Moltmann on Christology “From Above” vs “From Below”

I haven’t forgotten about my plan to blog through the Crucified God (CG). I’m re-reading the book with a small group of friends and have found it to be a bit heavy for casual coffee shop conversation. We are still plugging through but it has been slow going! (Apparently we missed Kevin Brown’s warning that this “succulent dark meat of Moltmann” is not for the faint of heart!)

Is Jesus True God? Many Christians answer this question without an emphatic “yes” before getting around to saying anything else about Jesus. And so we start with an existing abstract concept of “God”, and then apply those attributes to Jesus of Nazareth. As Moltmann observes in chapter 3 of CG, this sort of christology has always been prone to the pitfalls of docetism!

The more it [the early church] emphasized the divinity of Christ, making use of this concept of God, the more difficult it became to demonstrate that the Son of God who was of one substance with God was Jesus of Nazareth, crucified under Pontius Pilate. Consequently, a mild docetism runs through the christology of the ancient church. Anyone who began with the question about what was ‘above’ in terms of the question of God and salvation, as posed in antiquity, found it hard in any real sense to find an answer ‘below’, in the history of Jesus of Nazareth, and even harder to find an answer in the abandonment by God of the crucified Jesus.
(CG, p. 89)

This disconnect – between the high christology of the church and the man Jesus of Nazareth – is caricaturized in such popular treatments of Jesus as we find in Bart Ehrman among others (the title How Jesus Became God says it all!). Historical Jesus studies tend towards a christology “from below” that never makes it to “above” (with notable exceptions, such as N.T. Wright). Pannenberg’s famous “christology from below to above” in Jesus-God and Man attempts to bridge that gap, and, as I shared previously, in doing so he firmly rejects traditional christology “from above to below” (I can’t help but think of the evangelical response to Ehrman, How God Became Jesus, when I use that phrase). Moltmann seems to share Pannenberg’s concern that the Christ preached by the church must be connected to the Jesus known to history. But then he makes this interesting observation:

All knowledge begins inductively ‘from below” and is a posteriori, and all historical knowledge is post factum; but that which is to be known precedes it. The difference between a ‘christology from below’ and a ‘christology from above’ is only apparent. They are no more alternatives than the famous question: ‘Does Jesus help me because he is the Son of God, or is he the Son of God because he helps me?’ It is only when the inverse relationship of the order of knowledge to the order of being is ignored that such questions are asked.
(CG, p. 91)

In other words: The two christological methods are not mutually exclusive. Christology “from above” is grounded in God’s eternal being, while Christology “from below” is grounded our human means of knowing. We don’t need to pick between the two.

I must confess I have not read Molty’s full christology, The Way of Jesus Christ (I know..what kind of Moltmann-maniac am I?). He may have dealt which this topic more thoroughly there. And if so, I may share on this topic more at a later time….

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6 thoughts on “Moltmann on Christology “From Above” vs “From Below””

    1. The abandonment of Jesus by God is a pretty big theme in CG. I’ve got another post coming up that dives into this more fully. But Moltmann would at least seem to lean in the direction of affirming that Jesus was *actually* abandoned by the Father. He puts it so strongly as to call it “enmity between God and God”.

    2. Jesus truly experienced abandonment by God in a way that is more than any man has ever experienced, he has experienced it for us and with us. Great comment Juan!

  1. Sounds a whole lot like Paul Zahl in his “A Short Systematic Theology”, for whom Theology is Christology “from the bottom up”. Not a surprise, since Zahl was a student of Moltmann’s last international student at Tübingen.

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