Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Quest for Ultimate Truth

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 14-21, 1988, pp. 795-798.. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org This article was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


Pannenberg has never wandered from his commitment to the fundamental orientation of the theological task as he sees it, one that enjoys a long, prestigious heritage.

German theology, which has always enjoyed great influence on this side of the Atlantic, has been dominated in the 20th century by Barthian and existentialist approaches. But since the 1960s a quite different project, focusing attention again on the classical quest for ultimate truth in the midst of contemporary, post-Enlightenment culture, has been developing as well. This has come through the work of several theologians, the foremost of whom is Wolfhart Pannenberg. In the 1960s Pannenberg's name was linked to one of the theological fashions of the day, the "theology of hope." But in the intervening decades he has demonstrated that his theological orientation cannot be characterized by a single phrase nor dismissed as a passing fad.

Since the publication of his first essays in the 1950s, Pannenberg's program has become the object of an intense debate spilling beyond the borders of his own country. This debate has afforded him a mixed reception in North America. On the one hand, he has been widely acclaimed as one of the significant theologians of the post-death-of-God era. Nearly every major work in theology written in the past two decades makes at least passing reference to him. And theologians of various persuasions and denominational traditions have accepted some of his emphases. On the other hand, more activist-oriented theologians have written him off as no longer relevant.

Yet Pannenberg must be included among the most creative contemporary thinkers; his program will probably exercise lasting influence on the theological world. As he reaches his 60th birthday this September, Pannenberg's career is entering a crucial phase. He has begun writing his magnum opus, a Systematische Theologie in three volumes. The first installment appeared in German last spring; the other two -are to follow over the next several years. The work delineates his commitment to several highly controversial theological propositions, which form the cutting edge of his work.

First, Pannenberg's central significance lies in his understanding of the nature of theology and the nature of truth to which theology is related. He is attempting to change the course of contemporary theology, to provide a new direction in understanding in order to combat what he perceives to be a widespread privatization of religious belief in general and of theology in particular.

Reminiscent of the classical view, Pannenberg sees theology as a public discipline related to the quest for universal truth. Truth is to be discerned through theological reflection and reconstruction. We must subject theological affirmations to the rigor of critical inquiry into the historical reality on which they are based. Theology must be evaluated on the basis of critical canons, as are the other sciences, which also seek to discover truth. Pannenberg believes that systematic theology should show the Christian faith's truth for all humanity and as it illuminates all human knowledge. As a result, he entertains no difference between apologetics and dogmatics. Thus the unfolding of Christian doctrine in his Systematische Theologie is also a demonstration of his conception of God.

In keeping with this understanding of truth and theology, he criticizes attempts to divide truth into autonomous spheres or to shield the truth in Christian tradition from rational inquiry. This forms the background to his lifelong battle against what he sees as modern Protestant theology's subjectivism. By nature, truth cannot be merely subjective, Pannenberg asserts. Rather, it can only be personal, when it can be claimed at least in principle to be true for all. He boldly maintains that theological assertions are not grasped merely by some blind "decision of faith." Faith is not a way of knowing in addition to reason, he declares, but is grounded in public, historical knowledge. For this reason. theology cannot be private and sheltered.

This aspect of Pannenberg's understanding of truth is balanced by another. In contrast to the classical tradition, he declares that truth is not found in the unchanging essences lying behind the flow of time, but is essentially historical and ultimately eschatological. Until the eschaton, truth will remain provisional and truth claims contestable. Therefore, theology. like all human knowledge, is provisional. It simply cannot pack into formulas the truth of God. The future alone is the focal point of ultimate truth. As a result. all dogmatic statements are hypotheses to be tested for coherence with other knowledge. This, he claims, is in accordance with the Scriptures, which declare that only at the end of history is the deity of God unquestionably open to all-an event. however, that is anticipated in the present.

A second contribution Parmenberg has made to theology lies in the implications he draws from his well-known understanding of God as the power that determines everything. Pannenberg asserts that the deity of God is connected to God's demonstration of lordship over creation. This means that the idea of God. if it corresponds to an actual reality, must be able to illumine not only human existence, but also experience of the world as a whole.

The reality of God remains an open question in the contemporary world, and Parmenberg takes this into his theological understanding. Even the contestability of the divine reality must be grounded in God, he maintains. In perceiving theology as a science, Pannenberg suggests that if God is ultimate truth, then the God hypothesis -- the claim that God is the unity of all reality -- must include within itself the current debate over God's existence. This also places God as the all-inclusive object of theology. Even though Christian dogmatics moves beyond the doctrine of God to include anthropology, creation, Christology, ecclesiology, etc., these belong to that one overarching topic, Pannenberg declares.

This understanding of God is evident in Pannenberg's link between the immanent Trinitv (God's eternal essence) and the economic Trinity (God as active in salvation history). His link arises from a thesis foundational to his development of Christian doctrine: all systematic theology is but the explication of what is implicit in God's own self-disclosure. On the basis of revelation, Pannenberg claims that the Trinity must be treated first, before discussing the unity of God found in the divine attributes. In this way, the doctrine of God is grounded in the divine economy, and the understanding of the immanent Trinity flows from the economic Trinity. Crucial to Pannenberg's development of this theme is ,his concept of self-differentiation. All three Trinitarian persons are mutually dependent on the others, he asserts. Here he offers an alternative to the subordination of the Son and the Spirit to the Father, which he finds detrimental to traditional theology. He perceives this mutual dependency in the process of salvation history and believes full revelation of God's unity will come with the eschatological completion of the divine plan for the world.

Panneberg also makes a significant contribution to anthropology. He proposes that humanity is in a certain sense naturally religious, for the structure of the individual human person and of corporate human life is pervaded by religion.,This is consistent with his view that one can expect to find the mark of the Creator in creation. As created by God, human destiny is to exist in the image of God, a destiny visible in human "openness to the world." This thesis is widely known. Less familiar are two further aspects developed in his systematic theology: his understanding of the intuition of the infinite and his view of religion as the struggle for truth.

Pannenberg's understanding of humanity's basic religious nature builds from Schleiermacher's early thought and from a reinterpretation of Descartes's concept of the infinite. In the background, however, are medieval discussions about what is first known, albeit dimly, to the human mind. Two contemporary concepts illuminate this question. The first is "exocentricism" as employed by 20th-century philosophical anthropology -- one must ground one's identity outside oneself -- but for which Pannenberg finds a foundation in Luther's understanding of faith. The other is Erik Erikson's idea of "basic trust."

Religious awareness, Pannenberg explains, arises out of the rudimentary consciousness of the difference between "I" and "world" found already in the act of trust, which is then augmented by one's presence in a family. As one experiences finitude and temporality in everyday life, an intuition of the infinite develops.

To this notion Pannenberg adds an innovative thesis. Intuition of the infinite does not itself constitute knowledge of God. Rather, gaining explicit knowledge from religious traditions allows one to reflect on the earlier immediate experience and to conclude that therein lay an "unthematized knowledge" of God. In other words, one can conclude that this basic intuition of the infinite relates to the theme of God only by reflecting on the process of religious history.

In this way Pannenberg connects this basic religious phenomenon to the experience of God found in religions, which become aware of the Godhead's activity and essence through the works of creation. As a result Pannenberg views the rivalry of religions as the location of the revelation of truth. Revelation occurs only as God gives Godself to be known, Pannenberg asserts with Barth. But the focal point of this revelation is the historical process. For Pannenberg this history is the history of religions. On the world-historical stage, conflicting truth claims, which are at their core religious, struggle for supremacy. The religion that best illumines all reality will in the end prevail and thereby demonstrate its truth value.

A fifth, significant area is Pannenberg's pneumatology. He rejects the prevalent tendency to reduce the Spirit's role to that of providing explanations for situations in which rational suggestions fail. In its stead, he promotes a much broader and more biblical doctrine that emphasizes the Spirit's all-pervasive, creative presence in creation and human life, climaxing in the new life of the believer. Pannenberg understands spirit as "field," a conception somewhat like the field theory introduced in 19thcentury science, which describes the interaction of material bodies in terms of interlocking networks called forces (e.g., magnetic fields).

This new pneumatology is evident in Pannenberg's doctrine of God. In agreement with the atheistic criticism of Feuerbach and others, he rejects as a mere projection the classical understanding of God as reason and will. The divine essence, Pannenberg maintains, may be better described in terms of the incomprehensible field or spirit, which likewise comes forth as the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.

This same Spirit functions as the principle of the immanence of God in creation and the participation of creation in the divine life. Pannenberg relates the Christian affirmation of the Spirit as the source of life in creation to the biological discovery that life is essentially ecstatic. Every organism lives in an environment that nurtures it. And every organism is oriented by its own drives to move beyond its immediate environment toward the future of itself and its species. This is how creatures participate, in God through the Spirit, he asserts. The Spirit may be understood as the environmental network or, "field" in which and from which creatures live. The Spirit is also the "force" that lifts them above their environment and orients them toward the future. This work of the Spirit ultimately leads people to self-transcendence and forms the basis for the special life in Christ, found beyond oneself in the church.

Christology offers the context for another aspect of Pannenberg's theology. Well known is his emphasis on Jesus as the prolepsis of God's self-disclosure, which ultimately lies at the end of history., Equally familiar is the centrality of the resurrection for Pannenberg's Christology and his emphasis on the historicity of this event. The resurrection of Jesus is God's confirmation of Jesus' appearance and mission. Through it he experienced in the midst of history that eschatological transformation to which humanity is destined.

Not as well known, however, are two other aspects of Pannenberg's systematic-theological Christology that differ from. the approach taken in Jesus: God and Man (Westminster, 1977). That monograph presupposed the reality of God and unfolded solely in terms of a Christology "from below," focusing on Jesus' humanity. Pannenberg finds this approach insufficient for Christology pursued in a systematic-theological context. Assertions concerning God can never be derived from anthropology alone, but must also proceed from the idea of God. Therefore, he proposes that Christology be developed from a specifically Christian anthropology, undertaken with an awareness of the doctrine of God.

Pannenberg's other christological innovation is his reintroduction of the concept of logos, which in Jesus: God and Man he replaced with the idea of revelation as the point of departure for Christology. In the doctrine of creation he forges a link between the logos and the scientific concept of information. This link provides the logos the cosmological function he finds necessary for its use in Christology. He does not relate the logos to traditional physics, which abstracts laws from time. Rather, Pannenberg understands the logos as representing the order of the world as history. Jesus is the logos not as some cosmic abstract principle, but in his human life as Israel's Messiah and as the one who brings the proper relationship of the creature to the Creator.

Pannenberg would replace the traditional Protestant focus on guilt and forgiveness with a sacramental spirituality. This view is the outworking of his understanding of the church as the sign of the future kingdom of God. It serves the ecumenism toward which Pannenberg's theology is directed and which he sees as integral to the hope of humanity in general.

The linchpin of Pannenberg's proposal for an ecumenical sacramental spirituality lies in baptism, for in this rite the believer's identity and existence extra se in Christ are signified and grounded. Yet the central expression of this spirituality is found in the celebration of the Eucharist, which he sees as the proleptic sign of the future fellowship in the kingdom of God, which no political order can fulfill.

Pannenberg's ecumenical theology of the Eucharist seeks to include the concerns of all major Christian traditions. Integral to it are both an emphasis on the real presence of the risen Lord, reflecting the concern of the Lutheran and Roman Catholic traditions, and on widening the rite beyond the elements themselves to encompass the entire celebration and the Spirit's crucial role in it, in keeping with the Orthodox and Reformed positions. He likewise advocates understanding the role of clergy as representing the unity of the church. All of this is directed to overcoming the major stumbling blocks to church unity. Unity is crucial, Pannenberg maintains, if the church is to exercise a positive influence in secular society.

The final contribution of Pannenberg's program is its eschatological orientation, for his entire systematic theology focuses on the eschaton, and thereby on hope. He understands the kingdom of God as the glory of the Trinity demonstrated in God's rulership over creation. He does not view it in terms of an ethical community, as does much of 19th-century theology, but in accordance with the exe2etical discoveries of the 20th century, which find the source of this term in the apocalyptic movement and the teachings of Jesus. The biblical message of the kingdom is eschatological in orientation, for it proclaims God's ultimate lordship over creation, which lordship has already broken into history in the appearance of Jesus. En route to the eschaton, the Christian community lives in hopeful expectation of the final consummation of the lordship of God over the entire world. Only then will the glory and reality of the triune God be fully demonstrated.

This theme of hope, like the other aspects of Pannenberg's theology, leads back to the center of his theology. As a public discipline. theology's purpose is to give a "rational account of the truth of faith," as Pannenberg stated in his essay "Faith and Reason" (Basic Questions in Theology, Volume 11 [Fortress, 197 11, pp. 52-53). Being oriented to a "rational accounting" is foundational to the mandate of the church itself, as he understands it. As a people of hope whose eyes are directed to the eschatological consummation in the kingdom of God, the Christian community dare not retreat into a privatized ghetto of individual or familial piety. Rather, it is called to remain in the world, where the struggle for truth occurs, and there to engage in the theological task. This is Pannenberg's calling.

In the future as in the past, Pannenberg's program will no doubt be criticized from all directions of the theological spectrum. Some may continue to charge him with being a fundamentalist, a rationalist, a Hegelian, a liberal, or whatever else epitomizes their own greatest theological opponent. To dismiss him, however, would be a disservice. Pannenberg has never wandered from his commitment to the fundamental orientation of the theological task as he sees it, one that enjoys a long, prestigious heritage. His thought represents a significant contemporary expression of the classical understanding of theology as the reasonable demonstration of the Christian truth-claim and the Christian conception of God. As such, it entails both in its entirety and in its various parts an important challenge to theology today.