Wolfhart Pannenberg, 'Introduction to Systematic Theology' (4)
Learn a little something about Pannenberg.
Chapter 4: Christology Within a Systematic Framework
Pannenberg’s short volume concludes with a consideration of Christology. I must confess that this chapter was the hardest for me to get my mind around, and I’m not entirely sure that I succeeded. This means that what follows will be more descriptive than critical.
- The Church
- Task of Christology
Pannenberg gives us a tidy definition of the church in the opening sentences of this chapter:
“The Christian church is the community of those who by baptism, faith, and eucharistic communion share in the ministry and death of Jesus Christ and thereupon live in the hope for the new life of his resurrection. Thus the church has been called the ‘body’ of Christ.” (53)The conviction of this community is that Jesus Christ has universal significance, and this conviction provides the community with an impetus to mission. However, this conviction also underscores the need for Christology…
…whose task it is “to give reasons for the Christian truth claim that is the foundation stone of the church” (55), namely, the universal significance of Christ as understood in terms of his…
…pre-existence. The truth claim that undergirds the church is the affirmation “that Jesus is the eternal Son of God incarnate. In him it has become manifest how the creature can relate to the eternal God in such a way as to enjoy communion with him in eternity, beyond this earthly life, but already in each present moment” (55).
Pannenberg spends the bulk of this chapter exploring how it is that Jesus can be understood as the eternal Son of God incarnate. To do this he depends on historical critical research into the life of Jesus, but he also draws some very striking and powerful conclusions from that research. Basically, he reconstructs how it might have been that the early followers of Jesus came to understand Christ as the incarnate eternal Son of God, tracing the logic of the development of Christian belief. It would be a disservice for me to attempt to recount precisely how Pannenberg does this; instead, I strongly recommend that you find a copy of this volume and see for yourself.
While pursuing the path traced above, Pannenberg has cause to stop and consider the contemporary world’s preoccupation with tolerance. This consideration is precipitated by his speech about the “church’s universal mission” (54) or the “universal significance” of Jesus. Isn’t this a form of intolerance to be shunned by any enlightened participant of the modern world? Isn’t this a “symbol of Christian exclusivism” (ibid)?
Pannenberg says no. He recognizes that it does exclude something, namely, the possibility of salvation through any means other than Christ. However, it doesn’t exclude anyone. “It does not necessarily deny salvation to members of other cultures and religious traditions, but it certainly claims that if those persons obtain salvation, it will be through the grace of Jesus Christ whom perhaps they do not even know” (ibid).
On the specific question of tolerance, Pannenberg makes a distinction: “toleration is not indifference toward conflicting truth claims…toleration is only possibly on the basis of a decision concerning what truth is normative” (ibid). Further, tolerance “does not put conflicting opinions and attitudes on the same level; that is what indifference does. Indifference does not take seriously the conflicting claims” (ibid). Which option, indifference or toleration as Pannenberg defines them, is the less colonial way of interacting with other cultures? My vote is with this kind of tolerance that admits difference but nonetheless cooperates, respects, and engages that difference. Of course, this sort of toleration needs to be a two (or more) way street.
Simply put, I have found much in Pannenberg’s short volume to appreciate, but I am still not sold on the apologetic way in which he casts the task of theology. While I have appreciated his engagement with philosophy, science, and historical Jesus research, the role of theology seems to be understood as defending Christian belief against these things. What is theology’s positive task? Does it serve any but a defensive function? I would like to think so. Still, Pannenberg is a theologian with penetrating insight and a powerful mind: he is one from whom much can be learned and in whom much can be appreciated.
Previous Installments: Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three.