Thursday, September 15, 2016

Ecclesiology: Chapter 14

Chapter 14: Election and History


Pannenberg is now ready to explore the doctrine of election. While Jesus preached the future rule of God, the future is present by anticipation in the person of Jesus. People participate now in the future of divine rule by being in fellowship with Jesus. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are signs of that future rule, giving advance notice of the whole course of life of those to whom they apply. Participation is important here in order for us to bear the image of God and allow God to fashion us into the likeness of God. He proposes thinking of religion as the divine education of the human race. This education occurs in the context of cultural history. Important for inner formation is the medium of spontaneity, within which the image of the Son and his free relation to the Father take shape in human life. He refers at the natural level to the self-organization of the living creature. This natural occurrence also occurs at the level of the human race and its history. The struggle for existence continues in the rivalry of cultures as they reflect the struggle between alternative ideals of life. The common end of this striving is the unity of the race as a species and the achieving of what is common to humanity in the lives of individuals and in the forms of their association. The divine origin of ideals of life declares itself in a sense of election and calling that sets the lives of individuals or particular societies in relation to the rest of humanity and to all peoples. Applied to the theological discussion, the people of Israel had a sense of election in the free historical action of God. The existence of the church rests on the historical work of God in the history of Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian sense of election has an eschatological basis in terms of the living eschatological reality of the risen Christ, who is the new humanity. Election as it meets individuals in baptism and the Lord’s Supper sets us on the way to fulfill our destiny. Confident in our election, we perceive the way and the goal dimly. The fellowship of the church has its basis in calling, election, and the accompanying sending all of which has an eschatological goal. He admits that the hints he has offered of election and calling are not congruent with the classical formulation of the doctrine of election. He will part company with Origen and Augustine. The mistakes they made show up in Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin. Karl Barth acknowledged his departure from the Reformed tradition. Pannenberg will depart further from that tradition. He will criticize the Lutheran Formula of Concord (1577) for its discussion of this doctrine. The placement of this discussion is important. He has not discussed the doctrine under the doctrine of God. Even Barth followed that rule. Instead, by placing the discussion of election as part of his consideration of the church, he is able to connect it with the election of Israel and the entire notion of the particularity of a people chosen to witness to the world.

            First, Pannenberg will discuss the election of individuals. He needs to justify and clarify his view of election by a critical discussion of the traditional form of the doctrine that relates it primarily to individuals and their participation in eternal salvation. One, he discusses the classical doctrine of election. The discussion by Paul in Romans 9-11 and 8:28-30 focus on the plan of God for salvation. The plan involves the divine acts in history, especially relating to Jesus Christ. Later theology shifted the focus to elect individuals. Determinism arose through Gnostic influence. Origen and Augustine treat election as an act of God that takes place in eternity before time. They also see eternal election relating directly to individuals with restriction to the theme of their participation in eschatological salvation. These presuppositions guide the discussion in scholastic theology of the Middle Ages, Aquinas, and Calvin. He views this as an abstract view of election in contrast to the biblical statements of the electing activity of God in history. Such an abstract view of election makes the divine decision timeless, detaches individuals from all relations to society, and restricts the purpose of election to participation in future salvation. Such an abstraction moves against the historical nature of election in the Bible to a people who have a role in history. He acknowledges the Bible refers to God choosing individuals, such as kings and patriarchs, but the election serves the historical purposes of God. The early church realized God had called them into a new divine act of historical election by founding the church and its mission of offering salvation to the nations. The idea that God first foresees and then determines that we find in Origen rightly has the suspicion of Pelagianism. This view dominated in the Middle Ages. The determinism of Augustine rightly makes God seem unjust and cruel. This view dominated among the Reformers. Luther developed the insight that the eternal election of God is in Jesus Christ and is thus in the historical turning toward us in Jesus Christ. His goal, then, is to chart a different course than this classical formulation and its attending problems.

            Two, he discusses election and calling. If salvation occurs already in the timeless nature of election, it would seem to devalue the preaching of the gospel and the present call to salvation. However, the aim of the counsel of the love of God is to have creatures who participate in the fellowship of the Son with the Father and the sending of the Son into the world. Interestingly, both Schleiermacher and Barth saw the problems with the classical formulation of election and its focus upon individuals. While election relates to the eternal in Ephesians 1:4, it also relates to the future consummation of the divine plan in 1:10. As among those “in Christ,” the elect are proleptically what they shall be.

            Three, he discusses the election of individuals and the fellowship. The biblical emphasis is upon the election of people. This was true of Israel. It was also true of the Christian community, in which belonging to Jesus Christ was the basis of election. The electing will of God relates to the community and beyond it at all humanity. Election of individuals serves the saving will of God for humanity. The eschatological destiny of humanity shows itself in Christ, in individuals, and in the community. The elect serve the greater goal of the saving action of God. The saving action of God is that of reconciliation with God and with each other. Election has a fellowship as the primary target. This means others are not elect. If God elected Israel, this meant the exclusion of other peoples. Yet, even that community remained open to new members. The chosen stand in for a future definitive human fellowship under the rule of God. It therefore remains an open question which individuals will or will not belong to this eschatological fellowship. Election to a fellowship does not exempt the elect from divine judgment. We must bear the consequences of what we do. He does not think one can guarantee an ultimate universal reconciliation. However, in a history that is still open the possibility of forgiveness, the promise is still present for those who repent.

Second, Pannenberg will discuss election and the people of God. He will focus specifically on the relation of election to the church, especially through the theme of the church as the people of God. The eternal election of God aims at the human society that will find definitive form in the eschatological fellowship of the rule of God. The work of election in history has an orientation to those on the way to this goal. The community anticipates the final rule of God and the destiny of humanity. The elect community is a sign of that end. As a sign, the community is a witness to the will of God to save. The church is a provisional representation of the fellowship that will be under the rule of God. Participation comes through faith, hope, and love.

One, he discusses the concept of the people of God in ecclesiology. Historically, the notion of the people of God dropped out of use until the reformation period picked it up again in order to oppose the hierarchical and juridical concept of the church as a clerical dominion that contrasted with the secular powers that had developed during the Middle Ages. However, in the Bible, the concept of the people of God is broader than church. Vatican II tried to do justice to this. From among Jew and Gentile, Jesus called a people to grow together in the Spirit and to form the new people of God. It sees the church as the core of this humanity of the future. It sees the church in Christ as a sign and instrument for the inward union with God and for the unity of all humanity. In its light, a theology of election underlies this function of the church for all humanity, a function that has a close link to the church as the people of God. The whole church can welcome the emphasis in Vatican II as encouraging us to consider the function of the church relative to the divine economy of salvation. The view of the church in terms of election as the people of God relates its description as the fellowship of believers to its function with respect to the ordaining of humanity for fellowship with God in the consummation of the kingdom of God.

            Two, he discusses the church and Israel. We cannot biblically reflect on the church without also reflecting on Israel. With all that I have just written, is the church the new people of God? Does Israel continue alongside the church as the old people of God? Note, also, that the term “people of God” is not plural. In spite of their painful history, do they in some way belong together in our notion of the people of God? What I want to urge is that the churches be clear that when they think of themselves as the people of God, it has an implication regarding our relationship with the Jewish people. Moltmann can say that Israel is the original, enduring, and final partner of Christianity in history.[1]

As we move through these difficult waters, I should stress that the New Testament does not refer to the church as the “new” people of God. We see the term from in the Epistle of Barnabas 5:7, 7:5, and 14:1ff. The unfortunate verdict is that Israel never was the people of God, since it rejected such a designation in building the golden calf, and only the church is the people of God that the Old Testament promised. Melito of Sardis and Hippolytus differed in that they thought of Israel as the people of God for its time, but the church has replaced it. Such thinking, if not in accord with the New Testament, is understandable. As Robert L. Wilken presents it, the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the end of the temple worship, and the demise of the priesthood, the subjugation of the Israel by Romans, all seemed permanent.  Christians did none of this, by the way. Christians in the second and third centuries continued the prophetic interpretation of world events they found in the Bible. Therefore, for them, the involvement of Jews in the crucifixion and its expulsion of the first Christians from the synagogue led the judgment on Jerusalem and its Temple. Historical reality led Christians to think that Christianity had replaced the Jewish way of life and that the Jews would no longer continue to exist as a people. Of course, history would show that the Jewish way of life did not end. It appears that it took the horror of the holocaust to force the church to face this reality. The theological theme of supersessionism, that the church succeeds Israel in such a fashion as to displace Judaism from the status of the people of God, never became a dogma of the church of the Middle Ages. Such reflections may help us understand why early theologians reasoned the way they did, to a point where it sounds anti-Jewish to us, even if at the time it may not have been intended that way.[2]

Paul offers a vision of the people of God, Israel, and church in Romans 9-11 that I think is worth our reflection. In 11:1, he raises the question of whether the rejection of the gospel of Jesus Christ by the majority of the Jewish people means that God has rejected them. He answers emphatically in the negative. Christians would themselves become anxious of their comparatively new elect status if that were the case. He makes the point by advocating the inviolability of the election of the Jewish people in 11:29 (for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable) and 9:6 (It is not as though the word of God had failed.) Therefore, God has not annulled the covenant with the Jewish people. Their overwhelming rejection of the gospel was obviously painful to Paul, but he found some comfort in the Old Testament view of the remnant. “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened.” (Romans 11:7) As the people of God, Israel is for the time this remnant. At the same time, the people of God are expanding as the apostolic mission to the Gentiles is bringing in believers from the nations.

24 including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 25 As indeed he says in Hosea, "Those who were not my people I will call "my people,' and her who was not beloved I will call "beloved.' " 26 "And in the very place where it was said to them, "You are not my people,' there they shall be called children of the living God." (Romans 9:24-26)


Therefore, a link already exists between church and Israel, which he describes in terms of the root of the olive tree that carries the wild branches that contrary to normal rues God has grafted into it.

17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, 18 do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. (Romans 11:17-18) 

Paul regards the majority Jewish reaction as the expression of a hardening by God based on the divine plan of salvation, but not forever.

7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written, "God gave them a sluggish spirit, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day." (Romans 11:7-8)

25 So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. (Romans 11:25) 

His point is that the hardening does not finally exclude them from God or from sharing in divine salvation.

In a similar theme, the death of Jesus brings peace between Jew and Gentile.

12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:12-20) 

Paul does not seem to argue for a special path for Jew and Christian. Rather, the returning Christ will show himself to be identical with the Messiah whom the Jews await and will renew the covenant of God with the Jewish people by remission of their sins. Paul could appeal to the Old Testament prophets, who wrote of a new covenant that did not mean God had abandoned the earlier covenant.

20 And he will come to Zion as Redeemer, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression, says the Lord. 21 And as for me, this is my covenant with them, says the Lord: my spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or out of the mouths of your children's children, says the Lord, from now on and forever. (Isaiah 59:20-21)

9 Therefore by this the guilt of Jacob will be expiated, and this will be the full fruit of the removal of his sin: when he makes all the stones of the altars like chalkstones crushed to pieces, no sacred poles or incense altars will remain standing. (Isaiah 27:9)

33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33-34) 

Interestingly, Judaism has a counter-thesis at this point. Some have argued that Jesus was not the Jewish Messiah, but that he has become the Savior of the Gentiles. The problem with this, of course, is that Jesus was Jewish and that the first believers were Jewish he had come to believe Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah. Any Christian mission to the Jewish people must witness to this belief that Jesus is the promised Jewish Messiah. Yet, the mission to the Jewish people is of a different nature than to others, for the New Testament itself stresses that Christians believe in the same God, as do the Jewish people. For Christian witness, the focus has to be on the fact that the God of Israel has definitively revealed who God is in Jesus of Nazareth, and has done so first to the Jews. At the same time, such a Jewish approach may well answer the question of whether synagogue can recognize the church as belonging to the same people with it.

To complete the New Testament picture at this point, in a less nuanced way we find a similar discussion of the church as the people of God.

7 To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, "The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner," 8 and "A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall." They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (I Peter 2:7-10)


Once again, we must return to the notion of the church as the new people of God or as the replacement people of God. Paul had already warned the church of arrogance in relation to Israel.

17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, 18 do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 You will say, "Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in." 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. 23 And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree. (Romans 11:17-24) 

Sadly, the church in its history ignored this warning. In essence, the church decided that it was the place of the initially actualized eschatological consummation, and thus could think of itself as the “new” or replacement people of God. This choice was dangerous and destructive for the history of the church well beyond its relation to Jews. It took the form of dogmatic intolerance, resulting in a history of division and dogmatic exclusiveness. Such a painful history began with the mistake it made regarding the Jewish people. It took the horrors of the holocaust under Nazi Germany to prepare the church to confess that it has this fellowship of destiny and solidarity with the Jewish people. Christians today, as individuals and as churches, need to handle their relation to the Jewish people with the type of openness that we find in Paul.

            Here is the point, as Pannenberg sees it. We can think of a single people of God that constitutes the object and goal of what God does in election. The term “people of God” leaves room for all humanity transformed and renewed for participation in the lordship of God. The Christian church is not exclusively identical with the eschatological people of God. Rather, the church is a provisional form of this people, a sign of its future consummation that will embrace Jew and Gentile, whether the “righteous” of all nations who stream in from every culture to the banquet of the reign of God.

            Three, he discusses the people of God and the official church. The actual and historical church can never be anything more than a provisional sign of the destiny of itself as well as humanity. The eschatological fellowship of Christians can take adequate shape in no political order. Without going to lengthy discussion here, the historical separation of church and state, which we find in Romans 13, Augustine, during the Middle Ages, and in the modern era, is a reflection of the notion that the political order will never reflect the destiny of humanity in fellowship with God or with each other. The increasing secularism of this era makes it seem impossible, but the notion of the people of God as expressed here opens the possibility of a newly formulated relation between church and society. Christians cannot identify themselves with any one model of political order. In the past, separation of church and state occurred within a society that had a Christian basis. Today, secular society emphasizes its separation from religion in order to give religion a marginal role in its social life. The point here, with Pannenberg, is that the secular order needs a religious or quasi-religious basis and justification in the faith of its citizens that will precede all manipulation by rulers. Christian awareness is now on the point of outgrowing the antagonisms of the denomination age and thus the historical reasons for making religion a private matter. A recovery of the social sense of Christians as the people of God could initiate a new epoch in shaping the relation between Christianity and the public order, especially since many people in North America and Europe no longer are sure where they stand in regard to the Christian tradition.

            Third, Pannenberg will discuss the election of the people of God and the experience of history. He wants to deal with the relation between the theological doctrine of election and the history of Christianity, including secularized forms of the belief of the belief in election. Divine election is an act of historical calling. Yet, it also forms the starting point of a history of the elect, for election orients itself toward a future goal. Election assigns to the elect community a function in relation to this goal. We can see this in the Old Testament with the election of the Patriarchs. Deuteronomy understood the history of Israel in light of this election. The link of election to keeping the covenant is clear in the Deuteronomic history we find in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. What he will want to do is link this sense of election in the history of a particular people to the universal history of culture.

            One, he will explore the thought of election as a religious category for the historical constitution of the cultural order. The political system of an ancient culture, Israel being one, linked to a religious basis. The difference was that while surrounding cultures grounded this religious basis in cosmology, Israel grounded it in its historical election. The grounding of its political and legal system in the historical acts of God gave Israel uniqueness in its context. This meant focusing on the election of a people instead of the royal connection to the divine. This meant that election is not for Israel alone. Amos 9:7 is a powerful example of comparing Israel with other nations in a way that attacks its sense of uniqueness. Amos is re-reading the cosmological self-understanding of other cultures in light of their historical experience. This observation will lead him to explore a theology of history that closely links to the concept of the election of the people of God.

            Two, he explores aspects of historical self-understanding related to the thought of election. Election refers to the historical origin of a people. Yet, this initial act is a historical process that moves toward the rule of the electing God in relation to the goal implied in election. The elect community will need to correspond to the destiny the electing God has marked out for them. Therefore, election connects to the revelation of God to a people. Election presupposes knowledge of God that revelation provides. The irrevocable nature of election rests upon the self-identity of the electing God and on the faithfulness of God. This also means that the elect community has an obligation that by their conduct they should correspond to the fellowship with the electing God. We see this in the Old Testament in its emphasis upon the covenant. We also see it in the declaration that Israel is the possession of God and a holy people. In the New Testament, the theme of the sanctification of the people of God is the focus. The separation of the people of God distinguishes it from the ways of the world. For Pannenberg, modern Christianity has largely forgotten this point. Its members think they must adjust to the world instead of consciously and concertedly differentiate themselves from its rules and form of life. Of course, in this separation, it can every only be an anticipatory sign of the destiny of humanity. The other side of this separation from the world, however, is that election involves the elect community in witness and mission to the world. This witness is to humanity as a whole. Insight into the general connection between election as separation from the nations and the sending of the elect to bear witness to the nations forms the framework for an understanding of the distinctive nature of the task of Christian mission. Matthew 28:19 makes it clear that the risen Lord have the mission proclaiming the gospel to the nations and making disciples from among them by baptism in the triune God. In this way, the church serves our humanity destiny for reconciliation with God and with each other. Jesus seemed to live with the Jewish vision of the nations making pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The community of believers also lives with that vision, and witness to it. They are the city on the hill that one cannot hide, as Jesus put it in Matthew 5:14. The mission of the church means setting aside the Law of the old covenant and proclaiming a gospel for all people. The final theme of election is divine judgment. This means that the elect community can fall under divine judgment. It also means that the nations can fall under that judgment. His concern here is that if the church is silent concerning historical acts, people will have a weaker sense of the reality of God. We have no protection from making mistakes in this regard. An affirmation of the divine governance of the world is empty and meaningless without taking this risk.

            Fourth, Pannenberg will discuss the task of interpreting theologically the history of the church and Christianity in the light of the doctrine of election. He will offer some observations on election and the world government by God as they lead him again to the theme of eschatology. Most presentations of church history detach its history from any connection with the reality of God. The result is fatal, not only for theology, but also for faith. Biblical writings speak of the acts of God in history. When church accounts of its own history leave the impression that God has withdrawn from human history, it creates an ambiguity in terms of how the church itself experiences the reality of God. He objects to the approach of Oscar Cullman, who detaches from world history the concept of salvation history.[3] Rahner seems to move down the same path.[4] Pannenberg thinks that the links to logos theology as we see in John 1, theology of creation, and especially a theology of history in keeping with the testimony of the Bible, are important in this regard. Such a theological interpretation of history will include the doctrinal discussions, the divisions of the church arise from them, and the missionary expansion of the church. He refers to Protestant theologians like E. C Rust, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Hendrikus Berkoff as among the few who have developed approaches to a theological interpretation of the history of the church. He likes E. Muhlenberg as well. As Pannenberg sees it, one does not have to see the activity of God in both natural events and human history as in competition with the operation of finite and temporal factors. He refers to F. C. Bauer in his 1842 work, Die Epochen der kirchlichen Geschichtsschreilbung as an imposing presentation of the notion of the unfolding of the idea of the church, especially as he focused on the incarnation. If God was flesh in Jesus, the church as the body of Christ is an incarnation as well. John Macquarie will say that the church is the community in which the raising of humanity to God-humanity, which we see in Christ, continues. He connects this notion with the church as the body of Christ. The church has the purpose of forming a new creation after Christ. The church is an extension of the incarnation, although he stresses that the church is still in process.[5] Pannenberg thinks, in contrast, that the notion of election as the people of God is a more fitting way of viewing church history. On its historical paths the church is subject to the providence of God as to a reality that differs from it in nature and that is transcendent to it and to world. This reality manifests itself in the sending and preservation of church by God and in divine acts of judgment on it. Although he respects what Muhlenberg has accomplished, he thinks the focus is far too much on the opportunities in history for God to act for our salvation, and not enough on God acting in judgment on the church. As he sees it, then, only the category of judgment enables us to trace back historical disasters to God. Such a history cannot overlook the truth claim of Christian belief in God. Such a presentation cannot simply presuppose it dogmatically. In other words, as is typical with Pannenberg, such a presentation will be quite aware of the debatable character of the reality of God in history. Now, as he sees it, a theology of church history, when it comes to the theme of the missionary church, focuses on the church as an eschatological community and as the end-time people of God. The church and its members know that Jesus Christ has chosen them for participation in the eschatological fellowship of salvation with God. Yet, Christ also calls and sends them to bear witness to all peoples concerning their eschatological destiny and the way that in Jesus Christ it has already broken in. His point is that Christian mission presupposes the sense of election of church as the eschatological people of God.  As an example, he rejects the notion of a fall of the church due to the Constantine era. It has led to a spiritualizing concept of the church that does not recognize that had the church not accepted responsibility for renewing of the political order it would have fallen under the judgment of God. In any case, the history of the church also consists in its formation of doctrine. The schisms that resulted opened the door for the victory of Islam in the East, and thus came under the category of judgment. In fact, as he sees it, the inner decay of Western Christianity because of the swollen claims of the papacy is an expression of the judgment of God. The alienation of the modern world of Western culture from Christianity, inasmuch as its secularism derives from the divisions of the 1500’s and the Wars of Religion express divine judgment. The shattering of social peace by the intolerance associated with confessional difference are surely expressions of divine judgment. John Wesley will trace the “mystery of iniquity” from the early church and through the history of the church, concluding that the grand objection of those who do not believe against Christianity is the lives of Christians.[6] However, Pannenberg also agrees with Danielou, who thinks that along with judgment, we need a focus on repentance and new beginning. The rise of the ecumenical movement, for example, ought to give all traditions an opportunity to look self-critically at its history. He thinks this attempt is hardest within the Roman Catholic tradition. Within the Protestant tradition, however, as this self-criticism continues among them, they need to realize the central importance of Rome for the Christian world and the beneficial role it can for Christianity as a whole. Rome could well find itself in the situation of Peter.

31 "Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers." (Luke 22:31-32) 

            Pannenberg concludes with a brief consideration of secular belief in election and nationalism in the history of Christianity. He refers to European nationalism, Moscow as the “third Rome,” the mission of the new American nation, and Zionism as examples. As a rule, these secular interpretations have not been beneficial. It has led to a sense of superiority over other peoples.

Fifth, Pannenberg will discuss the goal of election and the government of the world by God in the process of history.  He will want to discuss the theme of eschatology. To conclude, the ultimate aim of the election by God is the fellowship of a renewed humanity in the kingdom of God. We can think of this renewed humanity as the fulfillment of the purpose of God in creation. It was the aim God had of all creation living in the divine presence. The aim of God will find fulfillment in overcoming sin and death, the yearning for fellowship with the Creator, the witness to all people of fellowship with God and each other, and settling the issues related to justice and peace. Amid the strife of world history, the people of God offer a model of the rule of God, which took place in Israel and the church. In this regard, as we have already suggested, the conduct of the church and individual Christians will obscure that which the church celebrates in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The church entangles itself in the conflicts of the world. Christians have contributed to the disasters that have taken place in the history of Christianity. True, the church suffers rejection repeatedly in its history, and thus, shows a difference between elect and non-elect that seems like no one can bridge. However, this would not be so if with full clarity the church always and everywhere discharged its function as a sign and representation of the consummation of humanity in the rule of God that has dawned already in Jesus Christ. In fact, the life of the church often distorts the sign of the divine rule to the point of unrecognizability. His point is that a person may remain, on justifiable grounds, aloof from the church. This means that some of those who do so act of disenchanted longing for the rule of God that they can no longer see in the church’s life. One might think of the analogy of Romans 9-11 here, that the hardening of Israel led to a new mission among Gentiles. The perversions of the fellowship of the body of Christ may well open new doors for reaching this world. He refers to “the supreme art of God’s world government” reflected in causing good to come from evil. To take one example of judgment upon the church, the divisions between East and West, and later the divisions within Protestant world, opened the way for the thought of tolerance in civil life and in the life of and faith of the church. The church has become increasingly aware of the provisional nature of its assessments, remaining open to the future of God and divine judgment.

Pannenberg concludes with a parable that may suggest the church of today is applying wisdom it could have long ago applied to itself in far better than it did in the past as it invited schism and war.

"The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, "Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' 28 He answered, "An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, "Then do you want us to go and gather them?' 29 But he replied, "No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.' " (Matthew 13:24-30)

[1] The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 135.
[2] “The Jews as the Christians Saw Them,” First Things, 73:28.
[3] Cullman, Salvation in History, p. 153ff.
[4] Rahner, Theological Investigations, V. 97ff, 104ff.
[5] Principles of Christian Theology, Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1966, 348.
[6] John Wesley, Sermon 61, “The Mystery of Iniquity.”

Ecclesiology: Chapter 13

Chapter 13: The Messianic Community and Individuals


Pannenberg begins with a discussion of the fellowship of individuals with Jesus Christ and the church as the fellowship of believers. The church aims its missionary message to the salvation of individuals. Jesus addressed his message of the imminent rule of God to individuals rather than the development of a political program. He will want to explore the relation between the fellowship of individuals with Jesus Christ and their gathering in the church. One, Pannenberg discusses the church as the fellowship of believers and the body of Christ. As the body of Christ, the image addresses the inseparable union of believers with Christ. We see this reality particularly in Word and Sacrament. The unity of the body is one we perceive only through faith. Two, he discusses the mediating of the fellowship of believers by the common confession. The confession of faith in baptism is basic to this fellowship. The common reciting of a creed at baptism makes explicit that for which the name of Jesus stands. He thinks special dignity attaches to three creeds, Nicaea, Constantinople, and the creed of the Apostles. Three, he discusses the immediacy of individuals to Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit and the communicating of the gospel by the church. He admits that an individual Christianity aloof from the church is a reality of our age. The divisions of the church into groups that denounce each other contribute to this. It can lead to divisiveness, egocentricity, imagining the superior importance of an individualistic opinion as ordained of God rather than the apostolic tradition. Such activity is a poor witness to the world. Of course, an idolatrous overvaluation of unity will result in uniformity. Tyranny can impose superficial unity.[1] John Wesley would stress that many who “profess much religion” and “enjoy a measure of it” seem to leave a Christian society as easily as moving from one room to another. They do not see the sin involved in such separation.[2] Wesley also famously stated our differences in opinion and modes of worship may prevent external union. Yet, the union of affection or love ought to be present. The children of God may tolerate small differences while being of one heart. He builds upon the phrase “If your heart is as my heart,” which he takes to mean believing God and Jesus Christ. He takes it to mean loving God with all the heart, mind, soul, and strength, and the loving of neighbor. He takes it to mean giving oneself to good works. While not of the same opinion or experiences the same modes of worship, we may love each other and provoke each other to good works. Of course, he carefully states he does not want any of this to mean that our differences of opinion or modes of worship do not matter. They matter enough that they likely prevent external or official unity.[3] Individual subjectivity appears as the true center of religion. Yet, such individualistic Jesus-piety passes quickly past the fact that Jesus formed disciples as a group. It ignores the fellowship of the church immediately after the resurrection of Jesus. Clergy have the responsibility of helping people develop their individual relation to Christ. Christian freedom is the work of the Spirit, helping us experience our reconciliation with God. We overcome our alienation from each other and from God. His point has been that the work of the Spirit releases and reconciles the tension between the fellowship and the individual in the concept of the church. The work of the Spirit reconciles the tension between society and individual freedom as an anticipation of the future rule of God. He commends the work of Paul Tillich and Jürgen Moltmann in these matters. John Wesley stresses that individuals should turn away from the beginning of strife and not associate with those given to dispute or love contention. Individuals should seek peace and be peacemakers in the church.[4] Thus, the Spirit is the end-time gift. Therefore, the Spirit is the medium of the immediacy of individual Christians to God as the Spirit lifts them up to participation in Christ. The Spirit binds believers to each other in the fellowship of the body of Christ. The fellowship of believers by the Spirit moves them beyond themselves and to Christ. He will pursue further the notion of a fellowship that has its essence outside itself.

Let us reflect upon “body of Christ” for a moment. Embodiment is availability to other persons. For the church to be the body of Christ is for the church to make the risen Christ available to the world.[5]

If in the meeting between us you are a subject of whom I am an object, but are not in turn an object for me as subject, you enslave me. Only if I am able to intend and so grasp and respond to you as you intend and grasp me can our relation be reciprocal. A disembodied personal presence to me could only mean my bondage. If the person in question were to be God, the bondage would be absolute.[6] Robert W. Jenson has a beautiful way of putting this relation.[7] Where does the risen Christ turn to find himself? He turns to the gathering of believers. Who is the risen Christ? His answer is: “I am the head of this community. I am the subject whose objectivity is this community. I am the one who died to gather them.” His point, I think, is that being the body of Christ means that the actual church, in its fellowship, history, and institutional life, has the respect due to any embodied presence, a respect it ultimately receives from God.

Barth will stress that the community is the earthly-historical form of existence of Jesus Christ. The church is the body of Christ, created and continually renewed by the awakening power of the Holy Spirit. Christ is the head of this body, the community. The body has its head in Christ. The church belongs to Christ, and Christ belongs to church. Because Christ is, the church is; the church is, because Christ is. That is its secret, its secret in the third dimension, which is visible only to faith, the first two dimensions being psychological and sociological.[8]

Second, Pannenberg will discuss the basic saving works of the Spirit in individual Christians. He admits the manifestation of the Spirit has an ecstatic character, but wants to separate this notion from intoxication. Such ecstasy can mean becoming supremely with oneself. As the Spirit integrates such ecstasy with fellowship of believers, it mediates the sense of an initial removing of alienation between individuals and between individual and society. He will then discuss the theological virtues as the primary way of removing alienation, concluding with a discussion of adoption and justification.

Moltmann will have a different way of approaching these matters as he says that the church participates in the process of the life of the world. The goal is liberation. The stress of economic life is that of that of expansion versus the limits of growth and ensuring the participation of all persons. The danger is exploitation. Participating in political life means valuing human rights. The danger is repression. Participation in cultural life means openness to the identity of various groups in the social order. The danger is alienation between these groups. One does not have to go his admittedly Marxist analysis and socialism to understand these areas as real issues the churches need to face.[9] Tillich refers to expanding the function of the church. Whenever active members of the church encounter those outside the church, they are missionaries of the church, voluntarily or involuntarily. Their very being is missionary. The purpose of missions as an institutionalized function of the church is not to actualize the Spiritual Community within specific congregations all over the world. Of course, this means not imposing one cultural form or one generational form on others.[10]

As Pannenberg continues, he discusses, one, the theological virtue of faith or trust in the future rule of God. Faith relates to time, to the future God will bring, and therefor to God. Faith is trust. Faith is not mere knowledge. However, since Christianity rests upon historical acts, faith depends on knowledge of the reports we find in the Bible. Thus, faith is not blind obedience. Yet, like human knowledge, the knowledge is provisional and probable. Thinking about this faith and our knowledge of it always takes place with the recognition of our historicity and finitude. He deals with the link between the assurance of faith and the rise of certainty. Knowledge rests upon a process in which we need to consider present knowledge as anticipation of the totality of the context of life and world. Any sense of certainty and assurance is in the context of the anticipatory character of our experience. Faith can accept, therefore, our questioning and doubting in the context of the brokenness of our knowledge of God and readiness to receive further instruction.

Two, hope relates to the incomplete character of life now, relating it to possible fulfillment. The basis of the hope is the promise of God. Such hope is not just for the individual but also for humanity. Eschatological hope includes this-worldly hope, but orients them to divine fulfillment. 

Three, love begins with love of God and neighbor. Love of God is the communication of the grace of God to individuals. Christian prayer is an expression of love toward God and neighbor. Prayer as thanksgiving, adoration, and petition has its best context in a discussion of love.

Four, he discusses adoption as children of God and justification. Being children of God is the essence of Christian life. Faith makes us righteous before God because it appropriates the saving work of God in Christ. Only faith fellowship with Jesus Christ is the object of the divine sentence of justification respecting believers. Faith participates in Jesus Christ in the missionary message that takes to the world a ministry of reconciliation. Baptism is the connection between both adoption and justification. Justification assures believers of participation in eschatological salvation. Such faith sets aside any human attempt to get right with God. The Christian life as a whole is a life in faith. Such faith lifts us up above ourselves to fellowship with Jesus Christ and therefore to hope and love. It does so in a way in which ecstatic faith bring participation in the life of divine love. In this way, a human life finds protection against corruption we find in human self-centeredness.

Third, Pannenberg will discuss the form of the signs of the nearness of God, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as the presence of salvation through Christ in the life of the church. John Wesley would remind us that these signs have value only as they connect us to Christ. He also would discuss them in the context of the means of grace. Thus, one may pray, receive baptism, receive the Lord’s Supper, and read scripture, to no profit. They have no grace in themselves, for grace comes only through Christ.[11] The event of the regeneration of believers takes place in baptism. Our gaze turns toward the common life of the church, as baptism integrates the baptized in the fellowship of the church. Participation in Lord’s Supper links to the fellowship of believers. It assures individuals of their fellowship with Jesus Christ. Baptism is the grounding of fellowship with Christ and the Lord’s Supper demonstrates and assures its continuance. Both acts are signs. Tillich will stress that sacramental symbolism connects to the great moments of the life of individuals, such as birth, maturity, marriage, and imminent death, or with special religious events, such as entering the clergy. His point is that the Spiritual Community can appropriate various forms through which people can experience Spiritual Presence. If Spiritual Presence no longer grasps people through the sacramental act, it has lost its sacramental power.[12]

As Tillich points out, the fear of this magical approach has led to an intellectual or moral interpretation of the sacraments, or, as with the Quakers, to interpret the sacraments in terms of a mystical inwardness. In fact, one could say that we maintain spirituality better by not having physical objects, as in the traditional use of the sacraments. Yet, the physical symbol participates in the power to which it refers. The question arises as to whether the physical objects are necessary at all. The Roman Catholic Church bound the Word to the teaching office of the church, and the Reformation bound the Spirit to the Word. In both cases, they faced what they believed to be dangers of spirit-movements. We could, and do, experience the work of the Spirit outside of these external signs and symbols. Yet, God always has a medium to communicate the Spirit. The connection of the work of the Spirit to external means arose out of the concern that movements would lose their connection to Christ if they were simply movements of the Spirit.[13] In fact, Tillich will say that in light of the twentieth-century rediscovery of the unconscious, we can re-evaluate positively the sacramental mediation of the Spirit. A Spiritual Presence apprehended through the consciousness alone is intellectual and not spiritual. A sacramental symbol is neither a thing nor a sign, but participates in the power of what it symbolizes, and is a medium of the Spirit.[14]

Pannenberg continues with a discussion of baptism and the Christian life. He begins with a discussion of baptism as the constitution of Christian identity. Disciples who follow Jesus on his way let their lives grow into a unity with the way of Jesus. Their dying has a link that of the death of Jesus on the cross. In that way, the vicarious significance of his life and death counts for them in their living and dying. They that stand under the promise of Jesus that those who confess him before others, the Son of Man will also confess before the angels of God (Luke 12:8). Baptism is an enacted sign, and therefore points people to the thing signified, which is Christ, but also sets people moving in that direction. Faith rests on the relation to that which is outside the believer. He takes his stand with the tradition of the church that one receives baptism once. It occurs one time and has a lasting character. He wants to reflect on the relevance of baptism to the life of the Christian. He begins with a discussion of the relationship between baptism, conversion, and penitence. The motive for conversion is the proclamation of the presence of the rule of God and its salvation who rely (have faith) on it. Of course, conversion and baptism have a close relation in the New Testament. He stands with Luther in closely connecting penitence with baptism. Penance is the daily task of appropriating the conversion and regeneration of baptism. The ship of the new Christian life becomes ready in baptism. Christians can fall from grace, as we see in Galatians 5:4, but they can also regain it. Baptism is there all our lives. Baptism offers a new identity that is ec-centric rather than ego-centric. He views pastoral counseling as helping individuals face the continuing reality of sin in the baptized. It is part of the reconciling work between the individual and the church. He then discusses baptism and faith, discussing the matters of infant baptism, confirmation, and anointing of the sick. He will argue for the permission of infant of baptism in the life of the church and will offer reasons. Baptism and faith belong together, even if the missionary practice and theology of the early church recognized that faith came prior to baptism. Cyprian and Origen testify to the presence of infant baptism at the end of the second century. He does not think one can draw firm conclusions from household baptism. Tertullian argued against it. Paul refers to the sanctification of the children of Christian parents in I Corinthians 7:14. The doctrine of the original sin became the primary reason for infant baptism after Augustine. The Reformed tradition continued to practice it because the covenant of grace is not only for adults. The criticism by Barth of this position is that faith and free confession of the baptized is a prerequisite for baptizing them. Pannenberg will disagree in that baptism links the individual to the destiny of Jesus. One receives this baptism, and is therefore not primarily a human act. My faith receives baptism. Baptism as a sacrament aims at the faith of the recipients in what it signifies (Christ), but does not presuppose it because faith can only receive baptism. Baptism is a gift that presupposes only lack of opposition. Part of his point here is that even as adults, our power of judgment and decision in these matters has a limit. We cannot guarantee our perseverance in faith. At the baptism of the children of Christian parents, we have to reckon with a positive readiness for unlimited trust whose real object is the true God who has revealed who God is in the sending of Jesus. He will set aside, of course, the portion of the Christian tradition that excluded unbaptized children from salvation due to original sin. Rebaptism is a cause for division in the church universal because it means regarding the baptism already received as invalid. Parents adopt responsibility for the well-being and development of the child until they can take responsibility for themselves. The parents have a vicarious confession of faith that carries with it an obligation to undertake the religious education of the child. This obligation does not guarantee the future faith of the child. Of course, adults cannot guarantee their future faith either. Confirmation as a rite within the church arose because of the lapse of time between baptism and the personal confession of faith. Confirmation affirms the connection of baptism to the whole life of the baptized. The death of the old nature anticipated in baptism is something the believer works out in daily Christian life in the appropriation of baptism. Again, baptism is an anticipatory sign of the whole life of the baptized as seen in the light of its end, followed up gradually throughout the course of the Christian life. Experience shows that after confirmation many young people experience alienation from the Christian faith. He supports beginning confirmation at puberty as part of the relation of faith and personal identity. The basis of confirmation is not personal faith and confession, but rather, strengthening and blessing those come of age. Baptism is the concrete place of justification in the lives of Christians. Faith appropriates throughout life the new identity that rests on baptism. Baptism is part of the Christian understanding of the formation of personal identity. New human identity is outside the self. Baptism is re-founding human identity by focusing upon Christ. Baptism is the reconstitution of the person in the form of the sacramental sign. The sign is anticipatory of the life of the baptized. Through baptism, believers are in relation to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Participation in the relation of the Son to the Father by the Spirit changes the structure of self-identity. Lastly, he discusses the institution of baptism and symbolism of the rite. The basis of baptism is in the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Early Christianity viewed his baptism as the model of Christian baptism, especially regarding the link between baptism and reception of the Spirit. Baptism into the death of Jesus changes matters of individual identity in that the baptism of Jesus serves as the model for the meaning of baptism. The Spirit gives the children of God freedom to go their individual way, follows their calling, and accepts the consequences. Of course, Jesus did all of this in the course of his life.

Barth has a significant discussion of limiting baptism to adults.[15] Moltmann has also gone the direction of urging the church to move away from infant baptism, and instead have a blessing of children born to Christian parents.[16] The churches would then reserve baptism for those who wish to make a public profession of their faith in Christ and identify themselves with Christ. For them, the missionary situation of the church in the West has sufficiently enough for the church to re-think the notion of infant baptism.

Pannenberg then discusses the Supper of the Lord and Christian worship. He begins with a exploring the origin and meaning of the Super of the Lord. The beginning of Christianity witnesses to the Lord’s Supper being at its heart. The tradition that on the evening of his passion Jesus authorized continued table fellowship with him even after his death forms of the basis of its celebration. He admits that we cannot reconstruct with certainty the historical nature and course of the last meal. We cannot even be certain it was a Passover meal. He reminds us that Jesus ate many meals with people. He also told stories of the messianic banquet. Jesus offers signs and depictions of the eschatological fellowship of the rule of God. We have the central symbolic action of Jesus in which he focuses on his message of the nearness of the rule of God and its salvation. The forgiveness of sin is a special link to this message. The words of Jesus around this meal connect more with other of his meals than do with Jewish observances of the time. Such meals, involving the participation of Jesus, were anticipatory signs of the coming rule of God. The being of the church in this sign-act an assurance based on the gift of the Spirit. The church is the fellowship that celebrates the Lord’s Supper. The church has its existence outside itself. Receiving bread and cup unites believers with each other in the body of Christ. He discusses the words of institution and the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. At issue is the full presence of Christ in the Supper. He argues that saying “This is” changes the bread and wine through giving it the new meaning of the offering of the body of Christ for us. He then discusses the meaning of the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic liturgy of the church. It presents the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, the liturgy is not just remembering by the believers present. Eating and drinking of the Supper causes us to participate in the path of Jesus toward the cross. The liturgy enables the church to enter into the self-giving of Christ as we offer ourselves with Christ as a living sacrifice in the bread and wine. The Supper is first the turn of Christ to us. The Supper grants fellowship with Christ and therefore forgiveness of sin. He refers positively to the Orthodox Church in its liturgy calling upon the Spirit to make Christ present in bread and wine. He then discusses the Lord’s Supper and the fellowship of the church. Participation in the Supper worthily (I Corinthians 11:27) involves the mutual fellowship of the participants. The invitation is to all disciples present. For him, this means all baptized Christians, an inclusive invitation, may I say, especially for a German Lutheran. Participation presupposes faith. He notes that Moltmann extends the invitation to include all who wish to come, based upon the fact that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. When I invite people to the table of the Lord, I invite all who seek to draw near to Christ. He then discusses the Lord’s Supper and the proclamation of the gospel in the worship of the church. He urges preaching that integrates the various parts of the liturgy and music so that people can see its unity.

Reformed theologian F. Leenhardt, along with Wolfhart Pannenberg, has suggested the concept of a "transformation of meaning."  In this way, the focus shifts from the nature of the elements. The elements are material and pass away. They would like to shift the focus to the meaning of the elements as we partake of the Supper.  The meal takes on a meaning of fellowship with Christ and fellowship with each other, a reminder of the “being” of the church. In fact, this is what happens in daily life.  People do many things by habit.  However, one day it all takes on new meaning.  Then, we receive a new motivation for living and loving.  One can say the same of the Lord's Supper.  The presence of Christ in the Supper and in the elements is in such a way that our own view of reality and faith and life can be altered as we become open to God in our fellowship with Christ and with each other.

Much of the historical discussion focused upon the nature of the presence of Christ in the Supper.  For Roman Catholic tradition, there appeared to be an emphasis upon the sacrifice of the Mass, as if this were a re-presenting of Christ as the sacrifice for the sins of the world.  In Protestant circles, this teaching removed the unique nature of the sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross.  Yet, in the process of this dispute, many worshippers lost the connection the reality of fellowship with Jesus now in the Supper.  It became little more than a remembrance of a past event, rather than experiencing anew fellowship with Jesus. While Roman Catholics speak of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, Protestants reject this terminology. In fact, Luther considered the mass and its concept of sacrifice as the greatest abuse of the power of the Pope. Trent in fact separated offering and communion, celebration and sacrifice. If fact, many Catholic theologians have recognized that if there is truly one sacrifice of Christ, which their church now clearly teaches, there may be little sense in continuing that particular terminology. 

Pannenberg concludes with a discussion of the ambivalence of the word “sacrament” and the special case of marriage. The issue is liturgical actions or states of life in the church. He discusses the difficulties in using and justifying the term “sacrament.” The difficulty is the biblical usage of the term and the institution of the liturgical action by Jesus. We can see the problem heightened when the historical nature of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not as clear as one might like. He refers to Barth here, who wanted to limit the term “sacrament” to Christ. He then explores the notion of the one mystery of salvation and the many sacraments. The use of the term “mystery,” which is behind the term “sacrament,” in the New Testament focuses upon the plan of God for salvation in Christ. He then explores sacraments as signs. Here, he notes that the term “sacrament” meant a series of signs related to the offer of salvation in Christ. Granting that a sign points to the thing signified, it also separates the believer from the thing signified. Yet, the sign nature of the liturgical action has validity in referring to the presence of salvation and its yet to come feature. He agrees with Aquinas that the sign “effects” what it signifies. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in particular point to Christ, while also actualizing the presence of Christ. He then discusses the scope of the sacraments, discussing them in a way that connects various traditional acts to baptism, as we have shown. He then discusses marriage as a reminder of a broader sacramental understanding. Ephesians 5 in particular unites the fellowship of husband and wife to the fellowship between Christ and the church. Marriage is sacramental in that it relates the difference of our bisexuality to our destiny to fellowship with Christ and with another. Christianity offered monogamy that offered to women security and a solid social position they did not have in Jewish or Greek practices. It points the way to equality of the sexes (Galatians 3:28). He thinks the church cannot regard the homosexual relation on the same level as that of marriage. He concludes with a summary of the use of the term “sacrament.” He argues for a broad use of the term.

Since the matter of homosexuality has reached a high degree of debate in the churches, I would like to pause for a moment and consider the position of Pannenberg. In a broad sense, his point is that the saving plan of God has a hint in the bisexuality of the race. The reconciliation that God seeks in humanity receives its first pioneering efforts in the marriage relationship. The homosexual relation is one individuals and churches can tolerate (a bad word today), but not make of equal ethical value or validity with the marriage relationship. Sadly, I have had direct questions regarding how they should treat a homosexual friend or neighbor. Of course, we are to love actively our neighbor. For some people, toleration would be a wonderful step for them to take. However, Pannenberg has written a well-circulated article on this subject that I want to explore. Pannenberg considers whether love can have a perverted expression. The Bible is clear that it can. Hence, of course, the prohibitions against adultery, which lead to prohibitions regarding sexual activity with persons within the family, whether son, daughter, aunt, uncle, or stepparent. Love for God must take precedence over every other love, the denial of which would be the greatest perversion of love. Of course, the will of God determines our identity as followers of Christ. Instead of going first to biblical statements regarding homosexuality, he goes to an important statement regarding marriage. Jesus referred to creation as the basis of the marriage relationship. The purpose of God in the marriage relationship, according to Jesus, is that male and female become “one flesh.” The goal is the indissoluble relation of marriage in sexual relation. This standard is the guidance of Jesus and the church for the sexual relation. Jesus is largely consistent with Jewish teaching. His teaching is strict, largely due to the desire to protect women from a divorce that could leave them with little legal protection or financial support. The Old Testament assesses negatively the sexual behavior of those under covenant who depart from this standard. The Holiness Code in Leviticus 18-20 is clear on this. Israel knew it was different from other nations in this prohibition. The New Testament continues this distinctive moral guidance. Romans 1:27 includes homosexual relations among the signs of those who turn away from God. I Corinthians 6 says that one can gain strength to avoid such practices in light of their baptism. He indicates his view of biblical interpretation when he says that the New Testament gives no evidence of any other evaluation than a negative one regarding homosexual relations. I might add that this would be the difference with other matters often raised. Pannenberg affirms the right of women to ordination because the New Testament contains a discussion (dialectic) regarding their involvement in ministry. The same is true of the marriage relationship and slavery, where, if one followed the household rules (Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, Philemon), the marriage relation becomes a partnership and master-slave relation dissolves, at least, within Christian households. The point is that the negative assessment is the corollary to the positive statement of Jesus that the marriage relation of male and female fulfills the intent of God at creation. To neglect this teaching will bring detriment to the Christian message. This teaching opposed the cultural setting of its time, so it should not surprise that it opposes the cultural setting of this time. The new evidence to which some point to today involves homosexual inclinations that may or may not result in homosexual relations. Yet, an inclination does not necessitate behavior. Our sexual impulses influence every area of our lives and therefore fall under the need for self-control. Sexual activity is not the determinative center of life. In fact, monogamous marriage offers the gift to human beings of subordinating sexual activity to larger objectives and tasks. An inclination does not deserve judgment. What it does need is responsibly directed behavior. As we have seen, homosexual activity is a departure from the norm of sexual behavior as men and women created in the image of God. Of course, a full discussion of this matter would lead us to any sexual activity that does not orient itself to the marriage relationship. The departure of heterosexual persons is far more numerous in our time than the limited, but vocal, matter of homosexual activity. The church lives with the fact that departures are common and widespread. The response of the church should be one of tolerance on the one hand and a call to repentance on the other. The church cannot surrender the distinction between the norm and the departure from the norm. As he concludes, he makes a strong statement. The church that knows itself bound by the authority of scripture knows it encounters a boundary here. Those who urge the church to change the norm promote schism. They urge a church to stand no longer on biblical ground. A church taking this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.[17]

I am sure some persons would consider Pannenberg outdated here, as they might Karl Barth. At the same time, we need to hear such theologians and their rationale. For some persons, putting this topic out there for discussion will mean dismissal of Pannenberg. I hope not, for he has much to teach us.

Fourth, Pannenberg discusses the ministry as a sign and instrument of the unity of the church. He will discuss the need for the organization and order of the church. The latent church, apart from its worship life, experiences the power of the Spirit at work by faith, hope, and love. Paul Tillich and Jürgen Moltmann explore some of these matters in a different way. Paul Tillich refers to functions of the church that help to construct it into what God intends. He includes aesthetic (arts), cognitive (theology), communal (fellowship), and personal (spiritual formation) functions.[18] He also discusses the relating functions of the churches, which he sees as the way of silent interpenetration (priestly), the way of critical judgment (prophetic), and the way of political establishment (kingly). In the latter, the churches must be careful not to fall into nationalistic ideologies.[19] Moltmann follows a similar path, but adds that Jesus was also “friend,” based on Luke 7:34 and John 15:13-14. His point is that people who live with another as friends no longer have concern for privilege and domination.[20] The theological discussion of ministry and offices usually begins with a discussion of spiritual gifts in the writings of Paul.

One, Pannenberg discusses the common commission of believers and the office of unity. The common calling of all Christians is to witness to the salvation offered in Christ. After Vatican II, all Christians have share in the priestly ministry of Christ. After the death of the apostles, bishops emerged as the primary persons with the responsibility of ensuring the fidelity of this witness of all Christians. Leadership and teaching authority combined in the one office. They had special responsibility for encouraging the unity of the church. He argues for the inclusion of women in this leadership function.

He says that the role of clergy is to help believers on the way to independence in their relation to the substance of the scripture. Only in this way do they perform their task. In this, he is defending the truth of the Reformation teaching of the priesthood of believers. Nevertheless, a particular form of ecclesial polity emerged that used “apostolicity” as its legitimation, namely, one that was sacerdotal, Episcopal, and hierarchical. By its very nature, this polity vested authority in a group of specially sanctioned individuals, and its tendency was to become increasingly monarchical and absolutistic. Obviously, it was necessary for the post-apostolic church to adopt some form of definite institutional structure, including an ordered and recognized ministry, and it was probably inevitable that this structure should reflect the patterns of religious and political authority characteristic of Hellenistic and Roman culture. What occurred was the loss of charismatic forms of ministry present in the apostolic church, and the adoption of a juridical model of reality with its accompanying system of rewards and punishments. While these developments are regrettable, one should acknowledge that true Christian faith and practice survived in countless individuals, that the church helped to shape, for better or for worse, the values of Western civilization, and that, despite obvious abuses and corruption, the institution was for the most part effectively governed and led.

What Pannenberg observes here is consistent with Peter Hodgson, who has a concern for the role of leadership within the community. What authorizes leadership in the community is not sacerdotal, or hierarchical that accrues to the office. He would say that office, consecration, or special call, are not what authorize ministry. Rather, the possession of knowledge, skill, commitment, and character are what authorizes ministry. Ordination is a matter of recognizing and certifying the possession of such qualities in the person. It does not confer sacral power or authority. What he proposes is a democratic, participative, and secular model of ministerial office. The minister as leader should empower the common ministry of the people. True leadership is not simply management or administration. Leadership involves articulating a vision of what the church is, its essential being, its purpose, and enabling this vision to become a productive ideal that infuses all church activities and all participants.[21]

Two, he discusses ordination and apostolic succession. He points to the issue that for the Roman Catholic Church, all churches not united to the Pope have a defect in their ministry. He discusses sacramentality and ordination. The ministry of leadership comes under the commission of the risen Lord to continue the apostolic ministry to serve the church. Ordination becomes a sign of that ministry. He then discusses the effect of ordination. The gift conferred at ordination relates to the function the one ordained serves and not to a personal standing of grace. He then discusses canonical ordination as a sign of the unity of the church. He agrees with much modern ecumenical discussion here in saying that apostolic succession has more to do with the teaching and faith of the apostles than it does to an office. He agrees with Luther that the “emergency” of a missionary setting that he faced allowed for the ordination of persons to ministry outside the established order of the Catholic Church.

Three, he discusses the unity of the church and ministerial hierarchy. In our setting, the unity of the church is a gift it receives because of our common fellowship with Christ and a task for the churches to make a reality. One, he discusses the essential attributes of the church in Nicene Creed (381) of holiness, catholicity, apostolicity, and unity. He refers to the scandal of divided Christianity for the modern Christian consciousness. Two, he discusses different levels of the unity of the church and its leadership. At its core, the ministry of leadership is a teaching ministry. He does think that the regional episcopacy and the local priest-presbyter-pastor need to express an episcopal character. Regional leadership can focus more upon unity among the churches. Robert W. Jenson suggests that he various levels of the church are in perichoretic communion with each other, drawing an insight from the Trinity rather than insight into how the world works. Such an insight also leads to the view that every local church has integrity and wholeness, even in divided Christianity.[22] Three, he discusses whether ministry to the unity of Christianity as a whole is a possibility. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church views the Pope as that possibility. He sees no reason to rule out this possibility. The Orthodox Church acknowledges the primacy of the bishop of Rome. He refers to speeches, lectures, encyclicals, and pastoral letters as expressions of this function. Many still hold ecumenical counsels of history in high regard. He questions any notion of infallibility either for the councils or for the Pope. He sees a special need self-criticism by the Pope. The focus of the Pope should be more on persuasion than power.

Fifth, Pannenberg discusses the church and the people of God. The term “body of Christ” is the most profound description of the nature of the church. The church in its institutional form has not done well in discharging its function as a sign of hope of a future consummation of humanity in the rule of God. It has divided. It has shown intolerance. It has sought power. Clergy have participated in this. It has accommodated to the changing modes of the world. It has shown narrowness of the hothouse forms of its piety. It often gives little evidence of the liberating of the spirit. Yet, this obscure sign is still a sign. God can purify the sign. At times, the light of the church shines brightly. The church is the people of God, a provisional representation of the future of humanity reconciled with God in the future rule of God. While “body of Christ” is the basic description of the church, “people of God” derives from it. The latter phrase involves election. The doctrine of election supplements the doctrine of the church. Election involves sending. Sending directs the elect into the world and into its history, which is moving toward the future of the reign of God.


[1] (Oden 1987), 725.
[2] John Wesley, Sermon 75, “On Schism.”
[3] John Wesley, Sermon 39, “Catholic Spirit.”
[4] John Wesley, Sermon 75, “On Schism.”
[5] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, Volume 2, The Work of Christ, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999, 213.
[6] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Domination and Slavery.
[7] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, Volume 2, The Work of Christ, Oxford University Press: New York, 1999, 214-15.
[8] Church Dogmatics IV.1 [62.2]
[9] The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 163-188.
[10] Systematic Theology, Volume III, 193.
[11] John Wesley, Sermon 16, “The Means of Grace.”
[12] Systematic Theology, Volume III, 123-24.
[13] Systematic Theology, Volume III, 122.
[14] Systematic Theology, Volume III, 123, 125-128.
[15] Church Dogmatics 4.4, [75.2].
[16] The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 226-42.
[17] Christianity Today, November 11, 1996.
[18] Systematic Theology, Volume III, 196-212.
[19] Systematic Theology, Volume III, 212-16.
[20] The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 76-108, 114-21.
[21] Winds of the Spirit: A Constructive Christian Theology, Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, Ky, 1994, 300.
[22] Systematic Theology, Volume 2, The Work of Christ, Oxford University Press: New York, 1999, 223, 224.