Remembering the Prophet of New Creation: Jürgen Moltmann

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One of the great theologians of our time, Jürgen Moltmann, had much to say to our scientific world. He recently died, and we asked another world-class science-engaged theologian, Ted Peters, to reflect on Moltmann’s contributions and its particularly relationship with our mission. Ted is emeritus professor at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), where he co-edits the journal, Theology and Science, on behalf of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS).

Jürgen Moltmann (April 8, 1926 – June 3, 2024) will be missed. This Tübingen systematic theologian inspired more than one generation to retrieve the historical resurrection of Jesus, to grasp a deeper understanding of the cross within God’s experience, to spread hope in a hopeless world, to foment revolution on behalf of a better future, to unite the planet to protect Earth from ecological degradation, to liberate the politically oppressed, and to establish parity between the genders.

When he died on June 3, evangelical sockdolager Roger Olson declared Moltmann to be the “Last World Class Theologian.”

I’ve been inspired by Moltmann. For example, in his book Science and Wisdom (where you can find many of the quotations below), he says what I want to say: “Christ’s cross and resurrection have brought into view the end of history in God’s future. The context of meaning in which the divine in the Christ event becomes comprehensible is not now the metaphysical framework; it is the eschatological one. The universal significance of the cross of Christ is only understood in the context of judgment, the end-time crisis of all things; and the resurrection of Christ from the dead is only understood in the context of a universal transformation, whose future is the kingdom of God.”

From one point within history—the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ—the whole of history and even the whole of reality can now be assessed in anticipation or proleptically. We can see through a glass darkly that God intends to redeem all things. Then, in a sort of reversal, all things will be created so that God can finally say, “behold, it is very good.”

From War to Cross

As just a 16-year-old kid, young Jürgen was conscripted into the German army and became a prisoner of war in Great Britain. In prison, Jesus Christ liberated his soul. After a classical education and freeing himself from the grip of the then dominant existentialist theology, Moltmann became heir to Karl Barth’s legacy in Continental Reformed Theology.

Moltmann began with the historical resurrection of Jeus and then worked backward to Jesus’s crucifixion. Yes, the first Easter was a historical event. Yes, Jesus did in fact rise from the grave. We must understand this resurrection as the harbinger of the new creation—that is, this present creation will be liberated from sin, suffering, war, ecological catastrophe, and death.

Though a loyal Calvinist, Moltmann’s treatment of the crucifixion expanded on Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. For Luther, God was revealed under the opposite—that is, in the suffering of Jesus, the God of healing is revealed. In the death of Jesus, the God of life is revealed. In addition to this Lutheran gem, Moltmann dug up an otherwise buried Lutheran treasure, namely, the suffering of God in Godself. “The Son suffers and dies on the cross. The Father suffers with him, but not in the same way. There is a trinitarian solution to the paradox that God is ‘dead’ on the cross and yet is not dead, once one abandons the simple concept of God.”

Here’s the difference. For Luther, we look at the cross and see God as the opposite. For Moltmann, we look at the cross and see God in Godself. The suffering and death of Jesus are internal to God’s trinitarian life.

Rather than posit a strict monotheism in which the divine unity is simple, Moltmann contends that the Trinity is a sign of divine dynamism within which God experiences not only the suffering of Jesus but also your and my suffering. God’s experience with suffering and even death becomes transformed into healing and resurrection.


  • Of many possibilities, these are just two of Moltmann’s publications that specifically engage science—his book Science and Wisdom and the paper “Reflections on Chaos and God’s Interaction with the World from a Trinitarian Perspective” in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, edited by Nancey Murphy and Arthur Peacocke.
  • Roger Olson talks here about his encounters with Moltmann and his theology.
  • Ted finds Moltmann’s “most mature and signature book” to be The Coming of God.

Public Theology and Political Theology

During the tumultuous 1960s, colonies revolted against their European governors. Hope in God’s future became translated by Moltmann into hope for social, political, and economic transformation. Specifically, Moltmann stood theologically tall on behalf of the global cause for liberation and for planetary healing. Along with only a skimpy list of other theological leaders, such as John Cobb and Larry Rasmussen, already in the 1960s and 1970s Moltmann had become an eco-theologian. “Human wisdom will search for viable harmonizations between human civilization and the earth’s ecosystems. Then the goal is not human domination over nature; it is a well-judged and prudent conformity with nature.”

Moltmann is remembered as one of the political theologians of the 1960s. I prefer the term, public theology, because on many fronts, in addition to politics, he sought to bless the world beyond the church with gifts of theological insight. “Theology must abandon its confinement to church, belief and the inwardness of the heart, so that with all others it may search for the truth of the whole, and the salvation of a torn and disrupted world.”

Moltmann on Science in the Church

On one occasion some decades ago, we at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union invited Moltmann to join us in one of our research seminars co-sponsored by the Vatican Observatory. Our task was to discern divine action within the physics of chaos and complexity. Moltmann reiterated an earlier position he had taken, namely, that the universe is an “open system.” This means that the cosmos will not run down because of entropy. To what source of energy is the universe open? God. God is the “foundation who enables all potentiality.”

Note what happened here. Moltmann made a theological assertion that has scientific import. Theology and science connect.

Moltmann registered impatience with disconnection. Referring to what Ian Barbour called the independence model and what I call the two-language model of the relationship between theology and science, Moltmann complained. “Today the dilemma between theology and science is no longer that they present conflicting statements. It is rather the lack of conflict…[they] no longer have anything to say to each other at all…. They are resting side by side in a vacant co-existence.”

Concluding Thoughts

Jürgen Moltmann’s dignified passing marks the end of the post-neoorthodox generation that retrieved the historical horizon and pressed the eschatological vision into the service of political liberation as well as ecological preservation.

Yes, I will miss Moltmann. But I will treasure his legacy.

 

Cover Image Attribution: Maeterlinck, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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