Wolfhart Pannenberg: Theologian of the Resurrection

With Easter Sunday rapidly approaching it is only fitting to recognize one of the greatest defenders of the historicity of the Resurrection in the twentieth Century, Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg felt that the study of Theology should be undertaken like other Academic disciplines and in his lifelong quest for truth he found that the Christian faith was deeply intellectually satisfying. I hope you enjoy reading about one of the greatest theological minds of the twentieth century, Wolfhart Pannenberg. Blessings and peace to all, Julian Pace.

He vehemently defended the Resurrection but denied the Virgin Birth. He was hugely influential but leaves few disciples. – Fred Sanders writing for Christianity Today upon the death of Wolfhart Pannenberg

It would not be implausible to say that one day church historians will include Wolfhart Pannenberg, along with Karl Barth, Thomas Oden, and J.I. Packer, as one of the greatest theological minds of the twentieth century. Pannenberg’s prowess in the fields of theology, philosophy, history, and the natural sciences set him apart from his contemporaries. In his lifetime, he molded a unique theological system that on the one hand was generally traditional and Lutheran, yet probing and rational in a way that placed him squarely within the tradition of the Enlightenment. It is probable that his most important contribution to Christian theology was his stirring defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and how he saw this event as the key to all of history, indeed the key to all revelation as well.[1]

Wolfhart Pannenberg was born in Stettin, Germany (now Szczecin, Poland) in 1928, and though he was baptized as an infant into the established Lutheran church he was raised in a secular household. Despite his unchurched and secular background, Pannenberg was apparently a spiritually sensitive person and at sixteen was privy to what he would later call his “Light Experience”.[2] This powerful experience led Pannenberg to critically investigate the world’s religions in light of their philosophical and intellectual merits. The results of this intellectual quest, combined with the guidance of Pannenberg’s literature teacher who was a member of the Confessing Church during the second World War, led Pannenberg to conclude that Christianity was the most reasonable faith system available and therefore he became a Christian.[3]

For virtually his entire career, Pannenberg was a creature of the academy and it is in the field of academic theology that he produced the most written work. However, it should not be overlooked that his contributions in defending the historicity of the Resurrection have influenced and continue to shape the thinking of Evangelical theologians and New Testament scholars to the present day.[4] Indeed, this aspect of his theological output is probably his most enduring legacy. While Pannenberg’s staunch defense of the historicity of Jesus’ Resurrection has won him many admirers in the Evangelical and Roman Catholic world, his liberal German peers were shocked at his findings. While Pannenberg was undoubtedly shaped by the liberal biblical criticism that was, and remains, rampant in German universities, this did not stop him from making the case that the evidence from the Pauline epistles and the existence of the church itself plausibly leads to the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth did indeed rise from the dead.[5]

Dean of Beeson Divinity School Timothy George, is right to point out that Pannenberg’s thinking on several critical theological issues present some problems for Evangelicals.[6] Pannenberg rejected the Virgin birth, Chalcedonian Christology, as well as the concept of biblical inerrancy. However, this did not stop Pannenberg from taking the scriptures seriously and he felt that since the Bible was the record of God’s dealings with man it should be studied vigorously. In conclusion, Evangelicals should approach the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg critically but also with an eye to learn. Despite his errors on important theological issues, Pannenberg’s work on the Resurrection has inspired many other Evangelical theologians and scholars to defend the Resurrection’s historicity with an even greater level of sophistication. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder how many have been persuaded to accept the claims of Christ in part due to the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg demonstrated that Christianity is a belief system that is firmly grounded in historical events and therefore one need not sacrifice rational thinking and critical investigation on the altar of blind faith. For this reason alone, Pannenberg deserves our enduring respect and admiration.

References

[1] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus-God and Man. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: (The Westminster Press, 1977), 67-69.

[2] Michael Root, “The Achievement of Wolfhart Pannenberg.” First Things (March 2012): 3-4. Accessed April 5, 2017. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/03/the­achievement­of­wolfhart­pannenberg.

[3] Michael Root, “The Achievement of Wolfhart Pannenberg.” 3.

[4] William Lane Craig, “The Resurrection of Jesus” Accessed April 5, 2017. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-resurrection-of-jesus. It is evident when reading Craig that the influence of Pannenberg is present. This is only reasonable as Craig did doctoral work under Pannenberg in Germany. Other Evangelicals like Gary Habermas and Michael Licona have built on Pannenberg’s work on the Resurrection.

[5] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus-God and Man. 88-106.

[6] David Roach “Dean George on Wolfhart Pannenberg.” Accessed April 5, 2017 http://www.beesondivinity.com/fromthedean/posts/dean-george-on-wolfhart-pannenberg.

For Further Reading

Braaten, Carl E., and Philip Clayton, eds. The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg: Twelve American Critiques with an Autobiographical Essay and Response. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1988.

Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1983.

Olive, Don. Wolfhart Pannenberg. Makers of the Modern Theological Mind. Grand Rapids, MI: Word Publishing, 1977.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus-God and Man. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1977.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. The Apostles Creed: In the Light of Today’s Questions. 1st ed. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1972.

 

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