Essay / Theology

Pannenberg Trinity Sermon: Transcendence in the Midst of Our Lives

Kent Eilers at the Theology Forum blog recently posted part of a 1972 sermon by Wolfhart Pannenberg. As Eilers points out, Pannenberg has a public image as a high-level academic theologian who cultivates dialogue with the most rigorous contemporary thought, so it’s hard to picture him going to the pulpit and speaking to a non-academic audience of Christian believers. But Pannnenberg not only preached several times in his early career, he actually published two volumes of the sermons, available only in German.

Eilers’ post reminded me that I have a translation of a 1969 Pannenberg sermon on the Trinity. During seminary, I studied Pannenberg’s trinitarian theology exhaustively, and when I found that he had preached a short sermon on the topic, I tried my hand at translating it.

It’s an interesting sermon in its own right, but two historical considerations lend it extra interest. First, it’s from 1969, when theologians had been indulging in all sorts of radical talk about “the death of God” and what “religionless Christianity” would look like in the coming secular future. All of that sounds as dated as bell bottoms now, but at the time it was the official Big Important Theological Trend. So it’s interesting to see Pannenberg take a position toward it at, speaking to a Christian congregation. Secondly, this is very early in Pannenberg’s writing career (he had written Revelation as History and Jesus: God and Man, but this was still before his truly programmatic Theology and the Kingdom of God). Pannenberg would move on to three decades of remarkable theological productivity before his retirement (born in 1928, Pannenberg is still alive but has not been publishing for a few years).

It’s not a perfect sermon, but it has some high points that are really worthwhile, and the whole thing throws a lot of light on what Pannenberg was up to throughout his career. And it’s not a perfect translation, but since it’s not doing anybody any good sitting in my files, I post it here.

The sermon is entitled “Transcendence in the Midst of our Lives,” and it was preached on Trinity Sunday (June 1) in 1969 at Lochham. It was published in Gegenwart Gottes: Predigten (München: Claudius Verlag, 1973), pp. 126-132).

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor? Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36, NRSV)

The feast of the Trinity is not among the most popular of the Christian feasts. It is not based on an event, as are Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas, but rather on a doctrine: the church’s doctrine of the Triune God. This doctrine is not yet formulated in our sermon text, as the later church would have us believe. It is not even found anywhere in the New Testament– not even in the baptismal command at the end of Matthew’s gospel, even though Father, Son, and Spirit are named together there. The confession of the triunity of God was established through the first two general councils of the church in the fourth century; Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381. The first, the council of Nicea, proclaimed that the Son’s unity with God is a foundation of Christian faith which cannot be surrendered, because only if God himself has entered our world in his Son do we encounter, without reservation, God in Jesus. The second of the two councils, Constantinople in 381, assigned divinity to the Spirit also, so that God himself is present to us once again, through his Spirit, in the life of the church, so that by sharing in the tradition and life of the church, we can achieve participation in God himself. The council of Constantinople, with its teaching on the full divinity of the Spirit, brought the doctrine of the Trinity to completion. For this reason the feast of the Trinity is celebrated in close proximity to Pentecost.

The confession of faith in the Triune God is expressed in the solemn words of the creed that we have already recited, the creed which is recited in our churches at the greatest festivals. It is the creed of the council of Constantinople in 381. With these words the bishops of this council intended to repeat, strengthen, and fulfill the faith of Nicea, and for this reason it is commonly referred to as the Nicene creed.

Although the confession of faith in the trinitarian God was formulated relatively late, it was nevertheless this doctrine which for the first time brought the specifically christian understanding of God to expression. It is an understanding of God which was contained from the beginning in the essential content of christian faith and proclamation, even though it only found express formulation rather late. Its concern, as I have already mentioned, is the intimate connection and unity with God himself that is enjoyed by Jesus and the proceeding Spirit. Its import is that in Jesus and his Spirit we have to do with nobody else but God.

The true meaning of the doctrine of the triune God is not easy to understand. We are accustomed to think of God as Father and Creator, as if that exhaustively signified the reality of God. From this point of view, faith in the divinity of Jesus and the Spirit appears to be an appendix, like an addendum to a simpler idea of God. Because of this, the proper understanding of the doctrine of the triune God has been obstructed. This doctrine teaches that the idea of God is not exhausted by the notion of God as Father and Creator of the world; that it belongs much more to the divinity of God, to be in the form of the Son and the Spirit.

Understanding the Christian doctrine of the triune God thus becomes quite difficult, if we are always unintentionally thinking of the heavenly Father, and only of him, when we hear the word ‘God.’ This representation of God as the Father and creator who, from the concealment of heaven, secretly guides the world, was for a long time simply self-evident. Today, however, it has become quite questionable, and is subject to doubt and criticism. Perhaps such criticism of the traditional picture of God help us to understand the specifically Christian thought of the triune God better.

What is the real meaning of this “specifically Christian idea of God?” I have already mentioned how much weight primitive Christianity gave to the idea that in Jesus we have to do with God himself, because only in this way can truly saving power emanate from Jesus. But this linking of God and Jesus certainly must not be established first of all through the church’s interest of faith. Jesus himself did not speak of God and his kingdom only in the sense of a reality localized in the hiddenness of the heavens, far away from us. Rather, in the speech and actions of Jesus, God became a present reality. But because the traditional idea of God seemed so self-evident, this was long understood to mean that God’s reality for himself at least belonged in a transcendent realm, and that this reality of God for himself was established as a fact independent of being revealed to humanity through Jesus. Of course on closer examination we find that already for the God of Israel, his relation to the world and to humanity belonged inseparably to his being as God. Thus God delivered his name, Yahweh, over to Moses with the famous sentence over which theology has puzzled [gerätselt] so much: “I will be, as who I will be,” [“Ich werde dasein, als der ich dasein werde”], and that means: I will be for you. Through the centuries Israel has waited for this future of communion with God and its consummation, and in all these centuries God’s future never definitively appeared. The kingdom of God is not yet here for us, either. The reality of God the Father is not established already in itself. Only when we recognize this do we understand the christian idea of the triunity of God. The reality of God the Father, which remains contested in a history which is as yet unfinished, is for the present only accessible through the Son. Jesus spoke of God’s future in such a way that it already determined and illuminated the present: “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.” Whoever lives in this way, oriented toward God’s coming sovereignty, in that person God is already now the all-determining reality; in that person God’s sovereignty is already present. Is it so with us? We must probably admit that it is so only in a very broken way. But in Jesus –in his proclamation and in his conduct, which were entirely determined by God’s future– in him God became present in our world. This was confirmed through the resurrection of Jesus, and in the Christian proclamation of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus God remains present in this world of ours through the Spirit of life, who was manifested in the resurrection of Jesus and who works through the Easter message of the church.

The Spirit: that is the present reality of God. Already with Jesus himself, the God of the coming kingdom was present through the Spirit, which came upon Jesus at his baptism by John. Because the Spirit was completely associated with Jesus, he imparts himself also to those who hear and accept the message of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. The presence of God in our world is now not merely history, but a reality that we ourselves can experience in the power that comes from the message of Christ, a power that penetrates our entire lives and illumines them. The Spirit leads into all truth, as the Christ of John’s Gospel says. As the creator of all life, he is able to open up to us the depths of our existence. It is this Spirit who will not let us be satisfied with sateity and smug complacency. It is the Spirit of freedom in the midst of the sorrows and unrighteousness of this world, and also in the midst of our own failures. It is the Spirit of peace in a world riddled with war and death, with meaninglessness and despair. It is the Spirit of hope and confidence in life triumphing over sorrow and death, however unworthy of confidence life may often appear to us. It is the Spirit of joy in life in spite of transience, pain, and sorrow, and in spite of all the inadequacy of our own behavior. It is the Spirit of love –a love that does not seek its own, but lets others share in the goodness of God, which seeks us all and longs to draw us in to its movement. Wherever this Spirit works, there the reality of God is present, if only we for our part can become aware of its faint birth-pangs.

When we Christians confess God as the triune one, we thus seek him not only in the transcendent beyond, but also in this world, our world.

The transcendent God is not real for himself alone. A divine Father, who always remained only transcendent, would not be God. God as the transcendent one is real only through being immanent, through creating all things and keeping them in motion, and so also determining and illuminating our lives.

On the other hand, God’s reality is not exhausted in present life. If the world that we know were already all of reality, then all talk of God would be superfluous and meaningless. God is at work in present life, wherever our life transcends itself, or better: where we are raised up out of ourselves by a power that brings us to ourselves in exactly this way. That happens in moments of joy –in spite of sorrow and in spite of all triviality of the everyday, which would try to embitter us against the joy of life. It happens, further, in confidence in life –in spite of the inconstancy of people and things. It happens where love fulfills us –although our companions are often not lovable at all. It happens in the experience of inner peace –in spite of all the unrest in our lives. Without this transcendence, which grasps us and so becomes immanent for us, our lives remain empty, absurd, without true freedom, without the fulfillment of meaning and inner peace. The mystery of the divine reality is thus closely bound to the actual mystery of our human life, which exists outside of itself, borne along by a reality transcendent to itself, which for the first time opens up to us our interiority in its depths. God is thus transcendent, and precisely in this way is immanent in our present life. That is what the confession of faith in the triune God says. Because God is present as the transcendent, he is present precisely where we suffer under the limitations, the injustice, the absurdity of life, and not least, where we suffer under our failures. God is near to everyone who is in need, and this nearness can become liberating power. It can give the power to overcome the obstacles that suffering and need present us with, to overcome also our sorrow at the apparent meaninglessness of existence, at our own failures in the tasks of the day. It can give us the power to overcome suffering through patience. God’s nearness can bring to our existence peace and joy, which the world cannot give us in the long run.

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