Day 7: The Political Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg

Welcome to Day 7 of the German Political Theology Blog Conference, brought to you by Theology Corner! For an introduction to the conference and a list of the schedule, click here.


Wolfhart Pannenberg burst onto the scene in 1961 with his contribution to a collection of essays on the revelation of history. That little edited volume—Pannenberg wrote about a third of the 180 pages—was a significant foray in the battle for a post-Barthian theology.  History was knowable and history was the domain of God’s revelation, an indirect revelation in which the activities of God displayed his own character and oriented humanity toward transformation. This revelation is on its way to the eschaton, and yet this revelation is not about human initiative nor dependent on a linear, progressive view of time. It is God’s revelation from the future, that expresses God’s being through God’s rule, an inbreaking of the Kingdom of God that interacts with and reorients our experience of life, the universe, and everything.  



This Kingdom is, by definition, political, because that’s what kingdoms are.  It is not, however, political in the same way human systems function, as those systems tend to indulge patterns of idolatrous ideology that co-opt human identity and turn it toward patterns of death and incoherence.  God’s Kingdom has something bigger in mind: the redemption of all reality.

Later in his career, amidst his sometimes shockingly prolific work, he took a sustained interest in theological anthropology. This interest was not new, but the way he poured into it was unique among theologians. His Anthropology in Theological Perspective is a tour de force of engaging theology and the social sciences, illustrating Pannenberg’s goal of thoroughly public theology that draws deeply from a broad range of writing and unapologetically Christian perspective. 

His driving point is that theology is a contributing partner to every discussion.  God made the world, after all, and truth is thus oriented by that reality. At this time, that’s more of a hypothesis in a sustained research program, though one that defined Pannenberg’s whole theological project.  In that major text, as well as throughout many other smaller texts that explore shared themes, Pannenberg delves into discussions about politics and social responsibilities as well as psychology, history, sociology.  

Yet, for the most part, while Moltmann—his contemporary and theological complement—needs no preface to discussing his political theology, Pannenberg tends to be almost entirely left out of that category in contemporary discussions.  There’s two reasons for this that come to mind. The first is that Pannenberg was particularly anti-Marxist in an age in which Marxism was becoming dominant in academic analysis in general and definitive in political theologies in particular.  Indeed he was a political conservative in German and global discussions. Pannenberg supported Ronald Reagan and saw both capitalism and America as positives.

In his autobiography, Moltmann puts it this way: “We both, each in his own way, tried to do theology in the light of Christ’s resurrection. But although my idea of promise and his idea of anticipation show theoretical correspondences, the practical consequences we drew in politics could unfortunately be completely contrary to each other.” (106)

The second reason Pannenberg has been left out is that Pannenberg is not particularly focused on the practical engagement of theology in specific ways. That is, his focus is more on coherent orthodoxy than orthopraxy. 

In light of these issues, his contributions became increasingly left out of conversations and texts. That in his later career he became less interested in the social sciences and more interested in dialogue with the so-called hard sciences it is not surprising that his contributions to political theology are not well-discussed.

Pannenberg was far from silenced on the topic of politics, however. He contributed in both German and English publications, with his American voice taking shape especially in the pages of the journal First Things, which shared Pannenberg’s intellectual fervor and conservative perspective.  

All this to say, Pannenberg was both a theological heavyweight, especially on the topics related to anthropology, and a political conservative. These were cohesive positions for him. That is why coming to terms with his thinking is very helpful for understanding how someone like Franklin Graham can argue his politics is not only consistent with but also reflective of his long standing Christian commitments to both evangelism and social action around the world.

Wolfhart Pannenberg spent a great deal of time studying theological anthropology and as such has a coherent, albeit sadly often ignored, political theology. His well-developed hamartiology is at the root of his anthropology. He defines sin as being misplaced identity, finding meaning and value in that which is not God. 

God’s revelation in history orients humanity to finding their identity in God once more. That is the hope for the world, and it is expressed in the love God has for each particular person.  The priority is always on the freedom of the particular to find oneself again within the all-determining reality of the divine, and in this to no longer be captive to egocentric impulses to define their self or assert their self over against others. In light of Christ’s work, people are to live in exocentric, trust-oriented, freedom with others, which is the orientation of the kingdom of God.  

Humanity is made open to the world, rather than closed off to it and to others, and this requires the element of freedom to be maintained.  This then is at the root of Pannenberg’s perspective on civil politics. The historic tendency is for rulers or systems to attempt to dominate social context, and thus to define meaning for each person and manipulate their needs. As the manipulator influences the consciousness of meaning, the result is a humanity cut off from its true self and instead locked into temporal assumptions about human meaning that always depersonalizes and misdirects a person away from their true self.  

Truly realized human freedom requires orienting sociality in God, as only God provides the orienting substance that can be sustained through eternity and allows people to express their freedom without orienting against each other as egos and wills collide.  This leads to his critique of Marxism, which he argues begins with a distinct anthropology and so utilizing Marxism can not be excused simply by ignoring its atheistic elements.  

Pannenberg’s main problem with Marxism is not its perspective on God, it is its perspective on humanity, which he argued assumed a narrow perspective on human life and meaning that also, by definition, excluded finding holistic meaning in God’s identity.  As he put it in his book Ethics (12), “Christianity and Marxism part company in that the Christian is unable to believe in a definitive fulfillment of humanity by means of change in the existing structures of society.” Trying to find such definitive fulfillment involves a reductionistic view of human life and results in a willingness to sacrifice particular people for the sake of a bigger system’s fulfillment.

The tendency is for those in power to seek to maximize control, thus shaping a society in their own perceived interests, which tends to drift toward the egocentric interests of the rulers. Attempts to impose an anthrocentric ideology from above results in continued identity distortion and eventual social conflict, even if in the short term there are immediate solutions. 

The goals of politics become reduced to the striving for power, and the submission to this power for the sake of continued peace and security, while increasingly reducing human freedom, thus negating the orientation toward freeing exocentricity. He points to the historical evidence of communist countries, and how their idealistic rhetoric does not result in social equality but devolves into authoritarian and bureaucratic oppression. 

Rather than seeing social change as demanding authoritarian rule either in society or in the church, Pannenberg is strongly anti-authoritarian for the sake of the kingdom.  As he puts it in his book The Church (19) “the model of human community which the Christian church is to represent dare not be indebted to human lordship for its unity, but only to the lordship of God himself.” This rejection of authoritarian or ideological authoritarianism does not mean he rejects change, only that such change should reflect the mission of the Spirit. Pannenberg likewise thus rejects the impatient emphasis on revolutions for social change. He writes in What is Man? (136) that “where the Christian tradition remains true to itself revolution becomes superfluous.” 

Instead of seeing politics, and human thriving, through the lens of Marxist anthropology, Pannenberg emphasizes a version of human life in which sociality is best expressed through particularity. A person who has been transformed by God moves out of the egocentric bluster and into an exocentric experience of life, in which one is free to be who they have been made to be and, in this, being expressive in participating with the freedom of others. Such a situation is best enacted in the context where a thoroughly Christian anthropology is given space to be developed in its wide diversity and expressed through immediate relationships (which create a web of interconnectivity across social boundaries).

Pannenberg has a distinct understanding of freedom. It is not a free-for-all of justifying sin-drenched distractions. Nor is it simply a fetishization of individualism, though Pannenberg’s defense of private property has raised that charge.  Instead, it is important to protect freedom of each person so they can express their freedom in the lordship of Christ, not the lordship of a system or government. 

Throughout his life, Pannenberg supported politics that de-emphasized social control over people and maximized possibilities of expression, within which those who were oriented in Christ could then be most free to express this life in holistic ways.  It is the transformative identity of Christ in a transformed people that call out a new pattern of free mutuality, substantive reciprocity and recognition of one another as fully formed people.  “Thus,” he writes in What is Man? (99), “love creates rights through the act of recognition.” Society is shaped from within as the ethics of the kingdom take root in substantive, freeing ways.

This expression is political as it involves the whole experience of life together, but it is not established on false claims of meaning that can come from bureaucratic definitions or governmental allegiances.  It is an expression of the Kingdom of God at work among us, a proleptic experience of that which can only be fully realized in the eschaton. 

It is “theocentric from below” in approach, idealizing God’s intervention and revelation among particular people and contexts, rather than “anthrocentric from above,” which generalizes human society and attempts to enforce patterns of resolution onto people.  That said, the goals of justice and welfare require that special measures be instituted that extract, as he puts in What is Man? (103) a “minimum of good behavior from the self-seeking parties who are under the law.” So, there is an important place for government in society to protect the boundaries of freedom for all involved, and make sure they have space for expressive life. But this cannot be the ultimate goal or definitive answer for a society’s problems, as it cannot sustain the weight of determining each person’s identity. 

In his Anthropology in Theological Perspective (476), Pannenberg writes, “The only organization of common life in which the destiny of individuals can be fully realized is the kingdom of God, which no political integration by human rule can possibly bring about.” Humans are social, thus political, but political systems are not sufficient to orient human destiny, and so the church is called to engage in political living and encourage a civil life that maximizes freedom for such living to take place.

In many ways, Pannenberg’s approach reflects the political theology of the ante-Nicene church, rather than the post-Constantinian church that sought quicker change of both theology and practices through government-enforced mandates. This slow-change may seem passive toward injustices and ineffective in bringing change. However, as church historian Alan Kreider recently put it, this emphasis on transformation from below was a “patient ferment” in the society that led to substantive lasting changes in the long term.


Patrick Oden is currently Visiting Professor of Theology and Church History at Fuller Theological Seminary. His dissertation explored Moltmann's comprehensive theology in conversation with emerging/missional church practices. It was published by Fortress Press in early 2015 with the title The Transformative Church: New Ecclesial Models and the Theology of Jürgen Moltmann. His two other books, It's a Dance: Moving with the Holy Spirit and How Long? The Trek Through the Wilderness, were both published by Barclay Press.  Prior to joining Fuller in 2015, he worked at Azusa Pacific University where he taught undergraduate courses in theology and church history from 2012 to 2015. Patrick lives in Sacramento with Amy, his wife of nine years, and their two kids. Vianne was born on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012 (sharing a birthday with Jürgen Moltmann). Oliver was born on July 31, 2014 (sharing a birthday with Harry Potter). He feels a little out of place in Northern California as he's a sixth generation Southern Californian, who says "the" before freeway names and is mostly solar powered. 

Likes: Moltmann, Pannenberg, pneumatology, church history, and long walks on the beach


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