Pannenberg for President.

Pannenberg rocks my face off! I finally finished Wolfhart Pannenberg’s “The Church” today. The last chapter was worth the wait. It’s easily the best of the book. Here are some of the notes I took from it:

“There is a theologically superficial enthusiasm that makes involvement in social ethics a substitute for the substance of an uncertain faith. Such a position creates mistrust and hampers and delays progress toward Christian unity.” 151

“the most important contribution that Christians can make to human unity would certainly be to regain their own unity. The path to this goal lies through mutual recognition of one another in faith, and this must find its expression in the achievement of sacramental fellowship.” 151

“To be sure, the church is not an end in itself. It already manifests the future fellowship of the Kingdom of God, which is to include all mankind, a renewed mankind that has passed through the judgment of God. For the community of mankind can be realized only through overcoming the evil in its midst by means of God’s judgment on that evil.” 151

“Human effort cannot bring it about, but to work toward it is a natural consequence of the sacramental nature of the church as an effective sign of this future destiny of mankind. A part of its nature as a sign is that the church cannot be understood as a goal in itself, but has as its goal the future kingdom of God over all mankind. The content of that hope for God’s kingdom is the unity of mankind, that is, human fellowship in peace and justice. As an effective sign of this hope, the church therefore, if it is true to its God-given origin and essence, is to promote peace and justice throughout the world.” 151

Pannenberg is really good in accentuating the reality that human effort cannot bring about the kingdom of God. But, he seems to be able to do it in a way that never takes the heat of the church in terms of our fighting and squabbling and the price the church pays for that ridiculousness. He never lets the church off the hook, but never draws the kingdom out of the hands of God. He takes seriously the threat which disunity poses for the church. “The church can be an effective sign of the future unity of humanity only if the church itself is one…its own fragmentation reflects the divided state of the world. Thus the unity of the church is not merely a desirable goal for Christians, but one without whose realization the church cannot still exist.” 152

He’s not pushing for one church in the sense that all of the multiplicity of Christian churches should be joined into one. He’s saying that an ecumenical oneness is the way to Christian unity. He wants to see the whole church unified through the Eucharist, not through some hierarchy. One of the chief strengths of this approach is that it will make up for the indiscernible weaknesses of every Christian church.

“If a Christian knows how provisional his or her own insights and way of life are, then that Christian will be able to bring to the encounter with person who live on the basis of non-Christian traditions an awareness that their lives may be related to the same divine mystery to which his own Christian faith is related.” 153

“Christians should be fully aware that according to the message of the New Testament it is not we but the Christ who is coming again who will decide whose life and conduct are faithful to the norm of the kingdom of God which he proclaimed…in all this the old Christian virtue of humility, of knowing the distance between our own knowledge and way of life and the fullness of experience of unity in faith among Christians and to greater understanding with those who come from non-Christian religious traditions.” 154-55

He cuts to the heart of why interdependence is such an important issue today. “the overemphasis on the private sphere creates a feeling of meaninglessness, and the contrast between a person’s assumed freedom from social responsibility and the actual harm done to others through the use of such freedom compels society to restrict it. Only the development of a sense of community of mutual respect and concern can lead us beyond such dilemmas. The increase of interdependence in our human life together bring with it increasing pressures, and the more unbearable these pressures become, the more necessary it is to find solutions in the sense of the formation of a community that can deal with these problems.” 156-57

He goes of about politics for the last section. Maybe I’ll write it up another time.

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  • Awesome collection of posts. I love Pannenberg. Check out ‘Theology and the Kingdom of God.” It is pretty awesome.

  • gr (Gary)

    Hi Tim:

    OK, this post piqued my interest. I want the unity Pannenberg is talking about. It sounds inspiring, but…I’m afraid that I’m very skeptical about “ecumenical oneness” This is the bottom line for me: The Church is a man-made institution (albeit one in pursuit of divinity). We cannot escape that fact. As a result, the Church is marked by the same conflicts that are part of the human condition. So, in addition to faith, hope, and charity it also produces petty jealousies, parochialism, venality, self-righteousness, and violence.

    All the various denominational and intradenominational schisms exist because somebody, somewhere decided, in good conscience, that somebody else’s theology presented a non-negotiable deviation from the faith. I do it, too. The other Sunday, while getting ready to go to church, I watched a television minister who, quite sincerely, wanted to remind listeners that God is a “warrior God,” which is why we need to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (in this pastor’s mind, those wars reflect a theological battle between Islam and Christianity). I found the theology fundamentally appalling, but what troubles me more is my suspicion that his take on this issue would be more broadly accepted by Christians in the U.S. than my view that all wars (even just wars) reveal more about human sinfulness than they do about God’s plan for the world.

    I should also state that I don’t like any theology that excludes women from the ministry or condemns the teaching of evolution. Could I be accused of standing in the way of church unity due to my provisional and misguided understanding of God? Absolutely. But, in good conscience, I can’t belong to any institution that I feel promotes war, gender inequality, and hostility to science.

    I guess this is a long-winded way of asking: What is the fundamental question on which Christians can achieve ecumenical unity?


    P.S. I enjoyed reading Casey’s posts. She was a barista at a coffee shop that I frequent in Lawrence.

  • Gary – cool…thanks for the comment, it’s good to hear from you. You bring up a fair point. There is so much dis-unity. If we’re going to be unified, then who decides on women, politics, etc.

    I think that Pannenberg would never accept your assumption that the church is either man-made or an institution in the proper sense. I think he sees the church as larger than the human born institutions which we generally call churches. If we view pentecost as the beginning of the church, then the church is most decidedly constituted through the Holy Spirit. I think Pannenberg would say, and I think he’d be right to do so, this makes the church a “Holy-Spirit-made people” or a “Christ-made people” as oppossed to a “man-made institution.” Does that make sense?

    This underlines an important issue for Pannenberg…a point which I didn’t lean into too heavily in the posts. He believes that the way through the divisions is not by creating some unified structure. He’s not saying we should all gather under one established leadership. He’s saying that the way to onenness as the people of God is through sharing table fellowship, i.e., the Eucharist.

    You are bringing up the practical questions to which I think he would say the answer is a rather impractical one: share table fellowship precisely which those with whom you vehemently disagree BECAUSE you are all followers of Christ. Maybe the way achieve unity is not through common answers to common questions but a shared experience of the Holy Spirit of God which uniquely rests upon those who gather, despite their differences, around the body and blood of Christ. That’s the Pannenberg ideal (as I understand it).

    Whuddaya think?

  • gary

    Yes, I agree that it’s those pesky practical issues that always stand in the way of ecumenical unity, even though I think that unity is a rare but possible occurrence. I should add that I’m personally interested in this very question because my own rapprochement with faith really came about from an experience of “ecumenical unity” after my partner’s mother died several years ago. I flew to North Carolina, where he and I were to stay with his elderly Southern Baptists aunts. It sounds like the pitch for a bad reality TV show (“two gay guys have to share a house with three conservative Christian ladies”). However, it turned out to be a wonderful, uplifting experience. Upon my arrival, the aunts wanted us to hold hands and pray, which I did (somewhat uncomfortably). The aunts prayed for my partner’s Mom, they offered thanks for our safe arrival, and for the gift of our presence. It was deeply moving, as were the next several days of praying over meals, the funeral, and various departures. There was never any judgment and they didn’t insist that we first accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior before they would pray with us (and likewise we didn’t insist that they accept our relationship as the equivalent of marriage or admit gay clergy before we would pray with them!). The aunts and I remain theologically (and politically and socially) poles apart. However, in the midst of our shared grief, those prayers demolished all the social and theological hurdles.

    However, I’ve found in the years since that these experiences are exceedingly rare. Take your example of the Eucharist. I agree that table fellowship is perhaps the most powerful way we as Christians can experience ecumenical unity. But then look at the Catholic Church’s own policies about partaking of the Eucharist and you begin to see how nearly impossible it becomes to separate the practical issues of denominational policy and cohesion from the gospel’s impractical message of unity. For example, as a non-Catholic you, Tim, really could/should be barred from participating because you do not accept the teachings of the Holy Catholic Church. I would similarly be barred because I left the Catholic Church (I was raised Catholic) and because I refuse to acknowledge my sixteen-year relationship with my partner as a grave and mortal sin. Recently, a conservative, Catholic law professor at Pepperdine University (Douglas Kmiec), was denied communion because he endorsed Barack Obama’s candidacy. Right here in Kansas, Archbishop Naumann of Kansas City publicly requested that Governor Sebelius refrain from taking communion because of her positions concerning the outlawing of abortion.

    Now, from the Catholic Church’s perspective, these policies are necessary to preserve the Church’s integrity and moral authority. And they could argue that people like me, who willfully disobey the Church’s teachings, undermine ecumenical unity. I suppose they are right. However, from my perspective, I can’t imagine renouncing my commitment to another of God’s creatures, a bond that has taught me more about love, patience, joy, and constancy than anything else that I have experienced. So, no table fellowship for us.

    This is where I wonder: is it precisely the view that church is NOT a human-made institution, that it is “a larger-than-human body,” that gives the Catholic Church the moral authority, and perhaps the moral duty, to make sure that I am not offered communion? And, similarly, does my position– that my experience of love is a non-negotiable and non-refundable gift of the Holy Spirit–keep me resolutely opposed to stepping foot in a Catholic Church? Absolutely!

    Would we all be better off if we humbly acknowledged that our corporate practices and personal theologies reflect a sincere but imperfect human capacity to discern the will of God? Might that very shift in attitude make it more possible for us to simply pray together?

  • Great stories – thanks for writing that all out.

    Yeah, you are hitting the crux of the argument for Pannenberg. As a Lutheran he sees that most of the theological issue which kept the Lutherans and Catholics apart for the better part of 500 years were resolved. Why not come together?

    His assertion is that coming together has little to do with aligning perfectly in terms of doctrine. Can’t a Lutheran and Catholic share communion? There have been ecumenical gatherings where they have done so with the full blessings of the Roman Catholic Church. So why can’t I take communion when I go to mass?

    Pannenberg argues that part of what needs to happen is for all of the denominations, particularly Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodists, Charismatic and Evangelicals to recognize the legitimacy of the leadership of the all groups.

    For that to happen must involve a recognition of the provisional nature of all theological assertations. It involves a sort of humility among all parties, living deeply into their own tradition while fully acknowleding the value of all other traditions.

    You are right to call unity a rare but possible occurrence. Pannenberg is saying that for the church (universal) to actually be the church, it has to stop being a rarity and become a defining characteristic. I think that’s why I like this book so much.

    Personally I have no problem sharing communion with anyone. I’m not sure that is the direction of the current leadership within the Roman Catholic church. I wish it were more a possibility, but I’m not really an insider there and I don’t know much about where this pope stands on the idea.

  • tim

    dude, i really appreciate this post…i’m new to Pannenberg…would this be a good book for me to pick up as an introduction to him?

    i pray all is well for you back in the midwest…grace and peace

  • Hey Nick,

    Yeah, I liked this book a lot but I don’t think it’s where I’d start unless you are really interested in ecumenism. I think I’d start with “Basic Questions in Theology,” or “Theology and the Kingdom of God.” Most of the Pannenberg I’ve read has been through his Systemmatic Theology. If I have a systemmatic question I consult him for everything, along with a couple of others…usually Calvin’s Institutes or Luther if I can find it more quickly, Stanley Grenz’s systemmatic theology in one volume, or Robert Jenson.

    I’m a geek!