Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

Archive for the tag “History”

Jesus – God and Man


Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Jesus – God and Man[1] set a Christological precedent. He approached the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity with rigorous rational thought and historical-critical methodology, contemporary philosophical enquiry and sensitivity to tradition and ecumenacy, concluding that the majority of the core tenants of Christian orthodoxy are, in fact, sound doctrine, whilst placing high importance on Jesus’ resurrection. This latter point is what makes Pannenberg’s Christology distinctive: the resurrection must be the point of departure and the central concern for any discussion regarding Jesus’ divinity.

This essay shall analyse the theological landscape from whence Pannenberg’s Christological triumph emerged, through the turbulent responses to Enlightenment thinking, differing historical-critical arguments, philosophical, existential and eschatological speculation, to the theological positions that influenced Pannenberg’s Christology ‘from below,’ his desire to go behind the New Testament texts and assertions that Jesus’ resurrection is the key to unlocking the mystery of Jesus’ being. First shall be discussed the several broad categories of differing Christologies, before analysing the first two “historical quests for Jesus” and then how these have influenced theological approaches to Jesus’ resurrection in recent history. The essay shall conclude with a discussion of how Pannenberg emerged out of this theological landscape as a distinctive theologian in his own right.

The Theological Landscape

‘Types’ of Christology

Hans Frei broadly categorizes Christian theology into five ‘types.’ The first places theology within a purely philosophical discipline; the second gives weight to Christian self-description, but remains predominately a philosophical discipline; the third ambiguously merges the disciplines of philosophy with Christian self-description; the fourth gives Christian self-description superiority, but includes philosophical reflection; and the fifth has solely to do with Christian self-description, rejecting any other influence.[2] Ford expands these categories into a Christological context, and provides the following examples:[3]

  • Kant falls into the first Christological ‘type,’ arguing Jesus was a prototype for human morality.
  • Bultmann is an example of type two, who, engaging with the distinctive elements of the proclamation of Jesus, argued Christology has more to do with immediate and present experience of Jesus than anything else.
  • Schleiermacher fits into type three, for whom Jesus was both an historical person and the mediator of Christian experience.
  • Barth falls into type four, giving precedence to Christian self-description, arguing Jesus was both a particular human and God, and thus beyond normal human experience.
  • D. Z. Phillips, arguing there is no place for philosophy in the discussion about the biblical Jesus, is an example of the fifth type.

Apart from these five types, there are two distinct methodological approaches, commonly labelled as either Christology “from above,” and “from below.”[4] The former are exponents of traditional Chalcedonian Christology, insisting that the basis of Christological understanding is Christian kerygma, not historical-critical analysis, nor upon rational argument. Occasionally caricatured as Docetism, examples include Barth, Bultmann, and Brunner. Those who fall into the latter approach assert a necessity upon historical research, that the possibility exists to arrive at the divinity of Jesus as a conclusion rather than a presupposition. Käsemann and Pannenberg are examples of a Christology “from below,” and have received criticisms of reviving elements of Nestorianism.[5]

Historical Quests

A precursor for these two approaches to Christologiy is what has been labelled the “historical quest” for Jesus. The Enlightenment thinking of the 18th century began to question with unprecedented vigour the historicity (or lack thereof) of the Gospel narratives. A succession of authors in the 19th century sought to reconstruct the life of the ‘historical Jesus’ through stringent historical-critical scholarship, most concluding that the Jesus of the Christian faith was an invention of Christianity. Feuerbach (1804-1872) argued Christianity was mere introspection and Strauss (1808-1874) argued the supernatural elements in the gospel were myth, primitive expression of spiritual ideas. Strauss’ work demanded objectivity in historical research of Jesus, for the Gospels were not historically reliable. Strauss’ work influenced many others, including Renan’s Life of Jesus in the 1860s. Drews (1865-1935) argued the historical Jesus was a myth and hence the quest for the historical Jesus was pointless, and then Schweitzer (1875-1965) wrote The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its progress from Reimarus to Wrede in 1906, tracing the history of this quest, and insisted these attempts at the historical Jesus should stop, for they domesticate Jesus and had become more about the historian than the history. Schweitzer’s attack on the historical quest effectively stopped this first ‘quest.’

Kähler also had a significant role in the cessation of this Quest through his critique of its methodology in The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, in 1896. He argued it was impossible to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith; the only Christ academics should be interested in is the one preached through the ages. Searching for the historical was not only unsuccessful, but counterproductive. He also, however, argued faith should not be dependent on historical research, this latter statement greatly influencing Tillich and Bultmann who focussed not on the historical events of Jesus, but on the faith and teachings of the church, wherein meaning is found in existential encounter.[6] Witherington argues this separation causes problems, for Christian faith is based on historical events and thus separating the Jesus of history from the Jesus of Christian kerygma leads to a form of Gnosticism.

Until the second half of the 20th century, the academic quest for the historical Jesus was nonexistent. However, in 1953 a gathering of Bultmann’s former students launched a new revitalized quest for the historical Jesus, particularly in Käsemann’s (1906 – 1998) work. He argued against Bultmann’s assertion that the Gospels had no historical credibility and that Bultmann was too extreme in his scepticism about what could be known of Jesus. Bornkamm (1905 – 1990) had an influential role in this second quest. His publication, Jesus of Nazareth in 1956, argued that by applying critical scholarship we can know something about the historical Jesus.[7] This paved the way for Pannenberg, who insisted that, in fact, we can know something about Jesus only by applying critical scholarship.

The Resurrection

Fergusson begins his historical analysis of the doctrine of the resurrection with the simple question: “Is the resurrection an event in the life of Jesus or an event in the life of the believer?”[8] He argues the different doctrines can be divided into three broad positions: radical, liberal, and traditional. The ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’ positions argue there was no historical resurrection; the former posits the resurrection is a reference to faith itself, the latter that it is myth emerging out of faith. The ‘traditional’ position claims the resurrection was an historical event in Jesus’ life which gave rise to that faith. Bultmann and Marxsen are examples of theologians who fit into the ‘radical’ position, Küng and Schillebeeckx into the ‘liberal’ position, and Barth and Pannenberg into the ‘traditional’ position.[9]

According to Schleiermacher (1768-1834), the only support for the resurrection of Christ comes from Scripture, which is historically unreliable. After a detailed historical analysis of the Gospels, he concludes that much of what was said during Jesus’ life, pre- and post-resurrection, were the result of redaction. He then questions why Jesus would devote his time after his resurrection strictly to a few, rather than many, which would clearly have a greater impact. Furthermore, he argues the resurrection has no significance for Christ or the individual, for the cross itself has no redemptive significance.[10] However, he does not deny the historicity of the resurrection, for that would mean Jesus chose his disciples poorly as unreliable testimonies, or that he intended to deceive humanity. The resurrection is therefore a kerygmatic tool arising out of the disciples’ faith who “recognized in Him the Son of God without having the faintest premonition of His resurrection and ascension.”[11]

There seems to be some tension present in Schleiermacher’s understanding of Scripture. On the one hand he refuses to acknowledge the reliability of the resurrection accounts, but on the other does not question the disciples’ statements about Jesus. Furthermore, while the biblical accounts attest to the disciples’ acknowledgment of Jesus as Christ, none of them addressed Jesus as God until Thomas did so after the resurrection. Hieb details a further inconsistency within Schleiermacher’s theological schema, in particular regards to his positivistic nature-system which inherently disallows supernatural miracles. His doctrine of reconciliation denies the need for resurrection and his nature-system denies the possibility of resurrection – yet he refuses to deny Christ’s resurrection.[12] As is evident, there is ambiguity to Schleiermacher’s interpretation of the resurrection and unresolvable tensions. His doctrine is thus irrevocably untenable.

Strauss interpreted all stories through the lens of myth and thus any hint of supernaturalism was denied from a historical perspective. He “regarded the Gospels as a hopeless conglomeration of mythical stories from which no trustworthy picture of Jesus could ever be won,”[13] arguing that either Jesus had not really died, or he had not really been raised. The resurrection was, rather, a primitive myth. Similarly, Tillich (1886-1965) rejected the notion of Christ’s bodily resurrection and insisted it was a metaphor, a reference to the return of Jesus to Christ in the minds of the disciples.[14] For Troeltsch (1865-1923), historical-critical methodology threatened traditional dogmatics. If certain traditions or ‘facts’ did not correspond to present experience – such as the resurrection – it is deemed improbable. His aim was to present Christianity purely as an historical phenomenon compatible with historical-critical methods.[15] Ruling out any supernatural explanation, he concluded that “Christianity is in actuality the strongest and most concentrated revelation of personalistic religious apprehension.”[16] While viewing Christianity as the highest religious truth, in regards to morality, the resurrection must be denied on a historical basis – we do not experience people resurrecting today, therefore we cannot say that anyone has in the past.

Bultmann (1884 – 1976) believed that what is significant is the ongoing, existential meaning of the cross and resurrection. More important than any historical evidence is the individual’s experience of Christ in the present. Like Tillich he viewed the resurrection as metaphor, but insisted that the resurrection should not be understood as an event of past history, nor can its saving significance be proven historically. Instead, it represents “the elevation of the Crucified One to the status of Lord,”[17] a belief arising out of the early Christians’ proclamation to be prepared for his imminent return. According to Bultmann, “The resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost and the parousia of Jesus are one and the same event, and those who believe have already eternal life.”[18]

For Barth (1886 – 1968), the resurrection was entirely a work of the Father, and it was unnecessary for redemption. Reconciliation occurred in and through Jesus’ obedient life and death, and so Christ’s resurrection was a sovereign act of God’s free grace as an entirely new act – as was the creation of the cosmos. However, the resurrection functions epistemologically; “In His resurrection He reveals Himself as the One He is – the genuine, true and righteous man, the real man, who kept the covenant which all others broke.”[19] It does not alter who Jesus is, yet there is definite transformation. He is “the same whole man, soul and body,” who “rises as He dies,”[20] yet it “crowns this event [of Jesus’ ministry on Earth] as its disclosure and revelation.”[21]

For Barth, “The resurrection is an event in the life of Jesus that gives meaning to the disciples’ faith and to ours today through the power of the Holy Spirit and thus through faith.”[22] Furthermore, “It is…an objective event within history whose meaning is always tied to Jesus himself as subject and object and thus requires faith in him to be understood.”[23] Jesus was a particular man in a particular time, and is saviour only so long as he, his incarnation and resurrection, are historical events. However, understanding these events cannot come through normal historical-critical methods, rather can only be understood through faith, given through our unification with the risen Jesus by the Holy Spirit. He argues that his death and resurrection “must be understood in the flesh, as a real event, yet not as a single event or as many single events, but as the totality of the event of the existence of Jesus.”[24] For Barth, the resurrection is an historical event but is unlike any other historical event; it is God’s history with humanity, more than it is empirical human history.[25]

Rahner (1904 – 1984) attempts to hold the resurrection as both an event in Jesus’ life and as an event within the faith of the disciples. He insists the resurrection be linked to the cross, arguing it is “the manifestation of what happened in the death of Christ,”[26] and in his resurrection, the transfiguration and renewal of the world has begun; in his death and resurrection, Christ is the fulfilment and consummation of all of creation.[27] According to Rahner,

The resurrection of Christ is essentially…the event in which God irrevocably adopts the creature as his own reality, by his own primordial act, as he had ‘already’ done in the incarnation of the Logos. It is likewise the event in which God so divinizes and transfigures the creature that this glorification is accomplished as the total acceptance of this divine assumption by the freedom of the creature itself.[28]

The resurrection was an actual, historical event that gave rise to faith, but without faith there would be no resurrection, as Molnar notes, “The resurrection of Jesus is not a historical fact existing independently of the disciples’ faith and ours.”[29] While it was an historical event, it cannot be understood as any other historical event, for it does not exist within our normal realm of experience of empirical and recurring data. The resurrection cannot be separated from faith for “it is only in this faith that its own essential being is fully realized.”[30] In this faith we receive and experience Christian hope, for since Jesus has been raised, we can hope for our own resurrection, which shall be a resurrection into Jesus himself.[31]

Where Rahner links the resurrection to hope, Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009) links it to Christ’s glorification: “Jesus’ resurrection is directly associated with his exaltation.”[32] The empty tomb tradition did not lead to the belief in Christ’s resurrection, rather God exalted Jesus to the heavenly places after his death, which in effect was his resurrection, and thus resulted in the tales of the empty tomb as a consequence. He argues the early Christians would have reflected upon Apocalyptic texts such as Wisdom of Solomon, and concluded that upon his death, Jesus lived on in God. Therefore, the resurrection of Christ is merely a reference to his exaltation into the heavenly places, and not a literal historical event. Yet through this exaltation, “God’s definitive saving action has been accomplished.”[33] Macquarrie, reflecting upon this position, concludes that simple contemplation upon a passage would not result in the dramatic turnaround in the disciples’ lives – something had to have happened to cause them to insist, to their deaths, that Christ was risen.[34]

For Moltmann (1926 – present), the resurrection represents the antithesis to Christ’s crucifixion. The former represents death and the absence of God, the latter represents life and the presence of God. Despite this contradiction, Jesus remains the same man, though in his cross he is identified with sin and death and in his resurrection is identified with God’s promises. The Christian hope arises out of this resurrection, wherein the general resurrection, the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the new re-creation of all, are ensured.[35]

Conclusion: The Arrival of Pannenberg

This essay has attempted to outline the major theological currents that paved the way for Pannenberg’s Christological publication, Jesus – God and Man. To be noted, of special interest, is the sheer diversity of Christological assertions and how these conclusions have been influenced by an even greater diversity of factors, including philosophical presuppositions and approaches to the role of historical research. The essay began with an overview of Ford’s five ‘types’ of Christologies; with Bultmann, Pannenberg fits into the second type, in that his study of Jesus had as its foundation a rigorous historical-critical methodology. He refused to accept, without question, Christian self-description and kerygma, seeking to go behind the early church proclamation to find the real, historical Jesus. He insisted that “the task of Christology is to establish the true understanding of Jesus’ significance from his history,” and thus “all statements…are to be tested in the light of Jesus’ history.”[36] Emerging out of the ‘Second Quest’ for the historical Jesus, Pannenberg argued that it’s not just possible to discover the real Jesus through historical-critical methodology, but, in fact, we can discover the real Jesus only through historical-critical methodology.

Evidently, Pannenberg approaches Christology from below and provides three reasons why a Christology from above is not feasible:[37]

  1. It presupposes Christ’s divinity. Determining who Jesus was and is is the primary task of Christology, and thus nothing can be presupposed or assumed.
  2. It does not fully recognize the distinctive elements and attributes of the historical human figure. For example, if a universal nature is presupposed in Christ’s being, Jesus’ relationship with historical Judaism loses importance.
  3. It assumes a position any human interpreter cannot inhabit: the position of God himself. We can only ever think from a humanly, historical perspective.

While he would fit into Fergusson’s ‘traditional’ position on the resurrection, with Barth, Pannenberg’s position is very different to Barth’s, due to Barth’s methodology being a Christology from above. Where Barth placed emphasis on the epistemological significance of the resurrection, Pannenberg prescribed it a greater ontological significance, arguing,

Only because in Jesus’ resurrection the end of all things, which for us has not yet happened, has already occurred can it be said of Jesus that the ultimate already is present in him, and so also that God himself, his glory, has made its appearance in Jesus in a way that cannot be surpassed. Only because the end of the world is already present in Jesus’ resurrection is God himself revealed in him…[and] in Jesus, God himself has appeared on earth.[38]

In other words, the resurrection – and the eschatological significance inherent within it –ontologically determines Jesus’ divinity. McClean expands,

[Pannenberg] argues that the Easter event ‘determines’ the meaning of Jesus’ life and his relationship with God. That is, the proper understanding of Jesus’ life and his identity depend on the resurrection, not simply for their being known, but for their being what they are.[39]

Pannenberg’s Christology in Jesus – God and Man is progressive and groundbreaking. Though his thought didn’t change dramatically as he aged,[40] it did develop and thus there are evident differences in his Christology in his later publication Systematic Theology, where a greater anthropological emphasis leads to slightly different conclusions regarding Jesus’ humanity and our relation to him.However, the purpose of this research is on his early work and as such, such discussion is best left elsewhere. Though technically falling into Fergusson’s ‘traditional’ position, he clearly is anything but.



Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Trans. H. Knight, G. W. Bromiley, J. K. S. Reid, R. H. Fuller. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1960.

Bauckham, Richard. “Jürgen Moltmann.” In The Modern Theologians, edited by David F. Ford.2nd ed. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Bloesch, Donald G. Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997.

Bradshaw, Timothy. Pannenberg: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: T&T Clark International, 2009.

Bray, G. L. “Christology.” In New Dictionary of Theology, edited by Sinclair B. Ferguson, and David F. Wright. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.

Bultmann, Rudolf. Jesus Christ and Mythology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958.

Edwards, Denis. “The Relationship Between the Risen Christ and the Material Universe.” Pacifica 4, no 1. (1991)

Eitel, Adam. “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: Karl Barth and the Historicization of God’s Being.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 10, no 1. (2008)

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1998.

Fergusson, David. “Interpreting the Resurrection.” Scottish Journal of Theology 38, no 3. (1985)

__________. “Barth’s Resurrection of the Dead: Further Reflections.” Scottish Journal of Theology 56, no 1. (2003)

Ford, David. “Christology.” In The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, edited by Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, and Hugh Pyper. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Ford, David F. and Mike Higton. Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Frei, Hans W. Types of Christian Theology. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Gilbertson, Michael. God and History in the Book of Revelation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Grenz, Stanley J. and Roger E. Olson. 20th-Century Theology. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Haight, Roger. Jesus: Symbol of God. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999.

Harris, Horton. David Friedrich Strauss and his Theology. London: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Hieb, Nathan D. “The Precarious Status of Resurrection in Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre.International Journal of Systematic Theology 9, no 4. (2007)

Janssen, Claudia. “Bodily Resurrection (1 Cor. 15)? The Discussion of the Resurrection in Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Dorothee Sӧlle and Contemporary Feminist Theology.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 79. (2000)

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospel. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.

Macquarrie, John. Jesus Christ in Modern Thought. London: SCM Press, 1990.

McClean, John. From the Future: Getting to Grips with Pannenberg’s Thought. Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2013.

McGrath, Alister E. The Making of Modern German Christology. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1986.

Molnar, Paul D. Incarnation and Resurrection: Toward a Contemporary Understanding. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man. Translated by Lewis L. Wilkins and Duane A. Priebe. London: SCM Press, 2002.

Rahner, Karl. Theological Investigations. Vol. 4. Trans. Kevin Smyth. London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., 1974.

__________. Foundations of Christian Faith. Translated by William V. Dych. London: Darton Longman & Todd Ltd., 1978.

Schillebeeckx, Edward. Jesus: An Experiment in Christology. Translated by Hubert Hoskins. London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1979.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. The Christian Faith. Ed. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1968.

__________. The Life of Jesus. Ed. Jack C. Verheyden. Translated by S. Maclean Gilmour. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

Schwӧbel, Christoph. “Wolfhart Pannenberg.” In The Modern Theologians, edited by David F. Ford.2nd ed. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Smith, J. W. D. “The Resurrection of Christ: Myth or History?” The Expository Times 72, no 12. (1961)

Thiselton, Anthony C. The Two Horizons. Exeter, UK: The Paternoster Press, 1980.

Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Digswell Place, Great Britain: James Nisbet and Company Ltd., 1968.

Troeltsch, Ernst. The Absoluteness of Christianity. Translated by David Reid. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1971.

Witherington III, Ben. The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997.



[1] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus – God and Man, trans. Lewis L. Wilkins and Duane A. Priebe (London: SCM Press, 2002).

[2] Hans W. Frei, Types of Christian Theology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992). 28-55.

[3] David F. Ford, “Christology,” in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). 116-118.

[4] G. L. Bray, “Christology,” in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. Sinclair B. Ferguson, and David F. Wright (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998). 137-140. He argues this splits Christology into two opposing camps.

[5] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1998). 684. Cf. Pannenberg. 1-11.

[6] Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997). 6-11. Also, Michael Gilbertson, God and History in the Book of Revelation (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003). 11-16.

[7] Witherington. 11. Though the second quest was largely a reaction to Bultmann, his influence remained, portraying Jesus as an existentialist philosopher (p. 11).

[8] David Fergusson, “Interpreting the Resurrection.” Scottish Journal of Theology 38, no 3. (1985). 287.

[9] Ibid. 287-305. Cf. Paul D. Molnar, Incarnation and Resurrection: Toward a Contemporary Understanding (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007).

[10] It is not within the scope of this essay to detail and critique Schleiermacher’s understanding of redemption, but in short the satisfaction of sin is found not in the suffering, but in the active obedience of Christ throughout his life. If humanity’s sin is infinite then the punishment must equally be infinite. Christ’s death, having occurred within time and space, is not infinite and thus cannot satisfy the punishment for sin. Reconciliation comes through Christ’s obedience, and that obedience is transmitted to those who have fellowship with Christ (Cf. Nathan D Hieb, “The Precarious Status of Resurrection in Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 9, no 4. (2007). 401-03).

[11] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith. Edited by H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1968). 418. Cf. Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Life of Jesus. Edited by Jack C. Verheyden. Translated by S. Maclean Gilmour (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975). 392-465.

[12] Hieb. 399, 407-14.

[13] Horton Harris, David Friedrich Strauss and his Theology (London: Cambridge University Press, 1973). 272.

[14] Stanley J. Grenz, and Roger E. Olson, 20th-Century Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992). 129; Paul Tillich. Systematic Theology (Digswell Place, Great Britain: James Nisbet and Company Ltd., 1968). Cf. Alister E. McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1986). 37-38.

[15] Gilbertson. 3-4.

[16] Ernst Troeltsch, The Absoluteness of Christianity. Translated by David Reid (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1971). 111-12.

[17] Grenz and Olson. 95.

[18] Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958). 33. Cf. J. W. D. Smith, “The Resurrection of Christ: Myth or History?” The Expository Times 72, no 12. (1961). 372-73.

[19] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. Ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Trans. H. Knight, G. W. Bromiley, J. K. S. Reid, R. H. Fuller (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1960). III/2, 214. Cf. Adam Eitel, “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: Karl Barth and the Historicization of God’s Being.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 10, no 1. (2008). 38. Cf. p.40 – “Barth understands Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead as the event in which God the Father acted unnecessarily and graciously.”

[20] Barth. III/2, 327.

[21] Ibid. III/2, 337.

[22] Molnar. 1.

[23] Ibid. 6.

[24] Barth. III/2, 337.

[25] Ibid. 8-14. Cf. Claudia Janssen, “Bodily Resurrection (1 Cor. 15)? The Discussion of the Resurrection in Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Dorothee Sӧlle and Contemporary Feminist Theology.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 79 (2000). 64.

[26] Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations. Vol. 4. Trans. Kevin Smyth (London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., 1974). 128. Furthermore, the death of Christ was “the imposed and enforced handing over of the whole bodily man to the mystery of the merciful loving God, by the concentrated freedom of Christ as he disposes of his whole life and existence,” (p. 128).

[27] Denis Edwards, “The Relationship Between the Risen Christ and the Material Universe.” Pacifica 4, no 1. (1991). 11-12.

[28] Rahner. Theological Investigations. 128-29.

[29] Molnar. 63.

[30] Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith. Translated by William V. Dych (London: Darton Longman & Todd Ltd., 1978). 267-68.

[31] Molnar. 45-66. Cf. Rahner. 267-68 – “Jesus is risen into the faith of his disciples…that faith which knows itself to be a divinely effected liberation from all the powers of finiteness, of guilt and of death, and knows itself to be empowered for this by the fact that this liberation has taken place in Jesus himself and has become manifest for us.”

[32] Edward Schillebeeckx. Jesus: An Experiment in Christology. Translated by Hubert Hoskins (London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1979). 533.

[33] Ibid. 543.

[34] John Macquarrie. Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (London: SCM Press, 1990). 311-312.

[35] Richard Bauckham, “Jürgen Moltmann,” in The Modern Theologians, edited by David F. Ford. 2nd ed. (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1997). 210-213.

[36] Pannenberg. 12. Emphasis mine.

[37] Ibid. 17-18.

[38] Ibid. 59.

[39] John McClean. From the Future: Getting to Grips with Pannenberg’s Thought (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2013). 99-100.

[40] It should be noted at this point that his earlier work is marked but a focus on methodology, as seen in his works Revelation as History and Basic Questions in Theology, thereby establishing his theological schema for healthy growth and development. Hence his overall direction taken in his theological work remained true and did not change or wave.

A Baptist Distinctive: Believer’s Baptism

One of the core beliefs of the Baptist denomination and which largely remains a distinctive element of the denomination is “believer’s baptism,” the belief that only those who are capable of, and who have, in fact, responded in faith to God’s Word and grace can – and must – be baptized. This inevitably leads to the rejection of the old tradition of infant baptism, and is linked with other core beliefs of the Baptist tradition, such as individual competency (the belief that the individual is capable of a personal relationship with God without the need for a mediator) and the authority of scripture. This essay seeks to analyze the historical development of this distinctive element of the Baptist denomination, beginning with an analysis of sacramental theology, which invariably leads to
the debate surrounding infant baptism, before a discussion on “believer’s baptism,” the question of immersion, its similarities and differences to other traditions and finishing with an assessment of its importance and future.

To fully understand what the early Baptists were responding to in terms of the mode and meaning of the act of baptism, it is important to discuss the historical development of the ‘sacraments.’ The use of the Greek mysterion in the New Testament usually has a
soteriological context and used in the singular, referring to the mystery of God’s salvific action. The early church linked mysterion to the ‘sacraments,’ particularly Tertullian, who used the term in the plural, and Augustine, who labeled these events as ‘sacred signs.’

Furthermore, Augustine argued they enabled what they signify.1 Sacramental theology blossomed in the Middle Ages. Paris theologian Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141) revised Augustine’s definition, arguing for four essential components: a physical component, a likeness to that which it is symbolizing, authorization and institution, and efficacy in conferring the benefits it symbolizes. Soon after, seven sacraments were recognized.2 At the Reformation, Luther argued against these seven, instead insisting on three (baptism, Eucharist, penance), which became two (baptism, Eucharist). He placed emphasis on the sacraments being visible physical signs.3 He stated,

Baptism is not just water on its own, but it is water used according to God’s command and linked with God’s Word…It brings about the forgiveness of sins, saves us from death and the devil, and grants eternal blessedness to all who believe.4

Hence, while Luther rejected five of the seven sacraments, and argued that baptism and the Eucharist were physical signs, he clearly believed these to be more than mere signs. They conferred in themselves that which they symbolized. Zwingli responded against this, arguing that the sacraments are purely symbolic. They convey – but do not confer – grace, strengthening faith, enhancing unity and are reassurance of God’s promises. Their primary purpose is to signify a believer’s allegiance to the church.5 As will be discussed below, the debate over the efficacy of the sacraments impinges heavily upon the debate between paedo- and believer’s- baptism.

It is not clear if the early church baptized infants. Paul links baptism with circumcision (cf. Col. 2), and it is likely that this, plus certain pastoral needs, such as the concern regarding the salvation of infants – especially poignant with Augustine’s doctrine of original sin – led to the rise of infant baptism. It – or at least baptism in some way – became a universal practice by the 3rd century.6 Cyprian of Carthage and Augustine argued it procured remission of sin. Zwingli rejected the belief that infant baptism conferred forgiveness, arguing that guilt required some sense of moral responsibility, of which infants have none, hence cannot be guilty. However, he believed it to be justified based on its parallel with circumcision.7

The Radical Reformation in the 16th century, and the rise of the English Baptists in the 17th century rejected this traditional practice of infant baptism, believing baptism requires a declaration of repentance. They further saw the New Testament’s silence on infants being baptized as a sign that infant baptism is not biblical, and thus need not be practiced.8 Thacker argues that the logic behind infant baptism does not hold up to scrutiny, and “ends up destroying itself.”9

A general area of contention lies in whether baptism is an ordinance, signifying believer’s faith, or a sacrament, signifying God’s grace. Baptists prefer ‘ordinance’ as a term referring to the acts with Christ has ordained, those he himself instituted, as opposed to Roman Catholic sacraments such as penance, ordination, etc. which were instituted by the church.10 According to Vander Zee, “The primary objection to the baptism of infants…is the fact that in infant baptism one of the most important aspects of New Testament baptism is missing: conversion and the profession of faith in Jesus Christ.”11 Fickett further notes that Acts 8:37 insists that only those who accept Jesus as savior can be baptized12 and Bromiley provides thorough exegetical argument that conversion always preceded baptism in the New Testament.13

A common argument for infant baptism is based on the “you and your household” texts in Acts. Jeremias extensively argued that oikos refers to a family, including children. Furthermore, the phrase is found throughout the Old Testament with reference to families with children. However, this does not prove the infants were baptized, nor is their biblical precedent for vicarious faith. Regarding the tale of the jailor in Acts 16, it is likely that what Luke was saying was both the jailor and his family received the exhortation to faith, hence if the family believed they would be saved; individual faith is still required, not solely the jailor.14

That infant baptism should be accepted due to it being parallel to circumcision doesn’t stand up under scrutiny either. It is an argument from silence, for there is no NT link between infant baptism and Jewish circumcision. In fact, the NT speaks negatively about
circumcision as an act relating to law, in contrast to baptism which relates to grace.15 Furthermore, circumcision leads to a Christendom model,16 which has had a detrimental effect on the church, as many “are deluded into thinking they are spiritually secure because the act has been performed.”17

A rejection of infant baptism is largely what marked the early Baptist denomination as distinctive. In 1608, John Smyth led a separatist church out of England to Amsterdam. Condemning the English church as a false church, Smyth believed his baptism to be a false baptism and came to recognize the true purpose of baptism signified entrance into a covenant with God. Believing there was no ‘true church’ and that he lived in a state of apostasy, he started a new church, and in 1609 dissolved the church he was pastoring and began baptizing (by pouring) himself and his followers. This act is recognized by many as the beginning of the Baptist church. Williams, in America, similarly rejected the English church and its infant baptism. He became on exile on Rhode Island, and in 1639 he and his followers were baptized by immersion, becoming the first immersionist church.18 In 1806, the Mennonite church followed suit, adopting immersion.19

Being baptized as an adult, upon a confession of faith, is a logical outworking of the Baptist emphases on the authority of scriptural teaching and individual’s capacity to have faith (“Individual Competency” and “Believer Priesthood”).20 It represents a conversion that has already taken place. Where Zwingli saw baptism as having more to do with the community, Baptists see it more to do with the individual’s faith and a profession of this faith.21 However, it was originally seen by early English Baptists as a mode of entry into the church, but this changed under Calvinist influence to become a symbolic testimony of God’s grace
within the individual.22

Mullins argued that baptism symbolizes a remission of sin, union with Christ, and a cleansing from unrighteousness.23 Similar to a marriage ceremony, baptism is that public confession of personal faith. Grenz notes three New Testament emphases: 1) entry into church (1 Cor. 12.13); 2) symbolic of Jesus’ death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-4); and 3) a sealing of a covenant with God (1 Pet. 3.21).24 Furthermore, baptism is an oath, pledging loyal service to the Lord, surrendering to his will.25 It does not bring salvation, but is a celebration of God’s grace within the individual.26

Baptists hold to the belief that baptism should be properly administered by full immersion, rather than sprinkling or pouring. While this secondary to the meaning of baptism, it still warrants discussion.27 Archaeology has provided some evidence that may point toward the early church practicing immersion,28 but this is not conclusive and largely speculative. The most prevalent argument is etymological, in that baptizo is used, which means “to dip” or “immerse.”29 The root bapto is used in other situations, to describe, for example, dyeing and tempering iron. It is used in the LXX twice: Isaiah 21, where it is translated as “affrighted” (KJV); 2 Kings 5:14, referring to Naaman washing in the Jordan to purify himself from Jordan. It is used in Wisdom of Ben Sirach 34:25 and Judith 12:6-9, referring to a ceremonial ritual used to wash off impurity.30 If “sprinkle” was intended, hrantizo would have been appropriate.31 Furthermore, Acts 8:39 and Matt. 3:16 describe going down into and up out of the water, implying full immersion.32 Hence, immersion is the preferred mode.

Believer’s baptism is largely a distinctive of the Baptist tradition, but is shared – as was mentioned above – with the Mennonite tradition, influenced by the Baptist view of baptism. The Anabaptist Grebel in the 16th century was one of the first to question infant baptism, and he and his followers received their name, meaning re-baptists, a derogatory term “applied to those who believed that only adults able to make a profession of faith may be baptized.”33

The Lutheran tradition affirms infant baptism, arguing the stress lies on God’s action, not on the human response. Based on John’s leaping in Elizabeth’s womb (Luke 1:44), Luther came to believe that infants had the ability to exercise faith. Baptists criticize this approach “for abandoning the concept of justification by grace through faith.”34 Both the Episcopal and Methodist traditions places emphasis on baptism as sacramental, conferring grace, through which God adopts his children. As discussed earlier, Baptists reject a sacramental view of baptism, hence reject these interpretations.35 Presbyterians do not view baptism as “bearers of extra grace to individuals,” but are visible signs – similar to the Baptist tradition. The major difference is that Presbyterians see baptism as a community event and hence affirm infant baptism as the equivalent to circumcision.36

Baptists received much persecution at its inception. While in Amsterdam, Helwys’ wife was imprisoned, despite having children. Helwys, expecting immediate persecution and even execution upon returning to England, returned anyway. He wrote A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity arguing for religious freedom in 1612 in London and sent a personalized copy to King James I. The king responded by arresting him and sending him to Newgate Prison where he died four years later.37 Persecution grew climaxing between 1660 and 1680.38 According to Fickett, “Because Baptists through the years have preached the Biblical truth that baptism is a believer’s rite, they have suffered untold hardship, privation, indescribable persecution, and even martyrdom in practically every country of the world.”39

In hindsight it seems petty that so much persecution occurred over something seemingly so small. However, when analyzed, it isn’t as small an issue as first perceived. Baptism was tied very closely with citizenship in a time of Christendom; to deny infant baptism was effectively denying citizenship. What the Baptists were dying for, however, was less to do with baptism itself and more to do with the cause for their belief in believer’s baptism, seen in the other Baptist distinctives of religious freedom, authority of scripture, etc. These Baptists were dying for principal and integrity.

As a Baptist distinctive, believer’s baptism is still an important Baptist belief, because of how it is linked so tightly with individual competency. To say one is less important than the other opens the door to the foundations of the Baptist tradition being shaken. To deny individual competency is to return to a Christendom model and devalues the doctrine of grace. Further, due to the biblical picture that baptism is clearly linked with repentance and faith, and that Baptists hold scripture as having primary authority, the Baptist tradition cannot deny believer’s baptism. It is a vital belief that will remain with the denomination. If the
denomination exists in 100 years, believer’s baptism surely will remain vital.

As is hopefully clear, the Baptist rejection of ‘sacrament’ for ‘ordinance’ is scripturally and logically preferable. The idea that something external to God’s soteriological activity can confer grace and blessing is clearly contradictory to the core of the Gospel message. Indeed a response of faith on behalf of the person is vital, but requiring that response to be what constitutes their entry into the Kingdom of Heaven or not is absurd. The Baptist attention to individual competency and the authority of scriptural teaching inevitably leads to the conclusion of believer’s baptism and rejection of infant baptism. Believer’s baptism symbolizes God’s grace within the individual, a public testimony to the individual’s repentance and clearly reflects the biblical picture of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, in which we participate as children of God. While immersion is preferred to sprinkling or pouring, this is only a secondary issue. This distinctive element of the Baptist denomination is one that will – and should – stick with the denomination and will last into the future. It is a core element that reflects the very faith and beliefs that make up the Baptist denomination: that we, as individuals, a part of the Body of Christ the Church, can participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection and look forward to the future hope of glory.

Beasley-Murray, G. R. Baptism: Today and Tomorrow. London: Macmillan, 1966.
Bromiley, G. W. “Baptism, Believer’s.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by
Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2001.
Fickett, Harold L. A Layman’s Guide to Baptist Beliefs. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan
Publishing House, 1976.
Grenz, Stanley J. The Baptist Congregation. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1985.
Harmon, Richard W. Baptists and Other Denominations. Nashville, Tennessee: Convention
Press, 1984.
James Leo Garrett, Jr. “Baptists Concerning Baptism: Review and Preview.” Southwestern
Journal of Theology 43, no. 2 (2001): 52-67.
Jeschke, Marlin. Believers Baptism for Children of the Church. Scottdale, Pennsylvania:
Herald Press, 1983.
Lindberg, Carter. The European Reformations. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.
Luther, Martin. “Lesser Catechism.” In The Christian Theology Reader, edited by Alister E.
McGrath. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. 5 ed. London: Wiley-Blackwell,
Mounce, William D. The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Zondervan, 1993.
Mullins, E. Y. Baptist Beliefs. Valley Forge: Baptist World Publishing Company, 1912.
Norman H. Maring, Winthrop S. Hudson. A Baptist Manual of Polity and Practice. Valley
Forge: Judson Press, 1991.

Norman, R. Stanton. The Baptist Way: Distinctive of a Baptist Church. Nashville, Tennessee:
Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.
Thacker, Anthony. “Baptism, Circumcision and Grace: The Debate between Paedo-Baptists
and Believer-Baptists Considered.” Journal of European Baptist Studies 6, no. 1
(2005): 32-44.
Tidball, Derek. “A Baptist Perspective on David Wright, What Has Infant Baptism Done to
Baptism? An Enquiry at the End of Christendom.” Evangelical Quarterly 78, no. 2
(2006): 157-161.
Timmer, Kirsten Thea. “English Baptist Women under Persecution (1660-1688): A Study of
Social Conformity and Dissent.” Baptist History and Heritage 46, no. 1 (2006): 18-29.
Towns, Lydia. “Faithfulness in the Face of Persecution: Thomas Helwys’ Struggle for a Better
World.” Baptist History and Heritage 45, no. 3 (2010): 80-91.
Ward, Rowland S. Baptism in Scripture and History. Brunswick: Globe Press Pty Ltd, 1991.
Williams, George H. The Radical Reformation. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962.
Witherington, Ben. Troubled Waters: Rethinking the Theology of Baptism. Texas: Baylor
University Press, 2007.
Zee, Leonard J. Vander. Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Downer’s Grove, Illinois:
InterVarsity Press, 2004.


1 Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5 ed. (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 400-401.

2 Baptism, Eucharist, penance, confirmation, ordination, marriage, and anointing the sick.
3 McGrath. 403-404.
4 Martin Luther, “Lesser Catechism,” in The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister E. McGrath(London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 473.
5 McGrath. 405-411.

6 Ibid. 420-421. Some, such as McGrath, argue infant baptism was the universally accepted mode of baptism at this time, while others reject this, insisting it was not as universal as many would believe, cf. Derek Tidball, “A Baptist Perspective on David Wright, What Has Infant Baptism Done to Baptism? An Enquiry at the End of Christendom,” Evangelical Quarterly 78, no. 2 (2006). 157-160. Another who argues infant baptism was universally practiced is R. Stanton Norman, The Baptist Way: Distinctive of a Baptist Church (Nashville,
Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005). 94.
7 McGrath. 421-422.
8 Ibid. 422-423.
9 Anthony Thacker, “Baptism, Circumcision and Grace: The Debate between Paedo-Baptists and Believer-Baptists Considered,” Journal of European Baptist Studies 6, no. 1 (2005). 34.
10 Leonard J. Vander Zee, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004). 121-122; Stanley J. Grenz, The Baptist Congregation (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1985). 29, 32. Cf. Winthrop S. Hudson Norman H. Maring, A Baptist Manual of Polity and Practice (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1991). 156 – “Baptism, then, may be thought of as a rite ordained by Christ through which his disciples are to express the humble confessions, the faith, and the willing obedience required of them.” Also, G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism: Today and Tomorrow (London: Macmillan, 1966). In 1911, Neighbour said that any Baptist who labeled baptism a sacrament was speaking thoughtlessly (p. 14).

11 Vander Zee. 122.
12 Harold L. Fickett, A Layman’s Guide to Baptist Beliefs (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976). 68-69.
13 G. W. Bromiley, “Baptism, Believer’s,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2001). 131-132. Cf. Rowland S. Ward, Baptism in Scripture and History (Brunswick: Globe Press Pty Ltd, 1991). 69 – “The Baptist holds that the New Testament teaches that only those actually professing faith in Christ were baptized and that the church, properly considered, consists only of regenerate members who have been baptized.”
14 Ben Witherington, Troubled Waters: Rethinking the Theology of Baptism (Texas: Baylor University Press, 2007). 59-63.
15 Cf. Gal.; Phil. 3.4-5.
16 Thacker. 43-44. Cf. Norman. 93.

17 Tidball. 158.
18 Grenz. 76-79. Cf. Lydia Towns, “Faithfulness in the Face of Persecution: Thomas Helwys’ Struggle for a Better World,” Baptist History and Heritage 45, no. 3 (2010). 85-86.
19 Marlin Jeschke, Believers Baptism for Children of the Church (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1983). 126.
20 Grenz. 88.
21 McGrath. 423.

22 Beasley-Murray. 15.
23 E. Y. Mullins, Baptist Beliefs (Valley Forge: Baptist World Publishing Company, 1912). 68-69. This is similar to what Ficket says of baptism, in that it acts as a testimony, provides identity with Christian movement, and allows obedience (Fickett. 80-82).
24 Grenz. 34.
25 Norman H. Maring. 153.
26 Thacker. 43; Fickett. 77; Mullins. 14 – “Baptism does not regenerate. It is to be administered to those who have previously been regenerated by the Spirit of God. Baptism does not secure remission of sins save in a symbolic way…Baptism is simply the outward symbol of what has already taken place within the subject.”
27 Cf. Jeschke. 125.
28 For example, some wealthy religious homes and synagogues had a miqveh, which was a large bath of 1.2 metres depth, holding 300 litres and had steps for access (Ward. 14-15). Also, Jeschke notes that some early churches included a free-standing structure containing a large tank several feet deep, presumably a baptistery (Jeschke. 125-126).

29 Grenz. 37; Ward. 12; Jr. James Leo Garrett, “Baptists Concerning Baptism: Review and Preview,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 43, no. 2 (2001). 65 – “That the Greek verb baptizein meant in the New Testament era “to plunge” or “to immerse” is now so widely accepted by Christian scholars as not to require the extension of the earlier Baptist lexical polemic.”
30 Ward. 12-15. This is further attested in William D. Mounce, The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1993). 112 – Baptizo can mean “to cleanse” or “purify by washing.”
31 Grenz. 37.
32 Ibid. 37 – “More vividly than either pouring or sprinkling, immersion depicts the burial and resurrection of Jesus, the severing of ties with the old life in order to seal a covenant with God, and the public confession of personal faith.”
33 Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996). 200. Cf. George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962). 91-99.

34 Richard W. Harmon, Baptists and Other Denominations (Nashville, Tennessee: Convention Press, 1984). 18. Furthermore, Luther’s interpretation on Luke 1:44 seems more like eisogesis than exegesis.
35 Ibid. 35-36.
36 Ibid. 60-61.
37 Towns. 86-89.
38 Kirsten Thea Timmer, “English Baptist Women under Persecution (1660-1688): A Study of Social Conformity and Dissent,” Baptist History and Heritage 46, no. 1 (2006). 18.
39 Fickett. 70.

Wolfhart Pannenberg on Revelation


Pannenberg made his first significant mark upon the theological community in 1968 when his influential “Revelation as History”[1] 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,[2] Pannenberg advances the argument that “theological questions and answers are meaningful only within the framework of the history which God has with humanity,”[3] 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.[4] Reacting against a strong onslaught of modernism threatening theology, Pannenberg’s theology was reasonably influential[5] 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;[6] “pursuing the purity of faith, revelation was restricted to the Bible,”[7] hence history had no influence over theology. Pannenberg departed dramatically, finding Barth to be too subjective[8] 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,[9] and rejected the common idea that revelation is “trans-historical.”[10]

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.[11] 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.[12]

What separated Israel from the other nations was an awareness of the history in which God sought them out to save them.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16]

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.[17]

Regarding New Testament theology, Pannenberg argued it was not the person of Jesus, but his fate, which indirectly revealed God’s glory.[18] 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.”[19] 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,”[20] 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.”[21]

The apostolic and patristic proclamation, says Pannenberg, was less to prove and more to interpret Jesus,[22] arguing his career was historically verifiable, among other events, but not just another event.[23] 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.”[24] Full knowledge will only be revealed at the end,[25] but in the mean time the Spirit provisionally convinces us of the truth of God.[26] The end of history is the goal,[27] “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.”[28] 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.[29]

Pannenberg’s approach is summarized in the first four of his seven theses:[30]

  1. 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.”[31]
  2. 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.
  3. 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.[32]
  4. 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,”[33] and “the fate of Jesus Christ is the anticipation of the end, and thus the revelation of God.”[34]

Furthermore, he rejects the distinction between special and general revelation, arguing there is one self-disclosure, found in the public sphere of history,[35] linking revelation with reason,[36] thus concluding that “all theological questions and answers are meaningful only within the framework of the history which God has with humanity,”[37] and, notes Wood, “what is theologically true cannot be historically false.”[38]

Pannenberg’s approach is not without criticism. Some criticize him of misinterpreting apocalypticism, such as Murdock,[39] and Olive who argues he made apocalypticism too optimistic.[40] 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.[41] Wood criticizes Pannenberg of making the Bible simply a historical resource instead of a kerygmatic tool[42] and Powell notes a remarkable lack of examples of Kingdom appearances in historical situations other than Biblical tradition.[43] 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.[44]

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.

[1] Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Dogmatic Theses on the Concept of Revelation,” in Revelation as History, ed. Wolfhart Pannenberg(London: Sheed and Ward Ltd, 1969).

[2] I.e. The only knowledge of God comes through his self-revelation.

[3] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Basic Questions in Theology, trans., George H. Kehm (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1970). 15.

[4] Pannenberg, “Dogmatic Theses on the Concept of Revelation.”

[5] 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).)

[6] Sam Powell, “History and Eschatology in the Thought of Wolfhart Pannenberg,” Fides et Historia 32, no. 2 (2000). 20.

[7] Laurence Wood, “History and Hermeneutics: A Pannenbergian Perspective,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 16, no. 1 (1981). 7.

[8] 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.

[9] 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.

[10] Powell. 20-21.

[11] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, trans., Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988). 189 – 192.

[12] Ibid. 201.

[13] Ibid. 192.

[14] 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).

[15] Olive. 51.

[16] Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Jesus’ History and Our History,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 1, no. 2 (1974). 145.

[17] 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.

[18] Olive. 48. This is contrary to Barth, who argued that the person of Jesus was the direct revelation of God.

[19] Pannenberg, “Jesus’ History and Our History.” 140.

[20] Powell. 23.

[21] 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).

[22] Pannenberg, Systematic Theology. 194.

[23] 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).

[24] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (King’s College, London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 157. Cf. Fackre. 146.

[25] Gunton. 66.

[26] Fackre. 146.

[27] Murdock. 167.

[28] Bradshaw. 48.

[29] 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).

[30] Pannenberg, “Dogmatic Theses on the Concept of Revelation.” 125-155.

[31] Ibid. 127.

[32] 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).

[33] 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.

[34] Ibid. 143.

[35] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994). 137. Cf. McGrath. 157.

[36] 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).

[37] Pannenberg, Basic Questions in Theology. 15.

[38] Wood. 7.

[39] 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,”[39] 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).

[40] Olive. 101. According to Olive a better understanding is “that the apocalyptic attitude is one of negation and pessimism rather than affirmation,” (p. 101).

[41] Gunton. 73-76.

[42] Wood. 12.

[43] Powell. 32.

[44] 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.

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