Pannenberg (1928-2014)

I heard today that Pannenberg has died.  He lived a long life, a full life, a life that most people have never heard about. Even still, so many who have never heard of him have been affected by his work because of the radical shifts he helped to bring in the 1960s and beyond.

When I was in seminary, a theology professor noted that one of the better ways to become proficient in the field was to become familiar with either Jurgen Moltmann or Wolfhart Pannenberg.  Why?  Because they offered sweeping discussions of the topics, their knowledge masterful as they develop their themes, so by getting to know their works, a person would become familiar with the theological conversation.  Another reason was because they came of theological age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when theology was dominated, and seemingly concluded, by the works of Karl Barth.  Many thought, and some still do, that Barth said all there was needing to be said.

Yet, fissures were seen.  Questions were asked. Both Moltmann and Pannenberg knew Barth’s theology as well as any of their age, and with that they realized there were still more questions, questions arising from much of the events of the mid-20th century and the failure of Modern scholarship in response.  Moltmann was considered by many to be Barth’s successor in the field of theology, but his early turns were questioned, and still are.

In an essay on Karl Barth, Moltmann wrote: “One does not honor a teacher by regurgitating his thoughts and quoting his texts or even blaming him for his thoughts so as to be able to get them from him again with greater authority. One honors a teacher by independently attempting to recognize and express an issue with which he too was concerned.”[1]

Like Moltmann, Pannenberg honored his teacher by questioning, though he noted that Barth himself did not like being questioned by his students. Pannenberg had gone to Basel to study with Barth, asked too many questions it seems, and departed to study Barth’s work from afar.

These two scholars, students of Barth’s theology, worked together for a while from 1958-1961 at a small seminary in Wuppertal, where they were given immense creative freedom to explore the bounds of Christian theology.  They  both realized the way forward in Christian discussions was through the shared themes of eschatology and hope.1190

Eschatology is often understood in terms of “end-times,” but that is a very simplistic (and not very biblical) way of understanding it.  Eschatology might better be understood as relating to God’s perspective, not in time, not committed to linear experience of past, present, future.  That which is ahead of us in our experience of time is not so for God. The future, in fact, is already reality, and this future invades our present and transforms our past.  We have hope because the God who promises is the God who fulfills, as God himself is making known in our experiences that which is already fully realized in his perspective.

Hope is transformative. For Pannenberg, this affects our perspective on history.  History had become suspect and unusable for revelation by many who sought to talk about God.  Pannenberg argued that God premised his self-revelation by what he did, and we know who God is by his work in our experience of time.

We have hope because the God who promised and fulfilled his promises, promises still and will fulfill what he promises. Indeed this is a condition of his own identity, he is revealed as God by his fulfillment of his will.  So, in promising us salvation, we can hope with a hope that is more than about us, it is about God’s being true to himself.

The moments of history that point to God’s ultimate fulfillment were seen as proleptic, anticipating moments that carry a part of the future whole.  History, then, is both knowable and a significant element of God’s continuing work.  Revelation in history is a revelation of hope, hope that God is exocentric, always orienting in love towards others, within the Trinity and in his redemption of the world. We are to be free in this as well, no longer securing our own ego but living in light of the fullness of God’s promises that free us to be whole people with and for others.

In my PhD studies, I took my professor’s advice seriously, which was good because he was now my doctoral advisor. I read and became proficient in the theology of both Moltmann and Pannenberg, who shared common themes but approached them with different methods and often with different practical conclusions, often falling on different sides in political questions. “Nevertheless,” Moltmann wrote in his 2008 autobiography, “in a strange way our ‘old ties’ have remained at a deeper level.”

Their friendship is a model, to be sure, to those of us in the church whose different experiences, priorities, and passions lead them to different votes, yet often based on a shared faith. We let politics divide rather than awaken a substantive conversation based on valuing each other.  They valued each other and together contributed a holistic path of theology for the late 20th century and into our present.

They opened my eyes to the work of the Spirit, the third Person, the “field of force,” who awakens our perceptions of God’s wide work and demands we leave behind narrow cultural boundaries in seeking the work of this Spirit everywhere, the voices of many and the transformed lives taking on many tongues and expressions in a global chorus.


Pannenberg argued that theology was not a private conversation as the resurrected Christ was not resurrected in spiritual isolation, but died in public and was raised in reality.  The Creator God was lord of all, and so theology must also embrace all that is known in conversation. That makes theology a public enterprise.

I’ve heard it said that Pannenberg knew everything about everything, a seemingly dubious claim unless you’ve tried to read his works, where his depth of knowledge in so many ways is constantly enlightening and intimidating.  While it still may not be accurate to say he knew everything, he was closer than one might expect could ever be possible.pannenberg

He pointed towards a new way of understanding God’s work in the past, a new way of experiencing this work in the present through transformative hope, and a new way of seeing the future as something that defines us. The God who is ahead of us seeks and transforms our realities even now in light of what he is going to do, what he already has done in the future.

For Pannenberg, this future, our future, is now his present. His life’s work now coming to fruition, as he experiences the everything of everything in the presence of God.

Like Pannenberg and Moltmann with Barth, we who seek to press on in the theological conversation are honoring him by taking his questions seriously. Pannenberg was monumental in helping me to recognize and express the issues of our era. Even though I never met him in person and do not always agree with him, he was and is one of my greatest teachers.

Rest in Peace does not sound quite appropriate.  What was proleptic in finite life, you see face to face and know fully. There is rest. Oh, there is certainly peace. But there is so much more.  Celebrate in fellowship, delight in Love, Wolfhart Pannenberg.


[1] Jürgen Moltmann, History and the Triune God: Contributions to Trinitarian Theology (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 125.

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