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A Preliminary Response to the Christology of Wolfhart Pannenberg

July 21, 2011

My leisure reading off-and-on over the past several months has been Wolfhart Pannenberg‘s classic text Jesus – God and Man, first published in German in 1964 as Grundzüge der Christologie (English translation: 1968).  As the title of this post indicates, I want to register only a very preliminary response to Pannenberg’s creative approach to Christology.  I’ll be limiting my comments to this text, as I haven’t had a chance to look at Pannenberg’s 3-volume Systematic Theology yet.  In the interest of length I’ll also limit myself to a positive account of the basic outline, and save my critique (other than Pannenberg’s misreading of Barth) for another time.

While there is certainly plenty with which I take issue, this is a fantastic text — sharp and engaging, deep enough to reward multiple visits, and one of the most important works in Christology in the twentieth century.  Though Pannenberg’s relative proximity is much closer to Barth than to, say, American Evangelicalism, it is a challenging read for a Barthian — one, such as myself, who believes that Barth has a great deal to offer to dogmatics in terms of his critical reappropriation of the ancient christological tradition.

Pannenberg, you see, intends to do many of the same things that Barth does.  Both regard the concepts (though not the doctrines) of ancient Chalcedonian Christology as suited to that time but not to our own, and so in need of revision (cf. p. 150).  For Barth, this requires careful attention to the theology of the ancient church so as to distinguish between the truths of the confession with regard to the Word’s becoming flesh and the underlying concepts by which those truths were expressed (e.g. natures, persons, union, and the communication of attributes).  I don’t want to say that Pannenberg is less careful, nor that he regards the ancient tradition with derision (as would much of nineteenth century Protestant liberalism, for example, as well as contemporary non-dogmatic or anti-dogmatic theology).  I suspect that Pannenberg may get these instincts from Barth.  But Pannenberg’s approach is certainly more … shall we say, aggressive?  Rather than separating the doctrine from the concepts, Pannenberg takes the two together and rejects the entire approach of ancient “Logos Christology” (even if, like Barth, he thinks he can maintain the intentions of the early creeds).

This he identifies as Christology “from above” — a doctrine of Christ’s person which starts with a pre-existent Son of God and then describes how He comes down to earth and becomes a human person.  This is a fair description of most Christology (and almost certainly of all orthodox Christology) prior to the Enlightenment.  But Pannenberg advocates a Christology “from below” — beginning with the phenomenon of the man Jesus of Nazareth, and proceeding to identify him as divine (p. 35).  This more in keeping with the starting point of modern historical inquiry, though he does not appeal to that as an authority (in fact, he criticizes it, p. 98f.).

[In pre-modern theology] one began with such a given concept of God and simply asked how this God could have come into the flesh.  Thereby one was already stuck in the middle of insoluble difficulties.  Since the destruction of the old theistic picture of the world by the Enlightenment and by Kant, such a procedure is no longer possible. (p. 131)

This is not to rule out the doctrine of the incarnation, as happens in much modern Christology “from below” that bears an adoptionist flavor.  Pannenberg believes that all Christology should tend toward speaking of the incarnation — but that this should be Christology’s conclusion. Where it is taken as a starting point, christological concepts are given a “mythological tone” (p. 279).  All such attempts will inevitably reach an impasse with regard to how the unity of divinity and humanity can be explained (since incarnation takes this unity as its very premise), and will ultimately fail. (p. 322)

Conservative theologians may be inclined to write off Pannenberg along with the rest of the Christologies “from below” done by Protestant liberalism over the preceding two centuries.  But this would be a great loss: Pannenberg’s Christology is quite different, and broadly speaking it has more in common with Barth.  Though he approaches the question of the incarnation from the opposite direction, Pannenberg has a great deal to offer to “orthodoxy.”

For Pannenberg, the doctrine of Christ and of the revelation of God that takes place in him revolve around the event of the resurrection.  This is the vindication of the crucified Jesus and the declaration that he is the Son of God.

The Christ event is God’s revelation – the appearance of the glory of God in the face of Jesus (II Cor. 4:6) – only to the extent that it brings the beginning of the end of all things.  Therefore, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, in which the end that stands before all men has happened before its time, is the actual event of revelation. Only because of Jesus’ resurrection, namely, because this event is the beginning of the end facing all men, can one speak of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.  Without the event of Jesus’ resurrection the ground would be pulled out from under theological statements about God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. (p. 129)

For other Christologies “from below” that would allow for the resurrection (and not write it off as ahistorical myth), this would mean that God the Father showed His approval of the obedient human, Jesus, and raised him from the dead — even adopted him as God’s “son” — as a sort of reward for being the obedient sacrifice for the world.  Here the resurrection has significance in a very linear fashion: a human dies, God intervenes supernaturally, and the man is thus declared to be something he was not before.  Not so for Pannenberg.

Pannenberg’s emphasis on the resurrection as a theological centerpiece seems to me to be controlled by his actualism.  This is a decidedly non-linear (or non-chronological) way to describe the being and person of the Mediator.  An actualist approach to the history of Christ suggests that what he does is determinative of who he is, ontologically.  Being and act are both basic and mutually conditioning. That Jesus is the presence and authority of God on earth, that in his person he is the coming of the kingdom of God, is evident in a framework of anticipation (now) and confirmation (later):

The tension between present and future in Jesus’ proclamation makes the proleptic character of Jesus’ claim [to be the presence of God] apparent; that is, Jesus’ claim means an anticipation of a confirmation that is to be expected only from the future. (p. 58)

Thus the whole of Jesus’ work remained aimed at the future verification of his claim to authority, at a confirmation that Jesus himself was unable to offer precisely because and insofar as it involved the legitimation of his own person, which is bound to the arrival of the announced end event.  The question about such a future confirmation of Jesus’ claim by God himself is held open by the temporal difference between the beginning of God’s rule, which was already present in Jesus’ activity, and its future fulfillment with the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven. (p. 65)

This is why Jesus’ statements about the final apocalypse (and his role in it) are so significant. The resurrection, therefore, is not a point at which Jesus “becomes” the Son of God and divine (p. 136); it is the event according to which he has always been divine.  It is revelation of the Messianic secret (to borrow a phrase) — that Jesus is the Son of God — yet, the resurrection functions not merely on the level of epistemology (disclosure or vindication) but also on the level of ontology. Christ is divine because he was resurrected from the dead — but this resurrection did not make divine a man who formerly was not.

Jesus’ essence is established retroactively from the perspective of the end of his life, from his resurrection, not only for our knowledge but in its being.  Had Jesus not been raised from the dead, it would have been decided that he also had not been one with God previously.  But through his resurrection it is decided, not only so far as our knowledge is concerned, but with respect to reality, that Jesus is one with God and retroactively that he was also one with God previously. (p. 136)

Clearly such a non-linear ontology runs counter to human intuition, and requires us to slow down and think not only about God but to think about the way we think about God. Do we anthropomorphize God by insisting that effect must follow cause and not precede it? Or is basic causality a subtle instance of natural theology?

This is a challenging way to look at Christology, and there are many fruitful avenues evident from Pannenberg’s creativity and his willingness to consider a less traditional ontology.  It is unfortunate, however, that although he was influenced by Barth to some degree, Pannenberg failed to identify many of the same post-metaphysical trends in Barth’s thought (cf. pp. 302-3, 312-15).  (Rather than the resurrection, the dogmatic control for Barth is his doctrine of election — “from above” insofar as it is eternal, versus Pannenberg’s very historical dogmatic control. Cf. p. 321)  Based on his brief interaction with Barth in Jesus – God and Man, I suspect this was because he incorrectly identified Barth’s Christology with the traditional “from above” approach, and could not see how “Logos Christology” could possibly accommodate an actualist ontology.

In fact, Barth’s Christology is brilliant in that he successfully incorporates both methodological approaches to the doctrine of Christ — a topic for another time.  One wonders if he had better understood Barth’s Christology, Pannenberg might have found resources to stay closer to the tradition without having to dispose of his own critical insights.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin Davis permalink
    July 21, 2011 4:14 pm

    Good summary. I’d encourage you to consult von Balthasar’s approach to this topic in his theo-drama and theo-logic. I don’t have the volumes present with me, so I can’t give you any citations, but I just remember thinking that von B gets the better of both Barth and Pannenberg. Balthasar uses pneumatology to cover the ground that anthropology otherwise covers, thus allowing Christology to be mostly “from above.”

  2. July 22, 2011 1:52 am


    Nice! Does Pannenberg have anything to say about election in his Christology? I’ve only read a bit of his Systematics, and that was a long time ago.

  3. July 22, 2011 7:40 am

    Thanks for this Darren,it gave me a better insight into the issues you are wading through and a sense of their importance. This piece also feels like a good illustration of how to review someone sympathetically – putting their work in it best light – before critiquing it. This will, I think, go further toward making your critiques on the mark. I look forward to more on this.

    One question, perhaps ill formed and unclear. I was fascinated by this — “Do we anthropomorphize God by insisting that effect must follow cause and not precede it? Or is basic causality a subtle instance of natural theology?” — but I suppose the next question is whether this idea of an upheaval of cause/effect is motivated by reflection on the revelation of God in Christ or whether it is itself a kind of projected idea of transcendence; a new sort of “mythological tone” ringing through the thing.

  4. July 22, 2011 10:01 am

    Thanks for the comments, guys. Kevin: Balthasar is always high on my list of figures to read, and lower than he ought to be on figures I’ve actually read, because the theo-drama volumes seem so large and impenetrable. I really could use some direction on where to begin. The idea of allowing pneumatology to do some of the work that anthropology usually does is interesting, and the relationship between pneumatology and Christology is something I plan to explore once my thesis is mostly done.

    Bobby: There’s not much on election in Jesus – God and Man, and certainly not the sort of christological orientation that you and I would be use to from reading Barth and Torrance. I’m in the market for the ST set in hardback, if anyone out there is selling. 😉 I read a bit online yesterday, and it looks like there are significant advances there over this volume (as one would expect).

    Jon: The metaphysical question is obviously an important one, and there is a great deal of literature on this over the last half-century or so. My comments on it can only be those of an amateur. What I had in mind with that statement is a field of speculative inquiry in quantum physics that suggests that effect may precede cause (roughly terms ‘retrocausality’). Clearly this could have some startling applications in systematic theology, though I imagine that such is only possible when run through the doctrine of divine election and the covenant (as you’ve heard me do).

    The short of it is that I wonder if even positing something as basic as “God acts, and being (cause) preceeds act (effects), therefore God is a being who is self-contained and determined prior to and apart from His acts” is an unconscious restriction of God according to the way in which we perceive the created order as functioning. That’s why I suggest it may be an instance of natural theology.

    I certainly hope that the notion of effect preceding cause is not, in its own turn, the same sort of “projection” of human understanding back onto God, or a new “mythological tone” (if I understand what you mean by that). That’s why, at this point, I prefer to keep this in the critical register rather than make positive claims from it. Where I do want to make positive claims – with respect to the place of the incarnation in the being of God, for instance – I think they have to be derived from Scripture rather than from speculative metaphysics, which again is why I begin rather with language of covenant.

  5. ken oakes permalink
    July 22, 2011 11:19 am

    I think you’ve identified some nice contrasts and continuities between Pannenberg and Barth here. I wonder, however, if one of the main contrasts between the two is Pannenberg’s understanding of the role of apologetics in the theological task, and its practical consequences for his work. For instance, given the role of apologetics and plausibility structures in Pannenberg’s thought, he clearly has a different relationship to historical criticism, anthropology, the natural sciences, and philosophy than one typically finds in Barth’s thought (even here, though, I think Barth’s theology is open to the kind of work P is doing).

    I think it is Pannenberg’s emphasis upon revelation and history (the Revelation as History volume is important here), more than his committment to actualism, that is informing his claim that the resurrection reveals and allows us to decide Jesus’ identity (and determines God’s identity as well, although he might not like this way of phrasing the matter). The revelation and history volume, of course, was primarily directed to the post-Herrmannians (like Barth and Bultmann), who were thought to overly subjectify revelation and theology (which is ironic in Barth’s case, but more “natural” for that of Bultmann).

  6. July 22, 2011 4:34 pm

    Thanks, Darren. I know Kent Eilers over at “Theology Forum” did his PhD work, at Aberdeen (I think just prior to your arrival there, but maybe you know him?) on Pannenberg. It would be interesting to get his feedback on your thoughts here; although I don’t think he’s much of a blogger these days 🙂 . Anyway, I look forward to hearing more about Pannenberg if you get to him through posts; I don’t have much motivation to get into him that much (other than to know what make up his general theses and trajectory).

  7. Minas Monir permalink
    July 23, 2011 1:30 pm

    Hi, I liked your post… I’m doing my final dissertation on Pannenberg’s theological project and I’d be very happy to communicate with anyone who shares with me any thoughts

  8. Kevin Davis permalink
    July 23, 2011 6:13 pm

    I found Rodney Howsare’s Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum, 2009) highly enjoyable, reliable, and a perfect introduction for someone with some theological background, such as yourself.

    The first volume of his aesthetics, The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form, will introduce you to his broad-reaching concerns about both Protestantism and contemporary theology, whether Protestant or Catholic. This may not directly deal with your own research interests, but it’s vital to knowing what inspired Balthasar’s massive theological corpus.

  9. July 23, 2011 10:35 pm

    Ken, thanks for stopping by. From what I’ve read elsewhere you’re probably right about Pannenberg’s more apologetic concerns in his approach to theology. He may be motivated, at least in part, by a desire to make Christian theology more palatable, if not acceptable, to outsiders who find it incomprehensible in the light of (for example) historical criticism. I suspect this may have something to do with his attitude toward Chalcedonian orthodoxy, which differs significantly from Barth’s.

    Bobby, I’d forgotten that Kent’s thesis was on Pannenberg until I searched Amazon yesterday. He was just before my time in Aberdeen, but I’ll be sure to look for it when I have more time to dig into Pannenberg a bit more.

    Minas, thanks for stopping to comment! Are you looking at a specific aspect of Pannenberg’s theology for your thesis?

    Kevin, something like a Guide for the Perplexed intro is probably where I ought to start with von Balthasar. Thanks for the tip. To date I’ve read Mysterium Tremendum and Dare We Hope? and found them very accessible and engaging.

  10. September 13, 2015 9:09 pm

    The trouble is that Pannenberg does not believe in the resurrection. He redefined the resurrection as a vision. He only accepted Paul’s Damascus road account and completely rejects Luke’s account that Jesus was physically raised from the dead with a body of flesh and bone. See Luke 24. Also, since Barth rejects logic and affirms outright contradictions, it is difficult to see how Barth is any better than Pannenberg. At least Pannenberg accepts the historical narratives at face value. But both Pannenberg and Barth reject Holy Scripture as propositional revelation and as fully inspired of God and fully inerrant in every word. If the Bible is both errant and inerrant, how would you know which parts are in error and which are not in error? Only by accepting the axiom of Scripture as the fully inspired and inerrant word of God can Christianity be defended. Does God breathe out contradictions, errors or paradoxes? I think not. 2 Timothy 3:16. All Scripture is inspired of God and all Scripture is profitable for doctrine. The Bible is not mythological whatsoever.

  11. September 13, 2015 9:11 pm

    In case you missed it I am a fan of the late Dr. Gordon H. Clark. His critique of Barth is second to none.

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