Wolfhart Pannenberg's Response to the Challenge of Religious Pluralism: The Anticipation of Divine Absoluteness

By Losel, Steffen | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Wolfhart Pannenberg's Response to the Challenge of Religious Pluralism: The Anticipation of Divine Absoluteness


Losel, Steffen, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


In recent decades the Christian claim that humanity reaches the eternal and salvific divine truth in Jesus Christ alone has increasingly come under criticism within the church and theological circles. Wherever the church expresses an exclusive or even a relative claim to absolute truth, it is reproached for being intolerant in its religious exclusivism of for being presumptuous in its theological inclusivism.(1) Anglo-American theologians especially have urged the churches to accept what John Hick calls a "Copernican revolution"(2) in theology. The church can no longer be viewed as being at the center of a universe of religions; rather, all religions, including Christianity, revolve around one and the same "Reality" or transcendent "Real."(3) In light of this claim, Hick among others proposes various "pluralistic theologies of religions" that relinquish Christianity's absolute truth-claims and acknowledge other religions as equally valid paths to salvation.(4)

Among the most fervent opponents of the pluralistic theologies of religions is German Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg.(5) Although Pannenberg accepts the plurality of religions as a constitutive feature of contemporary reality, which cannot simply be subsumed "in a wholesale and exclusive fashion under the categories of unbelief and idolatry,"(6) he does not value religious pluralism as such. Pannenberg views the plurality of religions only as the necessary conditio religiosa under which the truth of Christianity needs to be promoted universally. He disputes the theological legitimacy of the general concept of religion advocated by the pluralistic theologians, who view all religions as equally true, variable expressions of the one, same divine reality.(7) In contrast, he proposes a "theology of the history of religions"(8) that integrates the plurality of religions into a Christian reading of history as the self-revelation of the triune God.

This essay provides a critical reading of Pannenberg's contribution to the contemporary debate over religious pluralism. In a first section, I will discuss the role that he assigns to the religions as necessary mediations of humanity's innate, and yet unthematic, knowledge of the infinite divine mystery. Pannenberg's critique of a general concept of religion will lead us to consider the history of religions as an empirical standpoint from which to compare conflicting religious truth-claims. Pannenberg interprets the ongoing conflict between various gods and religions in history as the Christian God's self-revelation to humankind. In a second section, I will show how Pannenberg integrates his open-ended concept of revelation with the Christian conviction that God is revealed definitively in Jesus Christ. Third, I will turn to the implications of Pannenberg's theology of religions for the soteriological question, exploring both his christocentric criteria for human salvation and the role of non-christian religions in the mediation of salvation. In my fourth and concluding section, I will -- as an invitation to further discussion of Pannenberg's model of the history of religions -- raise some critical questions about his conflict-based interpretation of the history of religions in terms of its empirical validity, its biblical normativity, and its awareness of economical and political factors in the history of religions.

I. A Theology of the History of the Religions

The impetus for Pannenberg's development of a theology of religions is the observation that the Christian proclamation of the triune God has become an openly contested truth-claim in a religiously pluralistic world.(9) Today, the task of Christian theologians is to develop a theology of religions that can positively account for the plurality of religions, while still defending the claim that the triune God presents the "all-determining reality."(10) Pannenberg understands the historical religions to be the necessary form of mediation of our innate human knowledge of God. …

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