Last week, I explored Moltmann proposal to understand salvation in terms of the messianic Kingdom. In this blog, we'll look into Pannenberg's proposal.
Pannenberg: The Kingdom brings Wholeness and Integrity of Life
Salvation means wholeness of being, and this salvation comes towards us from God’s future, we saw Pannenberg arguing. But how does it come towards us, and how do we participate in it? At this point, Pannenberg emphasises the centrality of the concept of the Kingdom of God to the Bible as a whole.
If we seek to understand either the Old Testament or the New Testament, or the whole of biblical salvation history, we need to understand that it is all about the Kingdom of God. It isn’t merely one theme among many biblical themes, essentially it is the theme, Pannenberg asserts.
Throughout its history Israel’s hope was for God’s own kingly rule over the earth, bringing peace and wholeness of life. And the mission of Jesus, Pannenberg agrees with Moltmann, must be entirely understood from this eschatological, messianic expectation that grew to a climax in the post-exilic times.
“The sending of the Son into the world and the fulfilment of his mission by his death is God’s way of actualizing his rule in the world without oppression and with respect for the independence of creatures, even on the part of God himself.”
Jesus did not merely come to die for our sin so that his status of righteousness could be imputed to believers, but he came to actualize God’s rule in the world, through his work of reconciliation. He declared “the present inbreaking of the saving future of God’s rule”, and proclaimed the need for people to respond to it in faith.
The coming of the Kingdom of God means salvation for those who trust on God and accept Jesus as the Messiah. For them, the Kingdom of God is already present. For this is the particular dynamics of Jesus’ message of the Kingdom, Pannenberg argues: The rule of God is imminent - about to come - but it “also emerges from its futurity as present.” How is it present? It is present, Pannenberg argues, primarily as participation in the Kingdom of God.
“To participate in the rule of God, to enter the kingdom, is the quintessence of eschatological salvation.”
To have part in the rule of God (Matt. 5:3; 19:14; Luke 6:20), to find access to it (Mark 9: 47; 10:14; Matt. 25:10; John 3:3), “is of the very essence of salvation.” In the ministry of Jesus, this is what salvation is all about.
After Easter, the apostolic message of salvation shifts to “the overcoming of death by the new life of resurrection”. But materially there is no difference here, Pannenberg argues, “for the new life by resurrection from the dead is life in fellowship with God by his Spirit”, and thus having part in the Kingdom of God. The salvation of the new life - living in fellowship with God through the Spirit - entails our being restored to wholeness of life.
This eschatological perspective of the Kingdom of God, bringing wholeness of life, should define our understanding of salvation, Pannenberg maintains. It underlies all soteriological concepts within the New Testament, including “what Paul says about our justification, redemption, reconciliation, and liberation by Christ, in which believers now share.”
“In German the word ‘Heil’ carries the sense of the wholeness or integrity of life, even in the sense of achieving wholeness in the course of our history. Similarly soteria has the wholeness and integrity of life in view (cf. simply Mark 8:35 par.). It refers not only to the process of saving but also to the result, to the saved and newly regained life.”
However, in the midst of present brokenness, this wholeness will often be felt to be absent, or at least to be threatened. Therefore, salvation of human life depends on the future, as the Kingdom of God will be consummated.
In the tradition of the Reformation the future of salvation might have been understood in terms of the Kingdom and a state of wholeness, but the present aspects of salvation have mostly been perceived in terms of deliverance in the coming judgment. Salvation then, doesn’t “materialize” as wholeness in the present at all, as it merely means the assurance of a future partaking. This corresponds to much of Paul’s teaching, Pannenberg confirms. Paul predominantly sees soteria as “salvation in the future judgment (Rom. 5:9; cf. 1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9f., etc.).” The apostle relates salvation to the state of justification or as peace with God, while” the glory of the new life that is the content of soteria is still a matter of hope.”
Is it right then, to make this distinction and to say that future salvation might bring wholeness indeed, but present salvation is limited to the assurance of pardon and reconciliation with God? No, says Pannenberg, it is not. Doing so, would be a denial of the message of Jesus himself.
“We should not conceal the profound differences between the apostle and Jesus in their descriptions of the way in which salvation is present for believers.”
Paul may have perceived the events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as the accomplishment of reconciliation, in which the Christian hope of pardon and deliverance at the coming judgment rests (and rightly so), but central to the ministry of Jesus himself was his message that the salvation of the Kingdom of God is present already for the believers. His ministry was all about the inbreaking of the salvation of God’s Kingdom in the present age, Pannenberg agrees with Moltmann. Jesus proclaimed and demonstrated the presence of the Kingdom, by driving out demons, healing the sick and restoring lives. These “mighty works” belong intrinsically to the salvation that comes with the Kingdom of God.
“Executing his earthly mission, he gave signs of the divine rule (Matt. 11:4-5) by his work of healing, by his proclamation of the good news of the saving nearness of God, and by common meals as signs of fellowship in God’s kingdom (...) In his function as a sign of the future of God’s lordship by means of his earthly work and history, Jesus is the embodiment of the mystery of salvation that puts the divine plan of salvation into effect.”
Even though Pannenberg clearly is not a charismatic theologian, he argues that the “signs of the presence of salvation” that were “characterizing the ministry of Jesus” included “healings”, and that these signs may be discerned in the life of the church too, signifying sacramentally the presence of Jesus himself (even though such healing lack the “unequivocally sacramental significatory character based on institution”).
It is exactly at this point that the connection between salvation and the Kingdom of God proves crucial. It is this connection that keeps
● Paul’s emphasis on the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and
● Jesus’ proclamation of the inbreaking of future wholeness in the present
tightly together, Pannenberg argues.
The only way in which theology can keep Paul and Jesus together, Pannenberg maintains, is to understand the concept of salvation no longer exclusively in terms of the future (which Pauline usage tends to do). As a matter of fact, understanding salvation as being both future and present, will help to gain a fuller understanding of Paul as well. For even Paul seems to have perceived salvation as being present too, in terms of new life, healing and transformation.
“In spite of tying soteria to the event of deliverance at the approaching judgment, Paul himself could sometimes say that this salvation has been imparted to believers already through the gospel.”
We see a shift, for instance in Paul’s letters to Ephesians and Titus, “to the present in the idea of participation in eschatological salvation”, though still with a reference to future consummation, Pannenberg asserts.
“The primary reference now is not to the deliverance of believers at the coming judgment but on the historical event of rescue from the life of sin for a new life by the Spirit (Titus 3:4 ff.) [...] present salvation [...] was now the initial reality of the new life itself which had come into the world through Jesus Christ.”
What Paul adds to the message of Jesus (and it is important to keep this in view, Pannenberg stresses in an important correction to Moltmann, warranting Reformation concerns), is that reconciliation with God through Christ’s death on the cross is the basis for the present form of participation in salvation. No healing, no wholeness, no entering the Kingdom of God, without reconciliation with God through Christ’s death on the cross, and without acceptance of the message of Jesus Christ.
Kingdom and cross: Reconciliation but no “satisfaction”
At this point, however, it should be critically noted that Pannenberg moves away from the traditional satisfaction theory (Anselm), favouring an inclusive understanding of substitution (what happens in Jesus happens on behalf of us all) that he finds to be in keeping with Paul’s description of Jesus as the “second Adam”.
It must be said that Pannenberg, though not less critical than Moltmann, remains in proper dialogue with traditional perspectives and avoids the caricatures and imprecise phrasings that we see with Moltmann.
Nonetheless, especially traditional Reformed and Evangelical theology have some issues to sort out with Pannenberg at this point. While in these theologies the doctrine of justification is central (emphasizing the exclusive character of Christ’s substitutionary work, often in forensic terms as penal substitution), Pannenberg omits a separate chapter on justification and presents his soteriology in terms of reconciliation.
Pannenberg sharply criticizes the way in which Protestant theology has interpreted Paul’s emphasis on reconciliation through the cross.  In contrast to Paul, for whom God was the subject of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19), the idea arose that God, having been offended by the sin of Adam, had to be reconciled to humanity by the sacrificing of the life of Jesus on the cross. Pannenberg traces these views back to Irenaeus and Augustine - who could write that we are “under the Father’s wrath because of original sin” and that we need a Reconciler to “appease this wrath” - and then to Anselm’s satisfaction theory. Reformation theology adopted this view, perceiving Christ’s reconciling death “as an expiation that reconciles God’s wrath toward sinners.” Pannenberg downright rejects such theories of satisfaction. God did not have to be reconciled. Instead, the world is reconciled by God in Christ.
Kingdom and cross: Beyond forgiveness of sin, overcoming misery
Pannenberg also faults any perception of salvation as merely “forgiveness of sins.” Over against Moltmann, Pannenberg does not deny the crucial importance of the forgiveness of human sin. But the death of Christ must be seen not solely as working this forgiveness, but as a real overcoming of the entire misery that consists of our having fallen into sin and death, and the related estrangement from God. In the resurrection of Christ, “God showed himself to be the Victor over sin and death in reconciliation of the world.”
The proclamation of the church should not merely consist of proclaiming forgiveness of sin, Pannenberg argues in the ecclesiological part of his dogmatics, but of a comprehensive understanding of the message and history of Jesus. And the quintessence of this, Pannenberg asserts, is that through Jesus’ message and history, God’s future Kingdom is “now present to us already in our historical world.”
“Forgiveness of sins is only the negative side of salvation. The positive is accepting the lordship of God and the new life it involves. The interrupting of this saving future in the work and history of Jesus Christ implies forgiveness of sins, i.e., the setting aside of all that separates from God.”
Pannenberg then continues to speak of reconciliation in terms of “a restoration of the sin-broken fellowship of humanity with its Creator, the source of life”, “a liberation to our own identity”, “being lifted above our own finitude”, “liberation from the bondage of the world, sin, and the devil”,“being in Christ” and “to participate in sonship”.
The gospel is the coming of the Kingdom and its wholeness
This comprehensive understanding of salvation can only be grasped in the light of the Kingdom of God, indeed. God’s salvation is in his reign, and his reign means salvation. The gospel of salvation cannot be thought apart from the coming of his Kingdom. The origin of the term “gospel” probably lies in the Old Testament prophecies about the messenger of eschatological peace, Pannenberg points out.
“Behold on the mountains
the feet of him who brings good tidings,
who proclaims peace” (Nahum 1:15).
“How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good tidings,
who proclaims peace,
who brings good tidings,
who proclaims salvation,
who says to Zion,
‘Your God reigns’” (Isaiah 52:7).
The gospel is the coming of the Kingdom of God, bringing salvation in the terms of Isaiah 61 - social justice, freedom, release, healing, deliverance, restoration. In the post-Easter community Jesus himself, the crucified and risen Lord, becomes the content of the gospel - not because his resurrection replaces the notion of God’s reign, but “because the salvation of the Kingdom of God is already present in him.” Paul’s concept of the gospel, emphasizing the saving message of reconciliation of the world through the death of Jesus Christ, does not replace Jesus’ own proclamation of the Kingdom, but inseparably connects the person and history of Jesus to the saving presence of the eschatological rule of God.
At this point, Pannenberg stresses, “we urgently need to revise a key Reformation principle.” Reducing the gospel to the promise of forgiveness of sins, as has been done by Reformation theologians, “is at best a very spiritualized exposition”, and it fails to see the “distinctiveness of the NT gospel” as the message of “the dawning of the reign of God that brings salvation.”
Earlier in this series on salvation & New Wine theology:
- Part 8: Salvation & Eschatology (1): Salvation is for this earth and coming in history
- Part 9: Salvation & Eschatology (2): Salvation is the Coming of the Kingdom of God (Moltmann)
- Part 9: Salvation & Eschatology (2): Salvation is the Coming of the Kingdom of God (Moltmann)
 Pannenberg, ST II, 327.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 394.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 338-339; ST III, 28, 604, 645.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 331.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 398.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 399.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 400-403.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 10.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 44.
 Pannenberg, ST III, 355-356; also 17-18, on “healing powers” and other “mighty acts” and “gifts of the Spirit being part of the Spirit’s working in the Christian Church.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 401.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 401.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 402.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 429-430. Also Grenz, Reason for Hope, 163, 171-174.
 Fascinating is the elaboration on soteriology in Van den Brink and Van der Kooi, Christelijke dogmatiek, mainly in Chapter 11 (on Christ and soteriology) and Chapter 15 (on regeneration), as they aim to do justice to the wide variety of Biblical models and images on salvation, including each of Aulén’s three models, and thus creatively enhance traditional Reformed soteriologies (offering subtle critique on narrowed understandings and caricatures of for instance Anselm’s satisfaction theory, at points coming very close to Pannenberg). Simultaneously, they seek to retrieve the subtlety of traditional accounts, reintroducing the three offices of Christ as a way to do justice to divergent aspects of salvation, and – over against both Moltmann and Pannenberg – opt for keeping Anselm’s forensic doctrine of atonement (satisfactio) at the centre of their soteriology (esp. 420-425) (while agreeing with Pannenberg, that there can be no notion of “Umstimmung” in God: God did not need to be reconciled, but God reconciled the world).
 Pannenberg, ST II, 403-454.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 406.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 407.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 389-390. Also Grenz, Reason for Hope, 163, 168-169.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 434-435.
 Pannenberg explicitly faults the theology of Dorothee Sölle, though he credits her for her critique on Barth’s understanding of exclusive representation (Pannenberg, ST II, 432-433; also Grenz, Reason for Hope, 171).
 Pannenberg, ST II, 428.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 412.
 Pannenberg, ST III, 171-172.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 449.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 450.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 451.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 452.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 454.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 457.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 460.
 Pannenberg, ST II, 461.