I’ve realized over my time in undergrad and here at Union that I’m not really a fan of “old Rinny,” as he is sometimes referred to around here. And if you spend much time on what I’ve written about Niebuhr on this blog, you could probably figure that out. Anyways, I found a nice little story about a meeting between Pannenberg and Niebuhr and which strikes at some major differences between Niebuhr and I – as if I could legitimately make a comparison like that. How about where I begin to disagree with Niebuhr? Lets just say I side with Pannenberg on this one.
Ethical thought based on the idea of the Kingdom of God is not new, of course. There is a superficial similarity in the “theology of the Kingdom’ that marked the American Social Gospel movement of a half century ago. The similarities are more verbal than substantive; nevertheless, this can result in confusion. An incident in March, 1967, illustrates the difficulty. Pannenberg desired to meet Reinhold Niebuhr, a man whose career is a legend also in Germany where he is the best known American theologian (Paul Tillich is considered a German Lutheran expatriate). Driving up to Niebuhr’s splendid little apartment overlooking the Hudson River, Pannenberg considered what subject would best be discussed with Niebuhr. The answer seemed obvious: the idea of the Kingdom in Christian theology. It was Niebuhr who had led the attack on the social gospel movement with its idea of extending the Kingdom of God in the social order. Apparently Niebuhr had heard of Pannenber’s work but had not read him. In any case, Pannenberg’s question, “Now, almost fifty years later, do you think the place of the Kingdom in Christian theology should be reconsidered?” met with an unambiguously negative response. “Social thought that begins with the Kingdom of God, or even emphasizes it very much, inevitably ends up with utopianism. We’ve been through this business of the Kingdom before.” Niebuhr asserted that Walter Rauschenbusch, who had such a passionate commitment about the Kingdom, was also incorrigibly naïve. “I am almost grateful for the act of the act of mercy that he died before seeing what the war [World War I] had done to the world. It would have broken his heart.” Regarding America’s war in Vietnam and other matters, there was solid agreement between Niebuhr and Pannenberg, but theologically the conversation was disappointing.
Quoted from Theology and the Kingdom of God, Wolfhart Pannenberg, 1969, pgs. 31-32. This quote, while included in the book, is a preface to the book written by Richard John Neuhaus and titled “Wolfhart Pannenberg: Profile of a Theologian.”