Pannenberg’s theodicy — what to make of it

Wolfhart Pannenberg

This past seminar on Wolfhart Pannenberg dealt with his section in volume 2 (of his Systematic Theology) on theodicy, pages 161-174. I still don’t know what to make of it. It could be heretical or even the best and only way to do a theodicy? Here are some key quotes (things start getting problematic with the 5th quote, or even 4th quote):

The pitiful suffering and death of children is the most cogent argument against belief in a Creator of the world who is both wise and good. (164)

If the objection is to be met, then it will be met only by a real overcoming of evil and suffering such as Christian eschatology hopes for in faith in the resurrection of the dead. (164)

Even from the standpoint of reconciliation and eschatological consummation, of course, it is an open question why the Creator did not create a world in which there could be no pain or guilt. (165)

Pain and suffering are widespread among other living things in the prehuman world and cannot, then, be the result of human sin. (165)

But even then limiting responsibility for an evil deed to the doer [i.e., humans or angels] is not convincing if another [i.e., God] might have prevented the doer from doing it. (166)

Concern to absolve the Creator has been a mistake in Christian theodicy. …for in and with the crucifixion of his Son God accepted and bore responsibility for the world that he had created. (166)

Responsibility for the coming of evil into creation unavoidably falls on the God who foresees and permits it, even though creaturely action is the immediate cause. (169)

…he [God] bears coresponsibility for their [wickedness and evil] coming and stands by this through the death of his Son. (169)

This points to its [the human will’s] ontological deficiency. That which can turn from the good will at some time really do so. (170)

So, it’s God’s fault; but he sent his Son to fix the mess, so it’s alright. Okay, maybe that’s an uncharitable reading. However, there are some serious problems to be dealt with here. Obviously there’s the abandonment of Original Sin as classically conceived, but where’s human guilt? How on earth are you going to build an adequate atonement theory on this? Perhaps Pannenberg redeems himself a little beginning on page 171:

We are to seek the root of evil, rather, in revolt against the limit of finitude, in the refusal to accept one’s own finitude, and in the related illusion of being like God.

Not limitation but the independence for which creatures were made forms the basis of the possibility of evil. (171)

The source of suffering and evil lies in the transition from God-given independence to self-independence. (172)

That sounds a little better, but if you read the rest of this section (172-173) it seems that Pannenberg defines evil and suffering as noetically-constituted by the human. Our independence means we are bound to the deteriorating laws of nature (entropy), but is this only “suffering” because we are bound by creaturely vision?: “The more continued existence is internalized in the series of creaturely norms, the more painful corruptibility and the experience of perishing becomes….” (172). Even so, it’s still God’s fault, right? Is the answer, “It’ll all be fixed in the end,” compelling? I don’t want to jump to too many conclusions yet. I’ll have to see how this gets worked out in his soteriology sections. I do want to be sympathetic with Pannenberg. After all, how convincing is the classical theodicy of blaming human sin, especially in the face of (relatively) innocent children suffering? And if God is willing to suffer with us, then is that not enough of an answer? Is Pannenberg’s theodicy the way a theodicy must be done?



  1. Interesting stuff, Kevin. I must admit that I’m a bit jealous of you and your Pannenberg seminar. Pannenberg doesn’t get taught much out here at Princeton, and I wish I knew his work much better than I do.

  2. Good quotes and important thoughts. What do you make of his later section in the same volume on original sin? Does that help you at all acount for these?

  3. wtm,
    Yeah, its been interesting. I don’t particularly care for Pannenberg’s style and the whole scientific apologetic running throughout; but I should know his work, and I probably would have put off Pannenberg for a long time if it were not for this seminar. He’s a hard theologian to get into without the motivation (err, forcing) provided by a seminar. It’s like trying to motivate yourself to read Hegel or Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

  4. Joshua,
    We’ll be reading chapter 8, with the Original Sin section, over the next few weeks, so I’ll blog on it when we get there. I would just read ahead, but I’ve got too much other reading and writing to do. I really am interested to see how his theodicy and doctrine of sin cohere. I come from a rather Reformed background, but I’m still trying to work out my own exact position on this. The classical Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin (that the West, and especially the Reformed) inherited certainly has its problems, but I’m not sure if the modern alternatives just create more problems. Who knows, maybe I’ll be a five point Calvinist by the end of all this!

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