Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

Formation of a Philosophical Theologian

Recovering essential philosophical tools and concepts in a post-Ritshclian German Lutheran confessional context, Pannenberg was able to reestablish the public platform of the discipline of theology in the broader cross-disciplinary conversation of our day. He was prepared to take on a project of this magnitude through a variety of personal and educational experiences in his youth. Wolfhart Pannenberg was born in 1928 in Stettin, Germany (modern day Poland). Although baptized a Lutheran as an infant, during his childhood he had almost no contact with the church. However, during his youth he did have an intense religious experience which he refers to as his "light experience." Placed in the categories of his later theology, his religious experience would be classified as an unthematic experience of God very similar to Rahner’s understanding of religious experience (Pannenberg 1981, 260).

A curious lad, Pannenberg sought to understand his experience through reading the great philosophers and religious thinkers. Moreover, one of his teachers proved to be an important influence in Pannenberg’s conversion to the Christian worldview. He encountered this literature teacher, who had been a member of the Confessing Church during the Third Reich, during his final years of high school. This instructor convinced him to take a long hard look at Christianity, a thoughtful period of Pannenberg’s life when he concluded that Christianity was the best philosophy. This "intellectual conversion" launched him into a vocation as a Christian theologian (Pannenberg 1981, 261).

Pannenberg began his theological studies after the Second World War at the University of Berlin, studying and teaching throughout his life at some of the greatest institutions in Germany. He would continue his theological investigations at the Universities of Göttingen and Basel. At the University of Heidelberg he completed his doctoral dissertation on the doctrine of predestination of the noted medieval scholastic theologian John Duns Scotus (published in 1954) under the supervision of the Lutheran Barthian Edmund Schlink, and in 1955 completed his Habilitationsschrift with an analysis of the role of analogy in Western thought up to Thomas Aquinas (Tupper 1974, 19-44).

While Pannenberg was at Basle he studied under Karl Barth, the leading Protestant theologian of his day. Pannenberg appreciated Barth’s Word of God theology which was a post-Kantian renewal of the Reformation theologies of John Calvin and Martin Luther. However, even as a student, Pannenberg sensed that Barth’s stringent critique of natural theology was too radical. Pannenberg’s study of the Medievals made him more sympathetic to God’s general revelation through creation. He was able to work this idea out first in the field of history, through a neo-Hegelian philosophy of history, and later in his work in religion and science. Eventually he was able to draw these two threads together in his life work: a three volume systematic theology.

2. Works (Selected List)

Offenbarung als Geschichte (with R. Rendtorff, T. Rendtorff, and U. Wilkens, 1963; ET: Revelation as History, 1968) Grundzüge der Christologie (1964; ET: Jesus—God and Man, 1968); Grundfragen systematischer Theologie (1967; ET: Basic Questions in Theology, 1971); Wissenschaftstheorie und Theologie (1973; ET: Theology and the Philosophy of Science, 1976); Anthropology in Theological Perspective (1985); Introduction to Systematic Theology (1991); Systematische Theologie (1988-1994)

3. Themes

Philosophy of History

Pannenberg was able to explore his interest in philosophy of history during his first teaching appointment at the University of Heidelberg, where he remained until called to a vacant chair of systematic theology at the Kirchliche Hochschule at Wuppertal (1958-61) as a colleague of Jürgen Moltmann. After a period at the University of Mainz (1961-8), he moved to and would retire at the University of Munich, where he was also director of the Ecumenical Institute until 1993 (Pannenberg 1981, 260-263). Throughout his academic career Pannenberg was able to continue to refine a very sophisticated philosophy of history. Universal history was of great theological importance for Pannenberg because it was there in the great acts of God in history that Pannenberg argued that God was known indirectly. For Pannenberg God conducts his self-disclosure through his decisive divine deeds, primarily those in the history of Israel and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This focus and language of the "act of God" is straight out of the Barthian corpus. Like Barth, Pannenberg emphasizes that the content of revelation is God himself. Barth and Pannenberg agree on that basic Athanasian assertion that God reveals his being through his act, and these two are in a certain sense inseparable. However, for Barth the act of God is a direct a-temporal gift of grace in Jesus Christ, while for Pannenberg God’s acts throughout history indirectly reveal himself, supremely in the resurrection. In Barth’s theology the pre-temporal election of the church willed by God before the foundation of the world (I Peter 1:19, 20: “but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world”) is the a-temporal decisive act of God which fully manifests to humanity in the incarnate Jesus Christ through the graceful illumination of the Holy Spirit.

The distinctively Christian understanding of revelation for Pannenberg lies in the way in which publicly available events are interpreted. Pannenberg reasserts the importance of historicity in revelation of God. The resurrection of Jesus is a publicly accessible, objective event in history for Pannenberg. Through the resurrection all people have indirect knowledge of God. Part of the reason for the indirection in Pannenberg’s historical program is his eschatological orientation which asserts that the church will not know God directly until the consummation.

For Pannenberg "history" is revelation, while "dialectical presence" is revelation for Barth. Both Pannenberg and Barth provide constructive alternatives to the two revelatory options of their day. The most recent understanding of revelation was "inner experience" as expressed in Schleiermacher’s focus on God-consciousness. Doctrine as revelation is the more traditional model, whether they be the "timeless truths" of only the Scripture (traditional Lutheran theology) or of church doctrine (the Catholic theology of Trent) or a blend of the two (as in Vatican 2). Pannenberg’s proposal is interesting because he is truly to get beyond the impasse of Schleiermacher’s subjective pietism and Barth’s "revelational positivism". The question is does he succeed? This is an open question; however, his acceptance by both conservative and liberal theologians demonstrates that his synthesis has succeeded on the level of theological reconciliation. He is embraced by the liberals because he does not run from the problems of philosophy of history pointed out by Troeltsch like relativismus, while he is likewise embraced by the conservatives because of his orthodox Christology and Soteriology. However one evaluates Pannenberg’s project, contemporary theologians have much to learn through a dialogue with his method, epistemology and philosophy of history and science.

Philosophy of Science

During the 1970s Pannenberg began to express an interest in the way in which theology relates to the natural sciences. Two papers dating from the period 1971-2 focus on the approach of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and show a clear interest in the general issue of the formulation of a "theology of nature." In one sense, this can be seen as a direct extension of his earlier interest in history. Just as he appealed to the publicly observable sphere of history in his theological analysis of the 1960s, so he appeals to another publicly observable sphere, the world of nature, from the 1970s onwards. Both history and the natural world are available to scrutiny by anyone; the critical question concerns how they are to be understood. Pannenberg sees a necessary connection and interplay between scientific and religious accounts of the world.

Pannenberg is clear that the natural sciences and theology are distinct disciplines, with their own understanding of how information is gained and assessed. Nevertheless, both relate to the same publicly observable reality, and they therefore have potentially complementary insights to bring. The area of the "laws of nature" is a case in point, in that Pannenberg believes that the provisional explanations for such laws offered by natural scientist have a purely provisional status, until they are placed on a firmer theoretical foundation by theological analysis. There is thus a clear case to be made for a creative and productive dialogue between the natural sciences and religion; indeed, had this taken place in the past, much confusion and tension could have avoided.

Philosophy of Theology: Systematic Theology

In the spring of 1988 Pannenberg published the first volume of his Systematic Theology, comprising the prolegomena to dogmatics and the doctrine of God. The six chapters of volume one explore:

(1) How truth is the foundation of systematic theology

(2) How the concept of God relates to this truth (natural theology)

(3) How the reality of God is understood in relation to other religions

(4) How to understand revelation

(5) The Trinity

(6) The unity and attributes of God.

In this work we see a mature Pannenberg who has been able to fulfill his programmatic reflections in Revelation as History. In 1991 and 1993 followed the second and third volumes on christology and the church.

The primary theme of his systematic theology is truth. In order to externally verify the truth claims of Christianity, a reflective framework must be established philosophically. For Pannenberg, neither repetition of biblical axioms nor an existential leap of faith goes far enough to prove the truth of Christianity. Theological discourse about God requires a relationship to metaphysical reflection if its claim to truth is to be valid (1990, 6). Metaphysics provides an ideational superstructure in which to assert and evaluate truth claims. These claims are necessary in establishing theological discourse, because in Christian theology everything depends on the reality of God (1991, 5). For example, since Pannenberg believes in the truth of the biblical narratives he prefers to refer to them as history, instead of mere "stories" as has become fashionable among contemporary narrative theologians. By centering his project on the primacy and possibility of the norm of truth, Pannenberg stands against much of the anti-realist, subjectivist postmodernists like Richard Rorty.

Although Pannenberg is a realist, he is a realist of a particular stripe, namely an eschatological realist. He believes that there really is a capital T truth out there, but that we will not know it completely until consummation of the ages, the end of the eschaton. Since all any human knower including a theologian ever has is a provisional perception of truth, all theological statements are tentative, not fully revealing and in that sense hypothetical. For Pannenberg, "History, in all its totality, can only be understood when it is viewed from its endpoint. This point alone provides the perspective from which the historical process can be seen in its totality, and thus properly understood….The end of history is disclosed proleptically in the history of Jesus Christ. In other words, the end of history, which has yet to take place, has been disclosed in advance of the event in the person and work of Christ" (McGrath 1998, 303).  Reality finds its ground in a rapidly approaching future.  It is in this future that Christian hope finds its epicenter.  Pannenberg’s eschatological realism offers a dynamic sense of the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom coming from the future is what is unique to the Christian apocalypse—unveiling--of God’s reign, a righteous rule of love and justice.


Pannenberg is well situated among the great contemporary Protestant theologians. On the one hand, he is clearly a confessional Lutheran "Word of God" theologian. Yet, on the other hand, from a methodological point of view he is a post-Enlightenment liberal. His attempt to bring together Lutheran tradition with a contemporary method is what makes his theology so interesting and compelling.

One important legacy that Pannenberg will leave for young theologians at the turn of the century is an interdisciplinary paradigm for constructing theology. Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology is a brilliant presentation of an authentically Christian and intellectually plausible view of reality, developed in intradisciplinary theological cooperation and tested in interdisciplinary dialogue with other sciences. Philosophy plays a critical, muli-faceted role in theology which is conducted in this paradigm. It provides a metaphysical reflection to describe the world which is an independent locus of revelation of God. However, one variable that Pannenberg has not fully operationalized in his systematic theology is comparative theology, seeing Christian theology from the outside perspective of other theologies. Nonetheless, Pannenberg, by taking Troeltsch’s philosophical criticisms to heart, staying true to Lutheran Orthodoxy, and establishing the credibility of the Christian belief through the cannons of probable reasoning, Pannenberg has produced a post-Enlightenment Christian system which is comprehensive, credible and compelling.

4. Outline of Major Works


5. Relation to Other Thinkers


6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Barth, Karl. 1962. Church Dogmatics, III/1, trans. G.W. Bromiley. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Braaten, C.E., and P. Clayton. 1988. The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press.

Hefner, P. 1989. "The Role of Science in Pannenberg’s Theological Thinking." Zygon 24: 135-51.

McGrath, Alister E. 1988. Historical Theology. Oxford: Blackwell.

Pannenberg, W. 1968 [1964]. Jesus—God and Man. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. Trans. by Lewis L. Wilkins and Duane A. Priebe of Grundzh ge der Christologie. Gh tersloh: Gh tersloher Verlagshaus G. Mohn, 1964.

Pannenberg, W. 1968 [1963]. Revelation as History. coauthored with Rolf Rendtorff, Trutz Rendtorff, and Ulrich Wilkens. New York: Macmillan. Trans. David Granskow of Offenbarung als Geschichte. G` ttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1963.

Pannenberg, W. 1971 [1967]. Basic Questions in Theology. 1971. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. Trans. George H. Kelm of Grundfragen systematischer Theologie. Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1967.

Pannenberg, W. 1976 [1973]. Theology and the Philosophy of Science. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. Trans. Francis McDonagh of Wissenschaftstheorie und Theologie. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1973.

Pannenberg, W. 1981. "God’s Presence in History." 1981. Christian Century. 98:3/11:260-3.

Pannenberg, W. 1985. Anthropology in Theological Perspective. trans. Matthew J. O’Connell. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Pannenberg, W. 1988. "The Doctrine of Creation and Modern Science." Zygon 23 (1988):3-21.

Pannenberg, W. 1991. Introduction to Systematic Theology. 1991. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.

Pannenberg, W. Metaphysics and the Idea of God. Trans. by Philip Clayton. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Pannenberg, W. Systematic Theology. 1991. Vol.1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. Trans. Geoffrey Bromiley from Systematische Theologie. 1988. Band 1. Guttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.

Russell, R.J. 1988. "Contingency in Physics and Cosmology: A Critique of the Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg." Zygon 23:23-43.

Tupper, E.F. 1974. The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg. London.

Wildman, Wesley J. 1998. Fidelity with Plausibility. New York: SUNY.

7. Internet Resources

Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-), links to works online

Academic profile at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat, Munich

Wolfhart Pannenberg article on Wikipedia

8. Related Topics

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)

Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923)

Karl Barth (1886-1968)

Jürgen Moltmann (1926- )


Editor: Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Peter Heltzel (1999).


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