Why Jürgen Moltmann Did Not Write a Theological System

Thomas Aquinas, father of Modern Dogmatics and Systematic Theology

“Systems save some readers, and their admirers most of all, from thinking critically for themselves, and at arriving at independent and responsible positions. For systems do not present themselves for discussion. For that reason, I have resisted the temptation to develop a theological system. Even an open one.”
– Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom

I recently shared some helpful bullet points from How I Have Changed on Moltmann’s theological method. Since he has “always been interested only in the theological content”, Moltmann can seem a little dodgy to American Evangelicals. What are his presuppositions? His approach to the Bible, tradition, and experience? He finally got around to writing about these matters in detail only at the end of his Systematic Contributions to Theology. I’m grateful that a whole session was devoted to this subject in the Emergent Village Theological Conversation with Moltmann. Below is audio and transcript* from the opening question of this session (#2), where Tony Jones asks Moltmann about how his approach to theological method differs from a traditional Systematic Theology or Dogmatics.


Tony Jones: Professor Moltmann, this is the session where I’d like to explore your method, or as you said in the car on the way over, lack thereof. Because you, it seems to me, broke some of the rules of German Protestant Systematic Theology that must have been very much a part of your Theological education. So maybe you can tell us is, because not everyone is familiar in what it means to write a three volume systematic theology, or what it means to write however many volumes Church Dogmatics, but this is the world in which you were reared theologically and I think it says something about your intellect and your and adventurous spirit that you didn’t necessarily… you haven’t played by those rules of writing a Dogmatics or writing a Systematic Theology. So what’s that… what’s the normal German way of going about Systematics and…. I’ll read you something that you wrote and ask you to reflect on it. (This is that preface I was talking about last session)

Every consistent theological summing up, every theological system lays claim to totality, perfect organization, and entire competence over the entire area under survey, in principle, one has to be able to say everything, and to not leave any point unconsidered. All the statements must fit in with one another without contradiction, and the whole architecture must be a harmonious integrated whole. Every theoretical system, even a theological one, has therefore an aesthetic charm, at least to some degree. But this allurement may also be a dangerous seduction. Systems save some readers, and their admirers most of all, from thinking critically for themselves, and at arriving at independent and responsible positions. For systems do not present themselves for discussion. For that reason, I have resisted the temptation to develop a theological system. Even an open one.

And then skipping ahead a couples pages.

Behind all of this is the conviction, humanly speaking, truth is to be found in unhindered dialog.”

This is one of the foundations of the Emergent movement in the United States. I’ll repeat that line.

Behind all of this is the conviction, humanly speaking, [humanly speaking], truth is to be found in unhindered dialog. Fellowship and freedom are the human components for knowledge of the truth, the Truth of God. And the Fellowship, I mean here, is the fellowship of mutual participation and unifying sympathy.

So how is that different than Karl Barth? Or your other theological predecessors in Germany?

Jürgen Moltmann: To try to give a systematic answer to your question [*laughter*], we have one great theological system -that’s Thomas Aquinas. He starts with the question ‘whether there is a God or not?’ And develops five ways of proving the existence of God. This is Natural Theology, so to speak, at the entrance of the church.  And then he comes into the church, and speaks about the revelations of God, and of Christ, and the Holy Spirit, etcetera, etcetera. [*long pause*] And then I think he died… [*laughter*] because, all the great theological systems of medieval times must have an open end because of the parousia of Christ is expected to come. It’s similar to the great cathedrals of medieval times. They were beautiful, but were not allowed to be finished at any time. Because you must keep at least a window or hole open for the coming of God himself. Otherwise, the system of theology would replace the coming of God and the presence of God, and that would be not good. Well, a theological system normally begins with prolegomena. These are presuppositions.

Tony Jones: The clearing of the throat?

Jürgen Moltmann: Yes. We have a very beautiful theological system in Paul Tillich’s theology. Where he develops his question and answer period… method at the beginning, and then as a beautiful system, everything is related to everything in the system. You can learn it, but he rarely is quoting the Bible, and is rarely in discussion with Karl Barth or contemporaries. I think his theology was still in the 19th century while he was living in the 20th century. So Karl Barth then started with a presupposition: ‘the prolegomena to dogmatics are themselves dogmatics’. He then started then with the self-revelation of God. He started twice. In 1927 with the Christian Dogmatics and then in 1932 with the Church Dogmatics. He has always had a failure start, and then he starts directly. With the commentary to the Romans it was the same: there was one in 1919, and then came the other one in 1922. So, this is Karl Barth’s unsystematic way of thinking. The Church Dogmatics does not start with the general proofs of the existence of God, but with the self-revelation of God. So it is a dogmatic inside of the Church, under the presupposition that there is a Church and nobody must be convinced to enter a Church. It is for those who are inside. And therefore, Karl Barth was very strong in developing Christian Doctrines, on predestination for example. I love his volume CD II.2. Insider Barthians dialog only with CD II.2 page 1702 and the other one is ‘but remember’, IV/3 page 300 etcetera, etcetera. But he was weak with dialoging with contemporaries. He was strong in dialoging with Rudolf Bultmann and nearly overcame the Bultmannian friction. But after 1945, he came to a conference in Geneva with John Paul Sarte, John Walsh, French philosophers, scientists, and he came back and said, ‘I couldn’t utter a word. I should have prayed with them. And celebrated the eucharist.‘ This was very strange when I read this. He was not very good in dialog with another presupposition, or other theology. He as good in developing his own things. Well, we have more than 8,000 pages of Church Dogmatics from Karl Barth. And a very friendly critic once said, ‘the truth cannot be so long’. And indeed, his fundamental ideas, you can write down in a half page. And as you know, the praise of God has not beginning and no end. And that’s Church Dogmatics. Doxology.

I think I had not to resist to resist to write a system, because I am not a systematic person. I had an impression and and idea, and then following the loci method that Melanchton started. So, there’s a question, about the Trinity for example, and the Trinitarian God, and the One King of the One Kingdom–How does this fit together? So I wrote this book on the Trinity.

Before that, I think it was in 1973, I became aware of the ecological crisis, and the limits of growth, and started to give lectures on the understanding of Creation. I then wrote the second book, God in Creation: An Ecological Doctrine of Creation. With this, I found out, we need, so to speak, a theology of nature and a type Natural Theology. This is against Karl Barth! Of course, because in 1933-4, he struggled with his intimate enemy, Emil Brunner, on Natural Theology. There must be no Natural Theology, only the self-revelation of God. This was not a problem of nature, it was the problem of political theology of the German Christians, who believe – instead of the Old Testament – in blood and soil of the German Race, and the Germanic historic figure of the victorious Christ, etcetera, etcetera. So to fight against the German Christians, he said there must be no Natural Theology. While at the end of his Church Dogmatics, he developed his own Natural Theology. After the special Christian Theology, there can and must be a theology of nature about the many lights outside of the one light of Christ, and the many words of truth outside of the One Word of the Incarnate of God, which is Christ. But the relationship between the Light which is Christ and the many lights of the world, is like the [?] headlights of your car. If you switch on the lights of your car, then you can see the reflectors of the car in front, so the lights in nature are only a reflection of the Light of Christ. They do not illuminate anything by themselves; only as a reflection of the Light of Christ. When Emil Brunner, who was the enemy and in the struggle about Natural Theology, when he read this volume of the Church Dogmatics, was curious, because he said the same thing thirty years ago that Karl Barth came to the same result, that Natural Theology or Theology of Nature, is a task of Christian Theology. We are not only an ideology for insiders. We are not only a theology for Christians. We have a theology for the Kingdom of God, for the mission of those who are outside. I remember there was a similar struggle between the Yale school and the Chicago school. While the Yale school followed Karl Barth that Christian Theology is only for Christians. The Chicago school said, no, its for everyone who can listen, because otherwise there can be no real mission. From my standpoint is theology is a Theology of the Kingdom of God which is coming. So we have a special starting point which is Jesus Christ and the experience of the Holy Spirit and a universal horizon which we can discover in the New Testament and the letters of the Apostle Paul, Colossians and everywhere. So God reconciled the whole cosmos to himself, and made us messengers of the reconciliation. We need this universal horizon if we are to be faithful to the gospel.

But there is in Karl Barth, also this type of hidden Universalism. Not to reconcile the universe but to reconcile everybody.

*This audio was originally part of the Emergent Village podcast (which disappeared some time last year). It was made available again by Tony Jones last December, and is now mirrored over at the PostBarthian. The above transcript was originally posted by the PostBarthian, which I am re-posting here with minor revision and with his permission.

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