When he died at home in Tübingen, Germany, last Monday morning at age 98, the world could justly say that Jürgen Moltmann was the leading Christian theologian of the second half of the 20th century. He had championed liberation theology from South America, then imported it successfully to the West. He had inaugurated an eschatological “theology of hope” and freshly underlined the role of the Holy Spirit in mainstream Protestant and Catholic theology alike. His 1973 book, The Crucified God, had developed an almost instantaneous following among evangelical Christians on both sides of the Atlantic, and the full list of Moltmann’s literary output is dazzling.

I was Moltmann’s last overseas doctoral student, and we were close friends for 33 years. On Wednesday, I will fly to Germany to attend his funeral and interment at Tübingen. But today, I want to share with you a glimpse of his remarkable and faithful life.

Moltmann’s theological thinking emerged initially as the result of his captivity, from 1945 to 1948, as a German prisoner of war in Britain, as well as his searing experience as a teenage anti-aircraft gunner during the 1943 British air raid on Hamburg, his native city. After the war ended, he returned to Germany and studied theology at Göttingen under the Reformed theologian Otto Weber, and was much influenced by Karl Barth.

Moltmann then spent five years as a local pastor outside Bremen, during which time his wife Elisabeth gave birth to a stillborn child. It seemed an absurd and despairing event at the time, before the couple would go on to have four healthy daughters—how much more loss could God impose?

After that early pastorate, Moltmann gradually became world renowned. He supported James Cone’s development of Black theology in New York. In El Salvador, when six liberationist Jesuits were murdered in their beds by members of the Salvadoran military, one of the priests was reading The Crucified God when he was shot. Moltmann was especially popular in Eastern bloc countries behind the Iron Curtain, including East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A consistent world traveler, he would spend 10 years in the US as a visiting professor at Emory University in Atlanta, though Tübingen was always home base.

When I knew him, Moltmann was never cold nor remote, despite his prestige. He looked you straight in the eye, almost always warmly, and always had his students’ best interests at heart. If he was piqued, you could tell in a moment.

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Moltmann was more than an academic adviser. He helped me and my family through the seemingly impossible task of earning a Tübingen doctorate entirely within the German language, recognizing my wife Mary’s sacrifice in keeping us together during that period. One week, when he and I traveled from Tübingen to the UK, we spent an afternoon with my son John, who was at boarding school nearby. As we sat together on the airplane back to Germany, he said with real feeling, “Now I understand what you and Mary have taken on. I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

I was not the only beneficiary of this generosity. I once observed Moltmann pilot a very nervous doctoral student through his final oral examination. The student, who had traveled many miles for this moment, almost failed the test—until Moltmann saved the day with a question for which the student was equipped to give a good answer. He passed.

Moltmann observed the human dimension of all his students. That was exceptional in the extremely demanding world of doctoral candidates at Tübingen. Where other professors could be severe, Moltmann was not fearsome—not at all! He brought you in to his life and thought. He never left out the pastoral dimension, the feeling dimension, the pain and stress dimension of all with whom he came into contact.

After a year of slow progress under his tutelage—including having to master Hebrew durch Deutsch, the most arduous intellectual task I have ever been set—I was suddenly admitted to Herr Moltmann’s Lehrstuhl team in 1992. I was a sort of unpaid assistant for his research projects, and morale on the team was high. We wrote our respective dissertations, tutored undergraduates, edited and translated Moltmann’s manuscripts, and even created films and other popular programs for the wider community.

The night I gave my first full lecture to the team—fellow doctoral students, full-time assistants to Moltmann, and the man himself—I played, as an intro, an excerpt from Bob Dylan’s 1979 song, “Gotta Serve Somebody.” It went on a little too long, and I saw the professor blanch for a moment, as if wondering if he’d made a mistake in taking me on. But then the lecture came, my German was okay, and I could see him breathe a sigh of relief.

After my doctorate was completed in 1994, Mary and I returned to the US. I had been called to the post of dean and rector of Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama. We kept in close touch with the Moltmanns, both of whom were warmly welcomed when they visited our church to preach and teach.

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We saw them several other times on both sides of the Atlantic over the decades to come. Moltmann knew about the conflicts within the American Episcopal Church, which is my denomination, over questions of gay marriage and ordination. He was less traditional on the subject than I, but he sympathized with the challenges we faced at that time. I wish now that I had actively sought his wisdom, so enduringly affected by his wartime experience, during that fraught and difficult period.

I can think of almost no weaknesses in Moltmann’s character and soul, if I can put it that way. He loved those whom he was given to love with wholehearted enthusiasm. Once, I spent an afternoon in his company when a grandchild came to visit. It was as if Kris Kringle were right there in the flesh, crawling on the floor and cracking us all up.

He had more than a twinkle in his eye—he had a belly laugh, and often. It never felt like an act, as if he were trying to be “one of the boys” (or girls, as two of his three assistants were brilliant young women). It was simply that, after all he and Elisabeth had suffered, he remained an unfailingly practical optimist.

It is strange to recall that I first went to Tübingen to study under someone else—not Moltmann. Justification by faith was my intended subject, not liberation theology! It happened, however, that George Carey, the then–archbishop of Canterbury, called his friend Jürgen, not the other chap, to make my initial contact in Germany. And it became clear, very soon after I arrived, that the other chap was not the right person—not in a thousand light years.

One Sunday afternoon, in the garden at 25 Biesinger Strasse, Moltmann turned to me and said, “You forget about him. I like you. I’ll take you. And we’ll make it about justification.” I smiled inside and thought to himself, “This is God’s teacher for me. I want no other.”

Paul Zahl is a retired Episcopal priest. He and his wife, Mary, together with their three sons, John, David, and Simeon, were loved warmly and encouraged mightily by Jürgen Moltmann.