What I’ve been up to…

Sometimes it’s a beautiful thing to not have to feel like updating a blog regularly. Getting lost in reading, in life, in being. Distracted from issues and themes, even the nice sorts of things, that provoke a need to share. I guess I’ve been private these days, reading a lot, a lot of theology.

Reading a lot of Wolfhart Pannenberg. Today was my last class on the theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg. We had to turn in a brief reflection paper on his approach to theology today, with our major research paper due in about a week and a half. So, I might be away for a bit again as I consider the topic of holiness in Pannenberg.

I know. You’re anxious to hear what I come up with.

Well, for now I’ll sate your Pannenbergian appetite with my reflection on his method.

Reflections on Pannenberg’s Theological Method

It is not particularly insightful to note that Wolfhart Pannenberg is among the most important theologians of the last century. While not well-known in wider circles, his influence has radically shaped the study of theology in the second half of the twentieth century, and all indications suggest he will be a major influence in theology during the next fifty years or more. Because of this, taking note of his theological method is particularly worthwhile, not least because a great deal of his own emphasis over the years has been precisely on ideas related to theological method. His contributions have not only been in his conclusions but his approach, his values, his priorities that have steered his voluminous thinking.

This has, of course, been a topic of intense study and conversation for at least forty years, ever since his Revelation as History made shock waves in the theological world, prompting the follow up text from interested scholars titled Theology as History. As such, there can be hardly anything new said about Pannenberg’s theological method. Rather than engage in reflective repetition about the major aspects of his method, my goal in this paper is to make notes of the particular aspects of Pannenberg’s writings which have been enlightening and helpful as I have read, in quite whelming fashion, a significant amount of his writings within a relatively brief amount of time. In this brief reflection on Pannenberg’s method, therefore, I would like to highlight what has been particularly helpful in my study of his works. While a few of these points have been explicitly noted in other places, I have, I believe, picked up various nuances in his method that are not, seemingly, always intentionally highlighted by either him or his more well known assessors such as Grenz or Shults. These nuances, however, are underlying themes that seems to affect how he treats certain subjects, and helps tie together seemingly divergent strands.

Pannenberg is indeed a systematic sort of theologian, taking his bearings with initial forays into particular approaches, exploring and introducing these, then developing them over the course of years. This is most evident in his understanding, and use, of history. This topic he first introduced in the early sixties and then proceeded to engage critics both explicitly and implicitly, forming more developed theology. This approach is, we can say, a kind of research program which can be suitably understood less as assertions of various conclusions, even as they are often argued quite forcefully, and more as proposed theses, subject to examination and scrutiny. These proposed theses, however, are not isolated facts, each pursued as a sort of way to fill a theological closet. Rather, these theses propel Pannenberg in certain directions, inciting study in relevant fields, though not entirely obviously relevant to other theologians.

It can be assumed this building of knowledge upon certain theses is a sort of foundationalism, yet rather than building a structure upon an assumed presupposition of knowledge, Pannenberg is developing a coherent model of knowledge that uses certain theses as starting points and more immediately approachable paths of understanding. He can play loosely both with the various foundations of both experience and with Scripture, allowing for interaction, dialogue, and re-examination of each aspect as different ideas are propelled into the study. This systematic, yet open approach is indeed a form of post-modernism, but not the more popular versions of such that insists upon no foundations and deconstruction. Indeed, Shults is right to fit Pannenberg into a model of postfoundationalism, even as the model must make allowances for Pannenberg’s particular interests and approaches. Pannenberg is his own theologian, forging his own method and way.

A major question in regards to this idea of an early research program introduced then developed is how much Pannenberg changes over the course of forty years of theological contribution. In other words, can we see an “early Panennberg” in contrast to a “later Pannenberg”? In my estimation, while this may be a useful distinction made for most thinkers, Pannenberg seems to have been almost entirely consistent with his major proposals, and while there are certain adjustments and corrections, for the most part a study of his early writings is oftentimes a very efficient way of gaining insight into his later writings. This is the case because as earlier “proposals” that setup the basics of his thought, his earlier writings are generally more approachable introductions to a particular topic and his approach to them. This is not to say that there are not occasional corrections and changes, insisting on an awareness of when Pannenberg wrote a particular piece, but rather that his early writings should be cautiously understood as essential guides to understanding his later thought, and outside of noted change, can be assumed as reflective of his later, more mature, thought. A good way of understanding his development is less in terms of change, correction, and different focus, and more in terms of a “thickening” of thought.

This is an important point to note especially in contemporary study of Pannenberg. It would be easy to see a study of his three-volume Systematic Theology as a sufficient source, compiling the mature arguments of an extended career. Yet, rather than being a complete summary, the Systematic Theology is more of a Pannenberg concentrate, a focused and particularly dense, treatment of more narrow theological topics. It is, in my estimation, authoritative but not comprehensive, serving as a necessary but not sufficient study of his thought. Each particular subject requires a broader study of Pannenberg’s contributions in order to better understand, and often more easily understand, his theology. This is true not only because of the narrow focus, and Pannenberg’s tendency to use the Systematic Theology as a response to often un-noted criticism, but also because of another curious feature within his method that might be worth more examination. There is a certain quality of “once said, always said” in Pannenberg’s work. Unlike some theologians who take a particular stance then re-introduce it from various perspectives and repeat it in various works, Pannenberg has a tendency to assume knowledge of his other works, and does not seem to be motivated to help readers by repeating earlier arguments. If this quality is indeed the case, and I acknowledge it is arguable, this makes for a distinctly different understanding of his broader method and larger contributions. It is indeed a key point in regards to an examination of such works as Christiaan Mostert’s God and the Future.[1]

In this work, Mostert builds his understanding of Pannenberg’s theology based on the idea that in Pannenberg “God’s being is God’s rule,” a point that is most fully made in Pannenberg’s Theology and the Kingdom of God, appears in other earlier works, but makes no substantial contribution to the Systematic Theology. Does Pannenberg’s later apparent disinterest in this rather radical assertion mean he has moved away from the idea? Or does Pannenberg assume that what he said earlier is still the case and so the initial emphases are not discarded as much as they are extremely important interpretive keys to understanding Pannenberg’s developed thought? My tendency is to assume, with Mostert, this latter reality as it seems this is apparent in a variety of ways through Pannenberg’s writings.[2] This is, indeed, a leap of methodological interpretation, however, that takes a great risk. In attempting to have a significantly better understanding, there is the fair possibility of profound, and indeed naïve, misunderstanding.

A key for understanding Pannenberg’s method is to realize that while much of theology has been foundationalist, Pannenberg’s own approach can better be considered in terms of his priority for God as foundation. Because of the nature of God, however, we cannot assume knowledge of God from which to build our edifice of theology. Instead, God is less of a foundation and more of a center, with the Trinitarian God functioning as a central sphere around which knowledge, we might say, orbits. Everything is relative, except the God who is, in himself, the only self and as such the only true constant from which all other forms of knowledge must refer and are provisional until the full revelation of God’s reality.

This has various implications that we see in Pannenberg. The first is that because of God’s centrality, all knowledge is subject to theological assessment and theological dialogue. Theology is, for Pannenberg, a public discipline that can never be limited to a narrow ghetto of specifically religious topics.[3] This fact raises some particular difficulties and critiques. The main difficulty is that it insists upon a breadth of almost unimaginable knowledge, with the goal basically to know “everything about everything.” Indeed, Pannenberg is certainly astounding in his own knowledge and use of broad sources but rather than truly knowing “everything about everything” it should probably be stated that Pannenberg more accurately knows “much about much.” This leads to two critiques. As a public theology that insists on broader interaction, Pannenberg is limited in scope by both time and space, facts which he seems to acknowledge as realities but not as problems to be fixed. A theology that dialogues with broader scholarship is always in need of continual development, as those broader disciplines are themselves constantly in flux. One difficulty already in reading Pannenberg is that his primary source material derives from current academic interest of mid-20th century Germany. Insisting upon the same narrow boundaries in Pannenberg’s study might be more relevant to Pannenberg’s particular insights, but significantly, and increasingly, less relevant to Pannenberg’s preferred method. To maintain Pannenberg’s theology, the theology must continue to engage in contemporary scholarship with an eye to both past contributions and developing knowledge.

This is also apparent in Pannenberg’s social situation as a post-World War II German theologian. Unlike Moltmann, Pannenberg has seen little interest in moving beyond this context, preferring to instead form deep roots within his own soil. While he is, apparently, open to hearing critiques from broader sources, his own dialogue even as late as his Systematic Theology reveals that he does not make use of much contemporary scholarship outside of his own contexts.[4] While a substantive critique, this does not need be one that undermines Pannenberg’s project. Rather than dismissing other contexts, there is a strong sense in Pannenberg that he embraces his own context as being the ground of his own knowledge and experience, and thus the field in which he is best prepared to fight. At the same time, rather than dismissing other contexts as irrelevant—something his apparent disregard might suggest—it is significantly more appropriate to see Pannenberg as a model for his method, and understand that he would heartily encourage scholars in theology and other fields to take up his project within their own fields of context and expertise. Indeed, I get the sense he would applaud the persistence of his method, which is not contextually limited, more than he desires to see his particular answers as becoming a hardened theology. As such Pannenberg’s limitation of context is not as much a weakness as it is a challenge, a challenge to others to take up in their contexts and expand the breadth of theology through manifold contexts and disciplines.

Another key nuance in Pannenberg’s thought that is very rarely explicit but is, indeed, implicit in almost every category of discussion is his rather decided anti-authoritarian stance. Pannenberg is no Moltmann to be sure, a vocal prophet eager for active debates on public themes and willing, it seems, to join arms with those seeking to make visible, political, changes within a troubled world. Moltmann’s stance has made him more explicitly critical of church structures and governments which alienate the underclass, making him more obviously useful for those interested in ecclesial reformation. Moltmann is certainly ecumenical, as he will stand with anyone who shares his concerns, and can be equally critical of those churches who seem to miss the mark, without regard to a narrow denominational perspective.

Pannenberg is significantly more ecumenically minded in the traditional sense, seeking a renewed unity in the Church, one that acknowledges distinctions in the bond of a greater unity. He loves the church in its traditional forms, and is seemingly unwilling to dismiss these forms just because of historic frustrations and mistakes. Yet, the greatest mistake he seems to emphasize is the terrible impact that authoritarianism has on almost every aspect of true fellowship, leading to significant ego distortion and thus increased sin through the church and into society. This anti-authoritarianism is a significant point to make especially in regards to interpreting his thoughts on ecclesiology.[5]

Finally, it seems noteworthy to continue, briefly, considering Pannenberg in comparison to Moltmann, as these two theologians seems to have had a very similar starting place, but have developed in seemingly divergent ways. Rather than being opposed, however, it is my thought they are not entirely as far apart as might be assumed, but instead represent two different approaches to theology that can be seen as complementary. Indeed, a comparative study of the method of both Pannenberg and Moltmann would be extremely insightful for the development of theology in our age, and the forms it can appropriately take.

Essentially, a big distinction comes with Pannenberg’s key methodological emphasis on theology “from below.” Pannenberg starts with anthropology.[6] This leads to some key differences. Pannenberg tends to be more concerned about “our” perspective, approaching theology through our location as humans trying to better understand ourselves and the world. This is worked out in a significantly stronger development of individual sin and being than in Moltmann. Pannenberg is certainly interested in the topic of human fellowship, but this tends to be founded upon his interest in humans as individual participants in ego formation. Moltmann is much more concerned, it seems, about “them,” the outsiders, the others, the strangers, the abandoned and dismissed. His concern is seemingly not at all with the realities of individual sinfulness as much more interested in societal structures and relationships. Basically, we can say that Moltmann’s interest is in “suffering humanity” while Pannenberg’s interest is in “sinful humanity.”

Pannenberg is, as such, less interested in theodicy, especially as he sees history as incomplete revelation, and thus we cannot fully understand the presence of evil until God’s final, full revelation. We are to trust in God’s promise rather than seek a present explanation. Moltmann, of course, is constantly interested in the question “Where was God during Auschwitz?” This leads him to ask particular questions concerned with God’s perspective, rather than primarily emphasizing human perspective as Pannenberg does. For Pannenberg, the emphasis is again more on human perspective, how are we to live in the midst of a yet unrevealed reality.

Moltmann has become well known for his perspective of Christ on the way. For Pannenberg, in contrast, his stronger interest in anthropology and lesser interest in justifying God leads to what can be a contrasting position. For Pannenberg, the emphasis is “humans on the way,” overcoming sin and moving increasingly in tune with God’s perfect being. This is not a Pelagian emphasis on works and our own self-motivation. It is, rather, an emphasis on the human perspective in light of the work of God in this world, a perspective which, according to Pannenberg, is the only one we can fully know and thus is the best starting place for our theological endeavors. As such, it seems quite important for emerging theologians to take strong note of both Pannenberg and Moltmann for guidance in the pursuit of a holistic theology for future generations.


Grenz, Stanley J. Reason for Hope : The Systematic Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.Co., 2005.

Mostert, Christiaan. God and the Future: Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Eschatological Doctrine of God. New York: T&T Clark, 2002.

Shults, F. LeRon. The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology: Wolfhart Pannenberg and the New Theological Rationality. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1999.

Wong, Kam Ming. Wolfhart Pannenberg on Human Destiny. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008.

[1] Christiaan Mostert, God and the Future: Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Eschatological Doctrine of God (New York: T&T Clark, 2002).

[2] This question should be cleared up by Pannenberg’s apparent endorsement of the book in the foreword of God and the Future, but I am still wary as to see how much endorsement is actually present in that single paragraph as to the particular assertions of Mostert.

[3] This fact is another important point in regards to study of the Systematic Theology, which is specifically presented as narrowly focused on traditional theological topics, and does not extensively engage the broader academic disciplines. Once again, Pannenberg insists upon the reading of his various other works for a sufficient grasp of his whole theological project.

[4] There may be a notable exception in regards to his interaction with science in his later works.

[5] Indeed, this is another area in which we are challenged to question how much his early works are assumed in his later works. Pannenberg was significantly more active in public writings on church and society in the 1970s and earlier, with the 1980s and later bringing more measured considerations and focus as he entered into the phase that led to his Systematic Theology. In his earlier writings, such as Theology and the Kingdom of God, there is a perceivable radicalness in his writings that is not apparent later on. Whereas Moltmann has embraced this even still, Pannenberg apparently backed off in tone and approach and, indeed, in his more explicit attempts at a popular theology.

[6] It is important to note that “starts with” is not equivalent to a foundationalist position, but rather everything has to start from somewhere.

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