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.

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