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The passing of a theologian

Influential German academic Jürgen Moltmann dies at age 98


Jürgen Moltmann at the Stuttgart Hospital in 2016 Maeterlinck/Wikimedia Commons

The passing of a theologian
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Jürgen Moltmann was one of the most influential German Protestant theologians of the modern era. His many books have been translated into numerous languages, and he has lectured all over the world. In fact, publication of the English translation of his Theology of Hope was front page news in the New York Times, and by recent count, over 500 doctoral dissertations have been written regarding his overall theological project. That kind of theological prominence is hard to imagine now.

Moltmann was born on April 8, 1926, in Hamburg and he died on June 3, 2024 in Tübingen, Germany. He was born into a nonreligious family. Early on, he wanted to follow the path of Albert Einstein and study mathematics and physics, but his dream was interrupted by World War 2. At age 16, Moltmann was drafted into the Nazi air force, and in 1943 he experienced the British attack on Hamburg that killed around 40,000 people. As thousands died around him, Moltmann cried out to God for the first time, “Where are you?” He didn’t get an answer that day.

And yet, two years later, he was captured by the Allies and became a prisoner-of-war (POW) in Great Britain. During his time as a POW, he became a Christian. A prison chaplain gave him a copy of the New Testament and the Psalms, and he was introduced to his first book of theology, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Nature of Destiny of Man. He did not experience a dramatic conversion. Instead, he gradually came to affirm the reality of God in the midst of suffering. Reflecting back on this time, Moltmann would later say: “I didn’t find Christ. He found me.” Also, during this time, he learned about the events at Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps, which greatly affected him. Indeed, much of his theology is driven by answering where God is in the midst of suffering and evil, and what may we hope in light of Christ’s cross and resurrection.

Moltmann returned to Germany in 1948 to pursue theological training at the University of Göttingen, where he received his doctorate in 1952. For a few years, he served as a pastor in a small, rural Protestant church. He was then called to teach theology at prominent universities in Bonn and Tübingen. During this time, his major ideological influences ranged from theologian Karl Barth to Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. Moltmann’s theological works were highly influential and he was invited to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. He also received honorary doctorates from numerous universities around the world, along with many awards and accolades. In terms of his family, he married Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel in 1952, who studied with him at Göttingen, and who also became a well-known feminist theologian. They had four daughters, and his wife preceded him in death in 2016.

Throughout his writings, Moltmann developed an “eschatological, trinitarian panentheism” that stands in direct opposition to historic Christian theology.

Moltmann was a prolific author, writing over 40 books. His major works comprise two series. First, there is a trilogy of early works: Theology of Hope (1967), The Crucified God (1973), and The Church in the Power of the Spirit (1975). Second, there are six works that constitute his overall theology: The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (1981), God in Creation (1985), The Way of Jesus Christ (1990), The Spirit of Life (1992), The Coming of God (1996), and Experiences in Theology (2000).

In all of these works, Moltmann sought to recast Christian theology in light of what he called “a theology of hope” due to Christ’s cross and resurrection. Moltmann saw his theological system as an answer to the problem of evil and as a way to re-think the God-world relationship. Throughout his writings, Moltmann developed an “eschatological, trinitarian panentheism” that stands in direct opposition to historic Christian theology. Instead of a strict Creator-creature distinction, he argued that the world is “in” God and both are mutually dependent on each other.

In fact, for Moltmann, divine love requires the mutuality of God and the world, a reciprocal giving and receiving, need and satisfaction. This is why he rejected the classic understanding of God’s immutability and impassibility, even creation “out of nothing” as external to God. Instead, he affirmed the interdependence of God and the world that in Christ the triune God suffers. For Moltmann, suffering is part of our finite existence and it is not a result of an historic fall from innocence. Through history, God is overcoming sin and evil, which in the end will result in the salvation of all creatures. At the end of history, God’s kingdom will come in its fullness by God himself “indwelling” his creation. Moltmann attempted to reconstruct Christian theology and he redefined every doctrine of historic Christian theology.

Nevertheless, he insisted that Christianity alone gives us this specific hope for the future. Overall, Moltmann’s theology wrestles with the deepest issues of human thought but he redefined Christianity apart from Scripture’s own categories, presentation, and truth. Moltmann’s death reminds us of the place academic theology once held in the great universities. He may well be the last of a certain academic type.

Moltmann’s work demands both a careful reading and response, especially from those of us who are convinced that the classical orthodox doctrine of the triune God is biblical and as such cannot be re-cast in his categories. Theologians come and go, but God’s truth stands.


Steven J. Wellum

Steven J. Wellum is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and editor of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.


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