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Pannenberg on Trinity

Pannenberg on Trinity October 30, 2007

In his book on the Trinity, Veli-Matti Karkkainen has a concise summary of Pannenberg’s Trinitarian theology.

He begins by noting that Pannenberg’s entire program for theology is to establish the “truth of Christian doctrine.” Theology is a public discipline that aims to establish universal truth claims. He protests against the “timidity” of modern theology, which concedes public discourse to non-theological factors and relegates “God-talk to religious experience and the subjective realm.”


Pannenberg does not advocate any attempt to return to the pre-Enlightenment world in which Christian claims are undisputed. Since the Enlightenment, it is obvious that Christian theology is a competitor in a pluralist religious environment. Christianity has to “win” its starting point, offer its claims to public scrutiny and criticism, and defend its claims in open debate. Pannenberg finds an anthropological starting point for defending Christian doctrine in this setting in the claim that humanity is “incurably religious.” To be human is to be open, not only to the world but to the infinite horizon of the finite that is implied all finite experience. Following Descartes and Schleiermacher, Pannenberg believes that “the only way to posit the finite is to assume the infinite as the necessary horizon.” On this basis, it becomes possible to argue for specific Christian claims.

From his earliest work, Pannenberg has emphasized the central importance of history in Christian theology: “History is the most comprehensive horizon of Christian theology,” he writes. History is revelation, he argues, and everything he says about history is set within the framework of a universal history that is leading toward an eschatological climax. This history is, interestingly, a history of religions, and Pannenberg offers a phenomenology of religious as a way of pressing the truth-claims of Christian theology. The history of religions reveals his anthropological starting point, that man is incurably religious. Though “God can only be known as God reveals Godself,” yet “the only way to examine the divine revelation is through human religion.” Israel is central to the history of religions because in Israel monotheism developed, “which against rival ancient religions was able to provide believers with the concept of the unity of the culture.” Because Yahweh was one God, He “was in control of all spheres of life” (Karkkainen’s summary). History, and specifically the history of religions, becomes the “focal point of the doctrine of God, and thus of the Trinity.”

Pannenberg’s theology of history has a strong eschatological thrust. He operates with an eschatological ontology, much like Moltmann, and believes that God’s transcendence is better understood in terms of time than in terms of space. God transcends because He comes from the future. This eschatological orientation also gives Pannenberg a framework for dealing with competing truth-claims in religion. Until the eschaton, the truth of God’s being is contested. God will finally demonstrate His reality and character at the end. He has anticipated this resolution, however, in the resurrection of Jesus, which vindicates Jesus’ claim to be Son of God and manifests the destiny of humanity and the creation ahead of time. For Pannenberg, God is thus the “power on which all finite reality depends” and “the power of the future” that shapes the future of all that is present.

Prior to the publication of his Systematic Theology (1988-93, German; 1991-98 in English), Pannenberg had not paid direct attention to the Trinity. But his systematics is an effort at thoroughly Trinitarian theology. He claims that all theology is but the doctrine of God, and therefore the doctrine of the Trinity is the heart of all Christian theology. He claims to develop this theme differently from the tradition, in a couple of ways. First, he starts, like Moltmann, with the threeness of God, and then tries to account for the unity of God, claiming that this fits better with the presentation of the economic Trinity in the gospel story. Second, he starts with the Trinity, and then moves to give an account of the attributes of God. Third, like Barth, he ties the doctrine of the Trinity to revelation. In contrast to Barth, he claims, he develops the doctrine of the Trinity by reference to the concrete history of salvation recorded in Scripture, rather than basing it on a “formal principle,” as he sees Barth doing.

Pannenberg’s description of the relations of the Persons borrows the terminology of “self-differentiation” from Hegel. In this view, “‘person’ is a relational, correlative term: one gains one’s personality by giving oneself to one’s counterpart; thus identity is gained in separation from, yet also in dependence on, the other.” The Son differentiates Himself from the Father by His willing submission to the Father, and the Spirit differentiates Himself from the Father and Son by speaking not of Himself but of the Father. Pannenberg follows Augustine in seeing the Spirit as the “medium of the communion of Jesus with the Father as well as the medium of our participation in Christ” (Karkkainen). This way of expressing the personal relations, he argues, is preferable to other options, which tend to collapse into modalism.

Self-distinction of the persons does not imply tritheism. On the contrary, self-distinction is allied with a strong emphasis on the dependence of each of the Persons on the others. Ted Peters calls Pannenberg’s claim one of “dependent divinity.” Pannenberg does affirm the monarchy of the Father (in a sense to be explained below), but there is a mutuality to the Father-Son relation that is not often captured in the tradition. The Father’s fatherhood depends on the Son as much as the Son’s sonship depends on the Father. Pannenberg reaches this conclusion by arguing from the economy, in which the Father gives the kingdom to the Son, and the Son reigns until all enemies are put beneath His feet, at which point He returns the kingdom to the Father in the consummation. Pannenberg explains,

“In the handing over of lordship from the Father to the Son, and its handing back from the Son to the Father, we see a mutuality in their relationship that we do not see in the begetting. By handing over lordship to the Son the Father makes his kingship dependent on whether the Son glorifies him and fulfills his lordship by fulfilling his mission. The self-distinction of the Father from the Son is not just that he begets the Son but that he hands over all things to him, so that his kingdom and his own deity are now dependant upon the Son. The rule of the kingdom of the Father is not so external to his deity that he might be God without his kingdom.”
Unlike Moltmann, who takes similar reflections to the point of saying that God, in some sense, “had” to create, Pannenberg insists that creation is a free act. Once God has created, however, He is not God unless He asserts His lordship over creation. Since the Father gives over the project of vindicating His Lordship to His Son, His Lordship and His deity itself, in relation to creation, are dependent on the Son.

Moltmann concentrates on the cross as the central inner-Trinitarian event. Pannenberg also notes that the cross does “affect eternal placidity of the Trinitarian life of God.” Yet, he is unwilling to speak, as Moltmann does, of the “death of God” or even “directly of the death of God in the Son.” Rather, the cross is the manifestation and consequence of the Son’s eternal self-distinction from the Father. Pannenberg, however, places more e
mphasis on the resurrection, an event in which all three persons of the Trinity are at work. The Spirit glorifies the Father and Son, which manifests both His indissoluble connection with the Father and Son but also His self-distinction from the Father and Son. Pannenberg denies the filioque, saying that “The Spirit proceeds only from the Father and is received by the Son.” This is an implication of His insistence that the Persons have to be understood not in terms of relation of origin but in terms of reciprocal relations.

Yet, as noted above, Pannenberg does affirm the monarchia of the Father, but in a way that also affirms the reciprocity of Personal relations: “By their work the Son and Spirit serve the monarchy of the Father. Yet the Father does not have his kingdom or monarchy without the Son and Spirit, but only through them.” This is a “dependent” monarchia, and also one that is evident only eschatologically.

The problem of Trinitarian theology is, Pannenberg argues, to establish the unity of the three persons. The three persons are, he says, distinct centers of consciousness and of action. How then is this God one? His use of Hegel’s idea of self-distinction is partly an effort to affirm both unity and distinction. He makes a nod toward perichoresis, but denies that the it is the basis for the unity of God, since it presupposes an existing unity.

Pannenberg ultimately employs the traditional language of “essence,” though in a different way than the tradition has normally understood it. Essence is the “epitome” of personal relations of Father, Son, and Spirit.” This is because “we cannot connect with this any attempt to derive the Trinitarian threeness from the unity of the divine essence. The task is simply to envision as such the unity of the divine life and work that is manifest in the mutual relations of Father, Son and Spirit. This requires a concept of essence that is not external to the category of relations.” A relational emphasis moves beyond “substance ontology,” and also links the unity of God to the economy. This means that the unity of God has to do with God’s attributes, as they are manifested in salvation history.

The mode of movement from the economy to the ontology, however, is not primarily analogy. God manifests His character and attributes in His activity in the world, and this provokes praise. Doxology is the primary mode of language talking about the incomprehensibility of the one God. Pannenberg also links the discussion of the essence of God with his notion of infinity. Infinity, however, is not over-against the finite, because they it would be finite itself (it would have a borderline between itself and the finite). Infinity must embrace the finite. For Pannenberg, “infinity” is describe in the Bible in terms of spirit and love, and thus these come to describe the essence of God for Pannenberg. He prefers to emphasize “spirit” rather than “mind,” arguing that God’s Spirit in creation is something like a “field of creative presence, a comprehensive field of force that releases event after event into finite existence.” Spirit in this sense is not only the name for the Third Person, but also the name for the shared essence.

Throughout his discussion of the unity of God, Pannenberg continues to insist on the reciprocal and mutually dependent relations of the Persons: “constitutive for each person of the Trinity are the other two persons and the relation to them.” The world is not “a self-unfolding of the divine subject who makes the world” but “the overflow of God’s love. It is the product of the mutual activity of the Father, Son and Spirit.” Bringing together this relational emphasis with his notion of essence as infinite Spirit, Pannenberg concludes that he can affirm the unity of God, “to understand the Trinitarian persons, without derivation from a divine essence that differs from them, as centers of action of the one movement which embraces and permeates them all – the movement of the divine Spirit who has his existence only in them.” This unity is not secondary: “The persons are not first constituted in their distinction, by derivation from the Father, and only then united in perichoresis and common action. As modes of being of the one divine life they are always permeated by its dynamic through their mutual relations.”

Common activity is not enough to affirm the unity of God. But if activity is seen as “the external working of a will bringing forth works different itself [in which[ the actor is ‘with oneself’ in the other,” then activity can be seen as a manifestation of the unity of God. Divine activity is God’s self-realization in the world, as He brings creation to a final consummation that manifests His character. In the end, Pannenberg affirms the threeness of God yet says that “the subject who acts in the world is the eternal essence of God, something alongside – or ‘beyond’ – the three persons, yet not a ‘fourth’ something in addition to Father, Son, and Spirit.” This unified essence is evident in the united activities of the Father, Son and Spirit: “By the common action of Father, Son and Spirit the future of God breaks into the present of creatures, into the world of creation, and on the basis of this divine action the attributes are predicated not merely of the Trinitarian persons but also of the divine essence that is common to them all.”

God’s unity is finally manifested in the eschaton: “The monarchy of the Father is God’s absolute lordship. The Son serves it, and so does the glorifying of the Father and the Son by the Spirit. But the monarchy of the Father is mediated by the Son, who prepares the way for it by winning form for it in the life of creatures, and also by the Spirit, who enables creatures to honor God as their Creator by letting them share in the relation of the Son to the Father. This is the action of the one God by the Father, Son and Spirit as it may be seen in light of the eschatological consummation of the kingdom of God in the world. Only herein is the one God the acting God as even before he is already the living God in the fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit.”


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