Jöurgen Moltmann (born 1926) was professor of systematic theology at the University of Tubingen. During the mid-1960s he achieved international prominence as the leading exponent of the "theology of hope." This, along with subsequent works in Christology, anthropology, and ethics, established him as one of Germany's most important Protestant theologians of the 20th century.
Jöurgen Moltmann was born in 1926 in Hamburg, Germany. His childhood and pre-university education were lived during the years of the Nazi regime. In 1944 he was sent off to war and was captured (in February 1945) by the British. Although the war ended three months later, he was held as a prisoner of war for more than three years in Scotland and England. These were formative years for Moltmann. He spoke of the guilt and inconsolable grief he felt over the crimes of his country and the necessity of standing up to it all. Then an army chaplain gave him a New Testament with Psalms. His previous experience with the Bible and religion had been indifferent and inconsequential. But, he related that "these Psalms gave me the words for my own suffering."
Abandoning his previous plans to study physics and mathematics, Moltmann returned to Germany to study theology at the University of Gottingen, where the leading faculty (especially Otto Weber) had belonged to the Confessing Church, independent from the national church and opposed to Hitler. Upon graduation in 1952 he became pastor of a parish church in Wasserhorst. His doctoral dissertation, written under Weber and completed in 1957, resulted in a teaching position in a seminary of the Confessing Church at Wuppertal. He says that he took the position uncertain there was anything more for theologians to say after the monumental Church Dogmatics of Karl Barth. But important university positions, for a brief time at Bonn (where Barth had once taught) and then at Tubingen, soon opened for him.
Began Formulating "Theology of Hope"
At the dawn of the 1960s the theme of hope was in the air. Politically, there was John F. Kennedy's American "Camelot," and in Prague there was to appear Alexander Dubcek's "Socialism with a human face." Religiously, there was the aggiornamento of Pope John XXIII and the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. But it was decisively the reading of Das Prinzip Hoffnung (The Principle of Hope) by Ernst Bloch—the free thinking Marxist philosopher from the former East Germany (later a refugee to the West, and Tubingen)—that stimulated Moltmann to formulate a "theology of hope." Bloch argued with persuasive scholarly insight that what is essentially and characteristically human is neither enchantment with the past (Freud and behaviorism) nor preoccupation with the present (existentialism, mysticism, and platonism), but anticipation of the future. He developed an ontology of "not yet being" in which the future, like a vacuum, draws the present away from the grips of the past and toward an ever new and potentially better future.
For Moltmann this was secular confirmation of what scholars had been saying since the turn of this century about Biblical anthropology and eschatology. From the promises made to Abraham to the message of the prophets, from Jesus' preaching about the Kingdom of God to John's vision of a new heaven and a new earth, an orientation toward the future, with anticipation and hope, is central to the self understanding of both Old and New Testament writers. Where Biblical thought and Moltmann differ from Bloch is in their insistence that standing on the horizon of the future is not a vacuum but the "God of hope."
Writings Explored Christian Doctrine
Moltmann's book Theology of Hope (German edition 1964, English 1967) is probably the most articulate and creative work of theology written during the second half of the 20th century. He was not, however, the only theologian of hope, and he worked in cordial relations with his contemporary from Gottingen days, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and with the Roman Catholic theologian Johannes B. Metz. Furthermore, Moltmann was not the captive of his own popularity as a theologian of hope. His writings explore and contribute to the full spectrum of Christian doctrine. In The Crucified God (1974) he returned to the theme of his prisoner-of-war days: defeat, despair, and death. He proposed that the cross of Christ is revelatory of the life of God and that, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and historic patripassionism have suggested, "only a suffering God can help us."
But Moltmann insisted that the resurrection of Christ is God's decisive word to us and that this hope requires an appropriate response in social, economic, and political life. Faith shows its "hope for the life that defeats death in … protest against the manifold forms of death"—the economic death of the starving, the political death of the oppressed, the social death of the handicapped, the technological death of the war-torn. The theology of hope is, therefore, political theology, defying the forces of death and practicing confidence not in circumstances or in feelings but in the promises of God.
Other works by Moltmann include Trinity and the Kingdom (1980), God in Creation (1985), and The Way of Jesus Christ (1989). In Trinity and the Kingdom, critics noted the surfacing of Moltmann's ideas on tritheism—the idea that each aspect of the Trinity is a separate God—beginning to emerge. Trinity also hinted at panentheism—the view that God and the world are connected—which was becoming part of his theology. This idea was carried further in God in Creation and The Way of Jesus Christ.
Further Reading on Jöurgen Moltmann
In addition to Theology of Hope and The Crucified God, Experiences of God (1980) provides a good introduction and contains a helpful autobiographical essay. The Church in the Power of the Spirit (1977) provides a profound study of mission for the modern church. The Trinity and the Kingdom (1981) further develops the doctrine of God. See also The Power of the Powerless (1983) and On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics (1984). (Dates are for the English editions.) For evaluations, see Martin E. Marty and Dean G. Peerman (editors), New Theology No. 5 (1968) and New Theology No. 6 (1969); Frederick Herzog, The Future of Hope: Theology as Eschatology (1970); M. Douglas Meeks, Origins of the Theology of Hope (1974); and Christopher Morse, The Logic of Promise in Moltmann's Theology (1979).
See also Christianity Today January 11, 1993; The Future of Theology: Essays in Honor of Jéurgen Moltmann, Eerdmans, 1996; Moltmann, Jéurgen, Love [videorecording]: The Foundation of Hope—A Celebration of the Life and Work of Jéurgen Moltmann and Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, Harper & Row, 1988.