By Roger E. Olson
One of the last theological giants passed away Sept. 5. Wolfhart Pannenberg was without doubt one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. He was born in Stettin, Germany, (now part of Poland) in 1928. He was in poor health for the past several years.
I had the privilege of studying with Pannenberg in Munich, where he taught theology at the University of Munich, during 1981-1982. I wrote a major part of my Rice University Ph.D. dissertation under his supervision during that year. (I finished it back in the U.S. and received my Ph.D. in 1984. The dissertation is titled “Trinity and Eschatology: The Historical Being of God in the Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg.”)
Pannenberg, of course, was noted for his lifelong opposition to “subjectivism” in theology. He believed that existentialism and Pietism were diseases of Christian, and especially modern Protestant, theology and needed correction. He opposed dialectical theology, eschewing what he called “special pleading” for theological conclusions. He wanted theology to be “Wissenschaftlich” (scientific) and thus engaged in “Fundamental Theology” (not fundamentalism but a type of natural theology rooted in human experiences such as “exocentrism”).
Many people, such as Pannenberg’s student Philip Clayton (whose obituary of Pannenberg you can read at Tony Jones’s blog), will describe Pannenberg’s theology in more detail. My friend Stanley Grenz (who died in 2005) wrote one major book about Pannenberg’s theology which remains, I believe, one of the best.
Here I will instead tell stories about Pannenberg the man. I not only knew him well during the year I studied under him in Munich but also served as his “agent” for two lecture tours around the U.S. in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I had many one-on-one conversations with him in restaurants, in my home and his and elsewhere. Sometimes others were present, too.
Pannenberg was not an easy man to know. He was, by most accounts, a typical German professor — a bit distant and aloof. Sometimes he could be sharp but never snarky or mean. My first personal experience of him was in his office in Munich in the late summer of 1981. I talked with him about my dissertation project. I had planned to compare his theology of the Trinity with Moltmann’s. Pannenberg told me to drop the comparison with Moltmann and just write about his own theology, so I did.
During that year, which was a most beautiful time for me, my wife and our 4-year-old daughter, I had many conversations with Pannenberg. Often they took place during the “Pause” in the middle of his 90-minute lectures. He would ask me to walk with him and I tried to keep up as he walked quickly around the building’s large lobby area. He spoke German to me and I spoke English to him. He said my German wasn’t good enough yet. I was fine with that.
During one of those 10-to-15 minute walks I asked him about paradox. He was generally critical of theological reliance on paradox and yet certain points in his own theology seemed paradoxical (such as his “eschatological ontology”). He told me that certain paradoxes were unavoidable but that they always remained “tasks for further thought.” In other words, never settle comfortably with them.
During that year Pannenberg was lecturing on the material that became the first volume of his Systematic Theology. I also sat in on two of his seminars — one of them an evening ecumenical discussion between himself and a Catholic professor and their students. The topic of discussion was the “Reformation anathemas” (Catholic against Luther and his followers) and whether they could be lifted. Eventually, of course, they were.
There were other American students studying with Pannenberg the year I was there — Phil Clayton and George Garin. We had many good times together, often discussing Pannenberg’s theology. One time we hatched a plan to invite Pannenberg to lunch to ask him what he meant by “the future ‘bestimmt’ the present.” (Bestimmen can mean either “define” or “determine.”) We agreed that I would pose the question, so I did. His answer didn’t surprise me: “Both, of course.” In other words, at least at that time, he believed that the future kingdom of God, the reign of God, determines the past retroactively — an ontological and not merely hermeneutical idea.
One idea that came out clearly in his lectures, that I had not paid attention to before, was what I later labed “Pannenberg’s Principle” — that “God’s deity is his rule.” So we also asked him during that lunch if he would still say, then as before, that “God does not yet exist.” He said “Yes, with the proper qualifications.”
Several times I heard Pannenberg say, “There is one thing I am not — a Pietist.” Since I was (and am) a Pietist (hopefully in the best and truest sense) I did not find Pannenberg’s approach to faith and spirituality especially agreeable. In my opinion, he tended to reduce faith to assent to what is reasonable. While I agree that Christian belief is (at its best) reasonable, I do not think reason is the basis for what is believed. Pannenberg’s spirituality was, by his own admission, “sacramental spirituality,” so our approaches to many things about Christianity were at cross purposes.
In spite of that, I owe a real debt of gratitude to Pannenberg for inviting me into his lectures and seminars and for giving me full access to the Protestant faculty library at the University of Munich and for taking time to have many conversations with me.
Overall and in general, I would say, my theological journey has been shaped more by Moltmann than by Pannenberg. Still and nevertheless, it was a great privilege to study under him and to get to know him. His departure from this life is a great loss especially to the scholarly and academic side of Christian theology.