Moltmann’s Use of the Bible

Fundamentalism fossilizes the Bible into an unquestionable authority. Dogmatism freezes living Christian tradition solid. (Moltmann, The Crucified God, 8)

The prolific British New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham has been a notable commentator on Moltmann, having produce much literature dealing with Moltmann’s theology, including journal articles and books. Bauckham provides what is perhaps the most informative, fair, and thorough criticism of Moltmann’s hermeneutical methodology and use of the biblical text. In God Will Be All in All Bauckham provides quite an acerbic critique of Moltmann’s biblical exegesis in The Coming of God, at one point saying that “what little exegesis he offers tends to be remarkably ignorant and incompetent”, and that Moltmann’s interpretation of the biblical text “requires an exegesis that no hermeneutic, however pre-modem or post-modem, could conceivably support” (God will be All in All: The Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann, 179–80).

Moltmann responds to this in the same volume with an essay titled, The Bible, the Exegete and the Theologian (227–232), giving what is the clearest articulation of his relationship to the biblical text. In it he says:

Theology is not subject to the dictation of the texts, or the dictatorship of the exegetes. Questionings as to whether the theology is ‘in conformity with Scripture’ seem to me to be a remnant left over from the old doctrine of verbal inspiration. . . . Richard Bauckham has taken me to be an exegete, and I am not one. I am a theological partner in dialogue with the texts which I cite, not their exegete. (230–31)

Note that Moltmann delineates between the tasks of ‘theology’ and ‘exegesis’. Consider that in conjunction with Moltmann’s belief that “theology is not a commentary on the biblical writings, and commentaries on the biblical writings are not a substitute for theological reflection” (ibid., 230). Elsewhere he states that he understands the biblical text as “a stimulus to my own theological thinking, not as an authoritative blueprint and confining boundary” (Experiences in Theology, xxii), with the corollary being that one cannot simply proof-text the truth from the Bible as “a quotation from the Bible is not enough to guarantee the truth of what is said” (ibid., 139).

While Moltmann does typically include frequent and diverse references to the Bible, the preceding quotes, when coupled together with his reliance upon using various resources for his theological ideas, are indicative that he has a distrust of letting theology rest solely upon a single external source of authority. He understands the Bible, not as an absolute authority external to the reader (as it is typically considered in some circles of Christian thought), but as a resource for the theologian to stimulate creative thinking and as a subversive book that offers hope for the oppressed and poor in spirit.

While contemporary theology must not lose its bearings of history, it is not enough for theologians to simply offer up syntheses of it. In this regard, Moltmann’s theological project is a success, as instead of merely replicating tradition, and instead of adopting the fundamentalist mantra of “the Bible said it, that settles it, I believe it,” he instead advances a fertile way of thinking that reforms the church’s way of thinking and prevents the ossification of theology, enabling the church to speak in a germane manner about Christ in modern times. Moltmann’s approach used to accomplish this is both creative and stimulating. He engages many diverse sources, yet he does so in a selective manner, juxtaposing them together without rationale and never clearly articulating on exactly what grounds he is engaging them. Moltmann seems to do theology with the supposition that all sources are suspect in their authority, meaning that the best way to comment on life is to give a lucid, transforming narrative. This epistemological skepticism lays bare Moltmann’s attitude towards sources and their authority.

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