On Remembering Wolfhart Pannenberg & the Future of his Theology
- Philip Clayton (on Tony Jones' blog)
- Tripp Fuller
- Derrick Peterson
- Fred Sanders
- Patrick Oden
- Also, First Things tweeted a 2012 piece by Michael Root entitled The Achievement of Wolfhart Pannenberg.
All the responses rightly point to Pannenberg's towering intellect - others have pointed this out, but Pannenberg's daily work load (as recounted by Clayton) was so large it is hard to believe that anyone could do it. Also, most of them highlight the role Pannenberg's thought played in their lives outside of the academy (Derrick Peterson's post is a must read on this point, as he beautifully tied Pannenberg's thought and his personal narrative together).
My story is very similar to some of those personal reflections. Though I was initially drawn to Barth and T.F. Torrance in my master's degree, Pannenberg was one of the first theologians that really gripped me after arriving at Luther Seminary and as I transitioned into doctoral work. Even as I later felt myself moving away from Pannenberg's thought some type of commitment remained, even if only out of nostalgia, as I would try to bait Matthew Frost into long arguments about the merits of Pannenberg. I was often successful, but only in the baiting. It is a strange thing to try to playfully and seriously help someone "see the light" when you really don't either.
This is a personal illustration of another common thread among most of the responses to Pannenberg's passing - the difficulty in finding the best way to position oneself with respect to his thought. Like others who have read him I can't deny the impact he has had on me, yet Root's detailing of some of Pannenberg's convictions and how he lived them out are VERY problematic, to say the least. I've toyed with different ideas to correct or improve upon some aspects of his thought, even developing a dissertation idea or two that would be at least in part an attempt to do so, but despite real effort it remains difficult to see a way to make those changes without the whole structure unraveling. Does his excellence as a systematician (one of the top two of the "mid-twentieth century" according to Clayton) preclude making adjustments? More than one respondent has noted Pannenberg's frustration with Barth's "openness to change," but was he all that different? I will probably continue to wrestle with whether and/or in what way(s) Pannenberg's thought can be altered.
This brings me to a larger point: in theology it is not uncommon to wonder about the future of a thinker or movement, and Pannenberg's passing presents a natural opportunity - how will his thought live on? Despite its tone of lament, I grimaced when I read Derrick's recent Facebook/Twitter comments about how Pannenberg's influence is fading. I wanted to point to Kent Eilers, Timothy Bradshaw, Iain Taylor, Graham Watts, all of whom have published on Pannenberg in the last several years, as well to a couple students here at Luther who are using Pannenberg to a significant degree in their work, to argue that surely this means interest in Pannenberg remains. That said, I must admit that I worry Derrick is right. Nevertheless, as Christiaan Mostert has written,
No theologian in the twentieth century has been more preoccupied with the idea of the future than Wolfhart Pannenberg. . . . Pannenberg was struck by the 'priority of the eschatological future' in Jesus' understanding of the reign of God, so much so that the future, rather than the past, should be seen as 'determining' the present. (213)So, like others who have written reflections, please permit me my own "Pannenberg-style eschatological riff" on this issue and say that we will have to wait and see.
I am sad that Pannenberg has died and am profoundly grateful to have had his works to read and reflect on. Regardless of my conflicted relationship to his thinking he was a brilliant theologian, and I plan on continuing to wrestle with him in the future.