Thursday, June 4, 2009

Wolfhart Pannenberg on "The Gospel"

I finished the second volume of Wolfhart Pannenberg's massive Systematic Theology today. Volume 1 is 473 pages long and volume 2 is 499 pages long. I just found out today that volume 3 is 713 pages long. Ugh.

Pannenberg's work is the most difficult I have ever read, but I find it extremely rewarding. He is brilliant.

In volume 2, Pannenberg deals with the creation of the world, the dignity and misery of humanity, anthropology and christology, the deity of Jesus Christ, and the reconciliation of the world. It's all good, but he saves the best section for last. The last section in chapter 5 ("The Reconciliation of the World") is called simply, "The Gospel."

As it turns out, Pannenberg's discussion of the meaning of "the Gospel" overlaps with the back-and-forth that N.T. Wright and John Piper are having. Pannenberg writes:

In Luther's Galatians lectures in 1516–17 the comment on 1:11 is to the effect that the gospel preaches the forgiveness of sins and the fulfilling of the law that has already been accomplished, namely, by Christ. The law says: Pay what you owe, but the gospel says: Your sins are forgiven you. For this definition the content of the gospel Luther had appealed a year earlier, in his Romans lectures, to the quoting of Isa. 52:7 by Paul in Rom. 10:15. The message of salvation is lovable and desirable precisely because of the forgiveness of sins to those made anxious by the law.

But neither Paul nor Isa. 52:7 says anything of the sort. In Rom. 10:17 Paul speaks of the need to proclaim the message of salvation in order to make possible faith in the Lord, who is the content of the message. The reason why this message is a message of salvation is not directly stated but is presupposed: Those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved (10:13). The whole complex of Paul's concept of eschatological soteria is bound up with this thought. But in Isa. 52:7 the reason for joy is the dawning of the reign of God. To relate this message to the promise of forgiveness of sins is at best a very spiritualized exposition. We have here an orienting of the gospel to the promise of absolution in penance as it was practiced in the Western church in the Middle Ages.

What is forgotten is that the gospel has to do with the dawning of the reign of God that brings salvation. The forgiveness of sins abolishes the separation between us and God. Basic here is the presence of the rule of God in the work of Jesus. Where the salvation of God's lordship is present, all separation from God is overcome. For believers, then, participating in God's reign means the forgiveness of sins and the new commandment of love. But to restrict the salvation of God's kingdom that found expression in common meals with Jesus to the forgiveness of sins is not keeping with the message of Jesus and makes sense only against the background of the penitential piety of the Middle Ages. Even the event of reconciliation that is the content of the gospel for Paul does not consist only in the promise of forgiveness. It is a matter of life and death.

I love how he puts this. The Gospel is about the coming reign of God and the reconciliation of humanity to God. Sure, sin is what separates humanity from God, so the forgiveness of sins is an essential part of reconciliation. But forgiveness of sins and the Gospel are not identical. Basic to the Gospel is the reign of God (or, we might say the "kingdom of God") as present in the work of Jesus.

Another strength of viewing the Gospel as the coming reign of God is that it makes room for the work of the Holy Spirit and the existence of the church. If the Gospel is just the forgiveness of sins, why do we need the Holy Spirit? He becomes little more than an afterthought. If the Gospel is just the forgiveness of sins, why do we need the church? It also becomes an afterthought. But both the church and the Holy Spirit are essential in Pannenberg's paradigm. If the Gospel is the coming reign of God, then where is that reign manifested? In the church. If the Gospel is the coming reign of God, then how is it coming about? Through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Pannenberg is hardly an evangelical, but his thoughts are substantial and his arguments weighty. Where I agree wtih him I am encouraged, and where I disagree with him I find myself challenged in new ways. He's given me a lot to chew on.


Tripp said...

pannenberg is awesome. his ST is amazing and he totally owns Wight and Piper when it comes to articulating the nuances of gospel.

if you skip the ecclesiology in volume 3 it reads a lot quicker. he summarizes it in the eschatology section. unless you are real interested in catholic-lutheran dialouge it is skimabile.

Matt said...

In all fairness to Wright and Piper, Pannenberg may own everyone when it comes to articulating anything theological.

Thanks for the tip on reading volume 3, but doesn't it feel good to say "I read the whole thing"? :)