NASHVILLE (BP) — Wolfhart Pannenberg, a German theologian highly regarded by some Southern Baptists and known for his defenses of traditional marriage and Jesus’ bodily resurrection, died Sept. 5. He was 85.
“Wolfhart Pannenberg was truly one of the great theological thinkers of our time,” David S. Dockery, president of Trinity International University, told Baptist Press. “He stressed theology as doxology. His theology always centered on the resurrection of Christ…. I think he helped Southern Baptists think in a faithful way about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Pannenberg came to prominence in the 1960s when many theologians believed Christianity could only be accepted by faith but not studied or defended using rational thought processes. In defiance of that trend, Pannenberg insisted that Christian truth was rational and that reasonable investigation leads to belief that Jesus rose from the grave bodily.
Though Pannenberg did not believe the Bible was inerrant, he took Scripture seriously and believed God revealed Himself through history. Since the Bible described the history of God’s dealings with humans, Pannenberg believed it was important.
Pannenberg served on the faculties of several universities, including the University of Munich, and held visiting professorships at Harvard and the University of Chicago.
Timothy George, founding dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, told BP he encountered Pannenberg personally as a student at Harvard in the 1970s when Pannenberg delivered lectures there. George remembers Pannenberg’s skillful answers when questioned by liberal critics of Christianity.
“I was just so amazed at how he refuted completely and with great conviction and convincing power his hostile questioners,” George said. “He was an amazingly brilliant person, probably one of the most widely read theologians of the 20th century.”
George critiqued Pannenberg for failing to recognize the effects of sin on human intellect and holding an insufficient view of the Bible. He also said Pannenberg was “not very folksy” and did not emphasize a believer’s experience with God. But he called Pannenberg “one of the formative figures in 20th century theology.”
“Anybody can learn a lot from reading Pannenberg,” George said. “… But if you are an evangelical Christian committed to a high view of Scripture, you won’t read many pages before you will say, ‘Wow, there are some big problems here too.'”
Pannenberg rejected the virgin birth of Jesus along with some of the miracle accounts in Scripture. Still, many Southern Baptist seminary professors admired him in the 1970s and 1980s.
Pannenberg, “unlike many in the academy, strongly defended the bodily resurrection of Christ,” Stephen Wellum, professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP.
“I think that many of the professors at [Southern] Seminary — though they were all over the map [theologically] — most of them were pretty keen on that point even though they may have rejected other points of Scripture,” Wellum said. “They stood strong and firm on the resurrection. So here was a guy they could appeal to that argued that case.”
Pannenberg also “argued for objective truth” and believed theology was “grounded in truth,” Wellum said. “That would be appealing to those who would have a Baptist thrust and a Gospel thrust to them, wanted to defend something of Christ and His uniqueness, yet do so without appealing to an authoritative Scripture.”
Former Southern Seminary theology professor Frank Tupper wrote his doctoral dissertation on Pannenberg and later published a book about him, George, who taught at Southern before assuming his role at Beeson, said.
Some present Southern Baptist seminary professors have interacted with Pannenberg as well. In 1998 Dockery, then president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., edited a book in honor of Baptist theologian Millard Erickson. Among the contributors were Pannenberg, George, LifeWay Christian Resources President Thom Rainer, retired Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor James Leo Garrett and Southern Seminary professors Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware.
Among evangelicals who studied under Pannenberg were the late Stanley Grenz, Baylor professor Roger Olson and apologist William Lane Craig, an inerrantist who drew inspiration from Pannenberg in his own defense of Christ’s resurrection.
Many evangelicals appreciated Pannenberg for his defense of traditional sexual morality. He said a church that approves of homosexual acts ceases to be a true church, according to a 2012 article in the journal First Things. Pannenberg returned his Federal Order of Merit award to the German government in 1997 after the honor was also bestowed on a lesbian activist.
“He argued that the constitution of the Federal Republic committed the state to uphold marriage and family and that by honoring a lesbian activist, the state was acting in contradiction to its own basis,” First Things reported.
Pannenberg argued in a 1996 Christianity Today article that Scripture is clear in its rejection of homosexuality.
“Homosexual activity is a departure from the norm for sexual behavior that has been given to men and women as creatures of God. For the church this is the case not only for homosexual but for any sexual activity that does not intend the goal of marriage between man and wife — in particular, adultery,” Pannenberg wrote.
“The church has to live with the fact that, in this area of life as in others, departures from the norm are not exceptional but rather common and widespread. The church must encounter all those concerned with tolerance and understanding but also call them to repentance. It cannot surrender the distinction between the norm and behavior that departs from that norm.”
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).