One of the most influential theologians of his time, Moltmann was
Professor of Systematic Theology at Tubingen University (in what was then
Western Germany) for more than 25 years. During that time he was strongly
influenced by both Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and, in the 1960s and 70s,
was involved in the general Christian dialogue of the day with Marxists.
His distinct orientation of theology towards politics moved him later to
focus on the European "Peace" and "Green" movements. He also became increasingly
open to dialogue with exponents of Roman Catholic, Orthodox and liberation
His theology can be generally classed as dialectical, in that he was
concerned with tensions between aspects of Christian doctrine - the Cross and
the Resurrection, death and life, an absent God and a present God and so on. All
these he related to negative aspects of the world like sin, suffering and death
as well as to positive aspects such as what he perceived as God's ongoing act of
creation which was to issue in a new order.
Moltmann's extensive theology is, however, blighted by a methodological
failing. In his earlier works such as Theology of Hope (1964) he derives
his conclusions from the Bible. If in doing so he doesn't give enough credence
to what were then well-substantiated doubts about what biblical material
is historical and what kerygmatic, his work is nevertheless relatively sound.
His later works display an increasing lack of awareness of the distinction
between what Jesus may have thought, taught and lived out and the early Church's
interpretation of what they knew about Jesus. Recent work has shown conclusively
that the Jesus of history is a relatively shadowy figure. It also indicates
strongly that early interpretations of Jesus were strongly influenced by
reference to Old Testament theology (Isaiah for instance). He also appears to
have little or no understanding of the analogical nature of theology - that is,
the degree to which God-talk (theology) consists of image and metaphor.
As a result, Moltmann's theological castles appear today as elaborations
built upon suspect foundations. Critics perceive them as somewhat
ill-disciplined speculation tied too loosely to sound historical and critical
biblical work. In a sense, Moltmann became unconsciously mythological.
Moltmann thought of God as centrally a "community of divine persons" (the
Trinity) who interact in and with the world. Because this interaction is
ongoing, theology (and therefore teaching) can never be completed. It is
essentially "relational" - any standpoint is relative to others in a developing,
organic relationship. But he appears to have had little difficulty with the
central idea of revelation in relation to the whole body of human knowledge and
If God interacts with the world then change is natural. Moltmann's
orientation was therefore strongly practical. Theology as a discourse aims to
change the world (the opposite of stagnation) in order the better to orientate
creation towards the coming kingdom of God.
This eschatological strand is common to all Moltmann's work. It's not an "end
of all things in clouds of glory" sort of eschatology. Rather, he thought of it
as changing the present in the direction of the "future" towards God's kingdom.
The Resurrection of Jesus (however one understands it) is the first step. It
sets in motion the new order and spells out the eventual end of evil, suffering
Moltmann's practical streak emerges in his approach to the problem of pain
and suffering. Why, if God "loves" us does he allow us to suffer so terribly?
Moltmann doesn't offer a theoretical solution. Instead, he points to the way in
which Jesus identifies with all sufferers through his death on the cross.
If the world of suffering doesn't correspond to our image of God now, we can
recognise that there's a promise of a social reality which does. One can't help
wondering how much Moltmann was influenced by post-war optimism in his
conclusions. Instead of a personal development theory (people as individuals
will develop towards perfection) he offers social improvement ending in a
"kingdom of God".
Moltmann thinks that the bridge between the present and this wonderful social
future is the Church. Because God loves the world, God affects it and is
affected by it. (Moltmann rejects the teaching that God can't suffer or change.)
Therefore the Church can't claim to be absolute. It doesn't have access to
final truth, nor can it teach that "salvation" is mediated only by Jesus. He
goes further: the Church must be open to radical reform and renewal.
In the same way a practical eschatology reinforces and brings about radical
changes in society. Humans don't rule nature, but relate to it as part of a
whole community of living beings. Moltmann asserts that monotheism tends to
legitimate monarchical domination and subjection. In contrast, the loving
inter-relationship of the members of the Trinity demand human relationships of
freedom and equality, and a recognition of human rights.
The source of the life-giving process in which we are all so deeply involved
is, thinks Moltmann, what is usually called the "Spirit": "� the eternal Spirit
is the divine wellspring of life - the source of life created, life preserved
and life daily renewed, and finally the source of eternal life of all created
being" (The Spirit of Life). This emphasis marked Moltmann's break with
Barth, who thought of the Spirit as primarily the source of the revelation of