gross national product. Ruling oligarchies also play significant roles in international dealings. Rich landowning families with links to both government and the military often insure their own gain at the expense of their country's poorer citizens.

In summary, Pannenberg's critique of Marxism arises out of his largely European experience and his interaction as an academician with the writings of Marx, Lenin and other theoreticians. But despite the limitations of this context,

Pannenberg does offer a much-needed cautionary word to those who may become too quickly and uncritically enamored of a system which has significant flaws that are too often overlooked. The question of how Christians can appropriate Marxism is important to the contemporary church. Pannenberg's views are worthy of consideration by those attempting to deal with this question.

We must acknowledge that economic oppression is a global problem requiring global solutions. One dare not too quickly fault those Christians who, while ministering to the poor, are easily attracted to categories they find helpful in understanding their world context, regardless of those categories' sources. Marxism offers these people hope in the midst of despair, a vision of a better era in the future. The vision the poor receive from Marxism is, in a real sense, biblical; the great prophets longed for a day when all people would share in the fruit of the earth.

The biblical vision of the Kingdom of God, however, lies at the center of the proclamation of the church of God. This vision is rightfully the church's message, and not that of those who would not submit to the sovereign King. For this reason, Christians dare not lose sight of this vision, nor become content with partial victories here and there. Rather, the people of God must be drawn by the vision of God's reign into "the quest for justice in the full and complete sense of the word."