Christology and Human Thought in the Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg

The theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg can be understood as a resolutely Christological Christian theology, insofar as it maintains that Jesus Christ plays the central role in allowing human thought to become aware of the Trinitarian God. As Pannenberg makes explicitly clear at the outset of his Jesus, God and Man, “Teaching about Jesus Christ lies at the heart of every Christian theology.” This thesis possesses the distinctly Orthodox notion that “the Christian’s statements about Jesus must be for him, at least in their central content, more than simply one interpretation among other equally possible interpretations”, implying that the revelation of Christ is itself an absolute truth, opposing any type of ecumenism. Human thought itself, therefore, must be dedicated to the correct interpretation of Christ, such that Pannenberg’s entire theology follows from the significance of Christ to the Christian’s life. At the same time, this does not mean a certain hierarchy within the trinity, whereby Christ assumes central significance over the Father and the Holy Spirit: this would merely denote a rejection of the Trinitarian nature of God and thus a non-Christian approach to theology. Rather, the emphasis on Christ follows from the notion that “as Christians we know God only as he has been revealed in and through Jesus.” Accordingly, any Christian understanding of God must develop from the thought of the meaning of Christ, as “the doctrine of God and the doctrine of Jesus as the Christ, are bound together.” Christ is the starting point for man’s entrance into the thought of the theological and the meditation about God; it is also the end-point of theology, as Christ is irrevocably linked to God the father. The following essay shall develop how Pannenberg makes Christology central to his Christian theology, with an emphasis on the relation of Christ to human thought. The event of Christ’s life, particularly his resurrection, provides a new way for humans to think and posit the immanent world and divine transcendence: Christ possesses the form of man, as well as the form of the divine, such that he can communicate to man about that which is non-worldly, precisely through the non-worldliness of his resurrection. By beginning from the resurrection of Christ, one can thus see that the apparent laws of the world are finite: there is a higher truth, one that surpasses the everyday observation that life ends with death. Accordingly, there is a very real sense in which the mystery of God becomes available to the Christian in Pannenberg’s theology, yet only if Christian theology begins from Christ itself.

In a text entitled “God of the Philosophers” Pannenberg provides a concise synopsis of the starting point of his theology: “theology that is distinctively Christian will attribute the creation to the Trinitarian God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Christian theology, there is no room for a pre-Trinitarian monotheism of the one God.” For Pannenberg, what distinguishes Christianity from other religions is its proclamation of the Trinitarian God: furthermore, it is the Trinitarian God of Christianity that itself allows human beings themselves to personally experience and contemplate God. Pannenberg writes: “Without compromising the transcendence of God, it enables Christians to affirm the presence of the one God in his creation and in the history of his creation.” It is possible for Christians to contemplate the significance of God and their link to God, precisely because in the Trinitarian viewpoint, God is not only the transcendent Father, but rather as Pannenberg, following Athanasius , notes, “God as Father cannot be conceived apart from a Son.” The Son is the transcendent God as presented to the immanent world of everyday life. Accordingly, the understanding of God in Christianity is explicitly given through Christ. The Christian theology takes Christ as its irrevocable beginning.

To clarify what exactly such a starting point entails for Christian theology, it is useful to contrast Pannenberg’s view with another approach, that of natural theology. As Pannenberg argues, Christian theology does not oppose human reason: “rather, it is a disagreement about the nature of reason.” As Pannenberg understands natural theology, the latter denotes “an independent knowledge of the existence and nature of God”. For Christianity, this means that it would be somehow possible for human reason and the study of the world around us to eventually yield the conclusion that God is a triune being. However, such an approach is essentially the very rejection of the notion of the triune being, precisely because at the center of Christian theology is the revelation of Christ as an insight into the triune God. Such an approach of natural theology means that “the existence of a creator can be demonstrated by means of natural science”, an approach which basically implies that Christian revelation is more or less a supplement to a conclusion that can be reached through reason alone, and hence, without Christ. Yet the entire point of Christianity is that God appears as man in the form of Christ: this is the starting point for reflection. At the same time, for Pannenberg, the necessity of Christ’s revelation is not an indictment of human reason. Rather, “the real conflict in our day is over the nature of reason.” This is because “a secularist concept of rationality that is widely accepted today simply precludes the possibility of a historical event such as the Resurrection of Jesus”, which means that how reason and thought are commonly understood is grounded in what we know about material phenomena, for example, through empirical observation: because there is no first-hand empirical observation of a phenomenon such as resurrection outside of the Holy Scriptures, for secularist reason, the resurrection is an impossibility. In this manner, Christianity and Christological theology begins from the very reality of the Resurrection of Christ, i.e., the truth of this event. For Pannenberg, science presents “a truncated concept of reason that itself is not warranted by reason”, meaning that we fundamentally limit what our own human thought is capable of when we chain ourselves to merely the material world and so-called “scientific” observation. The emergence of Christ and particularly the resurrection of Christ invite us to contemplate a new form of thought, insofar as Christ as man and God communicates the divine transcendence of God to man.

Hence, it can be suggested that Pannenberg articulates two great forms of human reason and thought. The first begins from nature and takes, for example, empirical evidence and observation as a foundation for our knowledge. The human reason at stake in Christianity is entirely different, as one accepts the revelation of Christ as the foundation for reflection. In this regard, we can say that Pannenberg nears an Orthodox theological approach to Christology, for as the Russian theologian Pavel Florensky notes, “The Fact of Divine Trinity…is absolutely not subject to deduction. Thus, no one has ever said why there are Three Divine Hypostases, and not another number. The non-chance of this number, its inner meaningfulness, is felt in the soul.” What is distinctive about Christian theology is that it begins from the acceptance of the trinity of God, a trinity that is communicated to man through the appearance of Christ as man.

For Pannenberg, it is precisely this notion that guides Christian theological thought, and why Christology is central to his systematic theology. As Kam Ming Wong summarizes Pannenberg’s position, “only by Jesus is human destiny, the true humanity, full realized….true humanity is seen and made possible to all humankind in the figure of Jesus Christ. A human being has a history that is directed to the realization of his destiny, to the fulfillment of true and perfect humanity in union with God.” Hence, the centrality of Christology to Pannenberg is not only an insight into the triune nature of God, but it also instructs human beings of their relation to God. The reflection on Christ is, in a certain sense, simultaneously a reflection on human being’s own place within the creation. This does not oppose rational thought and how humans’ traditionally reflect on existence, i.e., science and metaphysics, but rather demonstrates thee precise conception of thought that is central to Christian theology. In this way, since Christ is man, it can be stated that for Pannenberg, Christian theology is the foundation for the thought of man and his point of creation, an axiom from which human thought itself departs when reflecting. Christ does not oppose reason, but rather Christ calls for a more varied use of human thought, one that is not simply bound to the world of appearances, like in science. For this reason, it is important to note that Pannenberg underscores that traditional foundations for current scientific thought, such as Greek philosophy, are not incompatible with theology, precisely because “Greek philosophy was in search of the true nature of the divine”, which is the same aim of Christianity. Yet the crucial difference is that Christianity’s point of departure is that which is revealed by Christ. As Alister E. McGrath writes, for Pannenberg “revelation is essentially a public and universal historical event which is recognized and interpreted as “an act of God.” This is both a historical and universal event because it affects man within history and furthermore, appears at a specific time in history, in the form of Christ; at the same time, it is a universal event, because it is an expression of a universal truth, which also discloses the Triune nature of God.

Thus, whereas Pannenberg’s theology maintains the centrality of Christology, this is because Christ is the means by which man can understand the entire creation, including Christ himself as one hypostasis of the triune God. To clarify this difference, Pannenberg criticizes Barth’s theology and other similar theologies as follows: “it is characteristic of all these attempts to build a “Christology from above” that the doctrine of the trinity is presupposed and the question posed is: How has the Second Person of the Trinity (the Logos) assumed a human nature?” For Pannenberg, this is problematic because it completely misses the significance of revelation, a revelation that was shown “from below” in the specific historical event of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Thus, these theologies do not start from the immanent appearance of Christ in the world, and how we then can become to understand God: they miss the importance of Christ in the world, and thus do not properly consider the meaning of the specific hypostasis of Christ. As Pannenberg writes, Christological thinking requires that “we must first inquire about how Jesus’ appearance in history led to the recognition of his divinity”, which is to say that the primary inquiry concerns the historical fact that a hypostasis of the Trinitarian God has taken the form of man. This is the proper starting point for theological thought because it underscores how Christian theology itself begins from Christ. The Christology from above means that “one would have to stand in the position of God himself in order to follow the way of God’s Son into the world.” Beginning from Christ himself means taking the proper path that God has set for man according to the very fact of Christ’s appearance in the world. In this regard, we can understand how Christian theology is not incompatible with human reason and thought, precisely because we begin “from below”, from the reflection on Christ, that is, we can begin from our own worldly status. Yet this is not merely a worldly reflection, but a divine reflection, insofar as Christ is God: “while Christology must being with the man Jesus, its first question has to be that about his unity with God.” In other words, Christology and Christian theology is a path which human beings take to think their relationship to the absolute.

It is thus the history of Jesus himself which becomes the instructive path for Christology, and as Spence points out, Pannenberg “holds that it is Jesus’ bodily resurrection that constitutes the one, definitive act of God’s self-revelation.” This is the singular act of God’s self-revelation because it is essentially an anomaly to the ways of the world. Christ’s resurrection opposes the apparent inevitably of death and the prominence of finitude that characterizes our daily lives. With the resurrection, what is communicated to us is precisely an exception to the everyday; and because of the absolute truth of this exception, this means that we must radically question how we ourselves conceive of the world. In other words, there is precisely a limit to the ways of the world as they are conceived from our own perspectives: there is a truth that is transcendent to how we think. Yet at the same time, because this truth is transcendent does not mean that we are incapable of partaking in it: Christ’s resurrection as an objective event takes a subjective significance for us, allowing us to think the world in a non-subjective way. This is yet another reason why Pannenberg stresses the importance of human reason and that it is not incompatible with theology: Christology gives us another form of reason. As Spence observes, this idea can be clarified by comparing Pannenberg to Barth: “Barth’s Christology founds its primary location not in the life of Jesus, but in the divine revelatory act, a contemporary event in human religious consciousness.” Whereas Pannenberg shares the notion of the revelatory act, it is precisely that “by shifting the divine revelatory event from the arena of contemporary private experience to a public historical occurrence, Pannenberg has given it a status that is quite independent of human self-consciousness.” In other words, it is not human consciousness which somehow determines the Christian theology, i.e., the necessity of a subjective experience of Christ, since this would only mean that human beings are necessary to the perception of Christ. Rather, Pannenberg essentially presents a totally objective version of Christ, insofar as the resurrection is interpreted as a historical event that has factually happened. It is this event, regardless of our interpretations of it, which grounds theological thought, thus providing a starting point for thought. At the same time, this does not mean that a subjective and personal experience of theology is not possible, but rather that this subjective experience emerges from the non-subjective experience of the true fact of Christ’s resurrection. Much like a scientist observes a phenomenon such as a neutrino apparently moving faster than light and then thinks his cosmology from this beginning point, a Christian theologian begins from the truth of the Christological revelation. Once again, this is another sign of why human thought and reason do not oppose Christianity, but rather take a new form in line with this new beginning point that is unique to Christian theology. Christianity is not a subjective phenomenon; it is an absolute truth in Pannenberg’s view. However, the absoluteness does not preclude subjectivity, precisely because we can use this revelatory event as an orienting compass in our entire thought. We begin from Christ’s resurrection as that which is given objectively to the human subject, and then begin to think both the immanent world and the divine transcendence according to this trinity. This is an entirely new event which calls for an entirely new approach to human existence and to the world, as, in the words of Laurence W. Wood, for Pannenberg, “there is nothing like (the Resurrection) that has emerged in the history of the world.” Accordingly, the entire concept of history and the world itself changes with this event. Much like quantum physics changes how physicists think, man must change how he thinks following the Christ event. As Herbert Neie summarizes Pannenberg’s position, “Jesus’ resurrection was understood as his elevation to Lordship in heaven, and this news had to be proclaimed everywhere. And Paul – and this is the salient point here – had interpreted Jesus as the end of the law, viewing his crucifixion as the curse of the law and his resurrection as abrogation of the law as a way to salvation by God himself.” Simply put, the event of Christ’s resurrection destroys any of our presupposed frameworks and ways of looking at the world – these are viewed as subjective experiences and particular methods of human thought. The “end of the law” is the end of these preconceptions and these frameworks that are merely presumed to be absolute truth. Christ is an event that provides humanity access to a truth beyond the world – this is demonstrated in Christ’s resurrection as an event that is totally incompatible with how we conceive of our own existence. Yet it is not incompatible with our existence, but rather incompatible with our preconceptions: Christ creates a new framework with which rational thought and humanity may approach the world.

This does not mean that all our human endeavors and perspectives are inevitably failures. Pannenberg writes that “it is necessary to show how God can be conceived of as the creator of the universe as that universe is described by natural science…but a philosophical or theological conception of God must be compatible with the universe as described by science.” Pannenberg’s point is that such a scientific account does not necessarily have to be incompatible with the theological account, but rather that the theological account can clarify modern science; the theological account becomes a means with which to re-think the presupposed framework in which modern science operates. Once again, this does not mean that natural science must prove the existence of God. Rather, Pannenberg’s Christology stresses the objectivity of the resurrection, i.e., it is something that objectively happened, and thus the Resurrection becomes a means by which to think the world – just like an objective phenomenon such as the speed of light provides a different view of the world. However, it is because Christ’s resurrection is such an anomaly to the laws of the world - namely, that it is essentially non-worldly - which makes Christology such a radical break: something that was not a part of the world was revealed to the world, the truth of the world that is outside of the world. And this truth was revealed through an appearance into the world of the divine Christ.

The very connection between Christ and how human thought operates is summarized in Pannenberg’s following statement: “it is the danger that human beings doing theology may be concerned only with themselves instead of with God and thus let the true subject matter of theology go by the board.” This is a clear synopsis of why there is no tension between rational thought and theology in Pannenberg’s approach. Much like science provides non-anthropocentric conclusions about human existence, for example, the theory of evolution, theological thinking must not reduce itself merely to human questions, such as issues of sin. The personal salvation of Christianity is a salvation precisely insofar as it provides a means by which to see the world not through an anthropocentric and finite worldly perspective, but through a revelation that provides an entirely new outlook on the world. Copernicus stated that the earth travels around the sun and this marked a radical shift in how we think about ourselves and the world around us; in the same sense, Christology and Christian theology presents such a radical shift. But Christology is an even greater shift, because it does not only provide a way to think about the world, but includes that which is above the world, the transcendent and non-worldly. All worldly ways of looking at existence are severely limited, they always fall into the danger of creating an anthropocentric view of reality, much like the anthropocentric view which stipulates that the earth is in a stable position, and it is the sun that rotates. Arguably such anthropocentrism is reflected in other approaches to theology, for example, when one posits only the human nature of Christ and not his divine nature, or posits one aspect of the trinity at the expense of the others. The Christological center of Pannenberg’s theology means that the revelatory act of the resurrection of Christ provides an objective framework within which we must situate our human reason and existence: moreover, it is a framework that is not our own creation – it is an absolute truth - and thus is not subject to radical change and shifts. Thomas Kuhn had described science as working by such conflicting paradigm shifts that are always changing, for example, when a new scientific theory replaces an old scientific theory. Kuhn writes that science moves forward when it “can no longer evade anomalies that subvert the existing traditional of scientific practice – then begin the extraordinary investigations that lead the profession at last to a new set of commitments, a new basis for the practice of science.” Science thus proceeds when anomalies appear that force a new set of theoretical commitments to understand these bizarre phenomena. The Christology of Pannenberg is, in this sense, an anomaly within the entire history of the world – because it is divine, however, we do not have to make a new set of commitments exterior to this event in order to understand it. Rather, we have to follow this event itself in its objectivity as revealing an absolute truth. Thought and reason are not incompatible with Christian theology – rather, according to the acceptance of the absoluteness of the revelation of Christ in his resurrection; thought must align itself with this absolute truth that transcends all existence.

Accordingly, by placing Christology at the center of his entire theology, Pannenberg is able to open the possibilities for human and human existence, precisely because it is the resurrection of Christ that has opened these possibilities in the revelation of the triune being. The Christian theology of Pannenberg is to understand this revelation as the central mystery to human existence, a mystery because it cannot be rationally deduced, but is rather given. At the same time, this mystery in its absoluteness allows human thought to break free of any culturally relative historical normativities that are susceptible to constant change, in favor of the pursuit of an objective truth that is given through Christ. Pannenberg’s theology underscores the manner in which Christian theology itself can be a revolutionary truth from which we can understand the phenomenon of the world and our place within it.

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