Pannenberg on why christology “from above” is not feasible for us

At the center of Barth’s harsh critique of Pannenberg’s Grundzuge der Christologie (the original German edition of Jesus- God and Man) was his christology “from below”. I’m only a couple chapters into the book, but I can see how Pannenberg’s method (and its inherent critique of Barth’s “christology from above to below” would make the great Karl Barth bristle!

Here is how Pannenebrg explains the distinction between these two approaches to Christology:

For Christology that begins “from above,” from the divinity of Jesus, the concept of the incarnation stands in the center. A Christology “from below,” rising from the historical man Jesus to the recognition of his divinity, is concerned first of all with Jesus’ message and fate and arrives only at the end at the concept of the incarnation.
(JGM, p. 33)

He procedes to use Karl Barth as the prime modern example of “Christology from above”:

The Christological procedure “from above to below” is followed in modern Protestant dogmatics by Karl Barth especially. He speaks about a “history of the incarnation: the Son of God goes into what is foreign, into humiliation, by becoming a man, uniting himself with the man Jesus (CD, IV/1, § 59). This connection means at the same time an inexpressible exaltation for the man Jesus to whose lot it fell (CD, IV/2, § 64: “the exaltation of the Son of Man”). Here, Barth has combined two doctrines which were distinguished in the orthodox Protestant dogmatics of the seventeenth century: on the one hand, the doctrine of Jesus as man and God, the so-called doctrine of the two natures, and on the other, the doctrine of the humiliation and exaltation of the incarnate Son of God as two consecutive stages along Jesus’ path. By combining these two themes, Barth comes closer to the basic outline of the Gnostic redeemer myth than is necessarily characteristic of an incarnational Christology that is constructed “from above to below”: the descent of the redeemer from heaven and his return there. This is also the basic concept of Barth’s Christology. He thinks not only about an event of incarnationi but about a circle consisting of descent and ascent. The difference in Barth, as in all of the church’s Christology, is that the redeemer redeems not himself but man as a being essentially different from God. Further, Barth adds the feature that the humiliation of God is at the same time the exaltation of the man who is thereby united to him and conversely.
(JGM, p 33-34)

Pannenberg gives three reasons why a “Christology from above” is not feasible for us (summarized from JGM p. 34-35):

1) Christology from above presupposes the divinity of Jesus, causing us to neglect the most important task of christology: establishing reasons for the confession of Jesus’ divinity.
2) Christology from above isn’t sufficiently connected to the features we know about the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth. What we know about his life and teachings does little to inform our doctrine.
3) We are historically limited human beings who cannot escape that limitation. In order to develop a Christology “from above” we would need the perspective of God!

Even in outline, this is a very strong critique! I cut my theological teeth reading the works of N.T. Wright; Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG), one of my personal favorites, seems to me to be a similar “christology from below” to that of Pannenberg. My initial sense is that there is some value to both methods – perhaps they can meet in the middle? I worry that “christology from below” might on its worst days become too apologetically oriented (which often times isn’t about truth at all, but about reinforcing what we already believe to be true). On the other hand Christology “from above” gets into trouble when it is not connected to history (which might as well mean: not connected to reality).

Moltmann has some insights on this topic in The Crucified God. I hope to do a post or two from that angle in the next few days.

I’m enjoying this book so far… Like other similar books it can be dense at times, but on the whole I find him to be more comprehensible than Barth and more straightforward than Moltmann. I have the feeling that when I get to the end of JGM I’ll have a good idea of what Pannenberg “really” thinks, and I cannot always say the same thing about Molty!


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