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Obituary: Professor Jürgen Moltmann

by
07 June 2024

SCM Press

Professor Jürgen Moltmann

Professor Jürgen Moltmann

Dr Natalie K. Watson writes:

BORN on 8 May 1926 in Hamburg, Germany, Jürgen Moltmann died on 3 June 2024, aged 98.

The Emeritus Professor of Theology at the University of Tübingen was, without doubt, one of the leading theologians of the post-war era of the 20th century. He was the son of teachers, members of a reform movement after the First World War who moved out of the city to work the land. Religion was of little or no significance in his upbringing, other than in the form of cultural memory. Moltmann, whose writings influenced a whole generation of Christians in Germany, in the UK, and throughout the world, and made a new theological language possible, was perhaps an unlikely theologian, though by no means an accidental one.

His family had never officially left the Church, and, by the time he attended instruction to prepare for confirmation as a teenager, the Nazis had come to power, and he often spoke about being utterly appalled by a pastor who tried to convince the confirmand that Jesus was an Aryan and certainly not a Jew. Fascinated by science and rational thinking, he intended to study mathematics.

As for many of his generation, the arrival of war interrupted his plans, and the formative years of his life were spent first as a soldier in a meaningless and brutal war and then as a captive and prisoner of war. Called up out of school at age 16, he experienced the bombing of Hamburg and the death of a close friend through a bomb that narrowly spared Moltmann himself. “That night was the first time I cried out to God.” “Why him? Why not me?”

In his kitbag, he carried the writings of Nietzsche and Goethe’s poems. In 1945, as his unit was dispersing in the face of the impending end of the war, Moltmann surrendered to a British-Canadian unit and was taken prisoner, a moment that he later often described as the beginning of a new life.

After initial confinement in Belgium, the prisoners were taken to Kilmarnock in Scotland, where they would be employed in reconstruction and repair of war damaged roads. Moltmann and his fellow prisoners experienced a profound sense of disillusionment and forsakenness in the face of the lost war, of shame at the realisation of the atrocities of the Nazi dictatorship, and the loss of anything that might have held the promise of a meaningful future or, indeed, hope.

In the POW camp in Belgium, Moltmann had been given a pocket edition of the New Testament, which he now began to read. “Here was someone who understood me, who had experienced what I experienced.” He never used the word conversion to describe his experience, instead: “I did not find him; he found me.” Hope and the God who suffers on the cross with his people would become the central moments of his theology.

After his return to Germany, initially to his bombed-out home town of Hamburg, Moltmann enrolled in the theological faculty in Göttingen, where his teachers were some of the theological giants of the time: Gerhard von Rad, Hans Joachim Iwand, Ernst Käsemann, Ernst Wolff, and his later Doktorvater Otto Weber, a student of Karl Barth, whose dialectic theology, partly developed against the background of the experience of the First World War and the end of 19th-century confidence in human possibility, made a profound impression on the young theologian.

He was also an early reader of the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, twenty years his senior and, like Moltmann, raised in the context of a Protestantism that was more cultural than religious. Bonhoeffer had been killed in a Nazi concentration camp a month before the end of the war in Europe.

Themes such as the need for the Church to speak in a secular society and a concern for social ethics became Leitmotifs in Moltmann’s theology. His would be a theology that was open to the world and in active dialogue with voices and traditions outside his own context as a German professor of systematic theology; a profoundly political theology in dialogue for example with the Green movement in his theology of creation and the peace movement in the face of nuclear war and the possible destruction of the whole of humanity. Theology needed to do more than interpret the world; it needed to be able to change it in the light of the eschatological hope of new creation made possible by the resurrection, to relate to the world for the sake of the future of the world.

During his time in Göttingen, in 1952, Moltmann married Elisabeth Wendel, a fellow theologian and doctoral student of Otto Weber. Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel became a pioneer of feminist and eco theology, and, together, the couple published God — His and Hers in 1981. Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel died in 2016, and he is survived by four daughters, another child having died in infancy.

In 1953, the young couple moved to a pastorate in North Germany. Here, Moltmann was able to continue his studies and complete his doctorate. The lack of interest of the post-war Lutheran Church in new ideas disappointed the young theologian, and led by his own experiences, and by what he called “the long shadow of Auschwitz”, he came to believe that “true theology can never be remote but must always be related to human need”, something that would be embodied in all of his later work as a theologian.

In 1958, Moltmann moved to his first academic post at the Kirchliche Hochschule Wuppertal, and, in 1963, to a professorship at the University of Bonn. In 1967, he accepted a call to the University of Tübingen, where Moltmann taught until his official retirement in 1994.

 

MOLTMANN’s first major breakthrough was the publication of his Theology of Hope: On the Ground and Implications of a Christian Eschatology (1964, ET: 1967), the first in the initial trilogy of systematic theology. Theology of Hope quickly became the most widely read theological book and remained so for a decade. It was followed by The Crucified God in 1972, the first major attempt at a theology after Auschwitz, and in 1975 by The Church in the Power of the Spirit. Among these, The Crucified God would have the most lasting influence on theologians around the world, exemplified in the bloodstained copy found in the ransacked library of the martyrs of El Salvador, murdered in 1980, but also on liberation movements around the world.

Theology of Hope was by no means a baptised version of the philosophy of hope developed by the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, and yet it was the dialogue with Marxism and its atheism in the 1960s, the work of Jewish philosophers such as Bloch and theologians such as Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Abraham Heschel, that made this rediscovery of eschatology possible, not as an appendix on “the last things” but rather as a reorientation of theology in the perspective of messianic hope in the dialectic of cross and resurrection.

In the 1980s and ’90s, five major works on themes of Christian doctrine followed, conceived as a dogmatics in the tradition of systematic theology, but presented as contributions to theological discussion on particular themes. Of these, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God is perhaps the best remembered for its articulation of a social doctrine of the Trinity and the marking of a distinct orientation of Moltmann’s theology towards a Trinitarian perspective, followed by God in Creation (1985), The Way of Jesus Christ (1989), The Spirit of Life (1991), and The Coming of God (1996).

Moltmann was a prolific writer, publishing 40 books during six decades, many of them now regarded as classics of theology. The English editions of his books, most of which were published by Fortress Press in the US and SCM Press in the UK, were translated by his trusted colleague and collaborator Margaret Kohl who ensured consistency of language and terminology. He was a theologian with a public profile. In Germany, his death last week was reported by the national primetime news broadcast; his theology had made it on the covers of Newsweek and Time magazine, and on the index of the Stasi, barring him from lecturing in the GDR for a decade.

His was a theology with a global vision, embodied in his many travels around the world. He introduced German Protestant theologians to the works of liberation theologians from Korea, Latin America, and South Africa. Among his pupils are the Croatian-American theologian Miroslav Volf and nine of the most eminent theologians in the Church in South Korea.

 

ROOTED in the Protestant tradition of his North German background, though choosing the Reformed tradition of Karl Barth and Erich Brunner over the Lutheran one of his Hamburg upbringing, his theology was open to active conversation with ecumenical partners such as Orthodox theologians, among them the Romanian Dumitru Stăniloae, Catholics and Pentecostals, and the liberation theologians of Central and South America, Asia and South Africa. Committed to the work of ecumenical dialogue, he was a member of the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission from 1968 to 1983 and through his friend and colleague Hans Küng a member of the editorial board of Concilium, the English-language edition of which is still published by the SCM Press, Moltmann’s publisher in the UK.

Beginning with his experience of the kindness of local Christians in Scotland and his encounter with theology as a prisoner of war, Moltmann retained a lifelong fondness for the UK and was a frequent visitor to both England and Scotland. In 1981, Moltmann and his wife Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel jointly presented the lecture “Becoming Human in a New Community of Women and Men” at an ecumenical conference in Sheffield.

In 1984-85, he gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures, later published in English as God in Creation, one of the pioneering works of theology in the face of climate change and environmental destruction. His last visit to England was in March 2020, shortly before national lockdowns restricted travel, at the age of 93, to give the Westminster Abbey Institute’s Gore Lecture, beginning with a quotation from the Tübingen poet Friedrich Hölderlin, “Where there is danger, salvation also grows.”

Maintaining many of his contacts with churches and theologians around the world well past his official retirement, he was planning to travel to Nicaragua the following week. Theologically and politically active throughout a life that spanned nearly a century, he proposed in 2021 an annual day of remembrance for those who had died during the Covid pandemic.

In the many tributes after Moltmann’s death, some have spoken not only of their indebtedness to him, but also of the end of an era. Moltmann’s work as a theologian developed against the background of his time, the shadow of Auschwitz, the growing threat of a nuclear holocaust, the Cold War, and the increasing polarisation of many societies in subsequent years.

Some liberation theologians criticised his political theology for lacking concrete and specific political proposals, yet his was also a theology in which there was more at stake: “The fight for truth against falsehood is a matter of life and death. It is the struggle for the survival of humankind,” Moltmann said on his last visit to the World Council of Churches in 2019.

Yet his overall theological achievement, beginning with putting hope firmly on the map of Christian speaking in the world and to the world, is in a recasting of theological writing and thinking in a way that made the renewal of multiple theological discourses possible, to open the work of theologians from being wrapped up in its own preoccupations to the rediscovery of a God who is present and active in creation and in the history of his suffering humanity and thus gives real hope towards eternal life.

Resurrected to Eternal Life: On dying and rising, published in 2021 by the World Council of Churches, envisions eternal life as nascent in every moment, each new beginning a foretaste of God’s New Creation. “The delight we take in loving and living leads us to seek the fullness of life and call it eternal life.” It is fulfilled in resurrection, he wrote, which “will banish darkness from creation for evermore, until we stand together in the light”.

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