First of Two Parts

Evangelicals need to hone their theological skills by sparring with such brilliant men as Pannenberg.

To dismiss Wolfhart Pannenberg as just another German theologian seeking fame through ingenuity and novelty would be a grave mistake. Pannenberg is a Lutheran theologian of rare brilliance, remarkably capable in philosophy, biblical studies, and theology. He has come out in strong defense of several major themes of classical theology, including the deity, vicarious death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is projecting the most rigorous and ambitious program of academically oriented theology since Barth, and like Barth (of whom he is sharply critical) is likely to be remembered as a towering giant in twentieth-century Christian thought.

Whether we like it or not, German theologians have played a leading role in the creative theology of modern times and will go on doing so, at least until others of us challenge their leadership with work of equal quality and power. Meanwhile, the best thing evangelicals can do, if we hope to mature in thought and reflection, is to engage theologians of Pannenberg’s stature in dialogue so as to sharpen our own tools and commitments. Pannenberg welcomes this interaction. He maintains an admirably open spirit toward criticism of his thought and an evident willingness to change in the interests of the truth.

Although he writes with clarity and force, Pannenberg is a formidable thinker for the average person to grasp. He often expresses his thought in long essays devoted to a single aspect of a question, subtle in argument and richly documented. Therefore we are deeply indebted to E. Frank Tupper, a professor at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, for giving us a serious, readable, systematic report on the full range of Pannenberg’s ideas in The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (Westminster, 1973). The book enjoys Pannenberg’s own seal of approval. The simplest way for the initiate to get a direct introduction to the texture of Pannenberg’s thought would be to read his book entitled The Apostles’ Creed in the Light of Today’s Questions (Westminster, 1972), the title of which points to his central concern: to submit historic Christian commitments to the test of critical thought. All that I can hope to accomplish in this short article is to highlight a few of the basic themes important both to Pannenberg and to us evangelicals.

A Theology of Reason

Pannenberg’s advocacy of a theology solidly based on reason is an identifying feature of his position. (His major study entitled Theology and the Philosphy of Science is, regrettably, not yet available as I write.) This emphasis is attributable in part to the fact that he underwent a rigorously intellectual conversion from atheism in his university days. Like C. S. Lewis and Malcolm Muggeridge, he traveled a path to Christ that entailed more rational reflection than Christian nurture or emotional crisis. Certainly, his concern from the first has been to oppose all forms of authoritarian theology and to espouse what we might call a “university theology,” open to criticism and intellectually aggressive. To use his own words, he wishes to demonstrate the powers of Christian truth “to encompass all reality” and “gather together everything experienced as real” (Basic Questions in Theology, II, 1f.). He is deeply hostile to the revolt against reason that has for decades characterized theology and made it a matter of interest only to a ghetto of initiated believers. His basic concern was expressed in another generation and context by L. Harold DeWolf in The Religious Revolt Against Reason (Harper, 1949).

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Although he studied with Barth, Pannenberg reacted against him sharply on this question. Theology, Pannenberg insists, must subject its truth claims to the canons of rationality operative in the larger human community. It must be able to point to evidences supporting faith instead of only a bare, subjective decision. He is convinced that authoritarian claims are not acceptable in either political or intellectual life. Such claims in theology, he says, clothe human ideas in the splendor of divine majesty and place them beyond the reach of critical examination. The result is that the content of theology becomes arbitrary and subjective. We must not, he insists, make the knowledge of God’s truth dependent on a private revelation, available only to the members of an esoteric society with its own in-group linguistic symbols. To do this does not exalt the sovereignty of the self-revealing God, as is supposed; it simply directs attention away from God’s objective truth to man’s own subjective understanding. Pannenberg’s critique crashes down on all versions of dialectical theology; however, it is equally hard on evangelical theology, insofar as it too is often presented in the guise of an authoritarian claim.

Debate has been swirling around this matter of the relation between faith and reason for centuries. Pannenberg has simply emerged on one side of the discussion with a forceful and subtle proposal, attempting to reverse the irrationalist trend from Schleiermacher to Barth that derives revelation from the experience of faith rather than from reason’s knowledge of history. If faith is placed in faith, and not in truth, how is faith to be distinguished from superstition or illusion? For Pannenberg, faith and reason are co-essential dimensions of the act of a total person. A split between them, or even a ranking of one over the other, is intolerable. He does not leave us under the tyranny of the expert, or with the arbitrary situation of faith projecting its own basis; he wants only to assert the legitimacy of reason’s role in the decision of faith.

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Pannenberg insists that the Hebrew concept of truth not be suppressed by the Greek view. He does not contrast Hebrew thought with Greek in a simplistic manner but rather calls our attention to the fact that truth for the Hebrews is something that happens and is not merely thought out. God’s truth is proved to be true to the extent that his promises are realized. Truth thus shows itself in history, and is historic in a manner foreign to the Greek conception. Although the Israelite did not search for truth as a timeless reality behind appearances, he expected it to be proven reliable by the outcome of the future. In the light of this, it would be more accurate to say that Pannenberg has developed a theology of historical reason rather than reason per se, a point that becomes obvious in his view of revelation as history.

Before moving on to that point, we should note that, paradoxical though it may seem, even Pannenberg’s stalwart defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus derives not from his orthodoxy but from his rationality! He is not motivated at all, as evangelicals often are, by a reverence for classical beliefs just because they are biblical and traditional. He defends Christ’s resurrection solely because it seems more reasonable to defend it than to deny it. The demands of the same reason that place him in opposition to a host of other critical scholars also lead him to reject the virgin birth of Christ, to consider many of the Christological titles in the Gospels as post-Easter intrusions, and to be skeptical about various and sundry details in the resurrection narratives.

Just because he insists so strongly that faith must rest on rationally tested foundations, Pannenberg must devote time to the doctrine of the Spirit, which many of his opponents in both dialectical and evangelical circles have used to support the notion of certainty that is inwardly experienced but not externally verified. He is convinced that the doctrine of the Spirit has been misused as “a fig leaf to protect the nakedness of the Christian tradition from the questionings of modern critical thinking” (Apostles’ Creed, p. 131). He thinks that scholars have appealed to the Spirit in order to immunize traditional positions against having to face up to critical objections, and to offer believers a cheap certainty indistinguishable from fanaticism.

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It is clear that Pannenberg does not wish to deny that faith is the gift of God. What he is concerned to say is that faith cannot be indifferent about its basis, and should not be perverted into blind belief in some authority claim. By recognizing the objective truth content of faith, we rescue faith from the danger of perversion and acknowledge it to be a decision on the sound basis of reliable knowledge. The Spirit is not to be thought of as authenticating an otherwise unconvincing message, or adding to it the plus of personal inspiration. The Spirit of illumination does not create new truth but rather leads us to the truth that already exists in the proclamation of Jesus.

Revelation as History

A second major defining characteristic in Pannenberg’s theology is the important shift from the self-authenticating word in dialectical theology to verifiable history as the key to the nature of revelation. Besides being directed against Barth’s central emphasis on the word of God, this move is a rejection of both the liberal mysticism of religious experience and the orthodox idea that revelation consists chiefly of infallible doctrinal propositions.

In the seminal book that he edited entitled Revelation as History, originally published in 1961, Pannenberg expounded his concept of the indirect revelation of God through history, final and complete only at the end, but indicated in advance by Jesus and the vindication of his claim by the resurrection. He sets forth his highly original yet deeply convincing notion of revelation as history, open to all, located at the end, but realized in advance in what happened to Jesus. God does not unveil his essence to man directly but demonstrates his deity in historical events so that he may be recognized and trusted. In Pannenberg’s words, “In the destiny of Jesus the End of all history has happened in advance, as prolepsis.”

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Lest we suppose that he fails to answer the inevitable criticisms raised against such a view, let us look deeper. What about the interpretations placed upon historical events? Do they not amount to a set of doctrines existentially derived?

Not according to Pannenberg, who rejects the sharp distinction between event and interpretation. For him the meaning of events inheres in them. Facts are always experienced in a context in which they have a made-to-order significance, which we discover by casting about in the context of the events themselves. For example, we discover the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus, not by producing an authoritarian interpretation, but by asking what resurrection signified in the Hebrew tradition and to Jesus. Of course, the same event may mean different things to different people, but the process is still not merely a subjective one, because there are objective methods by which to determine and settle the various interpretations offered.

Pannenberg’s aim in this is not to deny the importance of word alongside event but to dispute the commonly held idea that the word has a nonhistorical and basically experiential origin. In this, he is lining up with the theology of Gerhard Von Rad, who also advocates seeing the acts of God in the context of the history of Israelite traditions. Pannenberg wishes to refute the idea that the revelatory meaning of the activity of God in history is available only to faith and not inherent in the activity itself, which would make it autonomous and finally ahistorical. Rather than conceiving revelation as the union of event with a supplementary illumination by the Spirit, he sees it as Spirit-directed events, already defined in their original context and continually explicated in the history of the transmission of traditions. Pannenberg does not reject the category “word of God” except in its isolated use, outside the unity of event and word. To split up the detection of facts and the evaluation of them is intolerable to him: it makes the Christian message ultimately a human subjective interpretation, and it is the result of a poor historical method.

The startling result of Pannenberg’s argument is to make an ally rather than an enemy out of critical history, a tour de force by any standard. He intends to rest faith firmly upon historical knowledge rather than upon private revelations or authority claims that have no solid basis. He is well aware that the results achieved by the use of historical evidence are only probable at best, but he holds probable knowledge to be the basis of all human decisions and compatible with the trustful certainty of faith. In any case he cannot see how religious experience or authority can come up with anything more certain or more probable than this. As for the standard skeptical argument that miracles do not occur and that no amount of evidence could convince the person who is skeptical of the resurrection of Jesus, Pannenberg simply unfolds a carefully wrought historical methodology of his own in which he shows the a priori and therefore unacceptable character of such a historical dogma. Again, he defends the possibility of miracle, not in the name of orthodoxy, but with the tools of a properly conceived rationality.

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Revelation as Scripture

Although the evangelical reader appreciates Pannenberg’s integrating of word and event into the unity of divine revelation, he is forced to ask further about the locus and authority of the word-component. He does this not just because it is the conservative’s reflex to do so, but because he sees a weak concept of Scripture leading into the very subjectivity that Pannenberg abhors.

Pannenberg repudiates biblical infallibility on two grounds. The first is that he interprets it in terms of an authoritarian commitment to the sacrosanct truth of the Bible, independent of rational checks. He opposes, not verbal revelation per se, but verbal revelation vouchsafed to a select community that alone recognizes it as such on the basis of an inward experience. Were he to confront Warfield’s position that, just as Jesus’ claim to authority was confirmed by his resurrection, so also was his claim for the divine authority of the Old Testament Scriptures—an extension of Pannenberg’s own historical apologetic—I cannot believe his position on infallibility would be so decisive.

Nevertheless, we cannot overlook his second reason for rejecting it: that critical difficulties in the text also preclude understanding the Bible as the infallible Word of God (Basic Questions in Theology, I, 1–14). The only way to dispel his fears on this point is to show by means of patient biblical scholarship that the difficulties that arise in connection with the text do not refute biblical infallibility, which is itself soundly based on the testimony of accredited biblical spokesmen, including Jesus himself (cf. J. W. Wenham, Christ and the Bible, Inter-Varsity, 1972).

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A lingering doubt in the evangelical’s mind over the theology of Pannenberg relates to a certain depreciation of the category “word of God.” It is not that he eliminates it from his thought; in fact, he includes it together with event in an integral way that may improve our own understanding. The problem is that, because of his unnecessary equation of verbal revelation with authoritarianism, he has difficulty giving full weight to the concept of revelation as word, which is nonetheless as prominent in Scripture as revelation in history is. It is simply impossible to subsume under his category “revelation as history” substantial portions of the Bible such as the wisdom literature, or to incorporate in it so central an experience as God’s speaking to Moses before, during, and after the historic deliverance called the Exodus.

My reservations about the “revelation as history” formula are intended not to invalidate it but to call attention to event and word, which are both genuinely God’s acts, the twin focus of his redemptive dealings with mankind. Event and word are to be kept inseparably together and each given full weight and value. The fully biblical concept of revelation includes the mighty acts of God in history, transmitted through a uniquely inspired medium of interpretation by accredited prophets and apostles. Not to do justice to this full biblical pattern will lead, almost inevitably, to an undercutting of dogmatic theology through a dissolution of the Canon that gives it its norms.

Pannenberg is right to insist, as Warfield also allowed, that even without inspired Scripture a true knowledge of the divine purpose would still exist as a result of the impact of the divine actions that have irrevocably taken place already in world history. But he is wrong to imply that divine revelation in fact exists without such an inscripturation when the promise and reality of this divine gift, too, is abundantly plain. Because of his refusal thus far to acknowledge the normativity of the Scriptures over human thought, Pannenberg is forced to make his own reconstruction of the event and meaning of revelation canonical, with all the uncertainty and subjectivity that implies, at least for us.

We evangelicals do not ask that Pannenberg forsake his stance of critical honesty, which we ourselves strive for. We ask simply that due respect be granted to the gift God has so evidently given: inspired written Scriptures, the capstone of that anticipatory revelation which has come to light through Jesus.

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