Wolfhart Pannenberg on the History of Christology

Wolfhart Pannenberg
speaking at a CDU conference in Bonn, 1983

In Wolfhart Pannenberg's famous Christology book, Jesus: God and Man, he provided an impressive outline of how Christology as a dogma had developed historically. All Christian doctrines develop over time as the Church revises its talk about God, as Karl Barth would say, and Christology is no exception. The most famous epoch in the development of Christology was the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D., when the Hypostatic Union was formulated. Chalcedon Christology was not merely restating what had been believed everywhere and by all, but was a new statement that was a compromise between two prevailing Christologies: Alexandrian Christology emphasizing a human nature in general verse Antiochene Christology emphasizing a particular human's nature.

In Pannenberg's list below, he identifies Church Fathers who correspond to advancements in Christology.

The exemplary significance of Jesus' humanity has quite properly played a large role in the history of Christology. From the beginnings of the patristic church until the present, Jesus has been considered in a variety of conceptual patterns as man's representative before God.

a. Through the incarnation of the Logos, the nature of man as living being having the Logos (zoion logos echon) is consummated: Jesus is the man who finds himself in full possession of the Logos. Athanasius expressed the matter in this way in his work about the incarnation of the Logos. Irenaeus expressed it similarly before him, as did the Alexandrian Christology later. Only through the incarnation of the Logos does the true man come into existence.

b. Jesus is the man who brings the universal human striving toward the imitation of God (homoiosis theoi) to its goal. Through his ethical perfection, he achieves perfect participation in the divine unchangeability, in God's permanence in the good. We found this idea developed in Paul of Samosata and later, above all, in the Antiochene Christology.

c. Through the merit of his freely offered striving, Jesus is the man who has fulfilled the duty of obedience incumbent upon all men and the duty,which has burdened humanity since Adam's fall, of satisfaction through a work of supererogation. The penitential thinking of the medieval church, first in Anselm of Canterbury, recognized itself in the image of Jesus.

d. Jesus is the prototype of God's dealings with humanity and thus also the prototype of justification by faith. He is the man who even in the undeserved misfortune on the cross upholds the right of the God who judges and thus is himself righteous before God because he remains in harmony with God's will. This is the idea of [Martin] Luther whose early period is particularly characterized by this formulation.

e. In Jesus, man's true humanity is realized in that in him the consciousness of God that establishes the unity of human existence is dominant with a prototype strength that has not been exceeded in contrast to the self-consciousness, the object-consciousness that is characteristic of man's inner-worldly relations. With this concept [Friedrich] Schleiermacher expressed in a classical way the understanding of Christ in the piety and theology of Pietism as it lives on somewhat altered in the present day. This is true in spite of all later criticism of his idea of the prototype.

f. Jesus is the prototypal man, who as the one completely obedient to God was completely dedicated to his fellowman [Karl Barth, CD III/2]. This concept of [Karl] Barth's has made clear the priority of Jesus' relation to God over his significance "for us," so that the latter has its only adequate basis precisely in Jesus' relationship to God.

g. As the Son, Jesus is in a prototypal way what all men ought to be: the reality of the sonship that is intended for all in trusting obedience to the Father and in free responsibility for the inheritance of the creation entrusted to him. With this idea, [Friedrich] Gogarten has traced back the sovereign lordship of modern man over the world to Jesus' relation to God as its origin, and discovered in this idea a way to avert the doom of modern self-glorification and enslavement to the world.

h. Jesus is eminently the believer who exposes himself directly to God's future. Jesus is the "essence of faith" and faith is the "essence of what Jesus did." Thus for [Gerhard] Ebeling, Jesus is the "witness of faith." Because faith as man's new self-understanding has its support in Jesus himself, in Jesus' relation to the Father, it is protected from the suspicion that it might be "objectless." Ebeling is concerned to bring the structure of Christian faith into relationship with Jesus' message of God's justified, even if the Synoptic Gospels, which speak of Jesus' demand of faith from his hearers, used the terminology of the Helenistic-Jewish mission. If faith determines the entire life of the Christian, then it is important that it be, even in its structure, discipleship, participation in Jesus' way, in his behavior. Even if Jesus himself is not supported to have issued a call to "faith," this expression, precisely as it was stamped by Paul, appropriately designates the conduct of the hearer demanded by Jesus' message of the nearness of God's Lordship. His own activity, especially in his last journey to Jerusalem, expressed this same confidence in the imminent arrival of God's Lordship that Jesus demanded of his hearers.

i. Also, in contemporary Catholic Christology, Jesus Christ as the divine-human person is understood as the highest perfection of the human. Thus Karl Rahner says, "Christology is the beginning and the end of anthropology, and this anthropology in its most radical realization, namely Christology, is in all eternity theology." According to B. Welte, Jesus is the fulfillment of that unlimited openness for God. This concept has the advantage of making the insights of modern antropology about man's openness to the world fruitful for Christology. Among Protestant proposals, the ideas of Ebeling (and [Rudolf] Bultmann) come closest to that suggested here. What Ebeling calls faith is, as openness for the future and thus in its specifically modern character, very closely related to the anthropology of openness to the world. In fact one must understand Jesus' unity with God as the fulfillment of the openness to the world that is constitutive for man as such, if this openness has its real meaning in an openness extending beyond the world to God.

When one looks at the series of various understandings of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of human nature, an important suspicion arises: Is the change of Christological conceptions perhaps explained as a change in the image of man? Has one perhaps always simply read into the figure of Jesus the changing ideal images that man projects about himself, as Albert Schweitzer demonstrated was the case in the quest of the historical Jesus? Would this not mean a complete failure to grasp Jesus' uniqueness in these various Christological conceptions? Would not one rather simply have hidden Jesus' uniqueness under the universal ideal images of man?

Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus: God and Man, pg198-200


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  1. Probably he meant that we should get triintarian theology out of NT exegesis?Anyway, I am interested in the second point. It sounded like a reflection off 1 Cor 8:3 which I have been thinking about for years now…hahahaha…was he there at the passage?Steven Sim

  2. I would have preferred you introduce with something like “classic” rather than “infamous.” In any case, since on another blog, someone commented he had never heard of Pannenberg, anything to get his name out there is a good thing. One of the places where he shines is his analysis of various elements of the Christian tradition. He also keeps pressing with challenging questions to us. Interestingly, in Karl Barth, IV.1 focuses upon Alexandrian Christology, emphasizing deity over humanity, IV.2 on Antiochian Christology, emphasizing humanity over deity, and IV.3 on the God-Man.

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