In the history of theology, we find now this and now that dimension of the Gospel suddenly forcing itself into the center of attention. When this happens, it seems to strike no one as being strange; it is always as though this particular aspect is terribly important at this particular time. In our own time, the “theology of hope” is one of the centers of everyone’s concern.

Jürgen Moltmann’s book, The Theology of Hope (see February 16 issue, page 32), is a symptom of the Church’s new concern for eschatology. We could, of course, say that the Church has been busy with the eschatological side of the Bible for a long time. The days are passed, indeed, when theologians assumed that the eschatological problems were all solved or the eschatological structure wholly finished. At any rate, that eschatology looms large on the theological horizon is not a new discovery.

Many works have been devoted to the subject during the past thirty years. Still, Moltmann’s book already published in several translations, has earned unusual response, partly because of its stress on hope as an antidote to many forms of modern theology in which any expectation of a new and future act of God on earth, any reality of fulfillment, has been shoved aside. The “not yet” is not put in opposition to the “already come.” But Moltmann insists that the “realization” of the New Covenant, particularly in the resurrection of Christ, may never be a reason for ignoring the “yet to come.”

The manner in which Moltmann puts his thesis has provoked a great deal of discussion. This was apparent in the publication last year of Diskussion über die “Theologie der Hoffnung.” In this symposium, several writers offered their answer to Moltmann’s book and Moltmann himself responded extensively to his critics. The book sets several acute questions on the agenda, facing one another in tension. We cannot go into an analysis of the book here but can zero in on one point that is unusually important.

The prevailing charge made against Moltmann is that he is one-sided in his stress on the futuristic aspect of eschatology, and that this weakens, if it does not negate, the significance of what has already been realized in Christ. Moltmann denies this; the realized aspect is not whittled down by the fact that there is also a yet-to-be-realized aspect. Precisely in and because of what has been realized in Christ, the attention of the believer is directed toward the future.

Christ’s resurrection is the anticipation of the coming kingdom; but anticipation is not the same as arrival. Surely, Moltmann argues, faith is directed first of all to what has already been given. But on the basis of that, hope rises as the primary Christian disposition. Hope has its fundament in faith.

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The Church’s hope is not set on a kind of utopia; rather, it goes its way through this life in productive obedience. This does not mean that we—by our works—can build the Kingdom, in the fashion of a new social gospel. The obedience demanded of us is obedience to the God who promises the Kingdom in his time and his manner. Obedience flows from his promises. But His promises do not offer a vague future expectation; they offer a demand for obedience that is involved with action in today’s world. For the Spirit has in fact already been given for this, in the midst of creaturely need and misery, in the midst of a creation that is groaning for its redemption.

This world is not without perspective, and expectation for it does not leave us merely with dreams of the future. The perspective on the world given by God’s promise for the future summons us to service in the world here and now. The Spirit of the risen Christ grasps this world. And he does this, not as an intervention from above, from outside us, on his own, but through us, through our expectations, and through our readiness, and through our obedience.

One has to read Moltmann’s book in order to understand what all this means in the concrete, in the midst of our complex life in this complex century. Some of his critics have asked for more specific guidelines on obedience. Moltmann is the first to agree that many questions and much reflection must still be asked and given. But what he wants is to press the necessity of such reflection and to warn against defeatism in our world. He wants to summon the Church away from a spirit of hopelessness that sacrifices this real world to the “powers of evil and corruption” and uses eschatology only as an escape from this world, an eschatology that is void of perspective for today.

The discussion of Moltmann’s book is far from over. It would be interesting to consider how much it has in common with Pannenberg’s point of view; both men are captivated by the significance of history for the understanding of redemption. Moltmann himself says that he finds more in Pannenberg’s recent publication to agree with than to differ with.

But in any event, we are confronted anew with the questions of the “already” and the “not yet.” The “already” does not give us title to an “ecclesiology of glory”; rather, it reminds us of the cross and the resurrection, of the Gospel for the world in its need, and of our calling to go into this world with the promise of a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13). This promise is not an “escape” from the world; it is a word of promise, of expectation, and of responsibility.

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We ought to take note of all this and to be abreast of the discussion. For this is not abstract theology. It has to do with a theology that liberates us from the romanticism and individualism our flesh is tempted to adopt. It tells us that anyone who dreams of the future without accepting the challenges of today is not in tune with the biblical expectations and hope. The New Testament pictures the Church that has received the Spirit and is sent by the Spirit into the world. This does not rule out the reality of comfort, any more than it rules out the “for me” aspect of personal salvation. But it does rule out the notion that the Gospel is directed merely to us personally; it does rule out narrow and provincial individualism. It rules out any perspective that has no room for the wide and deep work of the Spirit in the whole gamut of our perspective of the Kingdom of God.

As a result of Moltmann’s book, we are brought up short and reminded to think and to preach about the future in a biblical perspective. If this happens, all the theological talks have borne good fruit. This is much more than an academic theological matter. It involves the Church, its hopes, and its expectations—and all this, not in tension, but in dynamic unity with its faith and its love.

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