Pannenberg on the Trinity

In my continuing series, here’s the second question from my second comprehensive exam on Wolfhart Pannenberg’s theology. Here’s the first part of my answer, I’ll post the second part shortly.

2) What is distinctive about Pannenberg’s doctrine of the Trinity and how does it compare with more traditional approaches?

In introducing his monumental Systematic Theology, Pannenberg wrote that his goal was to produce the most fully Trinitarian theology ever written. This was quite a bold statement, but given the general paucity of integrated Trinitarian theology for much of history, it was not off track. Traditional approaches to theology affirmed the trinity as a core Christian belief but tended to approach the specific topics of theology as separated topics, seeing the Trinity as one topic about God among the many other issues that should be discussed in trying to come to terms with Christian beliefs.

As such, traditional approaches to theology tended to start with the idea of God, theology
proper focusing on the attributes of this one God as determined by a variety of starting points. The attributes of the one God were considered in the light of God’s identity as a unity, and from this unity the elements of threeness were derived. Indeed, how the one God was then separated into three persons became, traditionally, one of the core debates of Christian history, with a wide variety of unacceptable proposals debated in light of the eventual determination of orthodox beliefs of One God in Three Persons.

Pannenberg’s interest in writing a fully Trinitarian theology, however, moves away from beginning with the topic of God as one, and instead argues that through revelation we come to terms with God as threeness, beginning with the trinity and only them moving into conceptions of unity. The Trinity is not a separate topic of study derived from a generalized discussion of the attributes of divinity, that then move into the particular elements of the one God, and only then into the later perceptions as three persons who make up this unity.

Instead, the revelation of God begins with the revelation that God is three. The Trinity is the interpretive framework which begins the discussion of theology, not a separate topic. It is the lens through which every other aspect of revelation must be understood. As such, Panenberg develops his systematic theology always in light of a trinitarian perspective. Every element is subjected to analysis in terms of how each person of the Trinity is revealed in that element. Because the Trinity is not just an element of God, but who God is, each part of theology must be coherent with a full trinitarian perspective in order to be a fully Christian theology.

At the core of Pannenberg’s understanding of God, is God as the all determining reality,who encounters us from the fullness of the future in exocentric relationality. This relationality is not just an element of God’s response to us, this relationality is at the essence of who God is, encompassing love in an infinite scope of self-differentiated reciprocity. The Son and the Father are defined in relationship to one another, to be the Father, there has to be a Son, and vice versa.

The Spirit is the medium of participation in which Father and Son are engaged in an eternal interaction of love and sharing their own identity in full with the other, not being swallowed up by the other but existing in a constant mutuality. God is spirit, and so the term spirit can be understood as a description of God’s essence, but the Spirit is more than just a description of God’s being. The Spirit is included as the third person of the Trinity, a dynamic field of ecstatic being which is the enlivening identity of God and is a unique identity of God’s fullness. Indeed, Pannenberg’s overall pneumatology tends at times to de-personalize the Spirit, using vague impersonal terms like field of force, and embedding the Spirit within the various theological topics rather than treating the Spirit as a separate identity.

There is an Augustinian element of the Spirit being more the bond of love between Father and Son, than a separate person of the Trinity. Such impersonal language might have the tendency to encourage a rhetoric of Trinity while promoting a more function binarian understanding of God’s persons. However, Pannenberg avoids this tendency by insisting on the full personhood of the Spirit, even in light of the often impersonal aspects of the Spirit’s self revelation.

One key element of Pannenberg’s insistence of the Spirit as a contributing person is
his rejection of the filioque clause, which as served to often diminish the identity of the Spirit. By rejecting this, and insisting on the heightened status of the Spirit with the Son in communion with the Father, Pannenberg deftly maintains a Trinitarian theology while proceeding to discuss the Spirit as an empowering force.

Indeed, at the heart of this empowering force is the eternal expression of God’s Trinity as exemplifying diversity within unity, fully exocentric living expressions of a single essence. Pannenberg seeks to avoid committing to the idea of a social trinitarianism, insisting instead that God is one essence. The radical extent of exocentric relationality means that the three persons of the Trinity are wholly united in this one essence, entirely oriented towards each other in a full openness and trust. As this one essence, the three living expressions are in ecstatic relationality that is not closed off, but because they are complete in their own relationality they are able to extend this relationality to other created being, themselves self-differentiated ecstatic expressions of identity.

By extending this relationality outside the Trinity, God might be seen as becoming vulnerable to the distortions of those other identities. However, because God, in threeness, is the only infinitely sustainable identity, this vulnerability does not expose God to disintegration or distortion, but rather provides the avenue through which God’s revelation as Trinity can be seen throughout the vagaries of created time and space.

This expressed revelation of God in mutuality and self-differentiation is then expressed in light of God’s manifold work in this world, a Trinitarian expression of relationality that develops salvation history in light of God’s own relational being. God expresses his rule through the expression of relational restoration, calling a people into covenant to and with himself, opening his own identity up to their understanding and giving them insight into the understanding of their selves and this whole world in light of God’s mutual self-giving.

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