Understanding Pannenberg

Landmark Theologian of the Twentieth Century

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Anthony C. Thiselton
Cascade Companions
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , June
     222 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014) is widely considered one of the major achievements in systematic theology after Karl Barth. Characterized by breadth in scope across the dogmatic loci, with great depth in its accounting of philosophical, biblical, and dogmatic data, interdisciplinary concerns, and attention to historical and contemporary issues, the work of Pannenberg is a significant body of scholarship for the field of theology. These factors also make Pannenberg difficult to access at an introductory level or condense into such a form, and few secondary works attempt to render his thought comprehensible to a newcomer.

In Understanding Pannenberg: Landmark Theologian of the Twentieth Century, Anthony Thiselton takes up the task by crafting an introduction to Pannenberg that is accessible, critical, and concise with sharp interpretation. Thiselton accounts for the breadth of Pannenberg’s thought across his body of work over time, while exploring key loci that draw out the major elements of his theology. This approach allows him to introduce the substance of Pannenberg’s thinking while addressing why Pannenberg arrives at his conclusions. Additionally, Thiselton indicates subtle connections or potential liabilities of Pannenberg’s positions.

Thiselton proceeds in the first chapter by introducing the biography of Pannenberg, some of Pannenberg’s personal memories, and an early essay by Pannenberg as a lens for viewing his theology. Thiselton then covers such topics as God and the knowledge of God (chapter 2), Trinity and divine attributes (chapter 3), Christology (chapter 4), humanity and sin (chapter 5), pneumatology and the Church (chapter 6), eschatology (chapter 7), and hermeneutics and the concept of truth (chapter 8). Each chapter concludes with questions meant to induce further discussion and reflection, which is particularly useful for the classroom. Thiselton accomplishes his task of crafting an introductory text that explains key terms and arguments, as well as being forthright and fair in its critical assessment of Pannenberg. For example, he points to the lack of clarity in Pannenberg’s assessment of world religions, yet this is not to the detriment of setting forth Pannenberg’s substantive thought on the matter (41-44).

Some points merit further discussion. Chapter 3, concerning the doctrine of the Trinity and divine attributes, is important given the key role it plays for Pannenberg. Thiselton extends Pannenberg’s mature thought as present in Systematic Theology with attention to depth and substance, but in a way that can be understood even by those new to the study of theology. Thiselton presents Pannenberg as both creative and traditional, emphasizing the unity of the immanent and economic Trinity, yet prioritizing the immanent Trinity (48-55). Thiselton finds strong evidence of this in Pannenberg’s writing, though there will be some—broadly, those who interpret Pannenberg to favor the priority of the economic Trinity or to be more or less Hegelian—who will disagree with this interpretation. Nevertheless, Thiselton correctly summarizes and explains Pannenberg’s position and—by paying less attention to other, perhaps more popular, interpretations—can correct such ideas from the outset by placing Pannenberg’s statements within the broader frame of his theological argument and thus provide a more accurate picture of his thinking.

Chapter 6, on the role of the Spirit in salvation and the Church, is one of the most useful given the importance of both in Pannenberg’s later thought. Thiselton traces a commitment to Reformation concepts such as the "communion of saints" (128-29) and a reevaluation and connection with contemporary Roman Catholic thinking on the Church as a sacrament of salvation, provided the Church is not understood as an end unto itself (127-28). Similarly, Pannenberg emphasizes the Protestant necessity of individual confession of faith, yet also recognizes this transpires within the context of assent to the common confession of the faith of the Church (128), opening the way to engagement with a more Roman Catholic position. Moreover, this engagement is possible with regard to the eucharist. Pannenberg gives a standard Lutheran description of Christ’s presence in the sign of the bread, yet also describes the remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice in a way that it is more than recollection, and “brings the past dramatically into the present” (138). Thiselton’s ability to point to biblical, historical, and ecumenical concerns, and do so concisely, is commendable.

All the topics covered in this text are highly engaging, quite readable, and useful for the larger purpose. However, there remain some lesser and greater issues to critique. Of the minor concerns, there are some obvious editorial mistakes. In one section, Cardinal Walter Kasper is listed as having lived from 1933 to 2001 (55), but Cardinal Kasper is still alive. In another example an African-American gospel song that is quoted as “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?” (138), as opposed to the correct “Were you there?” Additionally the section on the proofs of the existence of God (29-39) is perhaps less clear than one might wish for an introduction.

At a macro level, I question the placement of hermeneutical and epistemological concerns in the final chapter. This chapter includes helpful intellectual background and history to Pannenberg’s thoughts on these methodological considerations, some of which surface in sections on dogmatic topics and could be useful to know beforehand, especially for students or those unfamiliar with this theological terrain. Would this not have been better placed prior to discussions of the substance of Pannenberg’s thinking? 

Ultimately, Thiselton’s text is commendable and readily accessible, accomplishing its goal. The book fills a gap in the secondary literature on Pannenberg and is a worthy introduction to a complex thinker. It is highly recommended to students of theology and those wishing to learn about this important, late twentieth century theologian.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark P. Hertenstein is Assistant Pastor at New City Fellowship of Fredericksburg, VA.

Date of Review: 
January 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anthony C. Thiselton is Emeritus Canon Professor of Christian Theology in the University of Nottingham. He has written twenty books, including The Holy Spirit (2013), The Last Things (2012), The Hermeneutics of Doctrine (2007), and The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NIGTC, 2000). He holds the PhD, DD, and DTheol, and is a Fellow of the British Academy. With poor eyesight and a severe stroke, he has spent fifty-four years in Ordained Ministry and the University.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.