Friday, December 18, 2015

Pannenberg and Moltmann

 My interest in Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann goes back to the mid-1970s. They were the theologians of hope, which was attractive to me. To focus on Moltmann for a moment, his Theology of Hope, Crucified God, Church and the Power of the Spirit, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God have been particularly helpful. However, his political theology was never something to which I could find agreement. Further, the broader range of the writings of Pannenberg, especially in philosophy and psychology, bring theology into conversations that I think are important. As I have gone through Systematic Theology by Pannenberg again, due to a book-reading group, I am looking at the connection between these two theologians. What I have noticed is that they track so closely in their theology, especially with their focus on eschatology, Christology, and the Trinity. Of course, there are some differences, but they are very close theologically. I am doing some re-reading of Moltmann and some new reading, and find myself impressed. For some persons, this will be disturbing, especially if you have a political orientation. However, what I find instructive here is that our politics comes from a different place than our theology. We make judgments about the role of government in our lives based upon many experiences and judgments that we have. In the case of both Pannenberg and Moltmann, their theology arises out of their interaction with scripture and the Christian tradition. Of course, their reflections will also interact with culture today, but the focus is different. My point is that we need to be careful how closely we tie our theology with our politics. Too often, binding them closely is our way of admitting that our political argument is weak, so we will bring God into the equation.

All of this is a way of sharing my reflections on Moltmann and his autobiography, A Broad Place (Minneapolis: FortressPress, 2006, 2008). On p. 49-50, he notes that some unfairly criticized Revelation as History as a nationally colored religious group in the Nazi era. He noted vigorous theological discussions that could make one forget time and place. On p. 91-2, he refers to a time when the two were waiting for a train to go to a conference in the late 1950s. They engaged in such an intense conversation that they lost track of time. Eventually, Pannenberg went to an employee, wondering why their train had not yet come. The man responded that the train had passed a half an hour ago. They arrived at the conference in Bonn after a tedious journey. As we can imagine, the conference was far more boring than their private conversation. Many of us as readers would much rather be part of that informal conversation as over against the conference! We get an insight on p. 105-7 into their conversations when Moltmann wrote Theology of Hope in 1964. Moltmann in that work criticized the theses in Revelation as History as a finalistic metaphysics of history. Pannenberg was not wounded. Rather, he was “taken over.” He would write in 1967 that they largely agreed, given what he had written in Theology of Hope. Moltmann withdrew his criticism if the renewed explanation of the views of Pannenberg were correct. He acknowledges that their theological discussions often became sharp disputes. In the public mind, however, the two united in restoring to Protestant theology an emphasis on eschatology. They would also largely unite over the years in their Trinitarian thinking. At the same time, the drift of Moltmann toward the Left and a version of Marxism in Theodor Adorno, Ernst Bloch, and Walter Jens, and the drift of Pannenberg to political conservatism brought a large gulf between them. He notes that Pannenberg thought of Ronald Reagan as the greatest of American presidents because he forced the Soviet Union to rearm in a way that destroyed its economy. While Moltmann united with liberation theology, Pannenberg united with Peter Berger, Richard Neuhaus, and Michael Nowak. Yet, he admits that in a strange way, their “old ties” have remained at a deeper level. He quotes an article entitled “Children of Protest” that included Moltmann and Pannenberg as offering Christian revolutionary hope. In October 1971 (p. 168), he was at a conference that contrasted the “hope boys” Moltmann and Pannenberg from the “process guys” that included John Cobb and Schubert Ogden. He notes that post-modern arbitrariness has set in and “everyone is content with his own truth.” He notes (p. 211) that they united in breaking out of the narrow confines of existentialist philosophy. He refers (p. 244-5) to a collection of essays in 1972 that for him is an example of how theology then engaged many disciplines, as over against today, as others leave theology in peace. Pannenberg referred to Moltmann’s The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (1981) generously as starting new reflections on the Trinity, for he thought they did so together (p. 292-3). The contrast was with the Trinitarian approaches of Karl Barth and Karl Rahner. He also refers (p. 359) to a comment from Pannenberg in 1996, in reflecting upon their relationship, that they hindered rather than encouraged each other through rivalry and dispute. He also (p. 360) refers to Pannenberg as being “so influential our generation.”
            Other things struck me about the autobiography that I will now share. I should say that lifting out these comments says more about my interests at this time than it says something about Moltmann.

He refers to Bornkamm and Jeremias, he says, because close church ties and a broader education are no longer requirements of academic theology (p. 43). He refers (p. 50) to hearing Bultmann deliver a lecture in 1951 in which the scholar opposed social legislation because it deprived the rich of the virtue of giving and the poor of the virtue of gratitude. That ended his initial interest in existentialist theology. He says that unless theology becomes a theology of the people it will become abstract and irrelevant (59). He was content with the confessing church in Germany (64). He refers to a lecture that began, “I smell a rose, I smell the kingdom,” a thought that would not occur to Barth, but a saying to which Moltmann responded positively (65). He refers to his ideas as “post-Barthian” (78) and a “post-Barthian kingdom-of-God theology” (97). He says Barth was critical of his Theology of Hope because it represented to him another phase of the liberal Protestant view of progress in the 1800s (109-11). On page 131, he engages in praise of America. He refers to it as formed out of “unnumbered human dreams.” It was the dream of immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Latin America. It had messianic and biblical covenant themes of a free people. The Declaration and the Constitution embody that dream. America has a mission to the world, to the oppressed, persecuted, and lovers of freedom. America has become an experiment made by humanity as a whole. He also says (p. 144) that whether God blesses America will become apparent when it emerges whether America is a blessing for the peoples of the world, or their burden and curse. One receives blessing only in order to be a blessing. He offers an account (198-200) of some criticism of his Crucified God that came from “patripassionism” angle and from the thought that God is sadistic in Moltmann. He also refers to Eberhard Jungel, God as the Mystery of the Word (1977) as valuable in being close to him and in being far away. He refers (261) to theological society of which he was a member that he helped move politically to the Left, for which he was glad, but it forced some people to leave the organization. With the death of his parents, he offers (p. 322) a reflection that the dead are not far away. They are beside us and in us. Our lives are continual dialogue with them. We live in their past, which is now present, and they exist in our present. We live with what the dead owe us and with what we owe them. We exist in the space of their blessing, their unforgotten suffering, and their unforgiven gilt. Their light and their shadow are part of their lives. He rejects (327) the archaic structures of superiority and subordination he finds in Church Dogmatics, both in his notion of the Trinity and the relation of man and woman. He contrasts his “from below” approach to the “from above” perspective of subordination. He notes (347) his shift in focus to a culture of life, referring to Albert Camus, “It is Europe’s mystery that life is no longer loved.” He notes (356) that his retirement in 1994 was not an end, but a transition. The move is from the compulsory style in ice-skating to free skating. He now does what he feels like doing.

 My introduction to German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg was a class at Asbury Seminary in 1975. His Basic Questions (1967, 1971) was a series of essays that I found challenging. I read his Jesus: God and Man (1964, 1968) as I got into being pastor of churches. He did not write his Systematic Theology 1988 and Geoffrey W. Bromiley did not complete the English translation until 1991. I was excited, devouring the book.  Although I did not have the pleasure of meeting him, he has been my teacher through the years. He wrote Theology and the Philosophy of Science in 1973 and Anthropology in a Theological Perspective in 1985. Given his approach to theology, these were two books he needed to write before he could he write his Systematic Theology. In my case, these books were formative. They also led me to other books. Pannenberg has a reputation for his small print and footnote references and discussions. The serious student in theology will want to pay attention. If Pannenberg regularly mentioned an early church author, a theologian, a philosopher, a psychologist, or a political theorist, I wanted to read the author. In many cases, I have been able to do so. I suppose if I were to teach a systematic theology course, his Systematic Theology would be the text, not so much because of the positions he takes, but because of his references.

One obituary notice I read on Pannenberg said that he died with no disciples. Well, in a sense, I have been one. In another sense, I doubt he would want a disciple, for he kept bringing me back to Jesus Christ.

I have reason for his lack of disciples, although the reason saddens me. Unlike Jürgen Moltmann, he did not travel the path of “political theology,” a path that ultimately involved a critique of Western Civilization that included Marxist analysis and liberation theology.  Such analysis leads to viewing the West through the eyes colonial expansion and the presumed lack of regard for the culture and religions it encountered. For this reason, of course, Christianity, which is a deeply woven religion in the West, receives harsh critique as well. In contrast, Pannenberg maintained a profound respect for the Enlightenment philosophical tradition. This fact has led to a political label of “conservative.” His basic point will be that “modernity” is a cultural, intellectual, political, and economic system with which Christianity can engage in dialogue. Reading the Moltmann autobiography made me think of my political journey with William F. Buckley, George Will, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, and Walter Williams. Of course, Pannenberg also hurts his ability to have disciples because he is not fully within the conservative theological camp. The most notable departure is his departure from the tradition regarding the emphasis on the Virgin Birth in developing one’s belief regarding the Incarnation, but one will find many places where he charts a unique course. Such departures mean that conservative or evangelical scholars will not carry the torch either. In some of my social media theological discussions, I would recommend reading Pannenberg, and on the evangelical side, the virgin birth was enough to dismiss him. Granted he did not seem too concerned with being part of an identifiable group. He did not seem to have the desire of developing a new group defined by adherence to his teaching or methods. In some ways, we witness a beautiful thing when we read Pannenberg. He is not trying to please any group or develop a group. He wants to engage an honest pursuit of the truth. If others want to join him in the journey, fine, but he finds the journey a worthy investment of his life. The reason all of this saddens me is that because he did not bow to the university crowd in their politics, to the mainline Protestant leadership in their politics, or to a strict reading of the creeds, many people miss the excellent theological insight he possessed.


  1. Great reflection! I think we need both Pannenberg and Moltmann. I agree that we need to be very careful in how we tie religion and politics.

    1. Juan, I have added some reflections in which you might have some interest. It is not long, but I remembered a few more things.

  2. Thank you for your comments. I added a little bit more in which you might have some interest. I am finding that Pannenberg keeps guiding my reading - to certain early church theologians, to Barth, and now, to Moltmann - again. He has been a good teacher.

  3. One facebook friend said: A great work, George!!! Worth the read!!!