Liberation Theology and a Theology of Hope (Part II)

Moltmann, Marxism, and Political Theology

The impetus of Moltmann’s theology is found the crisis that the German church found itself facing in a post-Auschwitz Germany. After the war, Moltmann returned to Hamburg, but among the food shortages, an infrastructure consisting primarily of rubble and craters, and the public awareness of the “final solution,” there loomed the daunting question of what role the church should now play in society. Moltmann found that the only glimmer of hope of the Protestant church during the Third Reich, the “Confessing Church” and its Barmen Declaration, had simply succumbed to rebuilding itself in its pre-war image, supporting the immediate re-institutionalization of the church. Yet considering that the churches had supported the Nazi regime (whether directly or indirectly through their silence), Moltmann found this lackluster response to be quite disconcerting and, appropriating a biblical metaphor, describes it as the church pouring “their new wine into old bottles” (Experiences of God, 10). Moltmann determined that the reason there was little resistance against the Nazi leviathan was due to religion being considered a private matter in Germany. Thus, Moltmann set it upon himself to de-privatize religion by offering up to Christians a “political” or “public” theology in his writings.

Meeks describes Moltmann’s political theology as follows: “For Moltmann, political theology is essentially the theology of the practice and realization of Christian mission in the world” (Origins of the Theology of Hope, 129). Or to quote Moltmann himself, his political theology “does not want to dissolve Christian faith into politics; nor does it want to replace Christianity with humanism” (“Political Theology,” Theology Today 28 [1971]: 6–23, quote from 22). Note that he also says that he “does not want to make political questions the central theme of theology or to give political systems and movements religious support” (ibid., 8).

Also, Moltmann originally labeled his theology as a “political” theology but over the years he has seemingly shifted towards calling it a “public” theology. The two labels have no obviously discernible difference, with both simply meaning “social” in the sense that they’re an attempt to determine the public responsibility of Christians.

Moltmann’s political theology is often said to go together with Marxism, though this a caricature. Moltmann primarily draws upon Marxist theory through the neo-Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, who in the 1950s published Das Prinzip Hoffnung (The Principle of Hope), a work that combines Jewish eschatology together with Marxist social analysis. There are also scattered references to Marxist and socialist theory throughout Moltmann’s writings, as well as the occasional dialogue with the Frankfurt School (which is dedicated to neo-Marxist values). This has all been used as support for leveling accusations against Moltmann of advocating a theology based in Marxist theory or that he is merely presenting a Christianized form of Marxism. See, for instance, the completely misguided charge from Paul Enns: “Moltmann is more indebted to Karl Marx for his theology than to the teachings of Scripture” (The Moody Handbook of Theology: Revised and Expanded, 630). Robert Walton also provides an inaccurate portrayal of Moltmann’s relationship to Marxism by stating that his use of Marxist philosophy is “the basis of his new conception of election: his doctrine of God and his belief that only the poor and oppressed can be God’s people” (“Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope,” in Liberation Theology, 143–86, quote from 153).

What is often left unmentioned, perhaps just going unnoticed by Moltmann’s less scrupulous readers, is how he actually uses the work of Marxists like Bloch as a foil, taking over Marxist critiques as a means to revealing the faults in the capitalist market-system, which Moltmann sees as a pervasive ideology found in all areas of life, especially religion: “The global marketing of everything and every service is much more than pure economics. It has become the all-embracing law of life. We have become customers and consumers, whatever else we may be. The market has become the philosophy of life, the world religion” (God for a Secular Society, 153). Moltmann does not utilize Marxism to such an extent that it diminishes the Christian hope for the kingdom of God to something that can be accomplished through mere revolutionary political action. Moltmann only really employs Marxist theory in order to free bourgeois Christianity from its capitalist fixation with consumerism and its fetishism of money, rather than a means to promote a Christianized form of Marxism.

To summarize: Moltmann’s use of Marxist theory is a good example of his doing theology à la mode—utilizing currents that are in vogue in order to respond to a problem that society is facing without actually intending to fully appropriate the idea being adopted. So while arguing that capitalism is both alienating and objectifying, leading to the exploitation of relationships and prohibiting people from realizing their true humanity, Moltmann flatly rejects the idea that the abolition of capitalism would led to the realization of the kingdom of God: “the kingdom of God can be socialism, but that does not mean that socialism is now the kingdom of God” (The Crucified God, 320). He also states more unequivocally that “humanist Marxism is fundamentally discredited by its Stalinist and post-Stalinist practice” (ibid., 9). For Moltmann, Christianity is not synonymous with political action, but political action is an expression of Christian faith. Furthermore, as one progresses through Moltmann’s writings, one can see that his use of Marxian categories has steadily decreased over time, perhaps being attributable to his increasing emphasis on ecumenicism. Irrespective as to why his use of Marxist theory declined, it should nevertheless be able to legitimately serve as a foil for theological thinking about economic and political issues.

Liberation Theology and a Theology of Hope (Part I)

Liberation theology is a school of thought focusing on the poor and marginalized of society and their liberation from poverty and oppression, though it is more appropriate to speak of liberation theology in the plural, for liberation theologies are to be found amongst various peoples around the world. The most notable and lucid expression of liberation theology to date is found in the Catholics of Latin America, the impetus behind this movement being the idea that the underclass of Latin America has been exploited and victimized by capitalism, colonialism, and corporations.

The theology of hope movement—which is more so a confederation of related proposals than an actual school of thought—is comprised of theologians such Wolfhart Pannenberg, Johannes Metz, Dietrich Ritschl, Walther Zimmerli, Carl Braaten, and Jürgen Moltmann. As one commentator has said: “The school of hope is not a religio-philosophical derivative of a previous epistemological or metaphysical orientation. It is an aggregate. Its basis is a mood” (Walter Capps, “Mapping the Hope Movement,” in The Future of Hope, 1–42, quote from 10).

The unifying thread among theologians of hope is a concern to relate the thoroughgoing eschatology and futurism of the Bible to contemporary human experience in a time where the liquidity and velocity of modernity needs to be kept in mind. Hope theology finds its framework in the eschatological thrusts of the Old and New Testaments, with the role of the “future” playing a crucial role in the theology, being found under the rubric of the kingdom of God. Linked to this utilization of the “future” is the role of “hope” in the present. In short, one can say that a “theology of hope” is a criticism of any form of Constantinian Christianity that attempts to find Christianity’s definitive answer in the present rather than the future.

Ostensibly, liberation theology and a theology of hope may seem to have much in common, yet there are actually considerable distinctions between the two theologies. While it can be said that the emergence of liberation theology and a theology of hope were contemporaneous to one another, there is no causation accompanying this correlation; one did not birth the other. Notwithstanding, the theology of hope school did have an impact on some liberation theologians, though the ideas found in it were not taken wholesale, but were instead selectively chosen and adapted freely. In other words, the relationship between the two theologies is best described as dialectical rather than hierarchical.

The next few posts shall examine this relationship by looking at the quintessential theologian of hope, Jürgen Moltmann, and the founder of liberation theologian in Latin America, Gustavo Gutiérrez. Each of these two figures occupies the role of being a pioneer in their respective theology movement, for the theology of hope school owes its existence in large part to Jürgen Moltmann’s work, Theologie der Hoffnung (1964; English translation, Theology of Hope, 1967), and likewise, the key work in the beginnings of the liberation theology movement is Gustavo Gutiérrez’s Teología de la Liberación (1971; English translation, A Theology of Liberation, 1973).

The value of a Moltmann-Gutiérrez comparison as a heuristic device for understanding the relationship between these two theological movements is established when one reads that Gutiérrez lavished praise upon Moltmann and his Theology of Hope, declaring the book as “one of the most important in contemporary theology” (A Theology of Liberation, 125). Moltmann has likewise been influenced by liberation theologians, saying that he found his theology of hope in Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation (see Moltmann’s Experiences in Theology, 217). In the same book (217–48), Moltmann discusses Cardinal Ratzinger’s criticisms of Latin American liberation theology, effectively coming to the defense of Gutiérrez. It must be kept in mind, though, that while the theme of liberation is of paramount importance for Moltmann, he himself is not a liberation theologian, at least not in the normative sense of engaging in critical contemplation upon theological praxis within a particular community of beleaguered and oppressed people.

The next few blog posts will focus upon two key areas in these two theologies: (1) the role of Marxism in their political theology; and (2) the role of hope. By focusing upon these two themes found in hope theology (through Moltmann) and liberation theology (through Gutiérrez), I hope to shed a little bit of light as to the relationship between these two important twentieth-century theological movements.

New Books on/by Jacques Ellul

Over the past couple years there has been a mini proliferation of literature on the sociologist and erstwhile theologian Jacques Ellul. I have read over twenty of his books and have found him to be an interesting theologian to read. Here are some of the books published in the last few years:

Book Review: The Branch Davidians of Waco

branchdavidianswacoTitle: The Branch Davidians of Waco: The History and Beliefs of an Apocalyptic Sect

Author: Kenneth G.C. Newport

Bibliographic info: 400 pp.

Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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With thanks to OUP for the review copy.

Within a year of the infamous confrontation at Mount Carmel in 1993, there was a proliferation of popular-level publications on the tragedy that approached it predominantly from a sensationalist angle, focusing on issues such as David Koresh’s polygamy and the stockpiling of weapons by the Branch Davidians. This populist literature invariably exhibits little-to-no elucidation on the theology of Koresh and the thought-world in which his followers lived. There were, however, some important volumes published during this time that made attempts to understand the theology of the Branch Davidians and the causes behind their fiery end.[1] In the years since, there have been various books and journal articles published on every facet of the Mount Carmel, though there has always been lacking a comprehensive look at the theology of David Koresh and the Branch Davidian movement. This is where Kenneth Newport’s The Branch Davidians of Waco comes in. Here Newport provides the reader with a full account of the relevant religious history preceding the Branch Davidians, particularly in regards to the theology of Koresh’s predecessors.[2]

The main strength of this volume is that Newport provides the best attempt to date at filling the gap in the literature concerning the theology and belief-system of Koresh and the Branch Davidians,. This is specifically seen in how Newport doesn’t just simply lay the blame for the group’s violent end at their own feet, but takes it a step further by providing a plausible and compelling argument as to how and why their theology led to the group’s self-immolation (see pp. 278–306 for an account of what caused the fire, and pp. 307–24 for a case that the theology of the movement was responsible for the fire). While it is a not-so-uncommon opinion of religious scholars that Mount Carmel may have been accidentally set ablaze by the FBI, Newport convincingly argues that it was indeed started by Branch Davidian members and that they had a theological rationale for it—an apocalyptic theology of martyrdom.

The section on the theology of Koresh himself is not as substantial as one might hope (pp. 213–33), and  instead of trying to portray Koresh as a theologian in his own right, Newport chooses to stress the continuity in thought between Koresh and his predecessors, namely, Victor Houteff, Florence Houteff, Ben Roden and Lois Roden. While this theological pedigree is an important factor to take into account, perhaps this study could have benefited by also placing more of a focus on the discontinuity between Koresh and his predecessors. Though, admittedly, there is not exactly a vast amount of writings and sermons left behind by Koresh that one can draw from, so maybe this severely limits what one can say about Koresh’s theology.

The only real drawback I found in this volume is that the study could have been more judicious in reflecting on the importance of the interactions between the federal agents and the Branch Davidians (specifically in regards to the influence this had on the dramatic denouement that occurred on April 19, 1993). I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying Koresh and the Branch Davidians and from listening to the audiotapes of Koresh’s teachings and the negotiations between him and the FBI, it seems clear that there was sufficient information available to the government of the likely response that the Branch Davidians would take to a second raid on Mount Carmel, yet the author did not appear to be terribly eager to take this into account when exploring the cause behind the fire at Mount Carmel.

Nevertheless, in the plethora of literature that has been published on the “wacko from Waco” and the fiery demise of the Branch Davidians, this is the most definitive study I have come across that provides not only an in-depth look at the historical antecedents of the movement, but also the theology of the movement and how this can help explain why some members of Mount Carmel decided to set the compound ablaze.


[1] For example, James R. Lewis (ed), From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994); Dick J. Reavis, The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995); Stuart A. Wright (ed), Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); and James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher, Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). In this last volume, Tabor and Gallagher approach the Mount Carmel incident as a study of the symbiotic relationship between the Branch Davidians, the federal government, the media, the anti-cult movement, and religious scholars. They critically discuss how the government handled the crisis, questioning whether the strategies and tactics used to deal with the Branch Davidians were appropriate, while providing a prescription for avoiding such a violent finale in any future episodes. While it provides a solid attempt to interact with some of the theological thinking of Koresh, as the subtitle indicates it is focused more on explaining the Mount Carmel tragedy in terms of the public perception of cults in American society and how the government challenged the Branch Davidians’ right to religious freedom.

[2] Newport had briefly dealt with Koresh and the Branch Davidians in an earlier work that surveyed how Revelation had been interpreted by various figures over the last 400 years, see Newport, Apocalypse and Millennium: Studies in Biblical Eisegesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), esp. pp. 197–236.

Brief Book Note: Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Qumran, Septuagint

textualcriticismlxxdsshbTitle: Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Qumran, Septuagint: Collected Essays, Volume 3 

Author: Emanuel Tov

Series: Vetus Testamentum, Supplements

Bibliographic info: 540 pp.

Publisher: Brill, 2015.

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This is the third volume of collected studies by Emanuel Tov, with the other two being:

  • The Greek and Hebrew Bible: Collected Essays on the Septuagint (VTSup 72; Leiden: Brill, 1999).
  • Hebrew Bible, Greek Bible, and Qumran: Collected Essays (TSAJ 121; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008).

This volume contains thirty-three studies by Emanuel Tov on the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, and the writings of Qumran. All of these essays were originally published between 2008 and 2014, though they have all been revised and reworked (to varying degrees) for this volume, including updated bibliographies. Those familiar with these research areas will probably be aware of the role that Tov has played in them, from publishing an impressive amount of literature on these topics to being the past editor-in-chief of the international Dead Sea Scrolls publication project.

There are eighteen studies on which deal specifically with textual criticism, ranging from a review of the Judges volume of the Biblia Hebraica Quinta to a comparison of the genealogical lists in Genesis 5 and 11 in three different versions (MT, LXX, SP). There are nine studies on Qumran writings, covering such topics as the scribal features of two Qumran scrolls to Tov’s thoughts on the Discoveries of the Judaean Desert Publication Project. And there are six studies on the Septuagint, dealing with topics from the use of personal names in LXX Isaiah to the role the Septuagint has played in the Jewish and Christian traditions.

This is an impressive collection of studies from a distinguished voice in the field of biblical studies. It will naturally appeal to anyone interested in textual criticism, the Hebrew Bible, and the Septuagint, but also other areas such as the Apocrypha, Second Temple literature, the Qumran community, and so forth.

Book Review: The Text of Marcion’s Gospel

textofmarcionsgospelTitle: The Text of Marcion’s Gospel

Author: Dieter T. Roth

Series: New Testament Tools, Studies and Documents

Bibliographic info: 491 pp.

Publisher: Brill, 2015.

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With thanks to Brill for the review copy.

This volume is a revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation completed at the University of Edinburgh in 2009.

For many who have done some casual reading in early Christianity, the name Marcion will conjure up the image of the arch-heretic of “orthodox” Christianity in the second century, the guy who rejected the authority of the Old Testament due to its portrayal of God as being a capricious and malicious figure. Another aspect of Marcion that some are not as aware of is how he had his own version of the New Testament which consisted of an edited version of the Gospel of Luke and an edited collection of Pauline letters. The question arises, however, as to how exactly this fits into the origins and development of the traditional New Testament that we have today. Was Marcion the first person who really attempted to put together a new canon, providing the impetus for the proto-orthodox church to assemble its own New Testament canon as a response to his? Or is he more of a witness to a process that had already begun long before him? Such questions will likely never be able to be satisfactorily answered. But there are other aspects of the Marcion puzzle that can be more adequately examined and answered, such as the question of what the text of Marcion’s canon looked like, and this is exactly what Dieter Roth undertakes in this volume by reconstructing the  text of Marcion’s version of the Gospel of Luke by employing a thoroughgoing source and text-critical method.

This volume begins with the obligatory introductory chapter, a forty-page chapter providing a survey on the history of research, and then a chapter which provides a tabulation of the attestation in early Christian writings concerning the (non-)inclusion of verses in Marcion’s Gospel that parallel those in Luke’s gospel (while also noting the verses where there is no evidence as to whether they were included or excluded in Marcion’s Gospel).

Two chapters then tackle the writings of Tertullian, an author who provides the most data for an attempt to reconstruct Marcion’s text (over 400 verses). The next two chapters each deal with two other key sources: Epiphanius (Ancoratus and the Panarion haereses; covering over 100 verses) and the author of the Adamantius Dialogue (75 verses referenced). This is followed by a chapter on additional sources for Marcion’s text. Roth seems quite able to judiciously navigate the problems that can arise with mining Marcion’s text from the writings of other authors (e.g. Tertullian does not always make it apparent if he is actually quoting Marcion’s text when he discusses it). Quick note: to get the most out of these chapters you will definitely need to have a working knowledge of Latin and Greek.

In Chapter 9, all of this data is then synthesized together in order to present Roth’s reconstructed text of Marcion’s version of the Gospel of Luke, with the final chapter then discussing the implications of this study and possible avenues for future research. Of course, the author does not claim that he has reproduced the original text of Marcion’s Gospel, but rather just its earliest recoverable text. I would say that the version of Marcion’s text that Roth presents us with is somewhat conservative in that he is seemingly hesitant to speculate a great deal in his reconstruction. The same can be said for the implications of his reconstruction that Roth provides; there is no wild speculation flying about concerning how this overturns what we know about earliest Christianity. This conservatism is quite a judicious decision on Roth’s part considering the level of uncertainty that is involved in such an endeavor that this study undertakes. Nevertheless, despite the tentativeness inherent in such a project, any future work carried out on Marcion can use Roth’s reconstructed text to provide a more confident foundation.

Book Review: The Early Hans Urs Von Balthasar

EarlyVonBalthasarTitle: The Early Hans Urs Von Balthasar: Historical Contexts and Intellectual Formation

Author: Paul Silas Peterson

Series: Theologische Bibliothek Topelmann

Bibliographic info: 379 pp.

Publisher: Walter De Gruyter, 2015.

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With thanks to Walter De Gruyter for the review copy.

In this volume, a revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation completed at the University of Tübingen in 2011, the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar is discussed in relation to the various contexts—literary, historical, cultural, sociopolitical, ecclesial, and theological—of his day that he drew upon (and responded to) during the period of the 1920s-1940s.

The key contexts which the author delves into are the central European Germanophone cultural context, the Germanophone Catholic cultural context, the German studies context, and the French Catholic renewal literature and theology. Within these are smaller sub-contexts, including the important German Jesuit journal Stimmen der Zeit, Neo-Scholasticism, Swiss fascism, Renouveau Catholique, George-Kreis, Neugermanistik, Germanophone Catholic theology, and French Catholic culture.

The author begins this study by looking at the earliest literature von Balthasar produced in the 1920s, such as his first work Die Entwicklung der musikalischen Idee (1925), which Peterson sees as being representative of how von Balthasar absorbed and integrated cultural criticism and philosophical themes from figures like and Hegel. A couple specific areas of focus are: (1) von Balthasar’s appropriation of Guardini’s cultural criticism, particularly his development of a Christian worldview, and von Balthasar’s treatment of Goethe and Nietzsche; and (2) German literature and culture, which includes a discussion of the background of German literature from 1880-1920, with the spotlight being places on a few figures and movements, such as the George-Kreis.

A couple of the most interesting sections of this volume were those that looked at the influence that the following persons and concepts had on von Balthasar: Swiss fascism, Nazi German (and the situation of the church in the context of national socialism), Julius Schmidhauser (and those who had been searching for a more profound relationship between Deutschtum and Christentum), and the relationships between von Balthasar and  two other thinkers, Erich Przywara (specifically Przywara’s metaphysics) and Karl Barth (his anti-liberal dialectical theology). There is, naturally, a section devoted to the Barth-Balthasar relationship.

The unfortunate anti-Semitism to be found in von Balthasar gets its own chapter which provides an analysis of his writings from the 30s and 40s (and a historical contextualization). So too does von Balthasar’s relationship with Renouveau Catholique, Neo-Scholasticism and Nouvelle Theologie, which is achieved by bringing key figures like Speyr, Rahner, and Lubac into the discussion. Balthasar’s works Présence et Pensée (1942) and Wahrheit (1947) are also discussed, with the latter work being examined in light of the context provided by Rahner’s new approach to transcendental philosophy.

The volume then concludes with a concluding chapter, an index of names, and a helpful five-page historical table with the dates and titles of von Balthasar’s publications in two columns and two other columns showing the contemporaneous literary movements (e.g. Blut-und-Boden) and local/global events (e.g. NYSE crash, rise of Swiss fascism, student fascist groups in Zurich, etc).

Hans Urs von Balthasar is the primary theologian from the Catholic tradition that I have been acquainting myself with. In order to understand the writings of a theologian, one needs to properly understand the Sitz im Leben that their works sprung from. This study from Paul Silas Peterson does a fantastic job of illuminating the world von Balthasar lived in and how it relates to his theology. I particularly appreciated the frank look at von Balthasar’s early anti-Semitism and other awkward aspects of his early work. This volume will appeal for those with interest in Hans Urs von Balthasar, European Catholicism, and twentieth-century German theology. If you are truly a fan of von Balthasar then this work should definitely be at the top of your list of books to read.