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Interview by Thomas Jay Oord

Future Perfect

A conversation with Wolfhart Pannenberg.

One of the most influential Protestant theologians of the post-World War II era, Wolfhart Pannenberg has contributed to many different areas of theological inquiry. He was among the first in his generation to think theologically about the modern scientific picture of the universe. His work in theological anthropology—understanding what it means to be human in Christian terms—has been extremely influential. His summa, the three-volume Systematic Theology, is available from Eerdmans. Thomas Jay Oord interviewed Pannenberg in St. Paul, Minnesota, in March of this year.

As you've entered the latter stages of your career, you've probably reflected on your contributions as a scholar. What experiences in your childhood or youth do you now see as particularly influential in shaping these contributions?

As you may know, I was not raised in a Christian family. Although I was baptized as a child, I did not have a Christian education. But in 1945, I had a visionary experience at the occasion of a sunset. Light flooded all around me and through me, and I didn't know where I was or how long the experience lasted. It may have lasted for an eternity. Afterward, I found myself a humble human being and was just puzzled.

I thought I had to come to terms with that event and what it really meant to me. It happened on the 6th of January, 1945. I didn't know at the time that the 6th of January is Epiphany, the feast of Christ's glorification. Later on, I thought it was significant that it was on this particular day. I became, so to speak, metaphysically awakened. But I didn't yet know the purpose of this awakening.

I had read Nietzsche and Kant before I was 16—even before I had read the first line of the Bible. From my reading of Nietzsche, I thought that I was perfectly informed about what I should think of Christianity. But I met some people who didn't fall under that specter of guilt or obsessed parrotism. I met Christians who seemed to be quite jolly and joyous human beings, and I was puzzled as to how that could be. This contributed to my decision to find out about Christianity by studying theology. I started in 1945 and found myself increasingly attracted to the content of the Christian message and the profound nature of Christian doctrine. I soon came to the conclusion that what I experienced on the 6th of January, 1945 was really the light of Christ.

Much has been made of Karl Barth's and Gerhard von Rad's influence on your theology. On what areas of your thought do you see them as having the greatest influence?

Karl Barth was a towering figure in theology right after the war. In my early years as a student, I read through all the volumes of his Church Dogmatics. In 1950, I went to Basel to hear his lectures. I came with a very good recommendation from one of Barth's former students, so I was received by Barth very warmly and invited to his home. I was impressed by his person and by his teaching. But, in the second semester I spent at Basel, there was a small group that would come together in Barth's home to discuss some of his thoughts. We discussed one of his smaller works, The Community of Christians and the State. There he developed some analogical reasoning, including some conclusions for politics from Christology.

One of these conclusions was that there should be no secret diplomacy as a consequence of our belief that Christ is alive. I didn't find this particularly persuasive. I thought that perhaps the world of politics would profit from more secret diplomacy. So, I criticized Barth. Barth just didn't like criticism, and my relationship with him grew considerably cooler. But I always remained impressed by his emphasis that God has to come first in theology, and that the same should be said about Jesus Christ. God, as revealed as Jesus Christ, comes first and should not be replaced by anything else. So, to this extent, I am still influenced by Barth.

Now to von Rad. One of Barth's weaknesses was that he didn't have a real appreciation of biblical exegesis, especially critical exegesis. Of course, he used Scripture quite a bit. But he had a very personal way of interpreting the Bible. I found by involving myself in historical critical exegesis of biblical writings that this wouldn't do. Theology should be based on the Scriptures, of course, but it should be based upon a reading of the Scriptures through historical interpretation. After all, the Scriptures are historical documents, notwithstanding their being the Word of God.

I was most impressed by von Rad's approach, because he interpreted the Scriptures not only as a historian but also as a theologian. He was able to speak of the stories of the Old Testament as if they were about real life—much more real than the secular life that we experience otherwise. The Old Testament has become an experience of reality for me through the teachings of von Rad. His thesis, that God is acting with Israel and with all humanity in history and that history is constituted by the acts of God, has influenced me more than any other thing that I learned as a student.

Many scholars were impressed by your early arguments concerning the actual historical resurrection of Jesus. In what ways have your views on that issue changed over the years?

There has been no reason to change my views, actually. The various alternative explanations with regards to the Christian Easter tradition strike me as less plausible than the biblical accounts themselves. I used to tell my students that you have to study the biblical texts critically, as you study other historical documents. But, please, be also critical of the critics. There are too many students who simply accept their teachers' authority, especially when they are so bold and critical with regard to the biblical texts. So, I prefer to be critical of the critics. Sometimes, alternative reconstructions are almost ridiculous.

I never understood how, at Jerusalem, the place of Jesus' crucifixion, a Christian congregation could be established a few weeks after that event, proclaiming his resurrection, without firmly and truly being assured about the fact that the tomb was empty. Of course, critics have different explanations for that fact. But, with regard to the tomb of Jesus being empty, the Christian proclamation couldn't have persisted one day in Jerusalem if that were not the case. I often wonder why there are so many scholars whose imagination doesn't permit them to acknowledge this.

Early in your career, you insisted on the importance of doing theology against the background of the history of religions. How do you reconcile the universal revelation of God in Christ with a world in which India, after 2,000 years, remains largely Hindu and likely will remain so for some time?

Well, the Christian affirmation of the relation between God and Jesus Christ is constituted by anticipation of the final outcome of all history. This is anticipation of what theologians call "eschatology," i.e., the last future, when God's kingdom will be definitively realized and Christ will come again and all the dead will rise. This was anticipated in the resurrection of Christ, according to the early Christian proclamation. We have a claim to universal revelation, but this claim will be finally vindicated only in the future. Until that happens, there is room for different opinions, and some people think otherwise.

If the kingdom of God has been universally and definitively established, as you've argued, why does evil still persist as the most embarrassing reality the Christian gospel confronts?

In Jesus' message, the kingdom was, first of all, future. It is an immanent future, in the sense of urgency, that makes everything else a secondary concern. That was the point of Jesus' message. But the starting point isn't "the kingdom is future." Jesus also said, in a small number of words, that this future becomes already present where God is accepted as King in the heart of the believer. When the message of the kingdom is accepted, God becomes King in the heart of the believer now. But God is not King in the broad reality of the world, of political institutions, of social structures, and so on. This hasn't changed, basically, since the time of Jesus' teaching. Therefore, we still have evil persisting as an embarrassing reality. We expect that, finally, evil will be overcome by the fulfillment of God's kingdom, the fulfillment of human history, the Second Coming of Christ, and the day of the Last Judgment.

You have long sought to bring theology and science into a mutually illuminating conversation. How would you assess the current state of that conversation?

I have been involved in these conversations since the '50s and '60s in Germany. At that time, there was an important center of such dialogue with some of the leading German physicists, like Werner Heisenberg and Carl von Weiszacker. Since that time, the center of these conversations has moved to this country. America, with centers of dialogue between science and theology at Berkeley, Chicago, Princeton, and other places, is now the center of the whole movement that brings science and religion, but especially science and Christian theology, closer together.

Do recent developments in biology, especially the prospect of human cloning, pose new challenges to a Christian understanding of the human person as laid out, for example, in your Anthropology in Theological Perspective?

There are serious reasons to prohibit the cloning of human beings. Nevertheless, it is a question of limited importance, because the identity of the human person is constituted by the unique life history of each individual, starting from his or her birth. This would not change even with the cloning of human beings.

We have the example of identical twins who have the same genetic constitution. But even those persons have different life experiences. They are different individuals because of their different life histories. This must also apply to individuals produced through cloning. Therefore, the significance of cloning is limited concerning the concept of the human person. There would still be a uniqueness of each human person with regard to the life history that constitutes this or another person's identity.

Would you call yourself a theistic evolutionist?

I would call myself a Trinitarian evolutionist. God as Creator is working in his creation through his creatures. This doesn't detract from the immediacy of the relationship between the Creator and his creatures. God always uses creatures to bring about other things.

Think of the function of the earth in the first part of Genesis. The earth is addressed by God to assist in his act of creation. First, the earth is commanded to bring forth vegetation. We may wonder, "How can the earth, an inorganic reality, bring about an organic reality, vegetation, and then bring about the self-organization of organisms from inorganic materials?" Yet, this is the Christian creation story.

The second commandment to the earth is even bolder than that! God commands the earth to bring about animals. And the text means higher animals. Such boldness does not really characterize even Darwin's theory of evolution. Darwin wouldn't have dreamed of higher animals springing immediately from the earth, from inorganic matter. Darwin is much more moderate than that. In criticizing the doctrine of evolution, our creationist friends among Christian theologians should read their Bibles more closely.

In what direction would you like to see the science and religion dialogue go?

Ernan McMullin, the philosopher from Notre Dame, whom I highly regard for his contribution to the science and theology dialogue, said that we should look for consonance—not for mutual support, but for consonance. Consonance also means support, because if there were no consonance with the description of the reality of our world, then our faith in creation would become empty. That would endanger our faith in God. Our faith in God is essentially founded in the notion that he is the Creator of everything, and that he has power over everything. The consonance between science and theology in some ways also supports distinctively Christian affirmations—but not in the sense that theology should be modeled after scientific findings. Theology moves on its own level of method. This is what McMullin had in mind, and I am in complete agreement with him here. I would hope that there would be increasing consonance between science and theology.

For many scientists, there is already too much consonance because of the Big Bang cosmology. Many scientists of a secularist or atheist persuasion have felt that this is too close to theology, and that they should develop alternative theories. If the world had a beginning that was almost like creation, they think that's terrible. But the Big Bang theory is a standard theory of scientific cosmology, and here there is a degree of consonance. As McMullin said, the Big Bang theory doesn't prove the existence of God as a Creator. In that sense, it doesn't support theology. But it does describe the universe in such a way that theologians should expect from science if there is a Creator. I think that's a good example.

The Creator is always interfering with the process of the world, however, and this has to be clarified to a greater degree than it has been generally. I used to discuss this under the title of the contingency of events as a medium of God's actions in the world. We have to reach more agreement on this in the dialogue between theology and science.

And there is the question of the future of the universe, which is considered quite differently in theology than in science. A degree of exception to this difference is found in the cosmology of my friend, Frank Tippler, from New Orleans. Tippler is not readily accepted by most of his scientist colleagues, and his views are not completely acceptable to the theologian either. But I admire his daring proposition concerning the future of the universe as a beginning of the dialogue between scientists and theologians. This is a most difficult area, but we can hope that there will be more progress in the future.

Given your doctrine of eternity, to what extent is God essentially affected by historical occurrences? Does it just seem to us that God is affected by history, or is God actually affected by what occurs?

Eternity comprises time, but it is distinct from time. In the course of temporal events, some are already passed, they are no more, and some are not yet. In eternity, the whole of life is possessed in one present that is not to be passed over by anything else. Given this view of eternity, it is not difficult to understand that the eternal God also is engaged in the temporal process. God did not have to create a world. But after he decided to create a world, he was bound to that decision.

From our standpoint we could say that when God created the world, he took a risk. Given the fact that the created world exists, he could not be the eternal God and Creator without his kingdom being definitively established in this world. Because God looks at his creation from the point of view of its final fulfillment, this is already settled. But, from the perspective of the world, this is not settled.

How does the future affect the present determinatively? And is that future already determined?

We have to be very careful in discussing this issue. Determinism, as it has been discussed in philosophy and theology in past centuries, is concerned with determination from the past by some past state of affairs or by some past decisions that anticipate the future and determine it. The determination—or, let's say, the influence—of the future in the course of history is of a different kind.

Concerning the question whether the future is already determinate, this is certainly true with regard to God's eternity. But it is true with regard to the future of this world precisely because the eternal God is the final future of this world. One should not say that the future is already determinate at some point at the beginning of the process of the world, because that would do away with the concept of eternity.

Some people envision the Creator standing at the beginning of the world and making plans for the future of the world's history. That is a conception that forgets about the eternity of God. It looks upon God as if he were a human being looking ahead to a future that is different from himself and making plans for influencing that future. God has no need of doing that, because he is eternal.

Some have used your eschatological vision to support the doctrine of divine predestination. Do you think this use is warranted?

The problem with predestination in the history of Christian thought is that people tend, again and again, to repeat the error I have just mentioned: to look upon God and his relation to the world as if he were standing at the creation and looking ahead to a future that is distant for him. Predestination also tends to become deterministic.

But if we take into consideration God's eternity—that he is the Lord of the future—then he relates to the process of the universe in one moment. When Paul speaks of predestination in Romans 8, the meaning is that our Christian calling is rooted in eternity, in the eternal God. He doesn't mean a kind of determinism from the beginning of the world.

There is predestination in the sense that God's relation to the world, and also the Christian calling for each one of us, is rooted in God's eternity. This is an essential affirmation of the Christian faith. But it need not be understood and should not be understood in a deterministic way—as if, from the very beginning of the process of the universe, everything has been determined by God.

In your book Theology and the Kingdom of God, you allude to the fact that, in moment-by-moment decisions, creatures cooperate with or resist the coming kingdom. How can the present moment be the appearance of the future as the incoming kingdom of God, and yet each moment also be constituted by each creature's free decision?

Human beings certainly have choices. This is the basic characteristic of the place of human beings in the world, and choice is what distinguishes human beings from other creatures. We need not respond immediately to the influences we get from the outside or to what our senses tell us about the outside world. We can delay our reaction. We can deliberate and then act according to our deliberation. That is what it means to make choices.

The Bible does not consider that as freedom. There is no natural freedom, and making choices does not yet guarantee our freedom. In John 8, we have this conversation between Jesus and his Jewish partners who are proud of being free-born and not slaves. Jesus tells them, "If you sin, you are a slave. You will be free when the Son makes you free." This is very important.

Christian proclamation should have criticized the Western ideology of freedom by telling the public that having choices doesn't mean freedom. The alcohol-addicted person or the drug-addicted person is also making choices. The problem is that he or she always makes the same choice—to take the drug or drink the bottle—again and again. Having choices doesn't yet guarantee freedom.

But Nietzsche said (and no one is suspicious that he is prejudiced in favor of Christianity), when he talked about the production of his book Also Spake Zarathustra, that he wrote it under the pressure of inspiration. He said that a human being is free in inspiration. I think he is correct. Inspiration and freedom, i.e., inspiration as the spirit of God and freedom, do not contradict each other. To the contrary, we are freer the more we are lifted beyond ourselves by divine inspiration. We still have choices—we have a broader range of choices—but we also choose the right thing.

What is your greatest concern for the church as it moves into the next 25 years?

My greatest concern for the church is that it continue to preach the gospel and not adapt to secular standards and concerns. Some churches and many ministers think they have to adapt to the secular concerns of people in order to reach them.

I think that the opposite is true. If people were to hear in church only what they also get on television and read in the papers, there would be no need for going to church.

The church has to proclaim a different thing: the hope for eternal life. It must proclaim participation with the crucified Christ through baptism by faith. It must stick to that message rather than watering it down. The church needs strength to oppose the spirit of the culture. My hope for the church is that it will receive constantly that strength for opposing the culture with the message of the gospel.

Thomas Jay Oord is assistant professor of philosophy at Eastern Nazarene College. Parts of this interview appeared in a different form in Research News and MetaNexus.

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