Maybe Evangelicals are more like Pannenberg and Progressives are more like Moltmann

There’s a tendency in human thinking to assume that knowledge tends toward a binary: either right or wrong, good or bad, left or right, we are helping or we are hurting, us versus them. There can be nuances within broad positions, but it seems popular to assume the positions themselves cannot share the stage of truth.  Some may admit to the possibility of a third position, taking good points from each side and forming a synthesis that then gets at what is best.

However, these aren’t necessarily the only options, and indeed in both theology and science we find a fair bit more complexity, even to the point of approaching paradox. Jesus is not either God or man, nor is he (in orthodox terms) a curious synthesis of both God and man.  He is fully God and fully man.  Light is not either particle or wave, nor is it (in scientific terms) a curious middle ground between particle and wave. It is both particle and wave.  It’s an odd assertion, but true nevertheless.

True with light and maybe true with politics. As crazy as that latter point might sound, it really seems true when I think about the different ways Pannenberg and Moltmann approached political theology. Moltmann is more well known, so I’m going to focus now on Pannenberg.

Wolfhart Pannenberg burst onto the scene in 1961 (in a way that theologians were able to burst onto scenes in the mid-twentieth century that they’re not in our era) with his contribution to a collection of essays on the revelation of history. That little volume, of which fifty-eight pages of the hundred-eighty-page book were written by Pannenberg, was a significant foray in the battle for a post-Barthian theology.

History was knowable and history was the domain of God’s revelation, an indirect revelation in which the activities of God displayed his own character and oriented humanity toward transformation. This revelation is on its way to the eschaton, and yet this revelation was not human initiatives nor dependent on a linear, progressive view of time. It was God’s revelation from the future, that expressed God’s being through God’s rule, an inbreaking of the Kingdom of God that interacted and reorients our experience of life, the universe, and everything.

This Kingdom is, by definition, political, because that’s what kingdoms are.

Later, amidst his sometimes shockingly prolific work, he took a sustained interest in theological anthropology. This interest was not new, but the way he poured into it was unique among theologians. His Anthropology in Theological Perspective is a tour de force of engaging theology and the social sciences, illustrating Pannenberg’s goal of thoroughly public theology that draws deeply from a broad range of writing and unapologetically Christian perspective that assumes that theology is a contributing partner to every discussion.

God made the world, after all, and truth is thus oriented by that reality. At this time, that’s more of a hypothesis in a sustained research program, though one that defined Pannenberg’s whole theological project.  In that major text, as well as throughout many other smaller texts that explore shared themes, Pannenberg included discussions about politics and social responsibilities.

Yet, for the most part, while his contemporary and theological complement, Moltmann, needs no preface to discussing his political theology, Pannenberg tends to be almost entirely left out of that category.

There’s two reasons for this. The first is that Pannenberg was particularly anti-Marxist in an age in which Marxism was becoming dominant in academic analysis and definitive in political theologies in particular.  He was a supporter of Ronald Reagan and saw both capitalism and America as positives.

In his autobiography, Moltmann puts it this way: “We both, each in his own way, tried to do theology in the light of Christ’s resurrection. But although my idea of promise and his idea of anticipation show theoretical correspondences, the practical consequences we drew in politics could unfortunately be completely contrary to each other.” (106)

The second reason Pannenberg has been left out is that Pannenberg is not particularly focused on the practical engagement of theology in specific ways. That is, his focus is more on coherent orthodoxy than orthopraxy.  Political theology in our era tends to be less concerned about theory and more about what we should do in light of our theological assumptions and mandates.  It may be reflection still, but it is reflection on praxis.

In light of these issues, that Pannenberg tended to be a supporter of the kinds of Anglo-European politicians that political theologians were increasingly reviling and that his theology isn’t oriented toward specific social actions, his contributions became increasingly left out of conversations and texts.

Add to this that in his later career he became less interested in the social sciences and more interested in dialogue with the so-called hard sciences it is not surprising that his contributions to political theology are not well-discussed.

Pannenberg was far from silenced on the topic of politics. He contributed in both German and English publications, with his American voice taking shape especially in the pages of the journal First Things, which shared Pannenberg’s intellectual fervor and conservative perspective.

All this to say, Pannenberg was both a theological heavyweight, especially on the topics related to anthropology, and a political conservative. These were cohesive positions for him. That is why coming to terms with his thinking is very helpful for understanding how someone like Franklin Graham can argue his politics is not only consistent with but also reflective of his long standing Christian commitments to both evangelism and social action around the world.

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s approach to history might be called Hegelian influenced, but it is far from being Hegelian in substance. Rather than being an idealist about human progress, Pannenberg is better considered a historical realist. His well-developed hamartiology is at the root of his anthropology, and defines sin as being misplaced identity, finding meaning and value in that which is not God.

God’s revelation in history orients humanity to finding their identity in God once more. That is the hope for the world, and it is expressed in the love God has for each particular person.  The priority is always on the freedom of the particular to find oneself again within the orienting presence of the divine, and in this to no longer be captive to egocentric impulses to define their self or assert their self over against others, but rather to live in exocentric freedom with others, which is the orientation of the Kingdom of God.

Humanity is made open to the world, rather than closed off to it and to others, and this requires the element of freedom to be maintained. The historic tendency is for rulers or systems to attempt to dominate social context, and in this to define meaning for each person and manipulate their needs.

As the manipulator influences the consciousness of meaning, the result is a humanity cut off from its true self and instead locked into temporal assumptions about human meaning that always depersonalizes and misdirects a person away from their true self.

The one who controls the social narrative controls the orientation of the systems in the environment and that is why, as Pannenberg puts it in his book The Church (19) “the model of human community which the Christian church is to represent dare not be indebted to human lordship for its unity, but only to the lordship of God himself.”

Pannenberg’s strong emphasis on human freedom requires orienting sociality in God, as only God provides the orienting substance that can be sustained through eternity.  This non-idealism leads to his critique of Marxism, which he argues begins with a distinct anthropology and so utilizing Marxism can not be excused simply by ignoring its atheistic elements.

In other words, it’s not the perspective on God that is Pannenberg’s main problem with Marxism, it is its perspective on humanity, which he argued assumed a narrow perspective on human life and meaning that also, by definition, excluded finding holistic meaning in God’s identity.

Instead of seeing politics, and human thriving, through the lens of Marxist anthropology, Pannenberg emphasizes a version of human life in which sociality is best expressed through particularity.

A person who has been transformed by God moves out of the egocentric bluster and into an exocentric experience of life, in which one is free to be who they have been made to be and, in this, being expressive in participating with the freedom of others. Such a situation is best enacted in the context where a thoroughly Christian anthropology is given space to be developed in its wide diversity and expressed through immediate relationships (which create a web of interconnectivity across social boundaries)

Thus, Pannenberg also has a distinct understanding of what freedom entails. It is not a free-for-all of justifying sin-drenched distractions. Nor is it simply a fetishization of individualism, though Pannenberg’s defense of private property has raised that charge.  Instead, it is important to protect freedom of each person so they can express their freedom in the lordship of Christ, not the lordship of a system or government.

Thus, Pannenberg supported conservative politics as he saw that system as de-emphasizing social control over people and maximizing possibilities of expression, within which those who were oriented in Christ could then be most free to express this life in holistic ways.  It is the transformative identity of Christ in a transformed people that call out a new pattern of free mutuality, substantive reciprocity and recognition of one another as fully formed people.

This expression is political as it involves the whole experience of life together, but it is not established on false claims of meaning that can come from bureaucratic definitions or governmental allegiances.  It is an expression of the Kingdom of God at work among us, a proleptic experience of that which can only be fully realized in the eschaton.

In this, we can see Pannenberg’s emphasis on theology from below taking on an eschatological orientation.  Rather than seeing social change as demanding revolution or authoritarian demands, Pannenberg is strongly anti-authoritarian for the sake of the Kingdom.

The Kingdom works in the midst of a transformed people who live transformed lives in the power of the Spirit. It is “theocentric from below” in approach, idealizing God’s intervention and revelation among particular people and contexts, rather than “anthrocentric from above,” which generalizes human society and attempts to enforce patterns of resolution onto people.

Attempts to impose an ideology from above results in continued identity distortion and eventual social conflict, even if in the short term there are immediate solutions. He points to the historical evidence of communist countries, and how their idealistic rhetoric does not result in social equality but devolves into authoritarian and bureaucratic oppression.  In emphasizing a collective humanity, it dehumanizes particular people as part of the process, allowing for

The Kingdom participates with the Spirit who works through history, not primarily through a “World-Historical” figure but in the midst of the infinite complexity of particular beings, who finding their identity in Christ live out the Kingdom in manifold ways. Thus it is more like a fractal working from the inside, which insists on genuine conversion to the identity of Christ for a new way of life in the midst of the world.

This is not as dramatic nor as immediate a result as happens through top-down implementation whether through political parties or, in extreme cases, revolution. The argument is that it is, however, more thorough and resistant to false promises or corrupted participants.

In many ways it reflects the political theology of the ante-Nicene church, rather than the post-Constantinian church that sought quicker change of both theology and practices through government-enforced mandates.

This slow-change may seem stifling and ineffective, however, as church historian Alan Kreider recently put it, this emphasis on transformation from below was a “patient ferment” in the society that led to substantive lasting changes in the long term.


I wrote the above about 4 years ago as part of an invited series on theologians and their political theology. I’m reposting it with these thoughts because of a little conversation I was having on Twitter.

This isn’t to argue for, let alone defend, any specific political solution we’re faced with these days. More it is to suggest that underlying the media-driven reductionism of different demographics actually misses a key issue in political theology.

There’s not a binary in which two sides are being taken in a shared understanding of Christian calling, rather there’s a distinctly different underlying methodology at work which can confuse even the most esteemed academics. Those who only see one kind of goal of politics and only see solutions moving through this, want to deride the other side for making the wrong choice or ignoring the broader mandate. Meanwhile, the other side derides the former for its own political blindness to what are seen as a more narrow range of particularly politically charged issues.

Both sides charge the other with being non-Christian, hating Jesus, and maybe in league with the devil.

This all goes to exactly why CS Lewis so sharply protested a particular “Christian” party in the mid-20th century. There can be shared goals and distinctly different solutions proposed.  More, understanding how Pannenberg and Moltmann could share so much in common and yet come to very different political positions is a reminder for us all that our closest compatriots in the Gospel may be quite far away from us politically.

I know this has been clear to me. I have a lot more in common with some people I disagree with politically than many of those who might share my political leanings.  Probably why I’m not quick to betray my Evangelical or Progressive brethren in order to gain points in popular media or the academy.

To say that one side hates life or hates the poor or hates choice is really just giving into the kind of partisan rhetoric that the political system pushes on us to make us think it is the only solution. It’s only interested in its own perpetuation and wants us to ignore that in places where any side has power there, oddly, still remains the same problems.

This is precisely the choice Jesus refused to make, not choosing the Pharisees, or the Romans, or the Zealots.  He had his own way that wasn’t going to gain anything by offering his allegiance to them.

Know that I’m writing this now because I’m used to the Christian Right falling into this trap but now see those I respect on the other side mirroring the same kind of rhetoric they said they used to dislike.

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