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The Ret-conning of Retroactivity Continuity: Wolfhart Pannenberg meets the X-Men



Time is a flat circle…

Naturally, the contemporary mores of society take precedence over the original zeitgeist in which a word or idea was born. It is the contest between context and meaning that rages on through the living pages of history we write with our daily intellectual efforts. The constant supposed evolution of human thought produces a subconscious division between most thinkers: progressive vs. conservative. In this sense these words are divorced from their well known political connotations, while retaining the underlying premise. A progressive thinker in the history of ideas is looking to reframe and reanalyze words and ideas and if possible update them to the current zeitgeist. A conservative thinker is one who tends to funnel their thinking into ‘traditional,’ and or fundamentalist interpretations of words. Conservative’s concerning words will invariably slam headlong into the overarching arbiter and interloper into most thinking in the 20th and 21st century: post modernism.

In this piece I’m referring to post-modernism in a broad fashion as a collection of ideas which tend to disregard tradition, question long held assumptions, and place a lens of subjectivity lens over anything with meaning. This is something that any theologian in the “modern” era will come up against. That tension of ideas plays a part in the origin of the term which inspired this piece, retcon, which is short for Retroactive continuity:

Retroactive continuity, or retcon for short, is a literary device in which established facts in a fictional work are adjusted, ignored or contradicted by a subsequently published work which breaks continuity with the former.

Due in part to the oversampling of comic book influenced movies, television shows and the rise of video game culture, the term “retcon,” has come to wide spread public knowledge. I had been aware of the term before it became in vogue but it wasn’t until recently that I looked into where it came from. After searching through a paucity of dictionaries I found wiki to be more encompassing in their definitions. According to wikionary.org retcon’s etymology is:

“A blend of retroactive +‎ continuity. The term “retroactive continuity” was popularized by comics writer Roy Thomas, who was known for writing superhero comic books set decades in the past. A situation, in a soap opera or similar serial fiction, in which a new storyline explains or changes a previous event or attaches a new significance to it.”

The debut of the term is triangulated to some time during early to mid-1980s. Wikipedia entry:

“Retroactive continuity, or retcon for short, is a literary device in which established facts in a fictional work are adjusted, ignored or contradicted by a subsequently published work which breaks continuity with the former.”

The Wikipedia entry is more robust and does a better job of explaining the term closer to its colloquial meaning, especially the portion about breaking continuity. As those of us who watch or read properties where major retcons have taken place know all too well the timeline and many important events along it, are thrown out of position or their original meaning is altered. In the right hands it can be a powerful literary device to employ yet in practice it is often used force some commercial or technical agenda change unto the storyline.

Character arcs can be destroyed or refashioned and sometimes the whole thematic underpinning of an identity can be altered. (Han Solo shot first, as he should have, Han was a pirate).

Changing a portion of a character’s back story takes place in ‘realtime,’ as in when you’re reading or watching the material, yet the effects of the changed need to be re-thought, start to re-finish, in order to realize the true dynamics that had been altered. This will take place in your future, as in after you’ve read the piece or learned of the retcon’s existence. This effect can be seen as a re-unfolding of history, a recycled chronology with edits. In those types of moments is where we experience a retcon in its current colloquial usage.

Digging deeper we uncover where the term literally comes from. In the etymology section of the article we have this:

“The first published use of the phrase “retroactive continuity” is found in theologian E. Frank Tupper’s 1973 book The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg.” Pannenberg’s conception of retroactive continuity ultimately means that history flows fundamentally from the future into the past, that the future is not basically a product of the past.”

The term “retroactive continuity” originally draws its meaning from a theological context and was used to describe the ideas of one Wolfhart Panneberg. I conducted a brief and admittedly shallow survey of the work and life of Pannenberg. He was a  German theologian who made an interesting contribution to the field through his vision of the history of the world as a form of revelation centered in space-time on the Resurrection of Christ. In this time-space of Pannenberg’s the the ‘end of the world,’ (the death of Christ) has already taken place and the (future) history of man is a revelation from God leading us back to the point of ending (the past). It may sound like a circle but his presentation of the idea is that of a “backwards revelation.”

Pannenberg sought to use science, history and various forms of dialectic to present a theological model that intersected with the modern world’s criteria for academic discourse. He was greatly influenced by Hegel and was a student of accomplished Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Pannenberg endeavored to show, “… history that demonstrates the deity of God is broadened to include the totality of all events,” by expounding upon a his theories in rounds of debates with scholars of various disciplines. In a paper entitled, “THE ORIGINS AND LIMITATIONS OF PANNENBERG’S ESCHATOLOGY, ” by David Zehnder, the author states:

“Pannenberg always evinced a Hegelian restlessness toward finding absolute truth because he thought that Christianity would too easily become obsolete without this character. While Hegel founded this truth-as-history motif that would later influence Karl Marx, Wilhelm Dilthey, Martin Heidegger, and Hans Georg Gadamer, his approach’s own faults set up his followers’ failures (Marx especially) because Hegel never understood his own philosophy in terms of history’s true whole.”

This drive in Pannenberg undoubtedly had come at the efficacy of post modernist thought in watering down people’s ‘traditional’ religious convictions and the worlds of art and science had been beating that same drum for centuries at this point. Pannenberg therefore sought to engage this new mode of thinking on its terms:

“Contemporary theology, Pannenberg contended, must be debatable in a public forum and therefore must concern history as an objectively accessible arena of inquiry.”


“Pannenberg was thinking of the reconciliation of the world to God as the whole meaning of history. The knowledge of this future is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead: “the coming of the end of time has broken through all conceptions of the promise of God; indeed, in the event of the resurrection it has broken through everything we can conceive of.” Because Jesus manifests the end of history proleptically, provisional judgments about God’s work in time and human knowledge of him are possible.”

Not surprisingly his ideas did change over the course of his life but his goal of expressing his deeply held religious conviction in a way that could be digested and accepted at the academic level as “factual,” is a fascinating turn due largely to the ethos of post-modernist thought. He was attempting to shore up tradition via the use of the tools that were largely being used to dismantle it. Contrasting research on the New Testament’s physical realities and the wars of mankind he altered some of his premises to better encompass the heart of his ideas. Once again from Zehnder:

Pannenberg’s attempt to uphold traditional Christian claims against competing gods and worldviews is, for all of its subtlety of presentation, audacious. But he sees universality as constitutive of theology itself and cannot imagine talk of God—the creator and source of all life—without these absolute claims.

The end of history in Pannenberg’s theology was the death and resurrection of the Christ, which makes it the “beginning” and yet out distant past. An excerpt from a 1974 essay by one Richard Lischer does a succinct job of explaining the idea:

“For Pannenberg, resurrection does not represent a miraculous interruption of nature and history. Only those for whom history is blandly homogenized will say that because resurrections do not happen now, the resurrection of Jesus was a miracle or an intersubjective experience, or else a hoax. Pannenberg rejects all three alternatives. He prefers to call Jesus’ resurrection a unique historical event which, investigated by the usual historical methods, must be accepted like any other event of history: reason sees the fact. Faith, in Pannenberg’s use, awaits the future. Resurrection makes history in the sense that it establishes a goal and an overall meaning for everything that happens. And it answers man’s universal longing for life after death.”


There are no conclusions to be made from this piece as it was an largely an exercise in figuring out where a term came from. As usual when one digs into etymology and the genealogy of ideas they unearth contradictory discoveries. The term we use today to signify events being altered in some fictional realm and affecting the future continuity is ‘retcon,’ which derives from ‘retroactive continuity’, a term coined to describe a theory which implies history runs in reverse from future to past while proving itself to be real and a measure of proof that a celestial God exists guiding history. Man argues over what is natural, what is true, or what is right. Various tools, man made and otherwise are used to attempt to win this argument. Time and time again the tools overlap and become one, only to be broken a-part, examined, and re-assembled in a new fashion. Time is a flat circle. See you on the flip side.




For more on Pannenberg’s ideas you can check any of the following:

Pannenberg: A Post-Enlightenment Theologian PETERJ.A.CooK.




The Strange Legacy of Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg


Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology (vol. 1)


Wolfhart Pannenberg on Theopedia


Resurrection and Spirit: Pannenberg’s Method in Two Doctrines by Timothy Harvie St. Mary’s University College





Wolfhart Pannenberg (2 October 1928 – 4 September 2014)