Christ, Humanity, Science and More: Wolfhart Pannenberg

It has been way, way too long since the last installment of the Dating God series “Theologians that Rock.” Therefore, it is only fitting that another brilliant thinker be counted among those that rock. The latest addition is German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg.

I really cannot say enough about Pannenberg and will have to restrict my comments about this luminary systematic theologian for the sake of brevity. While I do not always agree with his perspective on certain subjects, particularly his more socially conservative views in recent years, it is only Karl Rahner and John Duns Scotus that have influenced my personal approach to theology more than Pannenberg, and he is not far behind them.

Born into the struggles of German-speaking Europe in 1928, Pannenberg’s early life was plagued by the specter of war and social unrest — as so many continental philosophers and theologians of his generation were, including the current pope. The young Pannenberg was a High School teacher during WWII and, a Lutheran from birth, aligned himself with the Confessing Church, the community most often associated with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which spoke out against the pogroms of the Third Reich and drew on the Gospels as a resource for justice and resistance.

Pannenberg was deeply influenced by the work of G. W. Hegel and, of course, Karl Barth. (But really, who isn’t influenced by Barth?) The influence of Hegel’s work in history and spirit significantly shaped Pannenberg’s thought, most noticeably in the three subfields of Pannenberg’s work for which he is most recognized: Christology, anthropology and revelation. It is the first subfield of systematics that Pannenberg is recognized as perhaps the greatest Twentieth-Century Theologian of the subject — perhaps tied with or ranked close to another German, Rahner.

Whether one agrees with Pannenberg’s Christological outlook or not (his starting point ‘from below’ remains contentious in some Christological circles, as it does with the work of other twentieth-century theologians), his magisterial Jesus: God and Man (1968) still remains a text with which all Christologists must reckon. His work in this area is indeed prodigious, significantly impacting the Christological landscape for generations of theologians to come.

His three-volume Systematic Theology (1988-1994) is another masterwork that has increasingly become a must-read for graduate students of systematic theology. Additionally, his work in the area of theological anthropology, while not nearly as well-known as his Christological work, has also made significant contributions in contemporary theological circles. Pannenberg’s most concentrated treatment of theological anthropology is found in his book, What is Man? (1970).

While his Christology, anthropology and theology of revelation have garnered extraordinary attention for the German theologian from within and without the academic theological guild, he is largely considered a pioneer in another more nascent speciality of theology, an area really only recently coming into its own. That area is the study of theology and science.

In the mid-1970s Pannenberg was writing about the relationship between science and theology at a time when few were paying that relationship the attention it deserved. One only has to glance at his 1976 Theology and the Philosophy of Science to gain an appreciation for his originality. While his Systematic Theology volumes are highly sensitive to social and natural sciences, his theological engagement with modern science is found most prominently in his many essays on the subject. One collection of such essays is his Toward a Theology of Nature: Essays on Science and Faith (1993).

As a final comment, because I see this post potentially going on for far longer than I would have otherwise intended, I will say that what is perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of Wolfhart Pannenberg, aside from the brilliant and original content of his work, is the sheer quantity of his written output. I cannot think of some theologian who has been as prolific as Pannenberg (maybe just maybe Avery Dulles or St. Augustine could rival him, but I have my doubts).

In addition to numerous books, Pannenberg has authored more than six-hundred articles and book chapters — an immense feat worthy of admiration. Believe me, it takes a lot of time, effort and skill — let alone discipline — to be that productive. All that in addition to his decades of teaching and directing graduate students makes for something of a super-human accomplishment.

I encourage everybody to read at least something of Pannenberg’s, if you haven’t already. Even in translation his texts are — by theological standards — rather approachable. If there’s a theological topic that interests you, chances are Wolfhart Pannenberg has touched on it somewhere!

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