By George Sumner
Thirty years ago I wrote a dissertation on the Systematic Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg. At the time a critic said that Pannenberg had offered a powerful response to modernity just in time for no one any longer to care, and his subsequent post-mortem obscurity would seem to bear this out. Such a verdict, however, may prove too hasty, especially when his vision is given more than a caricatured account. His is a theology of resurrection, and so it is fitting to bring him to mind in this season, as we reflect on several of his key themes, each of which has relevance to the preacher’s task.
At the heart of Pannenberg’s project was what we might call an analogia futuri, an analogy built on different senses the future might have, outside of, and inside of, the grammar of faith. Pannenberg was something of a polymath, but in every discipline about which he wrote he sought to show that claims were made against a horizon of comprehensiveness, the final state in which all is known and each truth can be held in its context of that whole. All human knowing was assumed to be “toward” that day, and was, in the meantime, contested and provisional. In keeping with this, what is most distinctive of us humans, by which we are in the image of God, is our openness in time to this future consummation, though it may only serve as a heuristic in our present circumstance.
Then comes the second meaning of “the future,” one which is anticipated by, and yet distinct from, this preliminary openness. The future is where God already reigns. There the circle is already unbroken. There we see all things face to face in the translucent light of God. In that light theodicy is answered, wrongs atoned, suffering transfigured, bodies rendered spiritual. The God who dwells there has equal and immediate access to past and present, passing from one to the other much as the risen Jesus passes through walls. It is in this dynamic sense that God may be called the eternal now.
As with all analogies, our use of the word gives us a measure of insight into what the word means when applied to God. But his access far exceeds our vexed relationship to time, as Augustine lays out in the latter books of The Confessions. Our future and God’s are not univocal. Theology takes place where these two senses collide. The crucial metaphor, then, in his project, is the invasion, here of the God of the future in the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
A second governing metaphor for Pannenberg is that of the field, one he borrowed loosely from physics. Creation is the space in which we initially perceive contingency, but revelation enables us to perceive work of the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit, drawing the world toward that reign which already is found in the risen Christ, and by grace in his Church. There the purpose of creation, the free worship of the Creator, may already be found. Theology then is doxological, thinking which anticipatorily participates in that praise (e.g., Rom. 12:1).
Why rehearse this argument of a systematics of the past generation? And why do so in Eastertide? Far from being a rarified rationalism, Pannenberg’s theology can inform preaching.
First of all, while preaching ought not to let the culture set the agenda, it should still find moments of conversation with it. In a myriad of ways we human beings yearn forward for an obscure resolution ahead of them, but he who is that End intrudes graciously, and on his own terms, on their lives. It can be a pattern for preaching because it is the pattern of redemption!
Secondly, deriving our theological claims from the invasive fact of the resurrection of Jesus had ecumenical potential for Pannenberg, and it can for us. Each branch of theology has an idiom or aspect of this shared kerygmatic and credal fact that the kingdom is tangibly present even now because of the Crucified.
Third, the summative term “doxology” should surely be promising for a tradition like Anglicanism. Our thinking and serving are best defined as praise, which is in turn an anticipatory concept which must be drawn directly from the resurrection of Jesus. For all his scientific talk, Pannenberg had a liturgical and dramatic vision of human history: “These were written for our instruction, upon whom the purposes of the ages have converged” (1 Cor. 10:11).