Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014)

Wolfhart Pannenberg—In Memoriam

by Philip Clayton

Wolfhart Pannenberg

Wolfhart Pannenberg in 1983

Wolfhart Pannenberg has often been called the greatest theologian of the second half of the 20th century. With his death Friday, the world has lost a brilliant interpreter of Christianity, and I have lost the mentor who molded me as a scholar, theologian, and person.

In the 1950s, when Pannenberg was a doctoral student in Heidelberg, Karl Barth dominated the theological stage. In order to counteract Barth’s overemphasis on salvation history (Heilsgeschichte), Pannenberg redefined revelation as “universal history” (Universalgeschichte). A few years later he published a major Christology (Jesus—God and Man) that established him as the world’s leading defender of “theology from below.”

Over the next 30 years, Pannenberg extended this program to philosophy, the religion/science debate, the dialogue across the world religions, and to every corner of theology. He had the most encyclopedic mind I have ever encountered. You need only to read around a bit in his multi-volume Basic Questions in Theology to be stunned by the range and depth of his scholarship. John Cobb once quipped, “I saw that Pannenberg was able to encompass the entire range of knowledge within his own mind. Realizing that I could never match this achievement, I decided it would take a lifetime of working with my doctoral students to cover as many topics.”

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Almost Christian: Missional Imaginations

I’m blogging through Kenda Creasy Dean’s new book, a theological follow up to Christian Smith’s Soul Searching. I hope you’ll join me. Find all the posts here.

In chapter five, Kenda continues a theme that she’s already introduced: cultivating missional imaginations in teens is a strong antidote to moralistic, therapeutic deism.  But what, exactly, is a missional imagination?

Well, what it’s not is a week-long summer mission trip to an Indian reservation.  In fact, Kenda argues that the fact that we’ve had to find an adjective — basically, to invent the word, “missional” — “testifies to the American church’s frayed ecclesiology.”  Be that as it may, missional is here to stay, and she finds it a helpful term.

Kenda’s definition of a missional youth ministry parallels her understanding of the gospel, and she uses some of the same characterizations: messy, indecorous, risky.  “Missional churches,” she writes, “ratchet up expectations by consciously striving to point out, interpret, and embody the excessive nature of God’s love.”

A ministry that exemplifies missionality for Kenda is Outreach Red Bank, a one-time youth ministry that has “blossomed into a multigenerational church.”  ORB and other missional ministries fashion their life on the cruciform pattern of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection:

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