Jürgen Moltmann’s Addendum to the Creeds

I’ve been hearing for some time folks (like N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight) argue that even the earliest creeds we have (e.g. the Apostle’s Creed) neglect critical components of Jesus’ life, mission and teaching – giving the impression the only really important thing to know about Jesus is that was born of a virgin, that he died, and that he rose again. They observe (correctly I think) that this skips over most of the narrative found in all four canonical gospels.

Over the weekend I read a great popular-level book by Jürgen Moltmann called Jesus Christ for Today’s World.  In the introduction Moltmann also notes the life-of-Jesus-gap in the creeds, and suggests something of an addendum for consideration (p. 3-4):

“I have always missed this presence of the earthly Jesus in the Christian creeds. Why is it reduced to a mere comma between ‘born” and ‘suffered’? Ought we not to add – at least in thought –

Baptized by John the Baptist,

Filled with the Holy Spirit

to proclaim God’s kingdom to the poor,

to heal the sick

to receive the rejected,

to awaken Israel for the salvation of the nations,

and to have mercy on all human beings”

Great suggestion. Thanks, Molty!

A “Theocratic” basis for Democracy

I stumbled upon this short-ish (two paragraph) section in Jürgen Moltmann’s Ethics of Hope, which summarizes his argument for “theocratic democracy”. I realize that “theocracy” is something of a loaded word in our day and age, so many of us would be hesitant to use it the way he does for fear of being misunderstood. But I think Moltmann’s argument is worth hearing out.

Today the word ‘theocracy’ is used for religious dictatorships which want to dominate everything in the name of God. That is wrong. Literally speaking, ‘theocracy’ says that all power and force belong to God alone and that it is therefore in principle withdrawn from human scope. No one has the right to rule over other human beings, for God alone is the Lord. If human beings are to rule over the earth, they have to be given the charge by God (Gen. 1.26), since ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness theof, the world and those who dwell therein’ (Ps. 24:1). Understood this way, in a theocracy the fear of God permits no one to rule by the grace of God. If human beings act as representatives of other human beings, and thus exercise rule, that rule must be humanely based and answerable to God, to whom all power belongs.

Through the influence of Christianity, the cult of the God-emperor came to an end in Europe and was replaced by intercession for the ruler, for whom power was a danger and a temptation. Under the absolutism of Louis XIV, the sovereign was not answerable to the people. In the Nazi dictatorship, the Führers’ will counted as law. In the Communist totalitarian state, the party ‘was always right’. Calvinist theocracy taught absolute and total resistance to these absolute and total deifications of the state, providing the justification for the alternative of modern times: constitutional democracy. The prohibition of images and the fight against idolatry had lasting political consequences. In America, democracy is always viewed as the Christian form of the state and put in relation to the kingdom of God. It was only in the old countries of Europe that democracy counted as atheistic or relativistic, because in France it had to prevail not only against political absolutism but also against the clericalism and papism of the Roman Catholic Church. True tolerance, springing from concern for other people, is rooted in the theocracy which withdraws human beings from the absolutist claim of others or of a state. Since modern democracy was founded on the basis of universal human rights, it has a charge for humanity and a missionary character of its own: ‘To save the world for democracy.’ In this slogan parables of God’s universal kingdom of peace and his righteousness are evident.

Ethics of Hope, p. 23-24 

The Church and Politics (Moltmann Style)

I’ve been on a bit of an “ethics” kick over the last couple months, having tackled Ethics by Deitrich Bonhoeffer, The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder, and The Violence of Peace by Stephen Carter.

I’m trying to squeeze in at least one more book on Christian political ethics before the election: On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics by my 2012 favorite theologian, Jurgen Moltmann.

A certain line of Moltmann’s thought provides an interesting contrast to something that came up in popular media last week: Pulpit Freedom Sunday, championed by (among others) Wesleyan pastor Jim Garlow (here is an interview Garlow did on the Colbert Report). Just yesterday, thousands of pastors across America “stood up for their right” to free political speech from the pulpit by endorsing specific American political philosophies, platforms, parties and candidates to their respective congregations. You know, as a way of thumbing their noses at the IRS for making their tax-exempt status contingent on not doing such things.

Like Garlow, Moltmann thinks that political freedom for the church is important… but for an entirely different reason:

“What is Christian is the championing of the neighbor’s right, the defense of the other, thus the renouncing of one’s own rights.” (On Human Dignity, p 10)

There’s nothing uniquely Christian about standing up for our own rights. Everyone does that. What is Christian is to put our neighbor’s rights above our own, leveraging what “religious freedom” we have towards the liberation of others. This, says Moltmann, is Christian witness to the triune God.

Christianity understands itself as witness to the triune God who liberates human beings from inward and outward inhumanity, who allows them to live in his covenant, and who leads them to the glory of his kingdom. Christians therefore stand up for the dignity of human beings out of which emerges their rights and duties. For the sake of God they will stand up with all means at their disposal, acting as well as suffering, for the dignity of human beings and their rights as the image of God. For their service to the humanity of persons they need the right to religious freedom, the right to form a community, and the right to public speech and action.
~On Human Dignity, p 35

Theodicy as “the open wound of life”

Earlier today I was skimming the comment section on Pastor Brad Strait’s recent viral blog post about a member of his congregation who has miraculously survived the recent shooting in Aurora, Colorado. It’s a truly touching story – the kind that gives the faithful goosebumps and reminds us of God’s gracious involvement in our world.  I love to hear stories like this, and I do think that this is the kind of thing we should thank God for.

But… you don’t have to scroll down very far to see the predictable (and understandable!) responses from the skeptic crowd: “Miracle?! Tell that to the families of those who died. God’s choice to save one person was a choice not to save others. How can you believe in a god like that?” [And, as an aside, it appears that Pastor Brad has been attempting to respond to these objections intelligently and gracefully]

This of course touches on the question of theodicy: If God is both “good” and “all-powerful” – why suffering and evil? 


Before we jump into this with one of the typical pat responses (like: “This is all part of God’s bigger plan,” or, “God gave humans free will, and can’t be blamed for what humans do with it”)…  let’s step back for a moment. Is there ever a truly satisfying “answer” to this question, especially to the one suffering? In The Trinity and the KingdomJürgen Moltmann reminds us of what is at stake when we enter into this question:

It is in suffering that the whole human question about God arises; for incomprehensible suffering calls the God of men and women in question. The suffering of a single innocent child is an irrefutable rebuttal of the notion of the almighty and kindly God in heaven. For a God who lets the innocent suffer and who permits senseless death is not worthy to be called God at all. Wherever the suffering of the living in all its manifold forms pierces our consciousness with its pain, we lose our childish primal confidence and our trust in God. The person who is torn by suffering stands alone. There is no explanation of suffering which is capable of obliterating his pain, and no consolation of a higher wisdom which could assuage it. The person who cries out in pain over suffering has a dignity of his own which neither men nor gods can rob him of. The story of Job makes this evident; and since that time no theology can fall below Job’s level. The theology of `Job’s friends’ is confuted. Does Job have any real theological friend except the crucified Jesus on Golgotha?
~Jürgen Moltmann. The Trinity and the Kingdom (Kindle Locations 782-789). My emphasis. 

Chew on that for a moment. To where do we look in times of suffering? To a neat and tidy theological explanation, like Job’s friends? Or to Jesus the Christ – the one crucified with and for the godless and godforsaken?

Moltmann continues, reminding us that the problem isn’t going away, that it will remain for as long as we go on living in this world:

No one can answer the theodicy question in this world, and no one can get rid of it. Life in this world means living with this open question, and seeking the future in which the desire for God will be fulfilled, suffering will be overcome, and what has been lost will be restored. The question of theodicy is not a speculative question; it is a critical one. It is the all-embracing eschatological question. It is not purely theoretical, for it cannot be answered with any new theory about the existing world. It is a practical question which will only be answered through experience of the new world in which `God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’. It is not really a question at all, in the sense of something we can ask or not ask, like other questions. It is the open wound of life in this world. It is the real task of faith and theology to make it possible for us to survive, to go on living, with this open wound. The person who believes will not rest content with any slickly explanatory answer to the theodicy question. And he will also resist any attempts to soften the question down. The more a person believes, the more deeply he experiences pain over the suffering in the world, and the more passionately he asks about God and the new creation.
~Moltmann, Trinity (Kindle Locations 807-816). Author’s emphasis. 

Theodicy is the open wound of life in this world. Faith is not a way of detaching ourselves from the pain and suffering of ourselves and others in the world… but (more profoundly) of entering into the problem of suffering. And when we do, we cannot help but long for and work towards something better. That longing is pregnant with hope for the day when “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Finding our political/religious (non)identity

Nowhere is the church’s “christological identity crisis” more evident than in the political arena. I thought this particular section of Moltmann’s famous book, The Crucified God, was thought-provoking on this issue. Is it possible that with much of our “God and politics” talk (from both the “Christian right” and the “Christian left”), we have lost sight of our identity with the Crucified one? 

Bonhoeffer’s ‘existence for others’, which so much appeal has been made, becomes meaningless if one is no longer any different from others, but merely a hanger on. Only someone who finds the courage to be different from others can ultimately exist for ‘others’, for otherwise he exists only with those who are like him. And this is not much help to them. Thus we must say that, ‘as the result of the debate about [political] organization, these communities are faced with the theological question of their Christian identity as churches’. Because this question is posed not merely by the ancient traditions and institutions from which they have separated themselves, but also by those others with whom they have associated themselves in solidarity, it must be taken seriously and answered.  The identity in question here is the identity of the object of faith, for the sake of which individuals and whole groups have accepted self-emptying and non-identity and a solidarity which allows no distinction. When a Christian community feels obliged to empty itself in certain social and political actions, it must take care that its traditional religious and political identity is not exchanged for a new religious and political identity, but must sustain its non-identity. Otherwise a church which, seeking for an identity and not preserving its distinctiveness, plunges into a social and political movement, once again becomes the ‘religion of society’. It is of course no longer a conservative religion of society, but the progressive religion of what may perhaps be a better future society. It then follows those who criticize the old religion from a political point of view, only to make a religion of their new politics. But can a Christian community become the ‘political religion’ of its existing or future society, without forgetting the man from Nazareth who was crucified, and losing the identity it has in his cross?

~Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (p. 16-17, my emphasis)

Moltmann against Monarchical Monotheism

I have been absolutely mesmerized by the writings of German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann (who I blogged about once before here). In the past few months I’ve read three of his major works: The Trinity and the Kingdom (1981), then The Crucified God (1973), followed by A Theology of Hope (1967). In between those, I also read a short (and accessible!) collection of his sermons, titled The Gospel of Liberation (1971), along with his autobiography, A Broad Place (2007). And, yes, in case you were wondering, my wife thinks I’m a bit obsessed. 🙂 (Not a bad thing, because the other day this helped her find me a closeout book on Moltmann at Baker Book House in Grand Rapids; thanks for being on the lookout, babe!). 


I’m hoping to attempt to unpack a few of the major themes in the Moltmann books I’ve read so far (I started drafting several of these a number of weeks back and never got around to posting!). I’ll start with the one I read first (though it is last chronologically), The Trinity and the Kingdom. Here goes:

Moltmann doesn’t think that most Christians are trinitarian enough, which has a profound impact on the way we talk about God and engage with the world (and I’m inclined to agree with him!). Moltmann believes that monarchical (i.e. “strict”) monotheism is an ongoing temptation of the church today — which goes back to the third century, when Sabaletist and Arian heresies were getting their original traction. Both heresies shared the same essential goal: To maintain (at all costs) the unity of God.

In Trinity Moltmann develops a “social doctrine of the Trinity, according to which God is a community of Father, Son and Spirit, whose unity is constituted by mutual indwelling and reciprocal interpenetration.” (p. viii). The six-penny theolgoical word for this interpenetration is perichoresis. To quote Moltmann at length:

God’s unity cannot in the trinitarian sense be fitted into the homogeneity of the one divine substance, or into the identity of the absolute subject either; and least of all into one of the three Persons of the Trinity. It must be perceived in the perichoresis of the divine Persons. If the unity of God is not perceived in the at-oneness of the triune God, and therefore as a perichoretic unity, then Arianism and Sebellianism remain inescapable threats to Christian theology.

For the most part, we’ve largely forgotten about what Arius and Sebellius.

“The necessary resistance against Arianism on the one hand, and the laborious surmounting of Sabellianism on the other, led to the development of an explicit doctrine of the Trinity. Both heresies are christological in nature. Consequently the dogma of the Trinity was evolved out of christology. It is designed to preserve faith in Christ, the Son of God, and to direct the Christian hope towards full salvation in the divine fellowship. The doctrine of the Trinity cannot therefore be termed ‘a speculation’. On the contrary, it is the theological premise for christology and soteriology.”

Arius (unitarianism) and Sebellius (modalism) share one and the same error: strict, or “monarchical,” monotheism.  Trinity is largely a critique of strict monotheism. Most Western Christians think of themselves as first monotheists (along with Jews and Muslims), and then break down that one God into a tri-unity as a secondary matter. To Moltmann this is problematic: “To represent the trinitarian Persons in the one, identical divine subject leads unintentionally but inescapably to the reduction of the doctrine of the Trinity to monotheism.” (p. 18) 

The Church’s Identity Crisis

I just discovered an article written by Jürgen Moltmann titled “The Cruficied God,” published April 1974 in Theology Today (just before the publication of his famous book by the same title). Moltmann argues strongly that “there is no true theology of hope which is not first of all a theology of the cross.” (p. 8) To Moltmann, the church’s very identity is at stake when we talk about the cross. Get the cross wrong, and you may have spirituality or theism or even religion… but you don’t have Christianity.

Behind the political and social crisis of the church in modern society, there stands the Christological crisis: From whom does the church really take its bearings? Who is Jesus Christ, really, for us today? In this identity-crisis of Christianity, the question of God lies hidden: Which God governs Christian existence — the one who was crucified or the idols of religion, class, race and society? Without a new clarity in Christian faith itself, there will be no credibility in Christian life. (p.6,7) 

I have a feeling that these words are just as relevant today as then. Where do we, the church, find our identity? In the idols of this world? Or in Christ, the crucified one?

Moltmann is a German Reformed theologian who (having served as a Nazi soldier) offers an interesting perspective on the subject of “faith after Auschwitz:”

How is faith in God, how is being human, possible after Auschwitz? I don’t know. But it helps me to remember the story that Elie Wiesel reports in his book on Auschwitz called Night. Two Jewish men and a child were hanged. The prisoners were forced to watch. The men died quickly. The boy lived on in torture for a long while. “Then someone behind me said: “Where is God?’ and I was silent. After half an hour he cried out again: ‘Where is God? Where is he? And a voice in me answered: ‘Where is God?. . . he hangs there from the gallows….

A theology after Auschwitz would be impossible, were not the sch’ma Israel and the Lord’s prayer prayed in Auschwitz itself, were not God himself in Auschwitz, suffering with the martyred and the murdered. Every other answer would be blasphemy.  (p 9,10)

Read the complete article here (about 13 pages printed, and well worth the read!). I’ve not yet read The Crucified God, but have a feeling that if this article is any indicator of its content, the book too is a must-read. The complete text is available on Google (though I’ll probably go for a print copy). Another of Moltmann’s works, The Trinity and the Kingdom, is already in my queue to read directly after Barth’s CD I.2.  You can hear Moltmann himself sharing his personal story (in English!) recently here. Good stuff!