My conversation with Jürgen Moltmann (Paul Helm)
Recently I had the opportunity to listen to a lecture by Jürgen Moltmann, author of The Theology of Hope, The Crucified God, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, and of other books. With others I was able briefly to talk to him afterwards. He lectured for an hour in good English (no doubt learned when he was – as he told us – a prisoner of war here in 1946), and then responded to questions for half an hour or so. Pretty good for someone aged 88. He is a humorous, self-deprecating, rather puckish person, not by any means the stereotype of the famous German theologian. (I remembered an earlier lecture of his twenty or so years ago when he seemed rather aloof.) He had come over to Oxford from Germany that day and was staying in a study bedroom in the College at which he was speaking.
Moltmann is noted for his very anthropomorphic conception of God. I cannot say that there was much that was new or startling in his lecture on this front. He spoke about the Anglican theologian J. B. Mozley’s six questions about divine impassibility in his book The Impassibility of God. His treatment of these questions might well madden you, just as his starting points may be thought to be question-begging. I shall not go into any detail here, though it might be worthwhile to do so another time. For Moltmann, Mozley’s treatment of the questions ended in each case in self-contradiction. How can an impassible God feel compassion? That’s the unanswerable question given a metaphysics of substance, Moltmann says. What is needed instead, he insists, is a metaphysics of subjectivity, not substance.
What God reveals is what God is. And the history of salvation consists in the movement of this God, the narrative of his redemption, culminating in this God becoming man. Such a theology of the movement of God, as we might call it, is free of contradiction, unlike the static, immobile God of classical theism that the fathers, the medieval, and the reformers affirmed. The alleged self-contradictoriness of the theology of the God of substance is not that of formal logic but of Hegelian logic. According to the theology of the movement of God, the creation of the universe by God involves his self-limitation; he has to shrink to make space for his creatures. So God is presumably spatial in his essence. God’s transcendence is simply that of an “earlier” God, before he revealed himself exhaustively in Jesus. God’s self-revelation is the revelation of the totality of his self. (One is inclined to write, “totality of being” at this point but this is the result of bad Aristotelian habits!)
You see how far this is from Chalcedon. So part of the story is that bad Greek metaphysics infected the Christian theology of past generations, and now thanks to Hegel we have an appropriate metaphysics. There is no “moodiness” in God, a moody god is Greek popular myth, the Homeric gods. But he is steadily passible, so to say. He repeatedly claimed in the lecture that Mozley was unable to resolve the clash of thesis with antithesis in our thinking about God because of his underlying metaphysics.
It became evident (to me at least) that Moltmann’s way of going about things is thoroughly Hegelianised. He is not an anthropomorphite simply because he is sentimental about God, wanting a God near to him, nor because of jejune Bible study. His doctrine of God depends on Hegel, a Hegelianised Trinity in which each Person is a dramatis personae, the drama being the unfolding of God – God as he is – in periods, God the Father, and then the Son, and then the Spirit. But not three persons in one substance, or two natures in one person. One God constituted through a three-act drama.
Afterwards we were able to talk briefly about this and whether there was any time in his career when he was not a follower of Hegel. He said that there hadn’t been. And whether there was any way in which someone (like me, and the majority of the Christian theological tradition) could have a serious conversation with someone for whom God was to be spoken of exclusively in the language of subjectivity. He said that there wasn’t. But perhaps he did not understand me, and we failed to have a conversation about having a serious conversation.
Nevertheless I was impressed once again by the way in which a continental Christian thinker will readily make Hegel (or Kant) a foundation stone of his theology, on a par with Scripture, so it seems. This creates a gulf that separates continental ways of thinking, not from English ways of doing theology, but from the main patristic, medieval and reformed way of thinking about the God of Scripture. Not a Greek superimposition, but a gulf arising from the data of Scripture itself.
For those interested, the published version of Moltmann’s lecture can be found in Within the Love of God, Essays on the Doctrine of God in Honour of Paul S. Fiddes, ed. Anthony Clarke and Andrew Moore (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014).
Paul Helm was appointed J.I. Packer Chair of Philosophical Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, in 2001. He is presently a Teaching Fellow there. Among his many books are Calvin and the Calvinists, Faith and Reason, The Trustworthiness of God, The Providence of God, Eternal God, The Secret Providence of God, The Trustworthiness of God (with Carl Trueman), John Calvin’s Ideas, Calvin at the Centre, and Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed.