Assessing the Eschatological Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg
Eschatology has rarely been directly associated with the doctrine of election, which has generally been understood in relation to its ‘pre’ element (see, for example, J. Calvin, Institutes, Three, XXI, 5 and L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, pp. 109-118).
Election and eschatology have been understood in direct relation to one another by Wolfhart Pannenberg, whose whole theology bears a distinctly eschatological flavour.
Pannenberg’s peculiarly eschatological theology has been described thus: “The intellectual task that Pannenberg has set himself is a monumental one, namely to construct a fundamental system of thought in which the primary ontological principle is futurity” (W. Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God (1975), edited by R. J. Neuhaus, p. 12 (from “Wolfhart Pannenberg: Profile of a Theologian” by Neuhaus).
The fundamental importance of futurity in Pannenberg’s thought is expressed thus by Pannenberg himself: “we see the present as an effect of the future, in contrast to the conventional assumption that past and present are the cause of the future. the future lets go of itself to bring into being our present” (Theology and the Kingdom of God, pp. 54, 59).
From this thoroughly eschatological perspective, Pannenberg understands election thus: “The Christian people, chosen from all nations, has been elected to exist in this world as the eschatological community of the God of Israel and witnesses even now to this imminent rule over all creation and all mankind” (Human Nature, Election and History (1977),
In Pannenberg’s understanding of election and eschatology, there is an undeniably universalist tendency. The election of the Church is presented as a witness to the coming universal Kingdom of God. Drawing a radical distinction between the Kingdom and the Church, he emphasizes “the universal thrust in the notion of the Kingdom of God” (Theology and the Kingdom of God, p. 73).
This universal thrust is heavily underlined by Pannenberg: “the Kingdom of God is certainly universal. The power of the one God cannot be conceived as limited to certain areas. It extends to the whole world and every individual” (W. Pannenberg, A. Dulles and C. E. Braaten, Spirit, Faith and Church (1970), p.111). “The Kingdom of God will comprise all mankind” (p. 116).
Pannenberg insists that his view of the Kingdom of God is not “merely a formalistic idea about God’s ruling over everybody and everything” (Theology and the Kingdom of God, p. 78).
Here, he seeks to distance himself from a superficial understanding of universalism. It is not, however, clear how he can defend himself against the charge of allowing a preconceived notion of the Kingdom of God to dominate his theology.
Particularly questionable is his attempt to explain the meaning of judgment.
He writes, “the wholeness of our existence can only be represented as an event beyond death … the entrance of the eternal depth into our experience means both resurrection and judgment at the same time. It means resurrection because in that event man’s destiny is fulfilled in his own person. It means judgment because the eternal totality of his own life must be destroyed in the contradiction between the ego and man’s eternal destiny” (What is Man?, (1962 - German original), p. 80) . “eternity means judgment because in the eternal concurrence our life must perish because of its contradiction and especially because of the basic contradiction between the self and its eternal destiny” (p. 81).
When speaking of judgment in this way, Pannenberg does seek to make room for the significance of individual faith. Of the individual under judgment, he writes, “he will not simply become nothing; he will be destroyed in the face of his infinite destiny, that is, his destiny to a total, healed life” (p. 79). Concerning the significance of “individual faith”, he writes, “Only for the person who is in communion with Jesus does the resurrection mean eternal life as well as judgment” (p. 81).
When we look at his radical distinction between the Kingdom and the Church, it is not clear how we are to understand these remarks regarding the significance of individual faith. He speaks of individual faith in connection with the Church: “individual faith” is “fundamental in the concept of the Church“. This statement is set in the context of the “universal communion of renewed humankind in the Kingdom of God”. We may wonder how Pannenberg’s comment, “individual faith is fundamental in the concept of the Church” is to be related to his statement that “Participation in the Kingdom of God is a matter … of spiritual rebirth” (Human Nature, Election and History (1970), p. 107, emphases mine).
Pannenberg speaks of “the wholeness of our existence” as “an event beyond death.” Is this the “spiritual rebirth” which he describes as “participation in the Kingdom of God”?
Pannenberg’s notion of an eternal concurrence between resurrection and judgment fits in well with the notion of a universal Kingdom of God - a “universal communion of renewed humankind in the Kingdom of God”. It does not appear to fit in so well with other aspects of the New Testament proclamation of the Gospel. It is difficult to see how statements like “You must be born again” (John 3:3) and “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:3) fit into Pannenberg’s theology.
The Gospel we are called to preach
* We proclaim God’s love for the whole world - “God so loved the world … “(John 3:16).
* We affirm God’s purpose for the whole world - “God sent His Son … that the world should be saved” (John 3:17)