Fall 2017 Semester Highlight: Jürgen Moltman's The Crucified God

DTS offers students from Bible colleges the opportunity to test into an advanced standing program. Instead of merely skipping classes, I take accelerated courses that are 3 credits each but cover 6-9 program credits. The net result for me is that my program’s total length is 27 credits shorter—nearly a full year. So instead of taking 120 credits, I’ll take 93—18 of which are “advanced standing” courses.

This semester’s advanced standing class was the first of two covering systematic theology. The assumption is that we have already had significant education in this area, so it is a chance to dive into a specific area much deeper. We were to choose a book on a topic of interest to us and read it deeply and thoroughly and present an extensive outline and presentation.

My list of books and authors to read is long. The difficulty was narrowing my choices. Because I want to go onto to get a PhD, I have several incredibly influential thinkers who I am itching to read (indeed, whom I must read to become conversant with theology at the doctoral level). I have thoroughly read, cited, written on, and used the major Evangelical systematic theologians. So, naturally I already feel comfortable with these.

This means for such an open-ended class I was not going to read Grudem, Erickson, Chafer, etc. No, I have my eye on those who have shaped the field, and yet those with whom conservatives are timid about interacting: Barth, Hauerwas, and my choice for this semester: Jürgen Moltmann. My goal is to read, understand, and interact with these theologians by reading whatever is quintessential for that particular person. Moltmann’s The Crucified God was the natural choice due to the range of systematic categories allowed this semester (soteriology, Christology, Trinitarianism) and the ability to present on a single topic from a single book. Barth’s quintessential work is his Church Dogmatics, a huge set of volumes with too many topics per volume to be realistically analyzed and presented on in a single semester. Hauerwas’ most significant work is in ethics and ecclesiology, which both fit better with next semester’s allowed topics.

So yes, I willingly chose to read Moltmann. The result is a 10-page single-spaced full sentence outline. I’ll summarize my favorite parts.

Jürgen Moltmann and The Crucified God

One thing that makes Moltmann so interesting to me is the period during which he did his most important theological reflection. He grew up as a German in WWII. His school boy class was conscripted to help with the war in Hamburg. He lived through the famous British attack on Hamburg, Project Gomorrah. Here as a boy he had to go through broken buildings and crawl over charred corpses. As a young man he was drafted as a German soldier and ended up stumbling into a British camp and surrendering. He was a POW in Scotland for three years, and it was during this time that he was shown pictures of German concentration camps, “through the eyes of the Nazi victims…For me, every patriotic feeling for Germany—‘holy fatherland’—collapsed and died…Depression over the wartime destruction and captivity with no end in sight was compounded by a feeling of profound shame at the having to share in shouldering the disgrace of one’s own people…the weight of it has never left me.”[1]

Consider the trauma both of having survived and witnessed profound destruction as a school boy and of realizing that one’s own people had acted so thoroughly evil. This pain along with living years as a POW led Moltmann not to despair, but to hope. His first book was Theology of Hope and put eschatology squarely in the realm not of apocalyptic dread, but of hope.[2] A future where God would ensure no more pain, a place where tears are wiped away. And central to this is the resurrection because it is the proof of the hope.

This is why he is so interesting to me: Moltmann does his theology in a context where love of country has died. In his ethics, the way of Jesus is the answer, not the way of any political party—refreshing! In the U.S. we argue over the existence of such a thing as American exceptionalism, and where we land can color our theology—Moltmann is clean of this.

Fast forward a few years and we come to his second book, The Crucified God. This is the other side of the same coin. His first book was eschatological (where Christ’s resurrection is the first fruit), his second is about the whole cross event. This book asks questions about the crucifixion of Jesus that our standard conservative texts don’t ask, and it makes many controversial assertions, yet they are still helpful.

Did God Suffer at the Cross?

One consistent theme in this book is that God suffered in the cross event. In the not-too-distant past most theologians would have denied this and said that Jesus suffered and died in his humanity, but not in his deity—thus making a distinction and separation of his person that Moltmann, rightly in my opinion, says there is no biblical basis for doing. Why does God suffering and dying make us so uncomfortable?

Because of the doctrine of the impassibility of God—which means that God does not have emotion, which means he does not suffer or feel anguish or regret. My sense is that now, even most conservatives reject impassibility (as defined above) and those who don’t will define it in a way that is not entirely consistent with the historical meaning. This is because the historical meaning can be traced back to Greek philosophy where the Unmoved Mover is a being of pure rationality, pure logic—any emotion would make this ultimate being less. (As a side note, this is why early church fathers did not believe women were made in the image of God, because women were considered too emotional to bear the imago dei. Maybe we have, historically speaking, been wrong at least twice).

Did God Die at the Cross?

The crucifixion forces a divine paradox (and not the only paradox of our faith). One way to explain the tension has been to place the paradox in the person of Christ (appealing to Christ’s dual natures) by saying that he can simultaneously die (in the flesh) and not die (in his divinity). Moltmann kicks the paradox up a level, from the person of Christ, to the members of the Trinity by saying that Jesus in his whole person died which means that God died—one member of the Trinity—and God did not die—the other members did not die. The question is, does the Bible ever present Jesus’ as anything other than a whole person? Can one justify the claim that one nature can experience what another cannot?

Now, for anyone aware of so-called “death of God” theology, Moltmann explicitly separates himself from this by saying (even after emphasizing that God was crucified) that simply saying, “God died” is too simplistic and not Trinitarian enough. God did not die, Jesus who is God, died, but the Father and Spirit who are God did not die. Essentially, you have to pick your paradox and Moltmann simply sends it up to where we are already comfortable with paradox: the Trinity.

Human Suffering and God’s Response

This brings us back a key theme of the book, namely, suffering. And truly, I believe this is beautiful. Think of Moltmann’s experience as a youth, what area of theology stares him dead in the face? Theodicy, or, the problem of evil. Nazi German demands a response to the problem of evil. Here Moltmann interacts with “protest atheism,” which says, “The only excuse for God would be for him not to exist.”[3] Moltmann offers no overly involved philosophical reason why God can exist in the face of evil, or theological reasons saying why it is actually good and part of God’s plan, because neither of these addresses the true issue that ‘protest atheism’ has. Instead, Moltmann points to suffering and says, look at all the gods of the world (money, power, Allah, et al), which God do you want? Who can one draw on in times of intense despair? How about the God who suffered more than we can imagine? How about the one who, because He loves us so dearly, subjected Himself to even greater anguish than we can imagine? Moltmann chooses the suffering God—the one who is present with those who suffer.

Why have you forsaken me?

We worship a God who knows suffering because he experienced human suffering—and more than this, our God experienced abandonment by God—another significant theme in the book. Jesus was abandoned by the Father (another controversial point but based on his cry, “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?”). Jesus’ suffering can be shown to be more intense that others’ suffering because of his death rattle, whereas many martyrs afterward would die “noble deaths” with calm acceptance. What made Jesus’ death different? Many conservatives say it was different because Jesus suffered the wrath of God—Moltmann, even though he is technically a liberal theologian, agrees![4] More than mere physical and mental anguish, Jesus suffered profound spiritual pain. And it pained the Father to do so, therefore, it was a reciprocal (not patripassianism) suffering. The son suffered the loss of his father, the Father suffered the loss of his son.

I must stop myself here. To conclude, I disagree with Moltmann frequently, but I believe he is very helpful, especially today. I think his response to evil is refreshing—not excusing God, not explaining it away, but instead pointing out how in a world filled with suffering, we can have a God who has suffered himself and is present in our sufferings.

[1] Moltmann, A Broad Place, 29.
[2] This hopeful view of the future is not at all incompatible with dispensationalism. After all, dispensationalists take Revelation 21:3b-4 as an accurate description of the age to come, “Look! The residence of God is among human beings. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist any more—or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist” (NET).
[3] (Crucified God, Kindle loc. 4517)
[4] Though, this is because he takes the wrath of God to be his pulling back and allowing sin to take its course (Rom. 1).