A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)

Pannenberg’s Trinitarian Theology (from Theology for the Future)

Theology for the Future: The Enduring Promise of Wolfhart Pannenberg, ed. Andrew Hollingsworth (Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2021), pp. 103-117.

Andrew Hollingsworth has edited a set of ten chapters on Theology for the Future: The Enduring Promise of Wolfhart Pannenberg, with a foreword by Friederike Nüssel and an afterword by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen. I wrote the fifth chapter, on Pannenberg’s approach to the Trinity. Here’s how the editor summarized my chapter:

Fred Sanders takes up Pannenberg’s doctrine of the Trinity in chapter five. He first provides a discussion of Pannenberg’s references to the Trinity prior to his full treatment in Systematic Theology. Sanders then turns his attention to Pannenberg’s fully developed Trinitarian doctrine in his Systematic Theology, focusing specifically on his interactions with the greater Christian tradition on topics such as eternal generation, processions, and divine reciprocity. He concludes by commenting that, though not everyone will be able to follow Pannenberg’s conclusions on his revisions of the classical doctrine, Pannenberg nonetheless provides an important voice to learn from concerning this foundational Christian teaching.

Here’s how I open the chapter:

Great theologians can be read in two ways: for their mere Christianity or for their distinctive ideas. One can read Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, for example, and learn from them the content of the Christian faith, while of course noting that each of them handles the same material in their own ways. But one can also read them specifically for their Thomism and Calvinism avant la lettre, that is, for their distinguishing and characteristic ideas. Wolfhart Pannenberg ranks among the great theologians in terms of scope, rigor, and insight. His trinitarian theology can be read in these two ways: on the one hand, he is fluent in the entire intellectual tradition of trinitarian theology and offers a representative modern restatement of it, and on the other hand there is something distinctively and peculiarly Pannenbergian about his doctrine of the Trinity. All of the motifs and commitments that are characteristic of Pannenberg’s thought are evident in this tract of his theology; in fact, most of them come especially to the fore here. This is because Pannenberg intentionally approached the doctrine of the Trinity as the culminating and consummating aspect of his entire theological project.

And here is an excerpt in which I describe one of Pannenberg’s most difficult moves in trinitarian theology:

In Christian theology, one of the purposes of the doctrine of the Trinity is to identify God. Pannenberg grasps this purpose and is fully alert to its implications for his radically historical trinitarianism. This leads him to introduce a peculiar concept about God’s identity: he refers to “God’s self-actualization.” To speak of God’s self-actualization is to assert that “God actualizes himself in the world by his coming into it.” 38 There are distinct moments implied in the notion of self-actualization: “from the beginning of its action the acting I would be identical in the full sense with the determination which is to be the result of the action.” It is interesting that Pannenberg is not pressing into theological service a term that he finds in another field, such as psychology (though the term almost certainly has psychological connotations for English readers). On Pannenberg’s view, there could be no such thing as self-actualization by a human being, since humans are in a constant state of becoming and cannot be identical with themselves at the beginning and end of a process that constitutes them. The notion of self-actualization is rather one that Pannenberg devised specifically to describe divine action in history. The triune God alone self-actualizes:

“The idea of self-actualization transcends our measure as finite beings. . . . Nevertheless, the relation of the immanent to the economic Trinity, of God’s inner trinitarian life to his acts in salvation history inasmuch as these are not external to his deity but express his presence in the world, may very well be described as self-actualization. For here the subject and result are the same, as the expression demands.”

Few interpreters have found Pannenberg’s solution entirely satisfactory, though many have expressed recognition of what he is attempting and admiration of the thoroughness with which he undertakes it. He employs his considerable learning toward the goal of maintaining two things simultaneously: a God who is always the triune God from eternity to eternity, and a God for whom history really matters. This is the scope of Pannenberg’s systematic-historical trinitarianism. At the climax of the third volume of his theological system, Pannenberg describes “the march of the divine economy of salvation” as “an expression of the incursion of the eternal future of God to the salvation of creatures and thus a manifestation of the divine love.” He goes on, in the final sentence: “The distinction and unity of the immanent and economic Trinity constitute the heartbeat of the divine love, and with a single such heartbeat this love encompasses the whole world of creatures.”

I studied Pannenberg’s theology intensively for several years, especially under the expert guidance of my doctoral supervisor Ted Peters (who writes chapter 8 in this collection) and in courses with Robert John Russell (who has chapter 7). I’ve interacted with Pannenberg’s theology in several places, but this is the first time I’ve written an entire chapter with a direct focus on expositing his trinitarianism. As I say in the book, I cannot follow Pannenberg in his main innovations and revisions to the doctrine of the Trinity. But his thinking is rigorous, his command of historical theology is encyclopedic, and his work is always worth engaging.

Theology for the Future: The Enduring Promise of Wolfhart Pannenberg is available from the publisher and from Amazon.