Contributions of Non-Evangelicals to Theology (4)

After Barth and in the contemporary situation as it maintains in the non-evangelical world, it is doubtful whether there are two more influential theologians than Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jurgen Moltmann. The theologies of these contemporary German scholars, while differing in important respects, are often spoken about together. We shall consider Professor Pannenberg first.[1]

Basically Pannenberg teaches that revelation is bound up with history. “Pannenberg seeks to draw out the religious implications found in all secular experience, claiming a continuity between redemption and creation, a continuity he came to find in the historical process.”[2] The main lineaments of his theology can be seen in his seven “Dogmatic Theses on the Doctrine of Revelation,” which appeared in 1961. For our purposes it will be enough to reproduce the first three.

Thesis 1: The self-revelation of God in the biblical witness is not of a direct type in the sense of a theophany, but is indirect and brought about by means of the historical acts of God.[3]

Thesis 2: Revelation is not comprehended completely in the beginning, but at the end of the revealing history.

Thesis 3: In distinction from special manifestations of the deity, the historical revelation is open to anyone who has eyes to see. It has a universal character.

In Thesis 1 we see that the whole of history is for Pannenberg, a revelation of God, not in the sense of the General Revelation recommended here, but in the more Hegelian sense of a universal history which is open to all observers.[4] When Thesis 2 is added, one begins to see that theology must be viewed as an essential means to the obtaining of truth.[5] Yet final truth cannot be known until the eschaton, which means that theological formulations – in common with scientific formulations – are only provisional.[6] “History makes sense only when viewed from its end.”[7] How, then, can anything be known? This is where the mission and resurrection of Christ come into the picture. Christ’s resurrection does not only prefigure a general revelation that wraps up history at the end of time, instead it is the end of time, proleptically. “Since the history came to its conclusion in the destiny of Jesus, this destiny is the key to our understanding of God’s self-disclosure.”[8]

Not that theology as the knowledge of God enjoys any special status; God’s existence must be ascertained, and that is achieved by giving attention to the incurably religious nature of man.[9] God is seen as the environment or “field” in which life is played out.[10] Hence, there is a powerfully immanentistic flavor to Pannenberg’s theology, but this is offset, if but a little, by his insistence that God is transcendent and that His transcendence is the necessary prerequisite of eschatology, and therefore of the fulfillment of all truth.[11]

Positive contributions?

a. Pannenberg correctly situates theology as a “grand explanation” that can undertake the comprehension of all reality.

b. Because of his emphasis upon history he is a strong believer in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.[12]

c. He is also right in his advocacy of the eschatological nature of revelation. Unfortunately, by not grounding revelation in Scripture he leaves all final interpretations somewhat provisional.

d. His stress on the universality of history is also noteworthy. However, that history has no interpretive base from which it can be viewed with any real assurance. This is the role that General Revelation, interpreted by Scripture, has to assume.

History and Hope: Jurgen Moltmann

Coming now to Moltmann it is clear that the eschatological strain seen in Pannenberg is just as important to his theology.[13] It is, in fact, even more pronounced as for Moltmann eschatology is the very essence of theology.[14] Yet eschatology for Moltmann is not a concern for final things as much as a concern for the transformation of present things.[15]

For him the future is open-ended. In fact, God Himself is becoming as history moves forward. Moltmann is a panentheist. He teaches that God has limited Himself to the historical and is thus bound to it is it manifests itself.[16] This volutariness in God is shown also in the fact of the Cross, which necessitated the Trinitarian nature of God.[17] The Cross is the symbol of hope; hope for change and a new order. Theology, for Moltmann, is the carrier of hope and the guide into social reconstruction. As Schwarz explains,

Eschatology, for Moltmann, implies liberation in this world in terms of political and economic liberation, human solidarity, solidarity with nature, and the struggle for hope. Moltmann rightly reminds us that eschatology leads to action instead of otherworldly passivity or resignation. But his almost exclusively sociopolitical emphasis reminds us too much of the vain human endeavors to establish a theocracy or an earthly utopia, so that we dare not assent to it without expressing a strong eschatological proviso to all such human pursuits.[18]

Of course, when this proviso is issued there remains little of Moltmann’s socio-theological program left.

It is hardly surprising that Moltmann is the poster–boy of the Liberation theologians of South America and the Black theologians of North America. He is also popular with the radical Feminist theologians. His story of the last times is one of social compliance and harmony, but is very much “this worldly.” There is not much in Moltmann which recommends itself to the Biblicist, nevertheless we may point out two things:

Positive contributions?

a. Moltmann does see that eschatology is vital if theology is to move its feet in this world.

b. His concept of God, though squarely at odds with the Bible, does stress the importance of God’s nearness to life’s struggles.

[1] In this writer’s opinion, the best introduction to the work of both Pannenberg and Moltmann is the recent book by Hans Schwarz, Theology In A Global Context: The Last Two Hundred Years, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

[2] Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olsen, 20th Century Theology, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1992), 187. This book is dedicated to Pannenberg.

[3] The theses are taken from Don H. Olive, Wolfhart Pannenberg, in the series Makers of the Modern Theological Mind, edited by Bob E. Patterson, (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1976), 47-48.

[4] Schwarz, 548

[5] Grenz and Olsen, 189.

[6] Schwarz, 550.

[7] Ibid, 548.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Grenz and Olsen, 191.

[10] Ibid, 194.

[11] Schwarz, 550.

[12] Grenz and Olsen, 195.

[13] Another important German theologian who has centered his theology in Eschatology is Gerhard Sauter. For Sauter, eschatology dictates all theological discourse. See his Eschatological Rationality, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 171ff.

[14] Schwarz, 541.

[15] Ibid, 543.

[16] Grenz and Olsen, 181.

[17] Ibid, 181-182.

[18] Schwarz, 545.


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