Christian History: Neo-Orthodoxy – Wolfhart Pannenberg

Bonn, CDU-Friedenskongress, Pannenberg

Finally, we cover a theologian near and dear to my own sensibilities, Pannenberg. I named a World of WarCraft character after him (who sadly got a name change after a realm transfer to “Kierkegaard” – not a bad move), so obviously I harbor some feelings towards the man’s thought. Then again, I named a character after Edmund Husserl, the famous phenomenlogist philosopher, and I never read a single thing he wrote. Oh well!

In any event, Pannenberg sought, like some of his more recent contemporaries, to split open the cracks of Bultmann’s demythologization project and Barth’s totally alien God. He could not see a solely existential faith working, as it remained an individual private affair – and Christianity, inevitably, becomes a public faith. To allow for a public faith, we need at least an inkiling of God’s plan and purpose for the world; He cannot be “wholly other”, for how could we be created in his image?

Wolfhart Pannenberg takes a different approach that seeks to remove the problematics heretofore mentioned, but also to make Christianity viable for any intellectual pursuits. In other words, he brings academic theology back to the pursuit of capital T truth. Pannenberg sees revelation as history. He rejected the divorce of Scripture from historical criticism, the creation of a Barthian supra-history, and the ignorance of the “Jesus of history” in lieu of the “Jesus of faith”. Pannenberg states: ”

Therefore theology fled into a harbour supposedly safe from the critical-historical flood tide, the harbour of a supra-history – or with Barth, of prehistory. For the same reason the theology of existence withdrew from the…godless course of “objective” history to the experience of the individual.

As a false dichotomy, it tries to make Christianity immune from other discipline’s criticisms, but this withdraws theology into an esoteric study for those who “get it”, rather than something any general reader can observe. As Pannenberg wrote,

For much too long a time faith has been misunderstood to be subjectivity’s fortress into which Christianity could retreat from the attacks of scientific knowledge. Such a retreat into pious subjectivity can only lead to destroying any consciousness of the truth of the Christian faith.

Christianity, if it intends universality, cannot cleave itself from society in that way. If we believe Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, we cannot believe in the same faith of the early Church:

12 Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. 15 Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified [f]against God that He raised [g]Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; 17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.

He believed in a literal, physical resurrection; the text makes no qualms about this. If Christ wasn’t actually raised, then our faith dies. Pannenberg’s works take this claim by Paul to the utmost level of seriousness! The egalitarian character of Christianity as public, in that sense, is compromised if the existential model reigns. Pannenberg, then, locates revelation as an essential component of “history”, especially in Jesus and the Resurrection. He claims, in contrast to Barth, that the Resurrection is clearly a historically veri able fact – to believe in it is to acknowledge the truth that lies before the eyes of humankind. It must have historical basis, for if it is not an event in history, the kerygmatic Jesus of Barth remains utterly alien from a historical Jesus, being something of a myth. On the other hand, if Christ were met only through dialectical existentialist encounter, one could just as easily be accused of self-delusion.

Pannenberg handily answers the qualms I retain about the importance of experience. Although we often rely upon it, the Christians sacred texts tell us that trusting the heart isn’t often a fabulous idea. Discerning the voice of the Holy Spirit remains our helpful method of introspection, rather than some ambiguous feeling entering the picture. We think, understand, reflect, and rationalize (in a positive way!) our actions, whether for or to the faith itself. Reason, in that way, works to bring a person to belief, but reason must be used objectively and critically to get to faith, not carrying grudges or presuppositions. Faith is kindled by seeing the Resurrection. Faith is not superfluous, however, as history is still a human study made of probabilities, not certainties. Faith goes beyond knowledge by giving it certainty. Or, as I like to put it in simpler terms, Reason: Faith as Probability: Certainty.

While this sounds like an apologetic, Pannenberg takes this one step further. Revelation is found not just in Scripture’s narrative, but in universal history. God’s revelation will not be complete until the end of that history. However, that does not mean the Christian is left in the dark, as Jesus prefigures that end in incarnation and Resurrection, the first fruits of the new age and the first experiencer (ok, this is a made up word but it works) of the “end of history”. What happened to Jesus on a personal level will happen on a cosmic scale at the end of history. That means, for Pannenberg, that no further revelation can be expect – what will be revealed as “revelation” in this age will be the same message and the same content through different mediums.

So, from a traditional view of faith, Pannenberg merely explicates old ideas in a new way, placing Christianity in context rather than as a transcendent critic. But, in the same way, Christianity represents a unifying force that reveals the true nature of all reality. There’s a contrasting force, not so much a contradictory one, at work here. Of course, Pannenberg’s corrective of history also moves too far from faith – what of the moral and spiritual reaction that faith is, in some sense? It does not merely exist as an intellectual exercise bridged by probabilities and wrangling with statistics into certainty; there is a real spiritual con ict as John 3:19 says:

This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.

Further, 1 Corinthians 12:3 states

Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, `Jesus is accursed’; and no one can say, `Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit

What does Pannenberg make of these objections? Is history and secular social studies now the ultimate authority in a airs of faith? Pannenberg, again, is a reaction, which means its substantive content to both ends of the argument – ideas versus actions – are left out of the conversation. But this is true of the whole of Neo- Orthodoxy, unable to provide a solid answer  as to the nature of authority, nor the place of facts, beliefs, and faith with any clarity.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.