Monday, September 24, 2007

What Am I Reading? Jürgen Moltmann

Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology (Translated by Margaret Kohl; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000). Available on Amazon.

I am not a great fan of Jürgen Moltmann, but I have spent some time reading him. While I do not consider myself even a budding expert on him, I think that I have a basic grasp of the contours of his thought. This sense has only been heightened as I read this volume, which contains many reflections by Moltmann upon his own work and emphases.

This volume is something of a hodgepodge of material and topics. Much of it is autobiographical, which gives it an inviting and intriguing feel. If you have even the slightest bit of historian in you, as I do, you will enjoy hearing Moltmann’s own account of how his thinking developed and especially of his interaction with the emergence of a number of liberation theologies (broadly termed) in the latter half of the 20th century, namely, black theology, Latin American liberation theology, Minjung theology, and feminist theology. Moltmann gives a fair and balanced account of all these developments, and relates how he experienced them all as a sympathetic outsider. Of particular interest is the section on feminist theology because of the interplay between Jürgen and his feminist theologian wife, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel.

Although Moltmann is fair, sympathetic and largely supportive of these various theological movements, it is not the case that he is un-critical as he devotes a chapter to ‘Unanswered questions’ with regard to these perspectives. His questions are serious, and bear repeating here:
  1. “If praxis is the criterion of theory, what is the criterion of praxis?” Moltmann suggests that the relationship between theory and praxis is circular, and that ultimately it is Christ who is the criterion of Christian praxis.
  2. “If the crucified people are to redeem the world, who then redeems the people?” The poor are not Christus prolongatus, notes Moltmann rightly. They should not be understood as bearing the sins of the world under whose thumb they suffer for this removes impetus to liberation and is, I might add, theologically illicit.
  3. “If the goal of liberation is to make the people the determining subject of their own history, what is the goal of that history?” The goal of liberation movements is liberty, but what then should that liberty be used for? Moltmann lifts up the goal of “justice, peace and the integrity of creation, in expectation of the coming kingdom of God.”
  4. “Does liberation theology lead to the liberation of the poor and women from Christian theology?” This seems to be a worry for Moltmann.
I would like to briefly explore further two things that Moltmann discussed in this volume, namely, natural theology and the doctrine of the Trinity.

Natural Theology

It seems to me that Moltmannn is fundamentally confused on this point, and that he would do much better to speak of a ‘theology of nature’ as opposed to ‘natural theology.’ What he seems to want is the former, but his casting things in terms of the latter, and his interactions with Barth along these same lines, muddle things significantly. In any case, Moltmann makes three points:
  1. “Natural theology is the general presupposition for specifically Christian theology.” Moltmann explicitly appeals to the First Vatican Council and the Thomistic notion that ‘grace perfects nature’ on this account. If what Moltmann means is that human beings and creation must exist before they can interact with God’s self-revelation, then fine. But, I don’t think that this is all he means. He writes that “Natural theology is a remnant of the direct paradisal knowledge of God enjoyed by the first human beings, which – obscured by the Fall though it is – serves to preserve human beings and their longing for God.” On the contrary, I reject any notion of knowledge of God, whether primordial or eschatological, that is not mediated by Jesus Christ.
  2. “Natural theology is the consequence and the eschatological goal of historical and Christian theology.” I can get behind this point a bit more. In the final consummation, all persons will know God. However, again, I would argue that this knowledge is still mediated by Jesus Christ.
  3. “Christian theology itself is the true natural theology.” This is even more appealing to me. If we want to move beyond a dualistic framework, and if we affirm that God exists and is the Creator, then this makes a lot of sense. Christian theology, under these conditions, would be seen as the logical conclusion of empirical study – the great metaphysic that completes our theoretical physics. As tempting as this is, I don’t think that it can be argued for on the basis of empirical knowledge, and must remain at all times an affirmation of faith. Furthermore, we must be especially careful that we don’t construct ‘theological’ metaphysical systems and then impose them upon the empirical sciences, as happened with Galileo, etc. What we know from theology may prove useful at the hypothetical stage, but we must remember that God’s revelation comes to us in creaturely forms conditioned by spatial-temporal and socio-geopolitical location, and thus we cannot assume that these creaturely forms of revelation correspond to the most advanced scientific understanding of empirical phenomena.
I personally tend to think that Christian theology can make use of the creation’s witness to the creator. But, that creation witnesses in this way is an affirmation of faith, and cannot provide the basis for any independent proofs concerning God’s existence, etc. It is only once we have met God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit that creation’s song to its Creator can be heard, much less understood.

Doctrine of the Trinity

While I am grateful for the attention that Moltmann has given to the doctrine of the Trinity over the years, and the interest in the doctrine that he has helped to foster, it is my humble opinion that he makes serious mistakes. It is not now the time or place to argue the point, but a strong case may be marshaled that Moltmann descends into technical tri-theism in his The Trinity and the Kingdom. The fundamental flaw in Moltmann’s thinking about the Trinity is that he starts with threeness, and then tries to think about oneness. In a proper doctrine of the Trinity, this movement must be complemented by a counter-move that begins with oneness and then tries to think about threeness. This counter-move is lacking in Moltmann. Instead, he relies upon perichoresis to unite the three persons of the Trinity.

Now, many people have argued that there is no Scriptural basis for the movement that starts with oneness and then addresses threeness, and they have therefore abandoned this move as Moltmann has. Indeed, it is often assumed that the question of oneness is imported from Hellenistic philosophy as Christianity spread into the broader Mediterranean community. Moltmann himself makes the assertion here that “The biblical starting point for the development of the doctrine of the Trinity is that there are three different actions in the divine history, Son – Father – Spirit; the question about their unity then follows.” Well, I am here to tell you that this is one of the worst lies of revisionist theological history.

The earliest Christians, indeed Jesus Christ himself, were Jews. Paul was a highly trained Pharisaical scholar. The bedrock of their understanding of God rested on two verses in the Torah: Exodus 3:14, and Deuteronomy 6:4. Indeed, Deuteronomy 6:4 had something of a creedal status in the Jewish community. And, what is the affirmation of Deuteronomy 6:4, the Great Shema? “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one.” The Hebrew understanding of God was deeply rooted in God’s singularity. Now, it was also thanks to Hebraic modes of thought about God as dynamic and living that the earliest Christian communities were able to come to recognize the One God in threefold form as Father, Son and Spirit. But, in so doing, they never abandoned the singularity of God. For the earliest Christians, that God was One was basic; the problem was how to conceive of God also as three.

Of course, much of the dynamism of God was muted by Hellenistic modes of thought in later centuries. But, to exile thought about God’s oneness to the theological hinterland is to disregard the profoundly Jewish nature of Christianity and is, at its heart, Marcionite heresy.

4 comments:

bobby grow said...

Travis,

nice review.

I think you are quite right to draw attention to the oneness of God . . . it seems the balance as of late is emphasizing His threeness to the disparity of His oneness. But as you point out, the Jewish understanding, not the Hellenistic, is background to how the oneness of God should be understood relative to His threeness as disclosed through Christ.

D.W. Congdon said...

Very nice interaction with Moltmann's theology. This book is definitely an interesting window into his thought process. I wonder if, in his discussion of natural theology, Moltmann intends the reader to see his first proposition in light of his last. This is how the early Christian apologists like Justin Martyr defended the Christian faith on the soil of Greek philosophy. Since the Christ is the Logos, then all natural philosophy is in fact grounded in the Christ himself. And if the Logos was the Word that created in the beginning, then creation itself is mediated by Christ.

I'm not necessarily defending this view -- though it has some strong merits -- but it is a classical view of the relation between Christian theology and "natural theology," and it seems to uphold the centrality of Christ. I just wonder if Moltmann has something like this going on in the background.

Mark said...

I am a fan of Moltmann, but you have given some important criticisms. Nice post. If you or any of your readers are interested, I have started a blog for Theological German. ergebung.wordpress.com.

I am posting brief selections (currently from Bonhoeffer's letters) with vocabulary.

WTM said...

Thanks for the kind words, all.

Bobby, the oneness thing is something of a constant frustration of mine with a lot of contemporary Trinitarian discussion.

David, he could very well be thinking along those lines. But, I'd still have worries. It seems to me to give too much credit to the human enterprise (science, philosophy, etc) that is being co-opted.

Mark, thanks for stopping by and pointing us toward your blog dealing with theological German. I dare say that we could all use more language work!