The Transformative Church: New Ecclesial Models and the Theology of Jürgen Moltmann, by Patrick Oden

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I recently finished reading an exciting new book relating Moltmann’s theology to what is going on in the church today: The Transformative Church: New Ecclesial Models and the Theology of Jürgen Moltmann, by Patrick Oden. It doesn’t hit the streets until next month, but the author was kind enough to hook me up with an early digital copy.

In this book, Oden explores the practices of a broad array of movements that he calls “transformative churches” (Emerging, Missional, Fresh Expressions, Neo-Monastic), and puts them into conversation with the theology of Jürgen Moltmann. He builds a case for a “program for liberation of the oppressor that can inform transformative churches”, in hope that in such contexts “a transformative messianic life can take shape.” (65)

According to Oden, “Moltmann’s method is himself.” (54) His theology is tied up in his own quest for liberation as a member of the young generation that was caught up in German nationalism under the Nazi regime. He writes from the context of an oppressing people, which is why he speaks so powerfully on the liberation of the oppressor. This is in contrast to the other liberationist theologies which came from the context of oppression (many of whom Moltmann heartily endorsed! e.g. James Cone, who I was introduced to via Moltmann). Moltmann’s context is relevant to many transformative churches in the industrialized West who similarly come from the context of oppressing. We need both liberation of the oppressed and liberation of the oppressor if we are to be reconciled and free.

Moltmann's Criterion of Life
Moltmann’s Criterion of Life

In Experiences in Theology, Moltmann offers a biblical hermeneutic based on the criterion of life, which he outlines in eight points (Experiences, 149-150). Since a transformative church must be engaged in the liberative furthering of life, Oden takes each of these points and fleshes them out as elements of transformative life, in conversation with Moltmann’s entire corpus (no small task!). Each criterion is discussed alongside a key theological text:

  1. Criterion #1 (67): “What furthers life is whatever ministers to the integrity of human life in people and communities.”
    Text: The Coming of God (67)
  2. Criterion #2 (79): “What furthers life is whatever ministers to the integration of individual life into the life of the community, and the life of the human community into the warp and weft of all living things on earth.”
    Text: The Church in the Power of the Spirit 
  3. Criterion #3 (96): “What furthers life is whatever spreads reverence for life and the affirmation of life through love for life.”
    Text: God in Creation
  4. Criterion #4 (108): “What furthers life is whatever heals broken relationships and liberates life that has been oppressed.”
    Text: The Crucified God 
  5. Criterion #5 (120): “What furthers life is whatever leads to the new beginning of life in hope.”
    Text: Theology of Hope 
  6. Criterion #6 (137): “What furthers life is whatever ministers to God’s covenant with life, and whatever breaks the covenant of human beings with death.”
    Text: The Trinity and the Kingdom 
  7. Criterion #7 (152): “What furthers life is, first and last, whatever makes Christ present, Christ who is the resurrection and the life in person; for in and with Christ the kingdom of eternal life is present, and this kingdom overcomes the destructive powers of death.”
    Text: The Way of Jesus Christ 
  8. Criterion #8 (166): “What furthers life is… the creative energies of the spirit in which the uncreated and the created are bonded, and which renew the human life from its foundations, making it immortal in the eternal fellowship of God.”
    Text: The Spirit of Life

These points are unpacked in three chapters: Criteria 1 -2 are covered in chapter 2 (“Transformation in Historical Perspective”), criteria 3 – 5 are covered in chapter 3 (“Transformation in Anthropological Perspective”), and criteria 6 – 8 are covered in chapter 4 (“Transformation in Trinitarian Perspective”).

He follows this up with three chapters covering the same themes as practices: Practices of a Transforming History (chapter 5), Practices of a Transforming Anthroplogy (chapter 6), and Practices of a Transforming Trinitarianism (chapter 7).  Here Oden takes up the practices of emerging churches identified by Gibbs and Bolger and applies them to transformative churches. Those practices are:

(1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.
(as quoted by Oden, 12)

Oden ties together Moltmann’s theology and the practices of transformative churches under the theme of liberation: Moltmann gives us language to unpack what transformative churches have been up to! Indeed, Moltmann’s writing should never be pigeon-holed into the category of speculative theology; the concrete implementation of liberation is always at least implicitly present in all of his works. As Oden puts it:

Moltmann offers theological proposals for understanding transformation, and the transformative churches suggest practices that express such transformation. Together, then, they can provide a substantive starting place for understanding the church as a transformative community, one that participates in holistic liberation. (265)

In case you missed it, Tony Jones had a good similarly themed book that came out a few years ago, which related Moltmann’s ecclesiology specifically to the Emerging/Emergent Church Movement (ECM). That does not make Oden’s work redundant! This book has a very different methodology, engages a wider range of new movements, and features a more broad engagement with Moltmann.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it to anyone who cares about the future of the church, and to anyone who is into Moltmann’s theology. If both of those things describe you, this book is not to be missed!

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