Few “mainline” theologians hold as much interest for evangelicals as German theologian Jürgen Moltmann. A professor of theology at the University of Tübingen for over two decades, Moltmann sees Scripture as authoritative and the Resurrection as real in ways that set him apart from radical theologians.
Called by many the father of the “theology of hope,” Moltmann has had a profound effect on contemporary theology. Evangelicals will disagree with some of Moltmann’s conclusions, but he here offers some provocative perspectives on personal faith, culture, and the hope that stands at the center of his theology.
In a recent interview, you said you were “pleased that I came out of the abyss of war and prison camps as a Christian … that in the face of such things I moved from despair and anxiety to faith.” Could you describe that journey?
When I was 16 my school class was drafted to serve in the antiaircraft batteries in Hamburg. This was an adventure for us young boys. But in July 1943, we suffered one week of air attacks on Hamburg, and the whole city was in a firestorm. Our battery was in the center. A friend standing next to me was torn into pieces by the bombs; I was saved. I do not know why. Since that time, I have had two questions: Where is God? and, Why am I alive and not dead? I have been wrestling with answering these questions ever since.
At the time of the bombing, I was not a Christian. I was brought up in an “enlightened” family in Hamburg. My grandfather was a grand master of the Freemasons. And my attention was focused on studying mathematics and physics. I was fascinated by Einstein and quantum physics. Then I experienced the firestorm in Hamburg.
Was this the key event in your journey to faith?
It was one key event. I was then drafted in 1944 into the German army. We were brought to the front as poorly trained soldiers in order to die so Hitler might live a few months longer. In Holland at Arnhem in February 1945, I was captured by the British. At night I stumbled into a trench of British infantry. I put my hands up and said, “I surrender!” One of the British soldiers said, “Who are you? Are you kidding?” Then they discovered I was a poor German soldier. I was brought to a prison camp in Belgium. This was a hard time. There was a point where I lost all my hope and self-confidence because the German culture was guilty of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. In prison they showed us big pictures of Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. I broke down and became very sick—physically sick.
I would have been happier at that time if I had died as many of my comrades did. They just gave up and died. The eastern part of Germany, East Prussia and Silesia, had been destroyed. It was a terrible time.
It was a group of Christians who then came to me and took me into their circle. They spoke about Christian faith and the Bible. There was a Bible reading. One time an American army chaplain came and distributed small New Testaments with Psalms.
As I read the Bible, the psalms especially spoke to me. My situation was expressed in Psalm 39 in particular. And I was drawn more and more into the story of Christ. When he died on the cross and cried, “Why have you forsaken me?” I suddenly felt he was my brother—in the same situation as I was. I felt he would understand. So I came to Christian faith. Or, as I said in a sermon recently, “I didn’t find Christ, he found me.” I tried to understand the Christian faith more and more—to find out about the truth in it. I began to study theology. I became the first black sheep in my family!
What key figures and events made a significant impact on your understanding of the Christian faith?
I was brought from Belgium to Scotland as a prisoner of war. We worked on the reconstruction of areas damaged in the bombing. Suddenly I was transferred to another camp near Nottingham, England, run by the YMCA, and filled with theology and education students. I also read my first theological book. I think it was Reinhold Niebuhr’s Nature and Destiny of Man. I understood nothing, but was deeply impressed. I studied theology and learned Hebrew there.
In 1947, four of us were invited to the first postwar Student Christian Movement conference in Swanwick, a conference center near Derby, England. This conference left a deep impression on me. I had my first opportunity to talk to Dutch people of Jewish origin. I experienced the confession of sin and reconciliation. It was very moving. I had already experienced reconciliation in my relationships with the Scottish workers who accepted us as real comrades and fellows. They were very gracious and kind.
I then studied theology at Gottingen University in Germany, mostly with followers of Karl Barth and theologians who were engaged with the confessing [nonstate] church in Germany. So I came to identify with that tradition.
You have said that the advantage of American evangelicals is that they start with the biblical tradition, whereas liberal theologians start with their religious feelings. What function does Scripture hold in your theological work and how you define its authority and trustworthiness?
The Bible is a book of God’s promises. At the center is the incarnate promise of God in Christ. I trust with my whole heart that this promise is true. This does not imply that every human word that is spoken in the Bible is of the same quality. But the essence is the promise, in which I put the full trust of my heart.
The promise of God to us in Christ?
Yes. It is the promise that God became incarnate in Christ and is spoken of in the words of Scripture. This word of God is infallible for me. Otherwise I could not put the whole trust of my heart in it.
Is Moltmann The Evangelicals’ Ally?
Many regard Jiirgen Moltmann as one of the most influential Protestant theologians alive today. He was catapulted into the theological spotlight with the publication of his Theology of Hope in 1965, which gave rise to a school of theology with the same name, a theology also often associated with theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg.
In the earliest phase of his theology, Moltmann emphasized the unique authority of divine revelation, which he equated with God’s promises recorded in the Bible. He also identified God very closely with the “power of the future,” which invades the present in anticipatory events such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In many respects, this early work was tied to the optimistic, future-oriented spirit of the 1960s. Moltmann’s second major book, The Crucified God (1973), sought to redress this triumphalistic imbalance by speaking of God suffering along with creation in the Cross of Jesus Christ. Taking his cue from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statement that “only the suffering God can help,” he strove for a response to the problem of evil that avoided a rationalistic defense of God and instead traced the entire history of the Trinity in the event of the suffering and dying Christ.
Some interpreters, including many evangelicals, have considered this book to be Moltmann’s best work and virtually a modern classic. At times it waxes sermonic in its beautiful portrayal of the involvement of the Father in the offering up of the Son on the cross. Moltmann got more mileage out of Jesus’ cry of dereliction—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—than one would think possible. Some critics, however, were troubled by resemblances to the patripassian heresy (that the Father suffered on the cross). Others pointed to Moltmann’s intertwining of the history of God with human history as evidence of a bent toward pantheism. Yet others were disturbed by hints of tritheism (which would deny the unity of God).
Many evangelicals responded positively to these two books and began to consider Moltmann and the theology of hope allies in countering radical theology’s skepticism and process theology’s diminishment of God’s deity. Indeed, Moltmann has always combined an evangelical spirit with his futuristic speculations about the advent of the kingdom of God within history.
Hints of panentheism
Beginning with Moltmann’s Trinity and the Kingdom (1980), however, concerns about his latent tritheism were validated by the way he developed the relationship of the persons of the Trinity. Also confirmed were fears that Moltmann was taking a disturbing turn toward the immanence of God within creation—both history and nature. Some critics detected in the book subtle hints of panentheism, the view that God and the world are inseparably and reciprocally related. This suspicion was confirmed in his next major book, God in Creation (1985), in which he described a theology suitable for ecological practice and activism and openly affirmed the “perichoretic relationship” between God and the world—a relationship of fellowship, mutual need, and mutual interpenetration. In that book, he strongly suggested a model of the world as God’s body.
In The Way of Jesus Christ (1989), Moltmann carried this panentheistic theme further in a cosmic Christology. God’s “process” of Incarnation begun in Jesus Christ, he argued, is completed only in the future “deification of the cosmos.”
While fully appreciating Moltmann’s emphasis on the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the Trinity, and the glorious hope of a real kingdom of God on earth, evangelicals should be wary of embracing him as one of their own. His panentheistic view of God and the world raises questions about God’s transcendence, sovereignty, and complete freedom-all themes necessary for understanding the graciousness of God’s relationship with us.
By Roger E. Olson, professor of theology at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and coauthor of 20th Century Theology (InterVarsity).
Do you believe its infallibility lies in God’s action in Christ?
Its infallibility lies in God’s trustworthiness, which will not fail. It is not like the infallibility of the Pope. It is the trustworthiness of God—absolute and without doubt. Otherwise you cannot put the trust of your heart in it. This is the personal commitment of God to keep his promise. This kind of truth is not identical with a mathematical equation such as 2 × 2 = 4. It is another quality of truth.
You have said that while American fundamentalists have a great trust in the Bible, they “don’t understand what they read.” In what ways?
I do not understand the apocalypticism, the Armageddon theology, of Hal Lindsey and others. I don’t see this in the Scripture. In Scripture I see that the crucified and resurrected Christ is the Lord. I see that the future of the new creation—the rebirth of life—has already begun with Christ in the Spirit. Therefore, I’m not an apocalypticist of the type that speculates about the end of the world.
What place do the classical creeds and ancient Christian writers have in modern church life and theological endeavor?
The confessions of faith should lead to actual faith. They are not abstract formulas that we recite in worship services but nobody actually thinks about. According to my Reformed understanding of creedal confession, the creeds are a manual for faith today. Therefore, we should rewrite these creeds and confessions, without neglecting the tradition behind them.
In what way would new creeds differ from or supplement the classical creeds?
My evangelical church in Germany wrote a new creed in 1934 when facing the trial of life under Hitler’s regime—the Barmen Declaration. This was a statement in which we both confessed and condemned. It was both a yes and a no.
You have spoken of faith as an ongoing process, one that must be carefully related to whatever situation we find ourselves in. What are the blind spots of the past in theological thinking or action that must be clarified today?
In the Nicene and the Apostles’ creeds there is no attention given to the historical mission of Jesus—his healing ministry, for instance. Between “born” and “suffered” in the Apostles’ Creed, there is just a comma. People again and again discover the witness of the Gospels to the messianic mission of Christ, to his healing ministry, to his acceptance of tax collectors.
What are some modern moral blind spots that classical tradition can help us address?
One is the assumption that nuclear war can have a winner. In the time of the East-West conflict under the threat of a nuclear holocaust, my commitment was to unconditional nonviolence and peace. I would not join any army on the edge of starting a nuclear holocaust. In earlier times, wars were terrible but not the end of humankind. But under the presupposition of nuclear bombs, a world war would bring humankind to an end.
The question of justice is also extremely important. I think we need a new concept of social justice that works toward some form of equality through democracy—toward a government of the people, for the people, by the people.
And we have the question of the destruction of nature. The whole life system of the Earth has been brought out of balance by humanity and may die. Year after year hundreds of species of plants and animals become extinct. The ozone layer is being destroyed. The soil is increasingly poisoned. If we cannot change these trends we may be part of the collective suicide of humanity. Therefore, we need a new ecological theology. I tried to start this with my book God in Creation.
What is the chief mission of the church in the world?
We should proclaim an unconditional yes to life. We should say yes to one’s own life and to the life of other people, to the life of those who are starving in Third World countries, and to the life of the unborn.
What counsel might you offer to those who struggle with the question of God’s goodness? How are suffering and the purposes of God related?
In the theological tradition, we have the metaphysical presupposition that God is by nature apathetic, that God cannot suffer. I broke with this axiom in my book The Crucified God. I believe God suffers with us. Wherever sorrow cuts through our hearts it is also cutting through the heart of God. Every suffering person can be certain that his or her suffering is a part of the suffering of God.
What is God’s word to us in a world where horrors such as Auschwitz and Hiroshima can take place?
We learn to hope under the shadow of the Cross. Our optimism may break down, but if we keep close to Christ our hope will be reborn. Nowhere in the world do I find people so hopeful as in the slums of Latin America. I learned to live by this real hope—a hope founded on the promise of God—in prison camp. I hope that this power will never leave me, either at the time of my death or in my suffering.
On the other hand, in the rich quarters of the world, I find a lot of cynicism and deterioration of hope.
How can a theology of the Cross help address the spiritual illnesses of a success-oriented society like the United States?
America is a success-oriented society only when viewed from the outside. Behind this exterior is anxiety and fear—the fear that one won’t make it; the fear that we are nothing and have to make something out of ourselves. The gospel tells people that they are something.
How does the Cross tie in?
God accepted us in the Cross of Christ. Therefore, we can accept ourselves when the shadows of the Cross come over our lives and we can’t make it, when we are weak and full of pain and sorrow. We should not repress this and should not keep smiling all the time. We are free to cry.
How does an individual enter into the kingdom of God?
That is the wrong question. We are not coming to the kingdom. The kingdom of God comes to us through the word of Christ. Perhaps the kingdom has already come to us, and we must only discover ourselves in it.
The lost sheep and the lost coin could do nothing to be found in Jesus’ parables. They are found by the shepherd and the woman in Luke 15. Or in Matthew 18, we find that the children are already members of the kingdom. The question is not how to find Christ, but to discover that Christ has already found us. Then comes our response.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more