DialoguesTheology & Spirituality

Jürgen Moltmann’s Unique Theology: A Critique

Christopher Warne has recently given us something to think about in his first and second takes on Moltmann’s challenge to the doctrine of God’s impassibility. There were many things that caught my eye over these two posts. Here is one. Warne claims that, on the point of God’s impassibility at least, Moltmann comes to “a unique conclusion, that he “rejects the traditional doctrine,” that he “takes a new approach,” that he “makes a unique statement,” that he takes issue “with traditional Christology and the doctrine of God,” etc.

Warne’s claims about Moltmann “uniqueness” (at least on this point) are certainly in keeping with Moltmann’s own thinking about the doing of theology. In the wonderful little book Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology, Moltmann contributes an essay, “A Lived Theology” (87-95), in which he reflects on the development of his own theological thought. I want to highlight the consistency of Moltmann’s own claims with those of Warne, and then pick at them a bit (Moltmann’s claims, that is, not Warne’s).

Moltmann and ‘unique’ theology

After briefly narrating the dark history of his survival (barely!) of the 1943 bombing of Hamburg, his hometown, and his time as a POW in Britain, he recounts his time of study at Göttingen, studying the reformed theology of the school of Saumur. From there, he and his new wife Elisabeth Wendel entered pastoral ministry in small German villages for a number of years, after which he became a full academic, first at Wurpertal and eventually at Tübingen.

It was while at Wurpertal that he and another young professor, Wolfhart Pannenberg, “had begun to develop our own theology, without looking over our shoulders at tradition and the great who had preceded us” (90). He says that his first work, Theology of Hope, came out of this period of “youthful iconoclasm” (90). And though he wouldn’t characterize his later thought as ‘youthful,’ he would, I think, still call it ‘iconoclastic.’ For Moltmann, ‘developing our own theology’ became programmatic. This is not to say that he developed his theology in ignorance of tradition or other ‘greats’ of the Christian faith. Indeed, Moltmann was, in good German academic style, well read in the history of Christian thought and in contemporary Christian thought (though that does not mean that he had read well those traditions). But for Moltmann, theology is a personal–i.e. individual–conviction; it is highly contextual and eclectic.

Warne claims that Liberation is “a central theme in Motmann’s writing,” and again Moltmann agrees. He had, Moltmann says, always “supported… contextual theologies to the best of [his] abilities” (92). By ‘contextual theologies’ he means those theologies built upon theological reflection from, in and on a particular context: liberation theology (oppressed communities in south America) and its children: black theology (African American communities in America), Feminist theology (women in America), Minjung theology (ostracized communities in Korea), and the like. Curiously, he noticed that his support for these had a backfiring effect:

I think that it was in a conference in 1977 in Mexico City that I suddenly realized, ‘You’re not black, so black theology is not for you; you’re not oppressed so you can’t be a liberation theologian; and you’re not a woman, so for you feminist theology is not a possibility.’ (92)

Precisely in supporting such ‘contextualization’ of theology he had supported his own exclusion from most of such theologizing. This, it seems, was not too much a bother to him. Rather than causing him to question the legitimacy of such ‘theologies’, it pushed him, he says, to further his own project: “So I began my ‘systematic contributions’ to theology” (92).

The six volumes, including Theology of Hope, of his systematic contribution, treating God, God and creation, Christology, pneumatology, eschatology, and, finally, prolegomena – or as he has it, epilegomena, were not meant as ‘contributions’ in any traditional sense. They were not, for Moltmann, contributions to the Christian tradition:

Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said that he had no wish to be the slave of any master or the master of any slave. In a different context, the same could be said of me. I had no wish to be the teacher of students eternally bound to me, or to be the mere student of teachers to whom I was eternally bound. My theology is not intended for repetition. It is intended to stimulate people towards their own theological thinking and their own theological experience. If two people say the same thing, one of them is superfluous (93).

Warne is right, so far as I can tell. Moltmann’s desire was to be unique. He pursued that desire and, in many instances, achieved it.

The trouble with being unique

It is just at this point that I rather scratch my head. Insofar as Moltmann desires that people follow Paul’s advice to the Corinthians and not make him, or any other, a personal idol and a cause for division in the church, his desire to be neither the master nor the slave of anyone is commendable. But surely he must also follow Paul who calls himself a slave of Christ. This is what is so troubling about Moltmann’s individualistic notions of theology. It is a classic maxim of Christianity that ‘no one can have God as their Father who does not have the church as their mother.’ I think it could also be said ‘no one can have Christ for a husband who is not part of the church, his bride.’ To put it another way, theology is confession with the church.

To give an example, at a very fundamental level isn’t theology supposed to be only repetitious? Aren’t Christians today to join the myriads of Christians in the past who confess “Christ is Lord.” Is not the end of every Christian, persons from every tribe and tongue and nation – not merely two, but multitudes of people – to repeat the refrain “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being” and “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Is this repetition superfluous?

It may be objected, ‘of course not! That is not what Moltmann is getting at. Moltmann is simply saying that theology as an academic practice of one person’s reflections upon his or her experiences of God in life is not the sort of thing that bears repeating.’ In an academic setting theological repetition is superfluous.

My response: so much the worse for academic theology, I suppose. Theology cannot be mere testimony of one’s experience of God, however important that is. It is confession with the church. Further, it is not confession of one’s personal experience. No, it is confession of what it, the church, has heard. It is personal confession of what the church has heard, to be sure; but what the church has heard is not legion. Thus, theology is fundamentally repetition; repetition of what God has taught his church to confess.

If, as Warne claims, historical theologians have indeed reminded us that the doctrine of impassibility is a hold-over from the early church’s entanglement with Greek metaphysics (a claim very dubitable), so much the worse for historical theologians. If, as the German style model of a university has it, repetition in theology means superfluous redundancy, so much the worse for that model. If, as Moltmann claims, one’s own theology is to be beholden to no one, so much the worse, I think, for Moltmann’s theology.

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is professor of theology at Yellowstone Theological Institute in Bozeman, MT, where he lives with his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids.

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