Wolfhart Pannenberg on God & Secular Society

A sloppy post on Wolfhart Pannenberg that I wrote four years ago, one which does him no justice, and shows none of the breadth of his thought, while I slog through other projects. I have previously mentioned Pannenberg here, regarding secularization.

On the 5th of September in 2014, Wolfhart Pannenberg died. Most people have never heard of him. Pannenberg was officially a theologian by trade, and theologians are collectively dismissed out-of-hand in our secular age, unless they are ecclesiastical figures with considerable social and political sway. If they are not these politico-cultural figures –and sometimes, even if they are– it is widely thought that they are not concerned with anything that can be considered knowledge. Atavistic assertions, baseless speculation or else outright deception and charlatanry, yes; but not public knowledge. Pannenberg thought otherwise: theology is public, and is not concerned with validating confessional biases, but must be open and vulnerable to correction, its models changing with the best evidence and the best interpretations. He dedicated his life to this academic pursuit: I am told by people who were close to him that he and his wife voluntarily gave up having children so that he could dedicate his life to his theological work, which was rigorous and taxing because, in Pannenberg’s view, one could not speak of God at all as “the power determining all things” if one was not at least competent in all fields of knowledge (this is why he wrote books on science, anthropology, and philosophy). Thus, given the sheer volume of reading he was forced to do in order to be faithful to this task, and recognizing his talent for it, he did not have sons or daughters; any children he has are honorary and, in a sense, virtually adopted through the careful reading of his writings.

Pannenberg’s readership was wide, as he cut against the grain in nearly every way. It is not clear that his “liberal” methods and his (frequently) “conservative” conclusions play well together, and this has been noted. He has attracted a readership in both conservative and liberal circles. Decent introductions or surveys of his works can be found in online blogs or published journals; Craig Adams’ blog has what may be the best introductory overview of Pannenberg’s thought, with a wealth of links. Finally, if one wished to see where some of Pannenberg’s influence goes, two of his students are interesting reads — Philip Clayton, and F. LeRon Shults. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting LeRon several times (whose name is pronounced “leh-RON”, for those of you who have the opportunity). Philip Clayton, who wrote this book on Pannenberg, has some rather dogmatically unconstrained –I write that with absolutely no negative value judgments– and historically-informed reflections here and here. F. LeRon Shults, who wrote this notable book on Pannenberg, has grown into an interesting atheism that can be sampled here and here). Nonetheless, it is possible that the best summary of his work can be found in the writings of his late student Stanley Grenz here.

When I was 19, in the fresh flush of full religious awakening, I thought of secularism as one ideology among many (but the reigning one), as though it were almost like a form of groupthink that I might dissent from. That is, I saw the de facto cultural arrangements of the West as largely a matter of preference, appetite, and power — even as mere brutal institutionalized biases; this meant that it was fundamentally irrational, and so could not command my rational assent. I was wrong, of course, about all of our arrangements being brute and irrational, and also about secularism as something that one can opt out of. It is worth pointing out, however, that the stance I held at 19 years of age not rare, and is largely enabled by the fact that most people have no real idea how we in the West arrived at our current cultural commitments and circumstances and political arrangements. This in turn feeds dangerous ideologies, both political and politico-religious — both by those who champion that order, and by those who reject it. I admit that, aside from this-or-that article, I have not sat down to read him for nearly seven years now, but Pannenberg was instrumental in furnishing me with a robust historical consciousness, disabusing me of several bogus ideas about secularism as an ideology, and giving me the courage to think freely — even teaching me, in a sense, to think, and think encyclopedically. Starting at age 19, I built the beginnings of a multi-thousand book library from the footnotes of his three-volume Systematic Theology (volume one can be found here).

Although Pannenberg is worried by some trends in the secular modern world, he is quick to show that it is not arbitrary, not irrational, but born of pragmatic imperatives to struggle for stability in the midst of intractable differences (born of imperatives but not born of necessity: Pannenberg is quick to stress the contingency of all events). History is a crucial category for Pannenberg: he traces the historical course of development for nearly everything, making his volumes almost serve the double role of reference works. So he gives genealogies for numerous features of modernity (just as he gives genealogies of Christian teachings and institutions). He was the first author I read who attempted to treat the secular cultural condition we all occupy in terms of the political, social, and cultural decisions following in the aftermath of the Wars of Religion (ca. 1524-1648 — excellent book on this here), decisions that moved the West from a theological to an anthropological basis for legislation and polity (Pannenberg takes this from Wilhelm Dilthey, who argues this in the second volume, in German, of his Gesammelte Schriften). As I recall reading him, Pannenberg knew that secularism was not simply a perversion that had neither legitimacy nor value on its own apart from its admittedly strong Christian influences, and showed how many irrefutable goods came of it that none of us would like to roll back (yet his concern about how secular arrangements remove a common framework has attracted the attention of other bloggers — see the excerpt of Pannenberg here). He also shows the later offspring of early modern developments as they unfolded through the 19th and 20th centuries.

Make no mistake: Pannenberg is a theologian (interested in God), and a Christian (believing that Jesus of Nazareth is of signal importance for the disclosure and manifestation of God in the field of history), so he is usually focused on the truth of Christian teaching — without thinking he has the truth available to him (Postbarthian has an entry on the eschatological nature of theology in Pannenberg here). Pannenberg’s interest in God and in the person of Jesus is not dogmatic, even if he starts from a certain point in a certain tradition. He claims no trumping power, no a priori certainty, no thunderous revelation from the clouds to smugly stand upon and make assertions (though Pannenberg himself experienced what one might call a “thunderous revelation” that kickstarted his theological interests, he is against insulating these experiences from the scrutiny and demand for justification that comes with all knowledge claims). He does not insulate theological statements from the normal criteria involved for pursuing truth in any given domain, or across domains. Any position one is to hold, including a theological position, validates itself in public by having superior interpretive power. Any theological claim is, to borrow a phrase from one of my former professors, “vulnerable to correction”. However, he does not treat secularism primarily as an obstacle to be overcome, but as a historical moment that reveals something about the truth of things, and, thus, about God: for Pannenberg, history is the self-disclosure of God as the future and final end of history itself, and so its meaning: ‘the final event in a sequence of events determines its meaning’, he would say (and has). Pannenberg’s Eschatology is provisional, like everything else he argues, but it is connected to this sense of history’s meaningfulness, and the end of a sequence –or of a story– determining the meaning of that sequence. Since that final future has yet to arrive, and since the world is incomplete, we all know in part, and our knowledge is provisional — in every domain. Nonetheless, some degree of knowledge is possible, some approximation of finality is possible, and it is imperative that some aim at this.

I’ve already written too much about a figure who was so important to me in my formation, yet whom I’ve neglected to read carefully in nearly a decade. To justify writing anything, and also to help myself remember, I offer a single citation.


I offer the opening paragraphs of Chapter 2 from the first volume of his three-volume Systematic Theology, his magnum opus. He notes the way that theology is seen as illegitimate in the modern world, as mere opining resting on a subjective decision; this distorts the public’s apprehension of what theology has been, and what the idea of God has traditionally been all about: “in the public consciousness of a culture that has become religiously indifferent, the existence of God has not only become doubtful but the content of the concept of God has also become unclear.”

The Concept of God and the Question of Its Truth

1. The Word “God”

In earlier cultures the words “God” and “gods” had a more or less clearly defined place in the cultural world and human vocabulary. They were used in relation to the final foundations of social and cosmic order and to the courts which guarantee them, to which due honor, attention, and address are to be paid. In modern secular cultures the word “God” has increasingly lost this function, at any rate in the public mind.

The reality denoted by the term has thus become uncertain. In the context of a public consciousness that is emancipated from religion, statements about God that presuppose his reality no longer count as factual statements. This applies to the statements of traditional philosophical theology no less than to those of Christian tradition and proclamation. In the context of a secular public culture the statements seem to be mere assertions whose truth has yet to be shown. Without testing, their truth, or the truth of their propositional content, is no longer plausible or credible or beyond dispute. Individuals may accept it by a subjective decision, but the public mind in a secular culture will accede to the truth of such assertions only when they are secular in content and can appeal to academic authority, e.g., that of sociologists or psychologists. It will not do so if they are statements about God even though they are more acutely presented than is often the case with the modish theses of scholars in the humanities. In the public mind statements about God are mere assertions which are ascribed to the subjectivity of the speaker and the truth claim of which not only needs to be generally tested before it can be accepted but is for the most part set aside in advance, the belief being that the testing will lead nowhere and that the truth claims of statements about God are not even worth discussing publicly.

Even more incisive is a second change which can be viewed as a result of the first. With the fading of the concept of God and its function for humanity in the public consciousness of a culture that has become religiously indifferent, the existence of God has not only become doubtful but the content of the concept of God has also become unclear. In the discussion of the word “God” which introduces his Foundations of Christian Faith, Karl Rahner said that this word has become as enigmatic for us today as a blank face. For this very reason it perhaps seems worth discussing to those who are aware of its significance in the history of human culture. But it can also have the appearance of an abracadabra which has no place in our sober modern world.

Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology vol. 1, transl. Geoffrey Bromiley, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 63-64

The loss of clarity to the idea of God is not the loss of an opiate fiction (Pannenberg would welcome such a loss of such a fiction); the loss of the idea of God, without any replacement, entails the loss of any language to represent a final unity to life, and therefore, to the language necessary to talk about any kind of final frame of meaning. The personal and cultural cost, Pannenberg would say, is high.

Pannenberg fell ill and died before I took the initiative to visit him (I certainly had the opportunity to do so), and I’ll not make that mistake again about another figure dear to me.


Header image found here.

3 thoughts on “Wolfhart Pannenberg on God & Secular Society

  1. As another summary of Pannenberg’s work, Theodore Whapham published The Unity of Theology in 2017, which, if I’m remembering correctly, does a pretty good job at hitting a number of the points you outline above. I remember coming across Pannenberg first in the seminary library; his first volume in his systematic was a revelation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Millard Erickson on the Ascension of Jesus | Into the Clarities

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