He was, without a doubt, one of, if not the most, significant theologians of the second half of the 20th century. His command of things theological extended well beyond the norm, having written books on anthropology, the philosophy of science, metaphysics, and the inter-relationship between the natural sciences and theology, as well as the standard books one might expect from a systematic theologian. His work connecting the concepts of revelation and history (in a volume aptly named Revelation as History) will remain a part of his permanent legacy and his defense of the historicity of the resurrection (in Jesus: God and Man) has both delighted and frustrated theologians on both sides of the liberal/conservative divide. When Wolfhart Pannenberg died on 4 September 2014, the world of theology lost a giant.
Yes, it lost a giant and I cannot help but be pleased that Pannenberg will be remembered favorably for his enormous body of contributions that both challenged and advanced the work of theology. At the same time, I cannot help but feel a tinge of disappointment, disappointment that so few will ever know “the other Pannenberg,” the one who was warm and entertaining. The Pannenberg who traveled consistently with his wife Hilke Pannenberg. The Pannenberg who, in so doing, meant to communicate to the world that one could be both a deeply respected theologian and a man firmly committed to his spouse. He, too well, knew cases wherein that had not be true, and he aimed to model a different way of being.
To watch the two of them travel and interact together was one of the more delightful aspects of getting to know this “other side” of Pannenberg. Their playful banter was often hilarious. I recall an evening at our home in Kentucky. The Pannenbergs had gone out to eat lunch with one of my colleagues. When I asked where, Pannenberg, meaning to say they had gone to Red Lobster, answered that they had gone to the Red Herring. While the Americans gathered laughed, I asked Pannenberg if he knew what the phrase “red herring” meant to an American. He responded, laughing, “Oh, yes!” but his wife countered, “He does not!” Without missing a beat, and still laughing heartily, Pannenberg looked at me, while pointing to his wife, and said, “I do, but please tell her what it means.”
My doctoral dissertation was written on Pannenberg’s doctrine of God, and I was honored to have him comment on it as it was being written. I was nearing completion and Pannenberg was speaking at a conference in the US. In order for us to discuss his last input on the project, he arranged for me to join him and his wife at the conference. During dinner one evening, he asked that I sit with him so we could have our discussion. As I recall, he sat at the head of the table, I was to his left, Frau Pannenberg to my left, and another scholar sat across the table from me and to Pannenberg’s right. After we completed our business, conversation ranged over a wide field of topics. At one point, the scholar to his right asked Pannenberg, “So, what do you think about men and women?” I am not sure why, perhaps wishing to avoid a drift off into a discussion on homosexuality, I blurted out, “Oh, he thinks they are different.” Pannenberg immediately threw his head back in an infectious laugh. After a moment, he leaned back forward, still half laughing, and said, “Ah, yes, Herr Gutenson, and the difference is … delightful!” You can imagine the laughter around the table that ensued.
As I say, he was both a brilliant academic and a delightfully committed follower of Jesus. He had once written that he had been called many things, but a pietist was not one of them. I asked him if he had said this, and he affirmed it with a nod. Yet, later in the day, his wife would tell my wife and me that the two of them would rise early each day to read Scripture, sing, and pray together. I still recall her saying, with a smile, “He is so competitive in his singing. He has to be the best at everything!” A pietist? Well, no, but a couple with personal habits that would do a pietist proud.
It was a serendipitous series of events that provided me not only with the opportunity to study with Pannenberg, but also the time to get to know the “other Pannenberg” and his delightful wife. Although there will be no more chances to share the sort of laughter and fellowship around a table in this life, Pannenberg has only preceded us to that table where we will all again gather someday to enjoy each other in the presence of God forever. Save us a seat, Professor Pannenberg. We have many things yet to share!