Theology and Joy

Written by J. Moltmann Reviewed By Geoffrey W. Bromiley

The SCM Press and SPCK are to be commended for making available in English some of the more recent writings of Jürgen Moltmann. Even if one is not prepared to follow him, Moltmann has emerged as one of the more penetrating and influential of modern theologians. His work needs to be reckoned with seriously both for the insights it may afford and also for the sake of knowing what reservations one must have in relation to it.

Of the three books in question two are brief and for the most part popular studies. Theology and Joyreproduces a work which, published in 1971, bore in the original the title The First Liberated Men in Creation. Based on a phrase of Herder in his essay On the Origin of Speech (1770), this is in fact a far more accurate title than the catchy English replacement, since Moltmann does not attempt a theology of joy, as one is led to expect, and liberation rather than the joy which it produces is his true theme.

What he is getting at is that in spite of the terrible suffering of humanity, play has a part in the world, since God himself engages in play rather than pursuing goals, and the liberation of the gospel, far from imposing on man an ethic of work or duty, releases him for the enjoyment of God. It does so because it releases man from the need to make something of himself, i.e., to do something in order to be something, by the ability to be what he is as one who is justified and made new in Jesus Christ.

For Moltmann the basis of liberation, namely, the cross of Christ, rules this out. For the cross itself is no joke and Jesus is not a clown. For Moltmann, again, the implications are far deeper. In terms of the contrast between Aristotle, for whom one becomes by doing, and Luther, for whom one does because one is, Christians are seen to be free for works of righteousness whose aim is not to make them into something but simply to please God. This also makes possible interaction at a personal level of being instead of a pragmatic one of doing. Worked out in secular life, e.g., economics, this can mean freedom from the tyranny of a production yardstick, whether according to a capitalist or a Marxist understanding.

Detached from an evangelical basis, all this can lead, of course, to unfortunate movements in both church and society. Moltmann himself, however, grounds it in the liberating act of Christ and a Lutheran doctrine of justification. Hence, even if he does not offer a true theology of joy, and provides little biblical support for his discussion, he presents us in the pamphlet with themes which are well worth further study.

Incidentally, the extended introductory essay by David Jenkins seems to serve no function except the practical one of adding enough material to the original essay to make it into a little book. Jenkins gets off to a poor start by having to explain his misleading title ‘The Liberation of “God” ’ and the rest consists merely of discussion of Moltmann and a few generalizations. Readers are advised to move on at once to Moltmann and let him speak for himself.

The book on Man, published in German in 1971, also takes the form of a theological essay rather than a technical study. In it Moltmann considers first various possible approaches to man, e.g., comparison with animals, the humanistic view, the ideal view, and the Utopian view. From this he moves on to his own answer in the theological sphere. Here we are confronted by the crucified Jesus, in whom, as true man, proud and unfortunate ‘gods’ are themselves made into true men. Then we come up against God’s criticism of man, in which man’s images of himself are shattered, his being in God’s image is made effective, and life in reconciliation and hope becomes a real possibility in love.

Since this is not a technical work, whatever biblical basis there is for Moltmann’s views is implicit rather than explicit. Theologically the essay adds another voice to the authentic concern that the theology of man should not relapse into mere anthropology or anthropotheology. As Calvin acutely observed, the knowledge of man, which is a proper interest of theology, comes only with the knowledge of God. Possibly the main strength of this little work lies in the helpful discussion of the different concepts of man which must be transcended if the true understanding, or rather the true being, of man is to emerge.

The most important volume of the three is obviously the full-scale book The Crucified God, which has not unjustly been hailed as the successor to The Theology of Hope. In this work Moltmann has taken up a major theme, deployed considerable resources of biblical and historical scholarship in its development, and written with an authority and vigour which forbid any easy dismissal of the result.

If there are technical criticisms, they are to be found at two levels. First, the scriptural and theological substructures both tend to be fragmentary and in many cases allusive, so that it is difficult to evaluate or even sometimes to follow the basic thinking which has gone into the book. Secondly, the style is consistently pontifical, in the best German tradition, almost all opinions being audaciously advanced as facts. At the same time, however, many passages have an allusive and even ambivalent character which may be due to profundity, but for which obscurity often seems to be a better explanation. Pontifical ambivalence is a confusing mixture.

In substance the study has many welcome features. As Moltmann himself tells us, the crucified Christ is vital to Christianity and has always been central in the author’s own thinking and faith. His aim, then, is to give the crucifixion its proper due, to make it a foundation for the theology of hope, and to work out its meaning and implications.

Again, Moltmann exposes vividly the dangers of a domestication of the cross, as in mysticism, the cult of the cross, its attempted imitation, or even its transformation into a magnificent artistic symbol. Insistently Moltmann presses us back to the harsh historical reality of Golgotha which even the victory won thereby must not be allowed to soften.

Thirdly, Moltmann understands that the trial which led to the death of Jesus, if it has an authentic religious and political aspect, has also at the deepest level a divine aspect. The true pain of Jesus lies finally in the fact that he died forsaken by God. ‘What happened on the cross took place between Jesus and his God, and between his Father and Jesus.’ The final trial is between God and God.

Fourthly, Moltmann asks—even if he does not successfully answer—some penetrating questions which the crucifixion seems to pose. Can the crucifixion be meaningful apart from a trinitarian doctrine of God? What does this do to the traditional concept of God in a philosophically shaped Christian theism? Can the time-honoured dogma of the two natures of Christ stand in face of the reality that Jesus died? What will be the form of trinitarian theology if the true crucifixion of Jesus is faced but patripassianism is to be avoided? Does the idea of a personal God finally make sense as distinct from the persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? If so, in what sense can one talk of the crucified God?

Finally, Moltmann makes a courageous if necessarily brief and not wholly convincing attempt to work out the anthropological implications of his teaching in terms of man’s psychological and political liberation. The section on political liberation is especially interesting in view of the author’s Marxist leanings. These have obviously been chastened by the Czech experience of Russian imperialism and yet he still insists that Christians have a political commitment. As he sees it, the cross of Christ frees the church for an authentic political theology by challenging a church which is entangled in religious politics and bringing it into fellowship with sufferers, the goal being, not a politics of right or left, but a christianizing of the church’s political situation, and the consequent rescuing of man out of the vicious circles of poverty, force, alienation, environmental pollution and meaninglessness.

In spite of these undeniable qualities, however, Moltmann’s book has no less evident weaknesses. The first is that, although the book is about the crucifixion, and the importance of this is everywhere emphasized, no clear or objective doctrine of the atonement may be discerned. Moltmann speaks about the solidarity of God with human suffering and the liberating action of being caught up in the love of God. What he does not speak of is the one sacrifice for sins, the bearing away of the sin of the world, the vicarious work of Jesus in relation to human sin and guilt, the divine act whereby God may both be just and also the justifier of the wicked. No propitiation, or expiation, is perceived at the heart of the event in which our offences were nailed to the cross.

Related to this, perhaps, is the second point that, while Moltmann naturally accepts the historicity of the crucifixion, he pushes the resurrection into a convenient eschatological category (pp. 166ff.). The disciples, according to one of his magisterial statements, knew the risen Lord in Easter visions to which the story of an empty tomb came to be attached. Now it goes without saying that the resurrection does have eschatological significance and that in the light of it the whole of the life and death of Jesus is also seen to have eschatological significance in the New Testament. But to reduce the resurrection itself to something exclusively eschatological, to deny its reality in history, is to strike at the very root not only of the Christian message but of the salvation event itself. Surely this eschatological act makes sense as such only because it is primarily a historical act.

Thirdly, Moltmann undoubtedly seems to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and to introduce linguistic confusion, in his curt dismissal of theism (pp. 207ff.) and his consequent attitude to atheism. One can certainly agree with him in his rejection of a specific form of theism which may or may not have had too big an influence in Christianity. Nor does tragedy ensue if there is some pessimism in relation to certain so-called theistic proofs. On Moltmann’s own very restricted definition of theism one might almost assent to the call for atheism, especially as Moltmann sees that this response suffers from the same defect as that to which it responds. At the same time, Moltmann’s failure to see that there might be an authentic theism derived from Scripture seriously weakens his whole discussion of the matter. This comes out in his opposing of trinitarianism to monotheism in a statement which, taken out of context, is bound to be misleading: ‘Christian faith is not radical monotheism’ (p. 215). What he means, of course, is that it is not philosophical or political monotheism. What he does not allow for is that there might be biblical monotheism too: ‘The Lord our God is one Lord.’

Fourthly, the doctrine of the two natures of Christ is much too hastily discarded. Moltmann is saying nothing new when he describes its difficulties. No-one need feel absolutely committed to the vocabulary and no-one is unaware of the problems posed by Nestorianism on the one side and Monophysitism on the other. But can the thesis of Moltmann really be sustained that it is only a non-biblical doctrine of divine apatheia which resists the frank confession that the second person of the Godhead suffered death? Does not the Bible itself present us with the truth that, while God may suffer the death of the cross in the incarnate Son, he is still God from everlasting to everlasting, whether as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit? Does it not have to be said in some way, whether with or without the two natures, that the eternal Son or Logos neither did nor could undergo cessation of being in himself but knew death in virtue of his incarnation, his becoming man, his human historical life? Even Moltmann himself, with all his stress on the fact that ‘if the divine nature … is the centre which creates a person in Christ … then it too suffered and died’, seems finally not to face his own logic, since he merges the death of the Son into a triadic event in which it turns out not to be death after all but life through death.

Fifthly, Moltmann’s criticism of early Greek influences is blunted by his own tacit submission to process philosophy, which does not appear to have any more solid foundation in Scripture. This submission comes out early in the book when the proper questions to ask about Jesus are discussed. Moltmann argues, not incorrectly, that the critical question is: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ But this is then seen as an open question, as though Jesus did not know but was trying to find out who he was to be. AH the answers, then, are right in different ways and no answer is a match for what is not a closed reality except as bounded by the final redemption. In this sense the author argues that apart from the name of Jesus ‘all the titles, as a response to his openness, are historically changeable’ and christology is ‘permanently in need of revision’. Along these lines one wonders how far Moltmann is prepared to go and why he remains so traditional in sticking to such titles as Christ or Son or Word. Later the same openness is presented as a category of the Godhead itself. The Trinity is a process and God, as distinct from the three persons, is an event, cf. pp. 244ff. This explains why Moltmann cannot accept any trinitarian life or being of God apart from the trinitarian action in relation to the world, his odd plea being that the opposite view is Greek and not biblical. Moltmann, one might almost say, is a new champion of the economic Trinity for whom the economic Trinity is the essential Trinity. It is little surprise that quotations from Hegel are not infrequent in the study and seem to have the same weight as those from Scripture or possibly a good deal more. What is meant when God is finally described as an event, not a person, is easy enough to see from the discussion (p. 247) but the author seems not to have been ready to face its implications. For instance, what does he mean on this theory when he calls his book The Crucified God? Is he after all speaking about ‘the event of the crucifixion’? Can ‘event’ be substituted for ‘God’ every time there is reference to God in the text? To pick a statement at random (p. 275), does it make any sense at all to say: ‘It is not the ascent of man to event but the revelation of event in its self-emptying in the crucified Christ which opens up event’s sphere of life to the development of man in it’? And who are the persons of Father, Son, and Spirit whom we can describe either individually or in concert only as event?

A final point should be obvious enough by now. Moltmann has a worthy theme and brings passion and conviction to its study. He writes with learning and Muteness, so that much of what he says deserves to be pondered. Nevertheless, he plainly does not accept the normativity of Scripture except, perhaps, as it filters through his interpretation of it in process terms. The crucifixion of Christ is a theme for which the Bible offers a particularly solid exegetical basis but the author chooses to go a different way, quoting verses when it suits his purpose but shunning systematic study and loading his Work instead with the insights of all kinds of other authors Who make a convincing display in the one index to the work, the index of names. Obviously for the process theologian the writers of the New Testament gave only preliminary and provisional answers. They provide no more than a springboard for more exciting explorations. Even their factual witness is only to events which can become all kinds of other things as the God who will be what he will be is constantly becoming new and different things in and with the thinking of those who name him and reflect on him. With this type of theology there cannot ultimately be any fruitful dialogue since there is no common ground on which it can take place. In this regard one might perhaps learn from the wisdom of Karl Barth, who once said that the only service one can render natural theology is to present it with its opposite. The only final service one can render to Moltmann’s process theology of the cross is to oppose to it, exegetically and theologically, the biblical teaching.

Geoffrey W. Bromiley

Professor of Historical Theology, Fuller College, Pasadena