Karl Barth’s Letter to Wolfhart Pannenberg

Wolfhart Pannenberg

In the next few weeks, I plan to begin reading Jesus: God and Man by Wolfhart Pannenberg. I’ve read a couple of Pannenberg’s shorter works, and would especially recommend his accessible An Introduction To Systematic Theology. I’ve also listened to a few of his lectures that are available via Asbury Seminary’s website (here is one on the doctrine of creation). Jesus: God and Man was his first major work and I am looking forward to engaging with it.

I remembered reading Pannenberg’s correspondence with Karl Barth in the collection of letters I read last year. Below is the letter that Barth wrote to Pannenebrg upon reading the original German edition of Jesus: God and Man in 1964 (Grundzuge der Christologie). As you will pick up from the correspondence below, Barth read and wrote to both Moltmann and Pannenberg almost back to back (within a few weeks) in 1964. He clearly had high hopes for both theologians, eagerly hoping that one of them might be the the “child of peace and promise” who would carry the torch of his theological project and bring it to the next level. But in both cases, Barth was unsatisfied!

                                                                    Basel, 7 December 1964
Dear Colleague,
What must you have thought of me on your visit to us with your wife a while ago when I advised you with well-meant zeal and exageration not to publish anything for ten years until you had become clear as to what you wanted and had in mind? Your great work on christology, which you have so kindly sent me, must have been already finished then, and perhaps already in print. I have studied it in one sitting and see plainly now that you know very well where you want to go. Only too well, I must add, for the material decision which I regarded in our earlier meeting as merely experimental and provisional has been acted upon in this book with such breadth and clarity that it is hard to see how you could reverse it without a 180-degree conversion. And now that you have so definitely made the decision, we are theologically — and you yourself will not disagree — very different if not separated people.
I have reason to respect and admire most sincerely a good deal in your achievement: Your astonishing breadth of reading in the exegetical, historical, and philosophical fields; the constancy with which you are able to stick to your course through all the thickets; the critical acumen that never fails in detail, and with which you are able to establish and safeguard yourself on both the right hand and the left. Your book is a venture of unusual significance.
And mark you, Dr. Pannenberg, I have read it — as some weeks ago I read the Theology of Hope of Jürgen Moltmann — with the sincere curiosity whether I might be dealing at last with the child of peace and promise whose work would represent a genuine superior alternative to what I myself have attempted and undertaken in theology the last forty-five years. For a long time I have been waiting for this better option and I only hope I will be alert and humble enough to understand and recognize it as such should it come my way. But in your project, too, I am not yet able to see it, believing rather that for all the originality with which you have ventured and executed it we have a serious regression to a mode of thinking which I cannot regard as appropriate to the matter and am thus unable to adopt.
My first reaction on reading your book was one of horror when on the very first page I found you rejecting M. Kahler in a way which led me to suspect that, like others, you — and you with particular resolution and with an orientation toward a Jesus who may be found historically — intended to pursue a path from below to above. Obviously your intention did not offer you occasion to reflect that our common friend H. Vogel stopped at his admittedly very substantial analysis of the below, and never gave us the second part of his christology which was to deal with the above reached from below. I wrestle in vain with the question by what right you manage to rest the doctrine of the revelation of God enacted in Jesus, indeed the very existence and life of God and Jesus’ identity with him, on the basis of the figure of your historical Jesus and his message and commitment to God, confirmed by his resurrection from the dead — all of which is much weaker in substance than Vogel’s historical Jesus. As Biedermann already saw and said, we know that the resurrection may be reduced historical to objective visions of the disciples and the brute fact of the empty tomb. Is not this to build a house on the sand — the shifting sand of historical probabilities moving one way yesterday and another today? And if you think you are not dealing here with sand but with solid rock, does this not consist finally and properly of Jewish apocalyptic, in whose context you think we can explain both the pre-Easter Jesus and the risen Lord? Is it in the light of this that you explain the recognition and acknowledgment of a general ordination of man to a being that transcends his life and death? In its positive content is your christology — after the practice of many modern fathers– anything other than the outstanding example and symbol of a presupposed general anthropology, cosmology, and ontology? I have looked in vain in your exposition for new shores, for something better than this return to the old shores. I concede to you with praise the formal point that on your proposed way you have followed a consistent course from below to above, or from the general to the particular — beginning with the shadowy figure of your historical man Jesus (beyond the only historically sure fact of the New Testament text) you could not come to any other result. Over against this I believe that for all its difficulties the christology of the early church is much more promising. I expect your position and my own will be improved on when we have a more energetic and careful treading of the path from above to below, from the particular to the general. In the meantime, if you will pardon the harsh expression, I can only regard your own path as reactionary.
I cannot think you expected any other attitude from me. It alters in no way my thanks for your stimulating and instructive work — nor the fact that so far as time and strength permit I shall follow your future career with close interest.
My regards to your wife and friendly greetings to yourself,
Karl Barth
(Karl Barth, Letters, p. 177-179)

Below is Pannenberg’s letter back to Barth, where he offered some clarifications in response to Barth’s critiques.

                                                 Mainz-Gonsenheim, 9 May 1965
Dear Professor Barth,
Please permit me to send you sincere greetings for your birthday tomorrow ith the hope that in the meantime you have completely overcome your illness, which Mr. Ritschl told me about in the winter. May I also thank you for the letter which you wrote me in December about my book on christology. It moved me greatly, especially when I heard from Mr. Ritschl how farfrom well you were at the time, that you should have read my book so thoroughly and taken the time and energy to write so full a letter to me. Of course, I cannot say that I feel you have understood me. After your friendly reaction to my first effort I was bold enough to hope that you would perceive in my work a continuation of the basic thought of your theology of revelation in a changed intellectual climate. Have I really found in christology the symbol of a general anthropology that has its basis elsewhere? Have I not rather tried to understand the event of Jesus of Nazareth as a mutuation of its own — as of all earlier and later — general historical presuppositions? It has been my concern not to begin with the generality of a soteriological-anthropological interest or a christological concept of God-Man-unity but rather with the highly particular and unique fact of the historical event of Jesus of Nazareth. It has thus seemed unavoidable that I should start with the historical question of Jesus of Nazareth, since otherwise his historical particularity would be concealed at once by general theological or other concepts. My different approach to the significance of historico-critical biblical investigation for theology (in spite of the many ways in which philosophical considerations constrict the modern historical method) is the prominent sign of the change of intellectual climate in comparison with your own work. Even from my student days in Heidelberg it has seemed to me, of course, that a change at this point was being unavoidably forced even on those who will not give up the basic features of their theological opposition to Neo-Protestant anthropocentrism. If you cannot see the problem which inevitably arises at this point for those who have studied witih you, as I gather from your remarks on the historical study of scripture, thanI can understand, of course, that you regard my effort as a superfluous and, as you put it, “reactionary” enterprise. But might there not also be here a limitation in your awareness of the problem with which you once started, in what was for the most part a justifiable antithesis to the theological historicism of a Troeltsch or a Harnack? I venture to put the question here only because I would like to express my conviction that even though a critical turn is made in this question it will still be possible to continue your concentration of theology on the truth of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, which transcends all our human questioning and speaking. I shall never cease to be grateful that I learned from you to focus all theological work on this center.
With the request that you will give my kind regards to your honored wife and to Miss v. Kirschbaum,
Yours respectfully,
Wolfhart Pannenberg
(Karl Barth, Letters, p. 350-352)

16 thoughts on “Karl Barth’s Letter to Wolfhart Pannenberg”

  1. I remember reading these letters a few years back and thinking that one of them should have said “Umm…hows that whole Church Dogmatics coming along? You done yet????” He seems pretty harsh here. I’m more Moltmann than Pannenberg but still.

    1. I kept watching for references to CD progress too! Sad that he didn’t keep going those last few years…

      Barth definitely had a harsh streak in some of these letters. I kept telling my wife he sometimes sounded like a “grumpy old man” in this collection, though I guess he was sometimes harsh in his younger years too (I’m thinking of his response to Brunner’s natural theology!).

  2. What a wonderful exchange, one that I was not aware of. I know of Barth’s conversations with Moltmann, and knew Pannenberg’s occasional, ahem, tension with Barth (who he said wasn’t very amenable to criticism from his students). As both Pannenberg and Moltmann really intentionally made a new path in theology after Barth, hearing Barth’s responses to each of them is very helpful.

    As a fellow Moltanniac and Pannenbergian, I love your site here.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I’ve been reading Moltmann for a few years but am pretty new to Pannenberg. Maybe after reading Jesus God and Man I’ll wish I had sprung for “pannenbergian.com” instead of moltmanniac.com… though it just doesn’t have the same ring. 😉

      1. Ha! I find they pair well together, like a steak and red wine maybe.

        I remember being asked a few years ago how I would describe my theological approach and I answered (and it’s probably still true today) that I’m either Moltmannian with Pannenbergian tendencies or Pannenbergian with Moltmannian tendencies. Depending on when asked, I suppose. They’re both responding to theology after Barth and I think go different directions with the same underlying emphasis on eschatology in light of God’s promises. Both were very influenced by von Rad’s conception of God’s work in the OT. I find they mutually correct each other’s weaknesses too. Sometimes intentionally so!

  3. Was surprised to find that I had two real comments on this post. I get so many notifications for spam I almost missed these. Sorry for the delayed approval!

  4. Thanks for posting this, Ben — it’s a really excellent exchange that casts light not only on the two theologians and their basic priorities, but also in how they at times failed to come across in print as intended. Clearly Barth and Pannenberg were friendly and trying to read one another carefully and seriously. And, yet, misunderstanding still crept in from time to time.

    Rest in peace, Professor Pannenberg!

  5. I think Jesus: God and Man is still considered a classic work in Christology. I trust it will be a good read. This time when you posted this exchange I read the phrase differently: “the child of peace and promise whose work would represent a genuine superior alternative to what I myself have attempted and undertaken in theology the last forty-five years.” It is as if he was wanting to see of either WP or JM could write a better theology than he had done, and he decided, “No, this is not better than my work.” I also wonder what work to which WP refers in which he says Barth responded positively. In any case, my own sense of it is that KB did a magisterial job for the war-time period, but did not embrace a changed intellectual atmosphere.

  6. I realize I’ve come to this a bit late, but as someone finishing a thesis on Pannenberg at the moment I do know a few things going on in the background. First JGM was actually a follow up to a very well received Revelation as History (really just read the two chapters by Pannenberg and the one on the Old Testament). Considering the internationally acclaimed reception this work had, it’s pretty inconceivable that Barth was ignorant of it. In the work he lays out a criticism primarily of Bultmann (whom Pannenberg argued simply took Barth to his logical conclusion), but also includes a scathing critique of Barth throughout the introduction. Lastly, while JGM of perhaps the most widely read work of Pannenberg on English (though his Systematic Theology of certainly getting there), his most interesting is probably the titular essay in Theology and the Kingdom of God, which shows, simultaneously, his close connection with Moltmann’s theology of hope and how they are ultimately two very different projects.

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