Wolfhart Pannenberg on Revelation
Pannenberg made his first significant mark upon the theological community in 1968 when his influential “Revelation as History” was first published, reacting against a common early 20th century trend of avoiding historical criticism by embracing it and concluding that revelation was exclusively history. With a starting point built on a Hegelian and Barthian understanding, Pannenberg advances the argument that “theological questions and answers are meaningful only within the framework of the history which God has with humanity,” and revelation comes through the indirect process of interpreting this history, comprehended objectively and completely only at the end of history, open to anyone who has eyes to see. Reacting against a strong onslaught of modernism threatening theology, Pannenberg’s theology was reasonably influential in retaining a sense of rationalism in the public arena and extending the discussion beyond simply seeing the Bible as the unique revelation of God. This essay seeks to analyze Pannenberg’s understanding of revelation, discussing his context, his understanding of Old Testament and apocalyptic traditions, the role of Jesus’ death and resurrection and what this means for our understanding of the future. This analysis will be followed by a critique of its validity as a theological doctrine, and a proposed method for its application in a local congregation, with the example of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.
With the rise of historical criticism, doubts began to develop regarding the validity of the Biblical texts, resulting in theologians by the 20th century reacting in differing ways; some ignored historical criticism, leading to a form of fundamentalism, others conformed theology to the modern historical outlook, which often meant completely removing certain doctrines, and others inhabited a middle ground in which historical criticism was seen as valid, with revelation understood to be separate from world history entirely. Bultmann and Barth adopted a form of this third approach; “pursuing the purity of faith, revelation was restricted to the Bible,” hence history had no influence over theology. Pannenberg departed dramatically, finding Barth to be too subjective and understood Bultmann’s distinction between New Testament theology and Jewish apocalypticism to be erroneous, himself believing them to be a continuous tradition. According to Powell, Pannenberg placed himself outside fundamentalism, in opposition to Bultmann’s approach to apocalypticism, and rejected the common idea that revelation is “trans-historical.”
Revelation as History
Pannenberg places great emphasis on a correct understanding of Jewish tradition, and much of his argument is based on his interpretation that there was no initial special revelation at the beginning of Israel’s faith. Instead, there was an existing sense of the divine (more of a general revelation), which was interpreted and reinterpreted over time. The function of revelation was never to prove God’s existence, for this was already presupposed. Pannenberg argues,
Inspiration and signs have significance for knowledge of God. Yet they are not its basis. These various forms of revelation already presuppose a knowledge of God…If an awareness that God is the author [of revelation] is connected with the content of the revelation, the awareness of revelation already contains an element of reflection.
What separated Israel from the other nations was an awareness of the history in which God sought them out to save them. History is suspended between promise and fulfillment, hence Israel was always looking forward to the goal of the fulfillment of God’s promises, and, quoting Deu. 7.8, Pannenberg stressed “the goal here of Yahweh’s action in history is that he be known,” which is revelation. This led to the development of apocalypticism, which said history would provide reinterpretation, and his self-revelation would be surpassed by new events as it further developed over time. He further argued,
Apocalyptic Israel understood every world event as God’s passage toward a final goal. The last fulfillment was expected to be the event of raising the dead. For us the end is still outstanding: our resurrection has not yet occurred. History for the world is not yet complete.
Murdock points out that from Pannenberg’s understanding of the Old Testament and Jewish apocalypticism, Jewish tradition understood revelation as indirect and partial, in historic events, reinterpreted over time, heading toward the final consummation at the end of time.
Regarding New Testament theology, Pannenberg argued it was not the person of Jesus, but his fate, which indirectly revealed God’s glory. He argued, “Without the resurrection Jesus’ interpretation of the law would have remained an exorbitant critique…the teaching of Jesus is not true in itself, but only as it is a constituent part of the fate of his career.” In other words, neither the person nor the teachings of Jesus directly revealed God, rather the resurrection “is the appearance in historical time, of the future kingdom,” so is not just the confirmation of Jesus as the revelation of God (through hindsight), but also the revelation of the eschatological goal of history. He further argued that “the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection yields itself to us today: in him the end of world history has already come to fulfillment, an end which also waits for us but which still remains hidden from us in the future.”
The apostolic and patristic proclamation, says Pannenberg, was less to prove and more to interpret Jesus, arguing his career was historically verifiable, among other events, but not just another event. Their interpretation, built on an apocalyptic tradition, pointed them toward anticipating the future, as McGrath discusses, “Revelation is not completely apprehended at the beginning, but only at the end of revelatory history.” Full knowledge will only be revealed at the end, but in the mean time the Spirit provisionally convinces us of the truth of God. The end of history is the goal, “which reads back over the events [of history] to declare the meaning of all the ‘factors’, all the clusters of events in different contexts bundling up together until that final ‘secret’ discloses itself and every thing with it.” According to Pannenberg, history does not end with Jesus, but continues, drawing all Christians into the same history as that of Israel. By this we are unified, and look toward our future resurrection, which Jesus has already revealed.
Pannenberg’s approach is summarized in the first four of his seven theses:
- God’s revelation is not theophanic, rather indirect, through historical acts, arguing that “the apocalyptic writings expect the final and ultimate self-vindication of Jahweh in connection with the end event, and envision his appearance in glory.”
- This revelation can only be fully comprehended at the end of the revealing history. Our current revelation is partial, and the meaning of the present is hidden. However, the ultimate event of salvation that is to come in the future has already been experienced in the fate of Jesus.
- This revelation is objectively and universally open to anyone willing to look, and understanding this historical revelation points us toward faith in God’s future actions.
- The deity of God is not yet revealed completely and objectively to all people, except in the fate of Jesus, in whom “the resurrection of the dead has already taken place, though to all other men this is still something yet to be experienced,” and “the fate of Jesus Christ is the anticipation of the end, and thus the revelation of God.”
Furthermore, he rejects the distinction between special and general revelation, arguing there is one self-disclosure, found in the public sphere of history, linking revelation with reason, thus concluding that “all theological questions and answers are meaningful only within the framework of the history which God has with humanity,” and, notes Wood, “what is theologically true cannot be historically false.”
Pannenberg’s approach is not without criticism. Some criticize him of misinterpreting apocalypticism, such as Murdock, and Olive who argues he made apocalypticism too optimistic. Gunton argues revelation should not be understood merely eschatologically, but also soteriologically, quoting Exodus 3, John 1, Galatians 1.11, and Ephesians 3.5-6 as scriptural evidence for direct revelation. Wood criticizes Pannenberg of making the Bible simply a historical resource instead of a kerygmatic tool and Powell notes a remarkable lack of examples of Kingdom appearances in historical situations other than Biblical tradition. Furthermore, it seems his discussion tautologically presupposes his conclusion, with broad, general statements lacking in evidence and theological statements lacking in scriptural examples. Hence, Pannenberg’s approach is not entirely convincing.
Application for Congregations: Mount Pleasant Baptist Church
Despite these criticisms, three areas of Pannenberg’s approach carry merit for the church. Firstly, while his rejection of direct revelation is short-sighted and unscriptural, he reminds us of the broad ways which God could reveal himself to us; we should not limit God’s methods of revelation, but continuously expect God to do the unexpected. Secondly, his emphasis on the resurrection is notable, as confirmation of Christ as Son of God and, hence, of our salvation. Thirdly, we should not separate theology from its place in history and the world, immediately rejecting anything that questions the validity of Scripture.
A recent survey found that people from Mount Pleasant Baptist tend to hold to something closer to Barth, but place a greater emphasis on the role of the Spirit in revelation. Further, God reveals himself through ways other than simply the Bible, including history and nature, but is not limited to one way or another. The Spirit is vital to our understanding of Scripture and revelation can be either direct or general, but only through the illumination of the Spirit. All three of the above are applicable: the congregation should expect God to work in many possible ways; the proclamation of the Gospel should include the resurrection as a pivotal point for the validity of our faith and remind us of our future resurrection in Christ; and, without compromising theology, we can openly discuss worldly matters and the Church’s eschatological role in presenting Kingdom values to the world which is yet to receive revelation of Christ.
Pannenberg’s understanding of revelation places history as the unique mode in which God reveals himself, built on from his interpretation of Jewish tradition. We interpret previous events in the world to see God, which gives us faith for our future resurrection. The fate of Jesus is the ultimate revelation, in whom we experience the eschatological reality of our future resurrection. He rejects direct revelation, arguing the meaning of the present will only be made known in later interpretation, culminating in the eschaton which provides the ultimate revelation and understanding of history. While his approach has disagreeable elements, three conclusions can be applied to Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, in that we should expect the unexpected, preach the resurrection as vital to our faith, and understand theology, revelation and the Church as being a part of the world, not separate from it. His influential doctrine came at a much needed time and has been successful in reinforcing the need for reason and rational thinking in the way we perceive Christ.
Bradshaw, Timothy. Pannenberg: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: T&T Clark International, 2009.
Fackre, Gabriel. The Doctrine of Revelation: A Narrative Interpretation. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.
Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.
Gunton, Colin E. Revelation and Reason. London: T&T Clark, 2008.
McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. King’s College, London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
Murdock, William. “History and Revelation in Jewish Apocalypticism.” Interpretation 21, no. 2 (1967): 167-187.
Olive, Don H. Wolfhart Pannenberg. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1973.
Pannenberg, Wolfhart. “Dogmatic Theses on the Concept of Revelation.” In Revelation as History, edited by Wolfhart Pannenberg. London: Sheed and Ward Ltd, 1969.
Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Basic Questions in Theology. Translated by George H. Kehm. London: SCM Press Ltd, 1970.
Pannenberg, Wolfhart. “Jesus’ History and Our History.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 1, no. 2 (1974): 139-147.
Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology. Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988.
Pinnock, Clark H. Biblical Revelation: The Foundation of Christian Theology. Chicago: Moody Press, 1971.
Powell, Sam. “History and Eschatology in the Thought of Wolfhart Pannenberg.” Fides et Historia 32, no. 2 (2000): 19-32.
Root, Michael. “The Achievement of Wolfhart Pannenberg.” First Things 221 (2012): 37-42.
Wood, Laurence. “History and Hermeneutics: A Pannenbergian Perspective.” Wesleyan Theological Journal 16, no. 1 (1981): 7-22.
 Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Dogmatic Theses on the Concept of Revelation,” in Revelation as History, ed. Wolfhart Pannenberg(London: Sheed and Ward Ltd, 1969).
 I.e. The only knowledge of God comes through his self-revelation.
 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Basic Questions in Theology, trans., George H. Kehm (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1970). 15.
 Pannenberg, “Dogmatic Theses on the Concept of Revelation.”
 Some, such as Olive, suggest his influence was extensive (Don H. Olive, Wolfhart Pannenberg (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1973). 103-106), whereas others argue that whilst he had some sway, Pannenberg was not as influential as others imagine (cf. Michael Root, “The Achievement of Wolfhart Pannenberg,” First Things 221, no. (2012).)
 Sam Powell, “History and Eschatology in the Thought of Wolfhart Pannenberg,” Fides et Historia 32, no. 2 (2000). 20.
 Laurence Wood, “History and Hermeneutics: A Pannenbergian Perspective,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 16, no. 1 (1981). 7.
 Colin E. Gunton, Revelation and Reason (London: T&T Clark, 2008). 94. Further, Gunton states, “For Barth, you see, it would be direct, if you were to bump into Jesus Christ, as you wandered around Israel in the first century. You would actually be bumping into God. In that sense it is direct: to see Jesus is to see God. For Barth, Jesus is God’s self-revelation. Pannenberg will not go that far, it has to be indirect. You see, for Pannenberg, full Revelation happens, is disclosed, in the fullness of time,” (p.68). Also, Pinnock effectively argues that Pannenberg believed experience can reveal nothing new of Christ, contrary to Schleiermacher and Bultmann who place emphasis on subjective experience, (Clark H. Pinnock, Biblical Revelation: The Foundation of Christian Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971). 40). Cf. Gabriel Fackre, The Doctrine of Revelation: A Narrative Interpretation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997). 145. Fackre notes that Pannenberg rejected Barth’s separation of theology from public rationalism.
 This concept will discussed in detail further, but Pannenberg saw apocalypticism as the culmination of Biblical tradition, contrary to Bultmann, and argues these Jewish themes run into New Testament theology.
 Powell. 20-21.
 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, trans., Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988). 189 – 192.
 Ibid. 201.
 Ibid. 192.
 Pannenberg, Basic Questions in Theology. 19. He further argued that “we must say that the historical consciousness of Israel was always eschatologically oriented insofar as, on the basis of the promise and beyond all historically experienced fulfillments, Israel expected further fulfillment,” (p. 23).
 Olive. 51.
 Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Jesus’ History and Our History,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 1, no. 2 (1974). 145.
 William Murdock, “History and Revelation in Jewish Apocalypticism,” Interpretation 21, no. 2 (1967). 167-168. Furthermore, Bradshaw argues that according to Pannenberg, “history reveals and enacts the human and the divine interweaving as we are drawn to trust in the God of the future eschaton, made present here and now,” (Timothy Bradshaw, Pannenberg: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: T&T Clark International, 2009). 47.
 Olive. 48. This is contrary to Barth, who argued that the person of Jesus was the direct revelation of God.
 Pannenberg, “Jesus’ History and Our History.” 140.
 Powell. 23.
 Pannenberg, “Jesus’ History and Our History.” 145. Olive notes, “In the fate of Jesus the end of history is actually experienced in advance as an anticipation. In his fate, the end of history makes itself available to man…The fate of Jesus is both past revelation and the anticipation of the end where God fully reveals his deity through the totality of all events. And in this sense the event of Jesus’ fate provides the means by which revelation is comprehended from the vantage point of the end before the end,” (pp.49-50).
 Pannenberg, Systematic Theology. 194.
 Olive. 100. According to Olive, “Pannenberg also restores Jesus to a determinative place in revelation as history. He cannot be only one among other events, although he is fully among other events. Jesus’ history is the key to the proper understanding of historical reality in which God reveals himself. His history is the anticipation of the future of God wherein God is fully revealed,” (p. 100).
 Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (King’s College, London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 157. Cf. Fackre. 146.
 Gunton. 66.
 Fackre. 146.
 Murdock. 167.
 Bradshaw. 48.
 Pannenberg, “Jesus’ History and Our History.” 144. Furthermore, “The philosophical tradition has considered what lies beyond death in that it thought of the infinite destiny of man in terms of an immortal soul. This thought is strange to us moderns, because recent anthropology has demonstrated the unity of all mental events with the physical body as their prior source, so that a soul without a body has become unthinkable for us. Therefore we can no longer think of the infinite destiny of man extending beyond death as immortality of the soul, but, if at all, as resurrection from the dead,” (pp. 146-147).
 Pannenberg, “Dogmatic Theses on the Concept of Revelation.” 125-155.
 Ibid. 127.
 Pannenberg further discusses faith: “Faith has to do with the future. This is the essence of trust. Trust primarily directs itself toward the future, and the future justifies, or disappoints. Thus a person does not come to faith blindly, but by means of an event that can be appropriated as something that can be considered reliable. True faith is not a state of blissful gullibility…The Christian risks his trust, life, and future on the fact of God’s having been revealed in the fate of Jesus,” (p. 138).
 Pannenberg, “Dogmatic Theses on the Concept of Revelation.” 141. NB. Earlier in the essay I briefly discussed the way in which – according to Pannenberg’s interpretation – apocalypticism saw the resurrection of the dead as the final goal, at which God would be clearly revealed to all humanity.
 Ibid. 143.
 Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994). 137. Cf. McGrath. 157.
 Bradshaw. 46. According to Bradshaw, the “assumption that there is ultimately one convincing and true interpretation Pannenberg flies in the face of ‘postmodernity’ and its stress on the diversity of reason, truth and meaning, indeed the demonstration of such foundational matters,” (p. 51).
 Pannenberg, Basic Questions in Theology. 15.
 Wood. 7.
 Murdock argues apocalypticism led to dualism within Jewish tradition, i.e. good and evil. According to Pannenberg, “apocalypticists replaced the Old Testament idea of the future restoration of the earthly kingdom with the concept of the eschaton as the goal of history,” which, asserts Murdock, poses problems. The Old Testament concept of the future kingdom was the future age, not the eschaton, and was prepared for the righteous, while another place was prepared for the unrighteous. Hence, Pannenberg must conclude that hell is the goal for some. Rather, heaven and hell should not be understood in terms of the goal of history, but with reward and punishment, (Murdock, p. 175).
 Olive. 101. According to Olive a better understanding is “that the apocalyptic attitude is one of negation and pessimism rather than affirmation,” (p. 101).
 Gunton. 73-76.
 Wood. 12.
 Powell. 32.
 A pertinent example is the discussion of evolution. We should not reject the possibility of evolution – or any other scientific theory (such as the 16th century discussion over whether or not the Earth is flat) – based on our interpretation, and understanding of the role of, the Bible. However, we should not go to the other extreme Pannenberg goes to and simply reject any Scriptural statement based on a historical or scientific argument. While we should not immediately reject the theory of evolution based on our understanding of the Bible, we should not immediately reject the Bible based on our understanding of historical or scientific arguments. What is important is the theological intent of the author.