Assessing the Christology of Wolfhart Pannenberg
In his Christology, Pannenberg adopts a ‘from below’ approach rather than a ‘from above’ approach (Jesus - God and Man (1968; German edition, 1964), pp. 33-37).
Using historical reason, he concludes that it is more reasonable to defend the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection rather than denying it.
He accepts Kirn’s definition of the historical method: “A historical conclusion can be regarded as certain when … despite the fact that it is not removed from all possible attacks, it is nevertheless in agreement with all the known facts” Basic Questions in Theology, Vol. I (1970), p. 54).
Adopting this approach to Jesus’ resurrection, he concludes that “(t)he Easter appearances are not to be explained from the Easter faith of the disciples; rather, conversely, the Easter faith of the disciples is to be explained from the appearances” (Jesus - God and Man, p. 96).
Pannenberg holds that Jesus’ resurrection has retroactive power, i. e. in the resurrection, God sets His seal on the pre-Easter activity of Jesus, declaring Him to be the Son of God.
Insisting that “the idea that Jesus had received divinity only as a consequence of his resurrection is not tenable” (p. 135), he writes, “That God is revealed in Jesus can only be asserted on the basis of his resurrection from the dead … If Jesus as a person is ‘the Son of God’, as becomes clear retroactively from his resurrection, then he has always been the Son of God” (p. 141).
The notion of the retroactive power of the resurrection is carefully distinguished from all assumptions concerning any direct Messianic self-consciousness or direct Messianic claims on the part of the pre-Easter Jesus (pp. 327, 332).
Pannenberg’s view of the relationship between the self-consciousness of the pre-Easter Jesus and the retroactive power of the resurrection is undergirded by his concern to avoid any hint of determinism (pp. 330, 332).
This concern may appear to be apologetically relevant since it reflects the mood of modernity in its search for freedom. This claim to apologetic relevance does, however, become questionable when his interpretation of Scripture is closely examined.
Pannenberg’s conception of the retroactive power of the resurrection might have been extended in the direction of validating Jesus’ view of the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures (C. Pinnock, “Pannenberg’s Theology: Reasonable Happenings in History” in Christianity Today, 31, 3 (5th November 1976), p. 22). Jesus’ view of the Old Testament Scriptures may then have been related to the idea that Jesus Himself has given a Christological foundation for the Church’s confession of the authority of the New Testament.
Pannenberg refuses to develop his notion of the retroactive power of the resurrection in this direction, preferring to approach the biblicism - liberalism dichotomy by way of a theology of universal history.
His refusal to move in the direction of Biblical authority is determined not by the intrinsic rationality of his idea of the retroactive power of the resurrection but by his particular reaction against authoritarianism.
If he had drawn an adequate distinction between an authentic authority and an unwarranted authoritarianism, he might have developed his notion of the retroactive power of the resurrection in the direction of a more significant insight into the role of the words of Scripture in divine revelation.
Pannenberg’s interpretation of the Gospel narratives is dominated by his own conception of a ‘from below’ approach to Christology. As part of an apologetic theology, his analysis of Jesus’ Messianic self-consciousness is of ambiguous worth. The question arises whether it is more reasonable to believe that the resurrection declared Jesus to be what He had not claimed to be than to believe that the resurrection declared Him to be what He had claimed to be.
Pannenberg regards the “so-called passion predictions” as “vaticinia ex eventu” (i. e. written by the Gospel-writers with hindsight rather than spoken by Jesus Himself prior to the events) (Jesus - God and Man, p. 245).
Pannenberg holds that “Jesus’ claim to authority by itself cannot be made the basis of a Christology … everything depends upon the connection between Jesus’ claim and its confirmation by God” (p. 66).
The question arises whether there is any necessary connection between Pannenberg’s insightful emphasis on the resurrection as the confirmation of Jesus’ claim and his interpretaion of the passion predictions.
C. Brown’s words are worthy of consideration here: “if the traditional understanding of his mission is at all valid - and surely this possibility ought not to be ruled out a priori - the very thing we should expect to find is that Jesus would have tried to convey to his followers something of the meaning of his death and resurrection” (Philosophy and the Christian Faith (1969), p. 282, italics in the original).