Moltmann’s Theological Genealogy and Use of Jewish Thought

In Moltmann’s first major work, Theology of Hope, an inspection of the footnotes reveals the philosophical and theological lineage from which Moltmann comes; there is a moderate amount of reference to Buber, Gadamer, and Heidegger, but plenty of interaction with, and criticism of, Bultmann. Though one needs to keep in mind that Moltmann doesn’t always explicitly reference the thinkers who have had an impact on his thinking; Hegel, for one, while not really being a noticeable interlocutor in Moltmann’s writings, certainly is a philosopher whose shadow is cast wide over Moltmann’s thought. There is also Luther whose theologia crucis is likewise found in Moltmann’s accent on the ‘crucified god’ and the notion that when God is revealed, it is through the suffering God on the cross (for a discussion of Moltmann’s utilization of Luther’s theologia crucis, see Burnell Eckardt, Jr., ‘Luther and Moltmann: The Theology of the Cross,’ Concordia Theological Quarterly 49.1 [1985]: 19–28).

Moltmann should also be read with the entirety of German continental philosophical thought (e.g. Ernst Bloch) as a backdrop, along with the reformed and liberal Christian theologies of his time represented by the likes of Bonhoeffer and Barth, the latter being frequently cited by Moltmann and explicitly acknowledged for his fundamental influence (Experiences in Theology, 6). Elsewhere, Moltmann states his high opinion of Barth, saying: “after Karl Barth’s monumental Dogmatics, I thought there could be no more theology” (How I Have Changed, 15).

A conspicuous aspect of Moltmann’s hermeneutic is his heavy use of Jewish philosophers and theologians, such as Bloch, Freud, Maimonides, Rosenzweig, and Heschel. He even draws upon the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition which is seen in his adoption of the creation idea of zimzum (see, e.g., God in Creation, 86–87). One Jewish philosopher whom Moltmann is quite indebted to is the neo-Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, whose work Das Prinzip Hoffnung (The Principle of Hope) was essentially an ur-source for Moltmann’s Theology of Hope. In fact, in 1964 Barth posed the following question to Moltmann: “Is your Theology of Hope anything but Mr. Bloch’s ‘principle’ of hope baptized?” (see Müller-Fahrenholz, The Kingdom and the Power: The Theology of Jürgen Moltmann, 42; also, for a deeper study on the relationship between Bloch’s Das Prinzip Hoffnung and Moltmann’s Theologie der Hoffnung, see Gerald O’Collins, ‘The Principle and Theology of Hope,’ Scottish Journal of Theology 21.2 [1968]: 129–44).

Moltmann’s heavy reliance upon Jewish resources is unique amongst Christian theologians, not seen since the time of Aquinas and his use of Maimonides, and is no doubt due to guilt over the atrocities committed against the Jewish people by Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, Moltmann’s extensive interaction with Jewish works is a desirable enrichment of his own theological project, giving him a distinct leverage on the rest of the Reformed theological tradition.

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.

Moltmann’s Sitz im Leben

Jürgen Moltmann has undoubtedly been an influential voice in contemporary Christian theology, with his initial work, Theologie der Hoffnung (1964; English translation Theology of Hope, 1967), putting him on the theological map of the twentieth century. As is true with any theologian, Moltmann’s life setting has had a critical impact on his theology—a fact of which he himself is well aware:

For me, theology was, and still is, an adventure of ideas. It is an open, inviting path. … The road emerged only as I walked on it. And my attempts to walk it are of course determined by my personal biography, and by the political context and historical kairos in which I live. (Experiences in Theology, xv)

Throughout his theological career, Moltmann has attempted to establish a theological project having three key features: 1) a political responsibility, 2) a biblical foundation, and 3) an eschatological orientation (History and the Triune God, 182). It is helpful to understand the Sitz im Leben in which Moltmann’s theology was formed and received, for only then will it be possible to assess his thought, particularly in regards to the question of how his life has been responsible for his hermeneutical method and theological emphases.

Jürgen Moltmann was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1926 and was raised in a thoroughly secular and faithless household. He recalls that “at home Christianity was only a matter of form . . . as something rather remote” (Experiences of God, 6). During his teenage years, Moltmann developed a passion for science and had planned on studying mathematics at University, but the outbreak of war had him drafted to serve in the Werhmacht (the German armed forces), carrying with him to war the works of Nietzsche and a volume of Goethe as a testament to his rearing in the writings of the German Enlightenment, calling these works his “iron rations” which he took with him into the “miseries of war” (ibid., 7). This time is of paramount importance to Moltmann’s theology, as his theological trajectory begins not with Barth or Iwand, but with World War II and the crucial events occurring to him during this time.

In 1943, while stationed in Hamburg, Moltmann’s anti-aircraft unit was struck during the Allied bombing known as Operation Gomorrah. During this event Moltmann witnessed his friend killed by an incendiary device, yet he himself survived with only minor shrapnel wounds, despite their standing mere inches apart. Apart from causing Moltmann to give grave consideration as to why he had survived and his friend had not, it also led him to asking the question of where God is in the midst of suffering; a question which has remained central throughout his entire theological career.

Two years later Moltmann was sent to the front lines in Reichswald, Belgium. It was here that he surrendered himself to the Allied forces and subsequently was placed in POW camps for three years in Belgium, Scotland, and finally, at Norton Camp in England. It was during this time that Moltmann was confronted with photos of the atrocities perpetrated by the Third Reich on the Jews in places like Auschwitz and Buchenwald. During his internment in Belgium Moltmann was provided with a Bible by an Allied chaplain. He found solace in the Psalms of lament, particularly Psalm 39, and upon reaching Jesus’ death cry in the Gospel of Mark—“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” (Mk. 15:34)—Moltmann had found his answer: “this is someone who understands you completely, who is with you in your cry to God and has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now” (ibid., 30).

This development of faith was further supported by his internment in Norton Camp. This facility was run by the YMCA in conjunction with the British army, functioning as a type of captive seminary, with theological studies being provided by fellow prisoners and others brought in from the outside world, including Anders Nygren and Martin Niemöller. During this time as a prisoner-of-war, Moltmann experienced a slow but steady conversion to the Christian faith, which he describes as follows:

In the camps in Belgium and Scotland I experienced both the collapse of those things that had been certainties for me and a new hope to live by, provided by the Christian faith. I probably owe to this hope, not only my mental and moral but physical survival as well, for it was what saved me from despairing and giving up. I came back a Christian with a new “personal goal” of studying theology, so that I might understand the power of hope to which I owed my life. (A Broad Place, 59-60)

Upon his return to Germany, Moltmann continued to study theology, receiving his doctorate in theology from the University of Göttingen in 1952, having studied under Gerhard Von Rad and Ernst Käsemann. Meeks gives a thorough assessment of the influence that three of his other Göttingen teachers—Otto Weber, Ernst Wolf, and Hans Joachim Iwand—had on Moltmann during his time there (see M. Douglas Meeks, Origins of the Theology of Hope, 19-53).

Marrying the feminist theologian Elisabeth Wendel the same year that he received his doctorate, Moltmann then spent five years as a pastor of a reformed church, followed by a position on the theological faculty at Bonn University. In 1967, Moltmann was offered the prestigious chair of systematic theology at the University of Tübingen, becoming Professor Emeritus in 1994.

From my readings through Moltmann’s works, what is readily apparent is the role that his Sitz im Leben has played in his theology. Despite the twentieth century beginning with a tinge of humanistic optimism and a certain buoyancy of spirit, this attitude was called into question with the advent of the Great War. This was followed by another World War and the Shoah. It is this setting which is so critical to understanding where Moltmann and his theological project is coming from. While one can appreciate that Moltmann’s experience in World War II is his theology in nuce, thus leading him to approach theology from the viewpoint that the world is at peril of total self-annihilation, he has nevertheless allowed subsequent experiences, such as his interaction with liberation theologians and his ecumenical endeavors, to continually inform and direct the contours of his theology.

Liberation Theology and a Theology of Hope (Part VI)

Concluding Thoughts

In looking at liberation theology and theology of hope through Moltmann and Gutiérrez, one can surmise that both are political theologies that attempt to orient theology towards the downtrodden of society, albeit from different contexts. There is also an undeniable common thread of Marxism to be found in both their political theologies. Moltmann himself notes that Marxism is used by most liberation theologians, including Gutiérrez, as “an analytical instrument – a way of grasping the situations of the poor in Latin America. . . . Put in simpler terms: Marxist analysis, yes; communist therapy, no!” (Experiences in Theology, 245). This use of Marxism, however, isn’t necessarily true for every liberation theologian, as not all liberation theologians adopt Marxist theory, (e.g., Jon Sobrino seems to deliberately avoid the use of Marxian categories such as class struggle and a classless society in his writings; another example is Hugo Assman).

While both Moltmann and Gutiérrez have used Marxist social theory, both decidedly ditching Marxism’s dialectical materialism and atheism, there seems to be a stark difference in how they base their use of Marxism. Gutiérrez appears to start with Marxist analysis and then seeks biblical verification, though naturally departing from Marxism when it comes to the obvious issues of death and God, etc. Conversely, Moltmann starts with the biblical depiction of the future kingdom of God and then employs Marxism as a critique on how the current way of things is opposed to this future hope. The primary appeal to Moltmann in Marxism (as he found it in Bloch) is its imagination for a better future society, rather than the Marxist strategy for proletarian revolution which seems to be a more useful aspect to Gutiérrez.

Gutiérrez’s understanding and use of “hope” stands in distinction to Moltmann’s; he has not just uncritically embraced Moltmann’s view of hope but has instead only borrowed from it in order to create his own. Gutiérrez’s hope is directed towards a liberating utopia and a plan for a qualitatively changed society that is more just towards the poor. This is different to Moltmann who sees hope as being founded upon the resurrection of Christ and directed towards the ultimum novum, declining to pivot around a more static final objective such as Gutiérrez’s utopia. In short, one could perhaps say that Gutiérrez’s theology reflects a temporal human-based hope, while Moltmann’s theology employs a more future divine-based hope.

Moltmann’s influence on Gutiérrez (and other liberation theologians) is a noteworthy case of theological cross-fertilization between first-world and third-world theologians. Yet, Gutiérrez was wary of not taking too much from Moltmann and Europe, primarily seeing the benefits of hope theology in its critiques of the hyper-individualized gospel and our overly capitalist society, while also coveting the stimulating effect Moltmann’s theology has on political consciousness and engagement.

An adequate theological stance on hope must rest upon sufficient grounds. The eschatological hope of Moltmann that is predicated on the resurrection of Christ and the everlasting faithfulness of God appears somewhat different to Gutiérrez’s more evolutionary optimism, that seems to depend on an extrapolation of the present process, thus providing a less sure hope. In the end, after briefly looking at the role that Marxism and hope play in their respective theologies, one could almost say, to borrow a wordplay from Kayayan, that Moltmann’s theology of hope was effectively secularized in Gutiérrez’s liberation theology, turning it from a theology of anastasis (resurrection) into a theology of epanastasis (revolution)! Naturally, though, Gutiérrez’s revolution would be with bread and wine, not guns and bloodshed.

Liberation Theology and a Theology of Hope (Part V)

Gutiérrez and Hope

While Moltmann’s Theology of Hope was first being read and debated in Europe, Gustavo Gutiérrez was defining theology as a consideration on the praxis of the poor, publishing his important work, A Theology of Liberation, in 1971. Moltmann’s emphasis on hope was readily incorporated into the work of some liberation theologians and some of what Gutiérrez says about hope bears a striking resemblance to Moltmann’s thought. Gutierrez’s liberation theology has a strong bond with Moltmann’s theology of hope in its interest for present transformative action in conformity with a hoped-for-future. Another similarity to Moltmann, but divergent from most other liberation theologians, is in how Gutiérrez draws upon Ernst Bloch’s understanding of hope (A Theology of Liberation, 123-24). Another parallel between Gutiérrez and Moltmann is seen in how Gutiérrez defines “hope” as an “openness to the God who is to come” (ibid., 204), which sounds similar to Moltmann who argues that hope must always be open to the future in which God finally fully arrives and is wholly present.

Yet Gutiérrez’s adoption of Moltmann’s hope theology was not without its criticisms. For instance, Gutiérrez levels the charge that while “hope fulfills a mobilizing and liberating function in history,” Moltmann’s theology is open to the risk of merely replacing a “Christianity of the Beyond” with a “Christianity of the Future,” weakening the struggle for liberation and freedom in the present (ibid., 124). Contra Moltmann, Gutiérrez argues that real emancipatory hope doesn’t have its basis in a promise from the future but rather develops through the praxis of the poor contending with their present situation and transforming it (ibid., 201-3). Thus, Gutiérrez’s consideration of hope is focused upon a liberating utopia which sees hope as an obligation to a social praxis through which humans become the means of transforming the present into a more just society. He says, “Hope thus emerges as the key to human existence oriented towards the future, because it transforms the present” (ibid., 123). As a corollary to this, the power of the future is seen as an extension of God’s power in the present at liberating the oppressed, directing history towards its full realization and completion. Gutiérrez’s understanding of hope goes beyond the seemingly never-ending and open-ended dialectical analysis of Moltmann.

Gutiérrez argues that it is hope that thrusts society forward by challenging and denouncing the unjust conditions of the present, while seeking and heralding a more righteous future. This understanding of hope is crucial to Gutiérrez’s conception of “utopia” in A Theology of Liberation. While he overtly discusses utopia only in a short section (ibid., 135–40), the role of utopia pervades every other topic that he writes on in that book. At the onset of his discussion on utopia, Gutiérrez clarifies his use of the term as referring to “a historical project for a qualitatively different society and to express the aspiration to establish new social relations among human beings” (ibid., 135). This liberating utopia is the motivation for hope.

This divergence of Gutiérrez from Moltmann in regards to hope is also seen in how he places an emphasis on a temporal hope. He says: “The Kingdom is realized in a society of fellowship and justice; and, in turn, this realization opens up the promise and hope of complete communion of all persons with God. The political is grafted into the eternal” (ibid., 135). Note that Gutiérrez delineates between hope in the eternal and hope in the temporal (political). He also says that: “The hope which overcomes death must be rooted in the heart of historical praxis; if this hope does not take shape in the present to lead it forward, it will be only an evasion, a futuristic illusion” (ibid., 124). Here he lays bare his belief that eternal hope cannot exist independent of a temporal hope that is “rooted in . . . historical praxis.” Further along, Gutiérrez says that “without liberating historical events, there would be no growth of the kingdom [of God]” (ibid., 177).

Liberation Theology and a Theology of Hope (Part IV)

Moltmann and Hope

It was after reading Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope that Moltmann was left wondering, “Why has Christian theology let go of its most distinctive theme, hope?” (How I Have Changed, 15). From this question arose the momentum for his innovative and influential work, Theology of Hope. For Moltmann hope is the most significant element of human life and experience. Quoting a Rabbinical commentary, he says that “God created all things with finality . . . but he created man in hope” (The Experiment Hope, 27). Elsewhere he says: “That is why it can be said that living without hope is like no longer living. Hell is hopelessness, and it is not for nothing that at the entrance to Dante’s hell there stand the words: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here’” (Theology of Hope, 32).

Hope is a grossly abused word in today’s culture, but Moltmann’s vision of hope stands in a drastic tension with the secular hopes offered up elsewhere in his day, whilst also opposing accusations leveled against hope by thinkers like Spinoza and Freud who argued that hope is an infantile and illusionary deception. Unlike others before him who advocated for an optimistic secular hope without faith in Christ that winds up becoming merely “a utopia and remains hanging in the air” (ibid., 20), Moltmann’s hope is founded upon the resurrection of the crucified Christ, saying that Christian faith and hope “stands or falls with the reality of the raising of Jesus from the dead by God” (ibid., 166); Moltmann does not see the resurrection faith of the apostles as merely a nice feeling in their bowels having been liberated from the tribalist concepts of cult and law. Neither does Moltmann see hope as simply an optimistic outlook in progress of the Enlightenment, a deferred escapist hope of being raptured out of this world, nor as an individualized post-mortem hope for another world—the “pie in the sky when you die.” Instead, for Moltmann, in Christ’s resurrection God has embodied his ultimate promise to us, giving us the foundation for a “living hope” (1 Pet 1.3) in the kingdom of God that is announced in the Scriptures and found in the life and teachings of Jesus.

Moltmann’s hope for the future draws upon Hegel’s forward-moving dialectic of history, seeing the past (thesis) as misery and the future (antithesis) as hope, which requires us to work in the present (synthesis) to effect the change.  It is because Moltmann sees the resurrection of Christ as a guarantee of the new creation that he also views the future as having an impact on the present, rather than the typical way of thinking which postulates that the present leads to the future. By doing so, Moltmann is attempting to give hope the gravitas it needs in order to affect our present lives by seeking to restore to the Church its hope for God’s new creation as a driving force for societal transformation.

Moltmann considers hope (based on the resurrection of Christ) as a source of courage to truly enter into history, rather than a heavenly hope which seeks to escape it. Yet it is critical to note that while Moltmann sees hope as a tangible means of enacting this future kingdom of God in the present, he does not think humanity can fully bring in this new creation; instead, it can ultimately only come about by the direct intervention of God himself in the world. A notable commentator on Moltmann, Richard Bauckham, agrees, saying: “It is not that human activity in the present builds the future kingdom, but that the future kingdom by arousing hope and obedience in the present creates anticipations of itself within history. These are real anticipations of the kingdom, forms of God‘s presence . . . within the contradictions of a still unredeemed world, but they are precisely anticipations of a kingdom which itself remains eschatological, transcendent beyond all its historical approximations” (The Theology of Jürgen Moltmann, 104).


Liberation Theology and a Theology of Hope (Part III)

Gutiérrez, Marxism, and Political Theology

The Marxist thought which underpins Gutiérrez’s liberation theology is responsible for making it visibly political. In fact, an oft-repeated critique of Gutiérrez’s liberation theology is it has a proclivity to reduce faith merely to politics. This is not a terribly surprising charge in light of Gutiérrez’s belief that theology and doctrine follow praxis, saying that “theology does not produce pastoral activity; rather it reflects upon it” (A Theology of Liberation, 9). A way in which Gutiérrez emphasizes praxis is with an emphasis on theology as it relates to social structures. This, in various ways, is seen building to a better world, eventually leading to a kingdom of God on earth; the kingdom of God could be said to arrive through a reorganized society. This understanding of the relationship between praxis and theology is, in part, what led Gutiérrez to not being entirely satisfied with Moltmann’s Theology of Hope, for he seemed to see it as only being built upon vague notions of promise and hope without providing a legitimate plan for societal change. Gutiérrez sought to rectify this by offering up a viable way of effecting the change necessary in his Latin American context.

Gutiérrez develops his theology within his local context, in the underclass of Latin America. Latin American liberation theologians contend that the developing economies of Latin America are dependent upon advanced capitalist countries, such as the United States, who wind up only perpetuating their exploitation by putting into place political regimes that are merely in support of the status quo. Thus, not surprisingly, Gutiérrez is particularly interested in salvation when it is seen as a political liberation for Latin America from U.S. hegemony. Because of all this, Gutiérrez is careful to exclude elements of Western theology that he considers foreign to his Latin American context, but he is nevertheless in agreement with Moltmann in that he sees the Christian gospel as inextricably consisting of a political element that is not reliant on any particular current political structure. Gutiérrez says: “The Gospel does not get its political dimension from one or another particular option, but from the very nucleus of its message” (ibid., 139).

Gutiérrez incorporates some of Marx’s ideas, yet does so without becoming a full Marxist himself. His use of Marx can still be aptly summed up in the eleventh thesis of Marx against Feuerbach: “Hitherto philosophers have explained the world; our task is to change it.” In order to bring about this transformation of the world Gutiérrez employs the Marxist critique of religion in order to criticize bourgeois Christianity for supporting and legitimating the oppressor-oppressed structure of society. He draws upon the Marxist critique of the relationship between religion and capitalism, a relationship which perpetuates the poverty of the poor by reconciling them to their poverty through a hope for riches and justice in the eschatological upheaval when “the first shall be last and the last first.” Gutiérrez also adopts Marx’s critique of individualism (one of the key pillars of capitalism). He adopts this critique and elucidates its theological corollaries, such as it running counter to the biblical directive of solidarity. Another way in which Gutiérrez utilizes Marxism is by adopting Marx’s idea of class struggle. Gutiérrez believes that the oppression of the poor will not be overcome merely by understanding it in theory, but that the poor must see themselves as the oppressed and understand the causes behind their oppression, and must view themselves as the driving force in history and the instruments through which change can be implemented, reshaping society in accordance with the elevation of their own welfare. The poor are not meant to merely sit idly by and wait for God to solve our problems and create a just society; it is the poor who are to reform society.

While Gutiérrez believes that capitalism has failed to succeed in Latin America due to exploitation by other countries, he is not necessarily promoting a thoroughly Marxist economic system, as he concedes that Marxist states have failed. Instead, he advocates for a system that is unique to the needs of Latin America. He believes that any tangible social transformation can only really come about through small communities and must be a change from bottom up, as opposed to a top down change imposed upon citizens by an authoritarian vanguard party (such as what is found in historic examples of communist states).