Theology and Art: Chagall’s Crucifixion in Yellow

Yellow Crucifixion, 1942 (oil on canvas) by Marc Chagall. The Art Institute of Chicago.

Chagall’s Yellow Crucifixion reworks the themes of his White Crucifixion by attempting to communicate the immense suffering the Jewish people endured in Europe. He does this by utilizing the icon of the crucified Christ, again having Jesus being distinctly portrayed as a Jew. Chagall is linking the suffering of European Jews with the iconic image of the crucified Christ in order to provide a lucid portrayal of the suffering that the Jews—Jesus’ people—were experiencing. The yellow accent of this painting, found in the blazing inferno of the background, probably signifies both the flames of the crematoria and the yellow Star of David which Jews were forces to wear by the Nazis. While the green of the angel and Torah scroll signify hope.

To emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus, Chagall juxtaposes a large green Torah scroll to the crucifixion of Jesus and has him wearing a Jewish prayer shawl and wearing tefillin or phylacteries (little black boxes containing verses from the Torah), with the accompanying prayer bands on his left arm. Jesus and the Torah scroll are illuminated by a candle being held by an angel flying through the air and blowing a ram’s horn, a symbol of salvation that was blown on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and certain other holy days. As with many of Chagall’s crucifixion paintings there is a ladder representing Jacob’s ladder (see Gen 28.10-19). Here it could perhaps be said to be providing the crucified Jesus a means of ascending to the Torah in the heavens.

The crucified Jesus is surrounded by scenes of pogroms. There is a burning shtetl on the right with distressed figures above it. Below this is found a Jew wearing traditional Jewish clothing (and a placard) and a fleeing woman with her child, reminiscent of the story of Jesus’ flight to Egypt as a child (see Matt 2.13-15). Similarly to White Crucifixion which had a ship carrying Jewish refugee, there is also a ship carrying Jews in Yellow Crucifixion (on the left side). There is an important difference in that this ship is depicted as sinking into the waters. This undoubtedly refers to the sinking of the Struma in 1942. The Struma was attempting to deliver nearly eight hundred Jewish refugees to Palestine, however the ship was detained in Turkey due to the British not allowing the Jews to disembark at Palestine. This led to the ship being destroyed by the Soviets a couple of months later in the Black Sea, with the occupants either dying in the torpedo blast or drowning thereafter (there was one survivor).

Interesting tidbit: Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann mentions this painting as being his muse while writing The Crucified God, a book which has been called a Christian theology after Auschwitz. He says:

In front of me hangs Marc Chagall’s picture ‘Crucifixion in Yellow’. It shows the figure of the crucified Christ in an apocalyptic situation: people sinking into the sea, people homeless and in flight, and yellow fire blazing in the background. And with the crucified Christ there appears the angel with the trumpet and the open roll of the book of life [Rev 14.6]. This picture has accompanied me for a long time. It symbolizes the cross on the horizon of the world, and can be thought of as a symbolic expression of the studies which follow. (The Crucified God, xxii; see also Moltmann’s autobiography, A Broad Place, 191)

Chagall’s Crucifixion in White

Crucifixion in White (1938, Chagall)

White Crucifixion, 1938 (oil on canvas) by Marc Chagall. The Art Institute of Chicago.

White Crucifixion, painted by Jewish artist Marc Chagall in 1938, was completed at about the time of the infamous Kristallnacht, “night of crystal” (i.e., the night of broken glass). This two-day spree of persecution against Jews in Germany and Austria, ended with at least a hundred Jews being killed, thousands wounded, and hundreds of Jewish businesses and synagogues destroyed.

In this painting Chagall stresses the Jewish identity of Jesus. Note the explicit Jewish imagery in the painting, including the menorah, the synagogue, and Torah scroll. Dominating the painting, however, is the crucified Jesus who wears a head-cloth and loincloth made from a Jewish prayer shawl (a tallit). He is illuminated by a beam of light from the heavens above and that of the menorah below. In the light of the crucified Jesus’ halo there is found the title “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in Hebrew, as well as its abbreviated form in Latin, “INRI”.

The crucified Jesus is surrounded by scenes of pogroms. On the upper left side of the painting there is a village having been plundered by the armed forces (carrying red flags), with some of the refugees forced to flee on a ship (the image of a ship is repeated several years later in Chagall’s Yellow Crucifixion). On the right-hand side of the painting there is a synagogue and its Torah ark set ablaze, with a mother and child in despair below. At the bottom of the painting, on both sides, are figures fleeing these persecutions, clutching at their Torah scrolls and religious books in order to protect them from desecration and destruction. The figure on the left (in blue) wears a sign saying “Ich bin Jude” (I am a Jew), and the one on the right (in green) is supposedly a recurring figure in Chagall’s paintings, representing a wandering Yiddish Jew. The three male and one female figures (wearing traditional Jewish clothing) situated above the cross are said to perhaps depict the mourning of the three key Jewish patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and the matriarch, Sarah.

Jackie Wullschlager, author of Chagall: A Biography (Knopf 2008), calls this painting “a work of Jewish martyrology that transforms into an emblem of contemporary tragedy” (380). She also says that “this Jesus is already dead, a motionless figure of suffering, head bowed, eyes closed—a silenced Jewish prophet” (381). And that is all the crucified Jesus is in this painting; Chagall was not a messianic Christian who was attempting to portray Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Deutero-Isaiah. White Crucifixion is a portrayal of Jesus as a suffering man and Jew, rather than as Christianity’s divine figure of redemption and salvation” (ibid). Chagall was utilizing the archetypal image of the Christian faith to provide a universally recognizable symbol of suffering and injustice, particularly as a symbol for the suffering of the European Jews in the Holocaust.

Interesting tidbit: Pope Francis has stated that this is his favorite painting (“Pope Francis: Twenty Things You Didn’t Know About Him,” London Telegraph, online edition, 14.03.2013).

Moltmann, Irenaeus, and Augustine on Theodicy

The age old question of theodicy is: “If there is a good God, then why so much evil?” In the same manner as Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, some people reject the existence of a god due to evil and suffering, or at least believe that it cuts against the notion of a benevolent Deity watching over us. After all, if God is good and powerful, then why is human history a never ending conveyor belt of corpses and suffering?

The Irenaean Model of Theodicy

The second-century church father Irenaeus of Lyons believed that humans were created in the image of God but not in his likeness. Thus, God allows evil and suffering in the world in order to develop our moral character (the ‘likeness’ of God). As another write puts it, the world is a “vale of soul-making” (a phrase used by John Hick, though originally coined by John Keats). Yet is it really justifiable to explain away evil with the concept of soul-making? Some might accept this, thinking that suffering is mitigated by the fact that it is only temporary and that, in the end, all will be made right when “God shall wipe away all tears” (Rev 21:4).

Irenaeus’ ideas were picked up centuries later by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and John Hick (1922-2012). An interesting continuance of the Irenaean theodicy is found in how Hick incorporates evolutionary biology. Hick’s says that the evolutionary process leading up to modern man—the homo sapien—is the first stage of mankind’s creation, making us into God’s image. The second stage of our creation is to be in God’s likeness. Whereas Augustine (and mainstream Christian orthodoxy) views humanity’s beginnings as a story from perfection to fallenness, Hick’s casts it as a story from imperfection developing to perfection. In other words, Hick sees our life as a pilgrimage from a moral and spiritual blank slate into the full likeness of God by being able to respond to the challenges and mayhem of life. Hick also maintains that humans are born without an inherent knowledge of God—we are at an “epistemic distance” from God. This is needed in order for the soul-making process be legit (as we need to be able to freely make our own choices, which would be nigh impossible if we had an immediate consciousness of an infinite Deity). (For further reading on this theodicy by John Hick see his Evil and the God of Love [Harper & Row, 1966], and “The World as a Vale of Soul-Making”, in The Problem of Evil [Oxford Uni Press, 1990] 168-88.)

A couple questions that one might ask in response to this theodicy are: Why would humans, who end up being perfected through the soul-making concept, be better than humans who were just created perfect in the first place? Is it just not possible for God to make such a being? Furthermore, if one were to answer that by saying that virtue gained as the result of the soul-making process is inherently better than virtue possessed all along, then why doesn’t that apply to God?

The Augustinian Model of Theodicy

Augustine’s approach rests upon an interpretation of Genesis 3 that has the origin of moral evil occurring at the fall of Adam and Eve, subsequently leading to the death and destruction found in nature. The lynchpin of this model is the free-will defense against the problem of evil. Augustine’s theodicy can be summed up by saying that humans (and angels) were created with free-will, yet Adam and Eve sinned, thus bringing discord in creation (i.e. natural evil is the result of their fall). Furthermore, God is righteous in not intervening in our suffering due to it being a consequence of our free will. Another key aspect of Augustine’s theodicy is that he defines evil as the privation of good(ness). In other words, God could not have created evil (or be responsible for it) because evil is not a thing in and of itself, but is rather the absence of good. Augustine also considered every human as being “seminally present in the loins of Adam”, thus all humans are fully deserving of the punishment for Adam’s original sin (thus why Mary needed to be immaculately conceived and why Jesus needed to be virginally conceived). Note that this ‘seminal’ headship view is slightly different from the ‘federal’ headship view (which is the more normal view nowadays). The federal headship view holds that Adam was the representative of the human race who nevertheless sinned, thus God can rightly charge every human with Adam’s guilt (maybe judicial representation would be a good descriptor of federal headship).

Alvin Plantinga seems to be a modern day proponent of the Augustinian theodicy and it is the typical theodicy found amongst Christians (whether they be evangelical, reformed, catholic, etc.), though there are of course variations on it (e.g. those who reject Young Earth Creationism are fine with death occurring before the fall). Apart from the fact that Augustine’s seminal headship view is biologically incorrect, some think that this theodicy poses is self-contradictory in that it has a perfect creation developing imperfection (which should not ever happen if it is originally perfect, regardless of the free-will that creatures possess). Another argument leveled against it is that it completely fails in light of what we know about the universe; it is untenable in light of our knowledge about cosmogony, evolution, and so forth.

The Theodicy of Jürgen Moltmann

The question of theodicy is central to Moltmann’s theological project and, in fact, it was the suffering that he experienced in World War II that caused him to enter the world of theology. Moltmann nicely lays out the theodicy problem as follows:

It is in suffering that the whole human question about God arises; for incomprehensible suffering calls the God of men and women in question. The suffering of a single innocent child is an irrefutable rebuttal of the notion of the almighty and kindly God in heaven. For a God who lets the innocent suffer and who permits senseless death is not worthy to be called God at all. (The Trinity and the Kingdom of God)

Moltmann then goes on to mention the biblical character of Job and asks: “Does Job have any real theological friend except the crucified Jesus on Golgotha?” That is the crux of Moltmann’s theodicy. For instead of focusing upon the traditional theodicy question of “Why does God allow evil”, Moltmann instead concentrates on a corollary: “Where is God in the midst of all this suffering?” He finds the answer in Jesus’ death cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

Following in the steps of von Balthasar, Moltmann views the cross of Christ as a profound revelation as to who God actually is:

‘God’ is not another nature or a heavenly person or a moral authority, but in fact an ‘event’. However, it is not the event of co-humanity, but the event of Golgotha, the event of the love of the Son and the grief of the Father from which the Spirit who opens up the future and creates life in fact derives. (The Crucified God)

Note that Moltmann includes God the Father in the suffering that happens in the crucifixion. Moltmann is not a fan of traditional theodicies which maintain the notion of an impassible deity. Furthermore, in Moltmann’s theodicy, the cross is not just the suffering of the man Jesus, nor merely the ‘death of God’, but it is also death in God. God takes up suffering and death into himself and then overcomes it on Resurrection Sunday through the limitless divine life.

One criticism of Moltmann’s theodicy that I can envisage someone raising is that by pointing to Jesus’ experience of god-forsakenness and suffering as an answer to the problem of evil, one is (in a sense) arguing that God isn’t a sadist because God is actually a masochist. Another criticism is that while Moltmann’s focus upon God’s solidarity in human suffering (and the subsequent hope for resurrection) may indeed afford comfort to some, it nevertheless does not advance an understanding as to the question of ‘why’ there is evil. While I can’t remember Moltmann specifically answering the question of ‘why’ God allows evil and suffering, I think that his answer to this is found in his reliance upon the Kabalistic doctrine of zimzum. This is the idea that God self-contracted in order for the universe to come into being. In other words, the god-forsakenness of the world and of all creation is an inherent part of it, but will disappear when “God is all in all” (1 Cor 15:23).

I will finish with two quotes from Moltmann on theodicy:

The question of theodicy is not a speculative question; it is a critical one. It is the all-embracing eschatological question. It is not purely theoretical, for it cannot be answered with any new theory about the existing world. It is a practical question which will only be answered through  experience of the new world in which ‘God will wipe every tear from their eyes’. It is not really a question at all, in the sense of something we can ask or not ask, like other questions. It is the open wound of life in this world. It is the real task of faith and theology to make it possible for us to survive, to go on living, with this open wound. The person who believes will not rest content with any slickly explanatory answer to the theodicy question. And he will also resist any attempts to soften the question down. The more a person believes, the more deeply he experiences pain over the suffering in the world, and the more passionately he asks about God and the new creation. (The Trinity and the Kingdom of God)

I love how Moltmann dismisses the typical theodicies by calling them “slickly explanatory answers”. Moltmann does not think that the problem of evil and suffering can simply be dismissed with a waving of the hand and an appeal to ‘free-will’. Ultimately, all one can do is contemplate the Crucified One and the new creation:

The theodicy question, born of suffering and pain, negatively mirrors the positive hope for God’s future. We begin to suffer from the conditions of our world if we begin to love the world. And we begin to love the world if we are able to discover hope for it. And we can discover hope for this world if we hear the promise of a future which stands against frustration, transiency, and death. (Religion, Revolution and the Future)

So You Want To Read Moltmann?

Jürgen Moltmann is one of the most influential and important Reformed theologians of the latter half of the twentieth century. I’ve read quite a bit of Moltmann’s oeuvre and so I thought it might be helpful to provide some suggestions for those looking to tackle his work.

The book I would actually recommend someone start out with is Moltmann’s Jesus Christ for Today’s World. This is a lay-level summation of Moltmann’s Christology (which can also be found in his much larger book The Way of Jesus Christ). Moltmann covers the topics of the Kingdom of God, the passion of Christ, the forsakenness of Christ, the tortured Christ, the cosmic scope of Christ’s death and resurrection, and Jewish-Christian dialogue (which has always been a critical part of Moltmann’s thinking). So basically, it is an accessible book containing several key themes of Moltmann’s theology.

Another Moltmann book that is more readable for the armchair theologian is Experiences of God. It is quite a small book, running at just under one hundred pages. It contains a chapter explaining why he is a Christian, as well as great chapters of hope, anxiety, and a theology of mystical experience. There is also The Source of Life (which could be seen as a summation of Moltmann’s larger volume on pneumatology, The Spirit of Life). Another good little book for those getting acquainted with Moltmann is In the Beginning – The End: The Life of Hope. It is basically an extended meditation on a key element of Moltmann’s theology: the faithfulness of God in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and how this provides us with a sure and living hope for our own resurrection and for the restoration of creation. ‘Behold, I make all things new!’

Many of Moltmann’s books fall under the category of dense, heavy academic volumes. Here is a list of his “programmatic” writings and “systematic contributions” (as Moltmann called them):

Programmatic Writings

Systematic Contributions

A couple other notable academic books of Moltmann’s (but which are not part of his systematics) are:

His best book (in my opinion) is Theology of Hope, followed closely by The Crucified God.  Though I wouldn’t recommend starting out with these two books unless you’re already quite familiar with reading academic theological works. While some would call those two books overrated, they are nevertheless important contributions in twentieth-century Protestant theology and are his most well-known books for good reason.

There is, of course, a veritable mountain of secondary literature that one can read on Moltmann’s theology, such as in-depth studies on a particular aspect of Moltmann’s theology, e.g., Origins of the Theology of Hope (by M. Douglas Meeks). One of the more important volumes to read is Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of Jürgen Moltmann. Though, keep in mind that this was written back in 1995 and Moltmann has written a heck of a lot since then (including the final two volumes in his systematics). Another good work is Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz’s The Kingdom and the Power: The Theology of Jürgen Moltmann (2001).

So for the armchair theologian desiring an accessible introductory work to Moltmann, I suggest you read Jesus Christ for Today’s World. If you enjoyed that, then pick up A Broad Place: An Autobiography (knowing a theologian’s Sitz im Leben helps understand their thought), and maybe take a gander at The Power of the Powerless: The Word of Liberation Today (a collection of powerful short sermons), and Ethics of Hope (by taking the crux of his entire theological project—the eschatological hope that the faithfulness of the God of promise brings us in light of Christ’s resurrection—Moltmann explores the implications this has for Christian praxis).

But for those wanting the dark, succulent meat of Moltmann’s theology, start with Theology of Hope, then pick up The Crucified God, and if you want more, I recommend The Coming of God and The Way of Jesus Christ.

 

A Brief Overview of Moltmann’s Writings

The oeuvre of Moltmann can be subsumed into three phases. The first phase is located in his trilogy comprised of Theology of Hope (1964; English translation 1967), The Crucified God (1972; ET 1973), and The Church in the Power of the Spirit (1975; ET 1977). In these three volumes Moltmann attempts to discuss the entirety of theology through a particular lens: in Theology of Hope, it is through the God of promise and the hope for creation found in the resurrection of Christ; in The Crucified God, it is through God’s solidarity and identification with the suffering of the world though the godforsakeness of Christ in the crucifixion; and finally, having thus dealt with Easter and Good Friday, Moltmann then turns to Pentecost with The Church in the Power of the Spirit, a book that, by using the themes of ecclesiology and pneumatology, embraces the dialectical tension of the previous two volumes by having the Spirit moving creation towards the resolution of this dialectic—the transformation of all creation in correspondence to the resurrection of Christ.

The second phase is a set of six books that Moltmann calls his “systematic contributions” to theology. One needs to keep in mind, though, that even though his theology can rightly be labeled as “systematic,” it is not in the sense of a Summa Theologica a la Aquinas. This systematic phase in Moltmann’s writings was in part due to criticisms directed against his theology during the 1970s by liberation theologians. For while Moltmann is considered a key influence on some liberation theologians, he was nevertheless criticized by leading figures in the movement as simply being another instantiation of an out-of-touch professor offering up nothing more than a theology consisting of only theory, no praxis. As one can read in his own preface to The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (vii), this resulted in Moltmann no longer focusing on presenting the whole of theology through a singular focus (as he did in his initial trilogy), but to instead placing a spotlight on specific issues. The inaugural volume in this “systematic” phase is on the doctrine of God (The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, 1980; ET 1981), followed by one on creation (God in Creation, 1985; ET 1985), then Christology (The Way of Jesus Christ, 1989; ET 1990), pneumatology (The Spirit of Life, 1991; ET 1992), eschatology (The Coming of God, 1995; ET 1996), and finally, a volume on theological method (Experiences in Theology, 2000; ET 2000).

The third phase of Moltmann’s theological career is an assortment of books, with a unifying characteristic of them being that they reveal his affinity with the Frankfurt school of philosophy, which is demonstrated in his burgeoning focus on the themes of liberation and freedom in sociological and geo-political areas such as human rights (e.g. On Human Dignity, 1984; Ethics of Hope, 1984), globalization (God for a Secular Society, 1999), and to answering new, usually existential, boundary conditions of humanity, such as nuclear warfare (The Coming of God, see pp. 204–08) and ecological disaster (God for a Secular Society, 11–20; The Coming of God, 208–11; and Ethics of Hope, 109–62). The works in this phase are not dense or sustained theological arguments as his earlier volumes, in fact they seem to contain modest theological reflection and biblical interaction. Nevertheless, there is much to be admired in Moltmann’s creative and poetic writing style and insights contained within these volumes.

A Comparison between Luther and Moltmann

The theological method of Martin Luther is aptly summed up in the Reformation cry of sola scriptura (scripture alone) and his guiding principle of reading the Bible was “was Christum treibet” (what drives Christ), which is to say, all scripture is about Christ.

The crux of Luther’s theology is theologia crucis (theology of the cross). This works itself out in the following three ways:

  • Hermeneutically as “law and gospel.”
  • Politically as his doctrine of the “two kingdoms.”
  • Existentially as “simil iustus et peccator” (righteous and sinner at same time). This is where for Luther the law and gospel encounter each individual simultaneously.

The scripture that encapsulates Luther is Romans 7:15: “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Luther interpreted the plight of the man in Romans 7:14-25 as something that all Christians go through; it is the war waging in us between the law and the gospel.

Jürgen Moltmann’s theological method is best described as ad-hoc and eclectic. He employs scripture to support his theology, but he is not driven by the need to derive his theology from scripture. He somewhat respects church tradition and the church fathers, but he is in no way beholden to them. In fact, he has no qualms at bringing in other resources use in his theological dialogue (e.g. Kabbalah, mysticism, science, psychology). He uses this method to prevent the petrification of theology and to bring about change to the church’s way of thinking.

Moltmann was undoutedly influenced by Luther and his theologia crucis, whether directly or indirectly through other theologians (such as Barth and Iwand). Moltmann does not seem to view scripture through the same “law and gospel” dichotomy that Luther does (at least not to the same extent), and neither does Moltmann accept Luther’s “two kingdoms” doctrine, with one criticism he levels against it being that Germany showed that the two kingdoms viewpoint did not provide a basis for resisting the Nazi party.

The most Moltmannian moment in scripture is the cry from the cross  in Mark 15.34: “Eloi eloi lama sabachthani” [My God, my God, why have you forsaken me]. This event is very critical in Moltmann’s theology. He says: “Either Jesus who was abandoned by God is the end of all theology or he is the beginning of a specifically Christian, and therefore critical and liberating, theology of life” (The Crucified God). While Luther stressed the concept of Christ becoming our sin on the cross and transferring his righteousness to us, Moltmann sees the cross as an event where Jesus was abandoned by God, and suffered in his divinity. This raises another important difference between these two theologians, as Moltmann finds the traditional way of speaking about God (e.g. a Thomistic view of God) to be unhelpful and instead holds to a panentheistic view of God.

Moltmann’s Eschatological Hermeneutic

More than anything else, Moltmann is recognized for his resourcing of eschatology as the root of his entire theological endeavor; it permeates everything he writes. At the turn of the twentieth century, through the work of New Testament scholars such as Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, the eschatological character of Jesus, his message, and the early church, came to the forefront of scholarship. It is by drawing upon this current that Moltmann is able to present his eschatological focus. What begun in Theology of Hope, which is but the prolegomenon, is carried throughout all of Moltmann’s writings, coming to full fruition in The Coming of God.

In Theology of Hope Moltmann counters two twentieth-century theological giants, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, both of whom stressed the finality of the revelation we receive through Christ in the present, albeit they had quite different ways of pursuing this; for the former, revelation was located in God’s subjectivity, while for the latter it was grounded in our subjectivity. The problem with both of these views, in Moltmann’s analysis, is that it focuses on the existential here and now, while depriving Christian theology of its true future orientation. Indeed, the bête noir of Moltmann’s hermeneutical critiques is that of Rudolf Bultmann’s existentialist interpretive method. Moltmann’s response to all this, by following in the steps of Gerhard von Rad, is to focus upon the concept of promise in the biblical text and the portrayal of Yahweh as the God who promises, the God who sends his people off as pilgrims seeking out the fulfillment of these promises.

This necessarily involves a dramatic change to our understanding of the revelation of God. Like Barth, Moltmann emphasizes that our knowledge of God comes from God’s own self-revelation to humanity, as opposed to an ahistorical, conjectural, or metaphysical meditation on the nature of Being. Moltmann contends that we know God through the history of God’s involvement in the world, specifically through his covenant with Israel and the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Moreover, the significance of God’s appearances does not lie in the epiphany event itself, but in its promise of the future. This turn towards the future depicts God as the God of hope and, since hope is characteristically oriented towards the future, God is one who, as Moltmann says quoting Bloch, has “future as his essential nature” (Theology of Hope, 16). For a deeper inspection of God’s relationship to history in Moltmann’s theology, see Randall Otto, ‘God and History in Jürgen Moltmann,’ Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35.3 (1992): 375-88.

This understanding of the revelation of God is the stimulus behind Moltmann’s desire to reorient theology around eschatology. Instead of viewing eschatology as the last in a volume on systematic theology, causing it to be “like a loosely attached appendix that wandered off into obscure irrelevancies” (Theology of Hope, 15), Moltmann argues that eschatology is central to Christian theology. He says:

From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. (ibid., 16)

This eschatological hermeneutic of Moltmann’s, while being his legacy to the Christian theology, is nevertheless not without its pitfalls. In using the ‘future’ for his epistemology, it seems to lead to the lack of a solid telos over much of Moltmann’s theology. Perhaps the most noticeable way in which this is seen is in how Moltmann speaks of God as a being who is continually progressing towards the novum ultimum, when the Trinitarian nature of God will fully be realized (i.e. God is currently caught up in the process of time, being thrust along by it). Moreover, it can be argued that the future never seems to reach stasis for Moltmann but is instead eternally progressing; Moltmann’s God could be said to be existentially incomplete. In a similar vein to this, one commentator says that for Moltmann “God is not fully God, because God is part of time which is pushing forward into the future” (David Scaer, ‘Jürgen Moltmann and His Theology of Hope’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 13.2 [1970]: 69–79, citation from p. 69).

Despite any failings one may see in Moltmann’s theological method, his reconstitution of theology according to the future—being founded upon the God of promise, bringing with it an open eschatological horizon and the ensuing hope—is nevertheless a refreshing and invigorating theological perspective for the church, especially when one considers that the existential theologians were effectively the unchallenged masters of German and Protestant theology in the early twentieth-century. While some may attempt to consign Moltmann’s theological legacy of hope and eschatology to an optimistic period of humanity in the 1970s that is no longer useful or relevant, it is undeniable that it influenced many in the subsequent generation of theologians, such as Miroslav Volf, causing them not to be merely a guild of Moltmannian acolytes, but to take the lead with innovative and forward-looking theological replies to issues facing the church.