In Chapter 5, Pannenberg offers the first portion of his discussion of the Trinitarian God. In fact, Chapters 5 and 6 present his doctrine of God, keeping in view the plurality and debatability of all religious truth claims. He has already said that theology has to do with the study of God. Therefore, identifying God is important. Pannenberg begins the process of identifying this God from the perspective of Christian belief. He will do so understanding that he will need to reformulate the Christianity understanding of God from the standpoint of experience of the world, humanity, and philosophical reflection. He will want to redefine the relations of these doctrines to their historical origins. He will do so by reference to scripture and to Christian tradition. He does this because he is a Christian wrestling with the new realities of any religion that he laid out in Chapters 2 & 3. In his discussion of the Doctrine of God, he wants to see if he can reformulate Christian teaching regarding God in light of what we have learned in Chapters 2 & 3. Thus, he is not appealing to Scripture or Tradition as authorities, but as sources out of which the Christian theologian must wrestle to find out whether the truth claims of Christianity can stand in a provisional way. He concedes that he is following the pattern Karl Barth established in his Prolegomena, where he discusses the doctrine of the Word of God as a criterion in Chapter 1, then the revelation of God in Chapter 2. In the latter chapter, Part I reflects on the Triune God, Part 2 on the Incarnation, and Part III on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Although their content is quite different, the structure is similar in moving from revelation to a reflection on the Trinity. In fact, in Chapter 6, Pannenberg will discuss the essence and attributes of God, parallel to Barth and his discussion of the doctrine of God in Volume 2 of Church Dogmatics. Paul Tillich, in contrast, will explore the being and reality of God in Part II of his Systematic Theology. He will relate the question of God to the philosophical notion of Being and its connection with finitude. Here is also where he will discuss connecting the secular concern for “ultimate concern” and the modern meaning of the word “God.” He will relate God to “Being-itself,” and therefore as living, creative, and related (in holiness, power, and love).
In Section 1, Pannenberg deals with the God of Jesus and the beginnings of the doctrine of the Trinity. Jesus announced the nearness of the divine rule of his Father. The God of Jesus is the God of Jewish faith. He grants that the notion arose out of the patriarchal constitution of the Israelite family. The father cared for the members of the clan, so God as Father cared for Israel. The God is Father in relation to the creatures God has made. God as Father chose Israel and established the covenant. “Father” becomes a proper name for God, and not just a time-bound notion. Further, Jesus differentiated himself from the Father, so he does not think it proper to say, “Jesus is God.” Yet, Jesus also closely linked the work of the Father in the world with his mission and ministry in the world. Jesus is the Son due to the nearness of divine rule, the subjection of the Son to the will of the Father, and as a revelation of the love of God. Easter becomes divine confirmation of this mission and ministry of Jesus. Eschatological revelation will disclose Jesus as Son of God and Messiah, a truth shown in the resurrection. He relies upon Jewish apocalyptic and the notion of divine wisdom for the early rise of the notion of the pre-existence of the Son in the New Testament. We see this development in the rise of the title, “Lord” for the exalted Jesus, a term applied to God in the Old Testament. This title suggests the full deity of the Son. Further, the Spirit of God is the medium of the communion of Jesus with the Father and the mediator of the participation of believers in Christ. The Spirit gave life to creation, inspired the prophets, and was the mode of the presence of God in the ministry of Jesus. Pannenberg will discuss the difficult issues arising out of the controversy between Arius and Athanasius. The Creed of Nicaea is at risk here. In addition to what we have already noted, he will add that the notion of the Trinity arises out of the Logos, the Torah, the name of Yahweh, and the glory (kabod, shekinah) of God. Such notions distinguish God from the mode of the presence of God in the world. His point is that Christian statements about the Son and Spirit take up questions already in the Old Testament that related to the transcendence of God on the one hand with the modes of divine presence in the world on the other hand. The Cappadocians had monotheistic intentions in their vision of the Trinity. They focused upon the Father as the “origin” of the Trinity, which therefore provided a basis for the unity of the Trinity. Yet, this path was close to the notion of subordination proposed by Arius.
In Section 2, he wants to justify his placement of a discussion of the Trinitarian God at the beginning of his actual exposition of Christian teaching. The idea here is that one might have a general notion of God through reason and experience, but actual knowledge of the Trinity only through revelation. Eventually, however, the Trinity began to look like an appendix to Christian teaching, which it became with Schleiermacher. The psychological approach of Augustine was a way to link unity and Trinity. Anselm would derive the Trinity from the unity of the divine substance that embraces the three persons. He speaks favorably of Richard of St. Victor, who focuses on the thought of love. The love of God has a fully worthy partner only in a divine person. The Spirit of love becomes the common essence of the Trinity – the lover, the beloved, and love. The difficulty, of course, is that love may relate persons while not suggesting their unity. The Protestant focus upon the Bible and revelation meant that Socinians could base anti-Trinitarian arguments on Scripture, giving it the impression of being an unbiblical teaching. It took German Idealism and its concept of Spirit to recover the importance of the Trinity. He will stress that the deity of Christ cannot exist apart from the Trinity. The teaching regarding the Trinity places God and the revelation of God at the heart of Christian theology. It was through Idealism that Isaac August Dorner influenced Barth and the impressive recovery of the teaching of the Trinity. By deriving the Trinity from the formal concept of revelation as self-revelation, he is structurally similar to the self-conscious Absolute of Hegel. Barth also proposed three modes of being in the one divine subjectivity. The difficulty of such Trinitarian discussions is that one falls into modalism or subordinationism. For Pannenberg, we need to begin with the event of revelation, out of which arise the distinctions of Father, Son, and Spirit. Such an approach will bring the immanent and economic Trinity together, after which the unity of this God becomes a theme as we discuss the divine essence and attributes.
In Section 3, Pannenberg discusses the distinction and unity of the divine persons.
In subsection (a), he discusses the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as the starting point. He does not think Barth is helpful here, seeing the Trinity having its source in revelation as subject, object, and predicate. For Pannenberg, the place to begin is with the relation of Jesus to the Father and his message of divine rule. He will pay attention to “historical Jesus” research as he discusses such matters. With Moltmann, he refers to the baptism of Jesus and his sense of calling. The notion of the sending of the Son and Spirit suggests fellowship and movement within the Trinity. He prefers the notion of the preexistence of the Son and the sending from the Father. He agrees with Karl Rahner, who suggested that the immanent Trinity is the same as the economic Trinity.
In the next subsection (b), Pannenberg discusses the reciprocal self-distinction of Father, Son, and Spirit as the concrete form of Trinitarian relations. His point here is that the mission of the Son is to witness to and establish the lordship of the Father, thereby distinguishing himself from the Father. According the Gospel of John, his opponents charged Jesus with claiming equality with God. Further Genesis 3:5 tells us that Adam wanted to be as God. Yet, as the Son and the Father relate to each other, we discover a new dimension of God. As Athanasius put it, the Father would not be the Father without the Son. This shows the reciprocity of this relation. For Pannenberg, the handing over the work of the Son to the Father (I Corinthians 15:24-25, 28) so that God may be all in all refers to the eschatological consummation. It will be a defining moment in the relation within the Trinity. For Pannenberg, in the cross the deity of the Father is at issue. Jesus took upon himself the ultimate consequence of his self-distinction from the Father and in so doing showed himself to be the Son of the Father. The Father participates in, embraces, and takes within the deity of the Father, the passion or suffering of the Son. The involvement of the Spirit in Easter is as the creator of life. The Spirit glorifies the Son and through the Son the Father. He prefers the notion that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son receives the Spirit. He would prefer to withdraw the filoque clause from the Creed of Nicaea (381).
Pannenberg is now ready to go to his third and final subsection (c) with a discussion of three persons but only one God. He wants to see the Trinitarian relations as living realizations of separate centers of action. He agrees with Moltmann that through the personal characteristics that distinguish Father, Son, and Spirit they dwell in each other and communicate eternal life to each other. In the perichoresis, the very thing that divides them becomes that which binds them. Each is a catalyst of many relations, which he refers to as the relational nexus of the perichoresis. He thinks of the classical notion of Trinitarian relations as simplistic in this sense. He refers positively to R. W. Jenson, who said that the relations between the persons are constitutive for their distinctions and for their deity. The Son and Spirit serve the monarchy of the Father. The monarchy of the Father is the result of the common operation of the three persons. At this point, Pannenberg rejects Moltmann as he wrote of making a distinction between the constitution of the Trinity by the Father (in being the Father of the Son and the breather of the Spirit) and the perichoretic mutuality of the personal relations in the life of the Trinity. Rather, Pannenberg wants to state that the Trinitarian relations mediate the monarchy of the Father, which is to say that the Father cannot be the Father without the Son.
Pannenberg concludes in Section 4 with a discussion of the world as the history of God and the unity of the divine essence. To say that the immanent and economic Trinity is identical is to say that revelation is internal to the deity, rather than an external act of the deity. The incarnation is a specific instance of the intervention of a divine person in worldly reality. The uniqueness of this event occurs in the context of a work of the Trinitarian God in the world that embraces the entire economy of salvation. The incarnation brings creation into the relations of the Trinitarian persons and participates in them. The Father remains transcendent, acting in the world through the Son and the Spirit. This way of framing the relations within the Trinity maintains their mutual dependence. In this way, the Father became dependent upon the course of history, with the crucifixion of Jesus illustrating the reality of this dependence. The Spirit becomes the glorifying and unifying of God in the resurrection of Jesus. The Trinity throws itself open to the world, to time, and to the renewal of creation in the sending of the Spirit. Yet, the reverse is also true, that the transfiguration of the world through the Spirit means all people turn to God through the Son. This Trinity has sense and significance only if God is the same in salvation history as God is from eternity. This does not mean that the Trinity is the result of a historical process. As he sees it, the eschatological consummation is only the locus of the decision that the Trinitarian God is always the true God from eternity. Easter is a retrospective confirmation of the eschatological consummation of history. All of this is to say that Nicaea and Constantinople broke loose from historical events and this represents their failure. Bringing the immanent and economic Trinity together brings transcendence and immanence together, establishes the self-identity of God, and the debatability of divine truth in the process of history. What Pannenberg has done is show why the classic formulation of the Trinity no longer works and he proposes a new way to formulate it. Pannenberg and Moltmann unite in wanting to bring the Trinity to the front of the Christian view of God, rather than as an appendix to a general notion of divine transcendence and monotheism.