Thursday, October 25, 2007

Any Moltmann fans out there?

Theology is about God and our salvation, our cause for hope in the world, and therefore there is no such thing as merely academic theology. Jurgen Moltmann was a thought-provoking theologian who understood that well. As with anyone publishing a number of books, he left himself open to criticism in some places and likely even deserved it on occasion. With that in mind, I'd like to respond to certain criticisms against Moltmann which have been reviewed recently on Peter Leithart's blog -- but only those criticisms that seem somewhat unjust. Given the practical and hope-giving nature of Moltmann's work, I hope that the discussion may also be in that same vein. With thanks to Peter Leithart for the discussion of the pro's and con's of Moltmann, here is a brief review of some of the criticisms against Moltmann.

How do we know the Trinity?

An objection was made to Moltmann's studied emphasis on the "economic Trinity" (Trinity as known through action in the world, the Trinity of salvation history) as opposed to the "immanent Trinity", or the Trinity as it is in itself. How we should know the Trinity as it is in itself is a bit of a mystery. This was part of Moltmann's theological background and why many Lutherans stick with the economic Trinity as the only Trinity we actually know.

Leithart, quoting Pannenberg:
This steals from the Trinity of salvation history all sense and significance. For this Trinity has sense and significance only if God is the same in salvation history as he is from eternity.
On the other hand, if God really is the same in salvation history as he is from eternity, this objection is answered. In that case, it is the objection which is based on faulty premises, namely the premise that God is not the same from eternity.

Did God die on the cross?

From Leithart's blog again:
Moltmann has also been unclear about what he means by talking about the death of God. Karkkainen again prefers Pannenberg: "the Son of God, though he suffered and died himself, did so according to his human nature."
I do not see that "the death of God" is actually unclear; it seems more the case that we balk at it not because it is unclear but because it radically challenges our assumptions about God. This challenge to our ideas about God is inherent in the incarnation itself, in which the finite bears the infinite, the omnipotent takes up weakness, and the Immortal takes up a mortal body. Here Pannenberg, against Moltmann, refers Christ's death to Jesus but not to God, splitting Christ at the moment of death so that the divine and human natures are no longer united. I think Pannenberg's rejoinder shows that it was clear enough what Moltmann meant by the death of God, just that Pannenberg might rather cut some corners of his Christology and separate the divine and human natures of Christ rather than consent to what Moltmann meant by the death of God.

How does God overcome evil and suffering?
Others have criticized Moltmann for robbing God of any real ability to overcome the evil and suffering that He enters into out of love for us. Moltmann is so fearful of domination and any theology of lordship that he presents a God who can only endure with us, but cannot really deliver.
Is it really appropriate to characterize Moltmann as being "fearful of domination and any theology of lordship"? Or is more appropriate to notice that in Christ, God himself radically challenged our fondness for "domination" and "lordship" precisely in his incarnation and crucifixion? If this is the case, then Moltmann drew proper notice to the fact that, in Christ, in King Messiah, God himself chose weakness, even if that should seem foolish rather than wise in our human judgment. In his lordship and triumphal entry, Christ rode into town on a donkey. Then he took up a servant's garb and washed feet as a slave would do, and gave that as an example of lordship.

On that basis it seems that Moltmann has tried to give proper notice to Christ's radical challenge to our concepts of glory and lordship, our typically misguided quests for "domination". As Christ has demonstrated his lordship through weakness, so Moltmann has taken up the themes proper to Christ's incarnation, the themes which Christ himself put forward as essential to understanding his work. He met the disciples' human ideas of lordship and domination only with rebukes. Yet this did not make Christ one who "cannot really deliver", but instead one whose weakness was stronger than our strength.

Is it patripassian to say the Father suffered at the death of his Son?

The patripassian heresy from early Christianity is one that maintains that the Father suffered the crucifixion. Again from Leithart's blog:
I wonder with some others whether the charge of modalism lurks behind his program in the form of patripassianism. When the Son suffered and died on the cross, the Father did so with him. Moldmann is aware of patripassionist leadings, and, against Christian tradition, does not necessarily consider it heretical.
On the basis of the quotes provided, that criticism seems to be a little bit misleading. "Patripassian leadings", as best I can gather from what was quoted of Moltmann, is simply Moltmann's insistence that the Son's death grieved the Father deeply and the Father suffered, not from being personally crucified, but from grief over Christ's crucifixion, from love of him who died. This is not at all "patripassian" in the original heretical sense of the Father being crucified. As such the criticism does not hit the mark of Moltmann's teachings as quoted. It does serve as a way to bring the words "against Christian tradition" and "heretical" on stage in loose connection with Moltmann, despite the fact that Moltmann is not quoted as teaching the Father's death on the cross, merely the Father's suffering from his great love for Christ at Christ rejection and death.

Moltmann's theology has its faults. Still, his works raise the most important questions: Is God really impassible in the face of suffering? What is the nature of Lordship? How do we know God? Is God the God of domination who cannot suffer, cannot die? Is it possible to know God through speculation about his eternal nature apart from what is revealed in salvation history, especially in the cross of Christ? Is God as revealed in Christ radically different from God as he is in himself from all eternity? Or is the way to know God through Christ: the crucified God who has a radically different idea of lordship than we do, the God who takes up the cause of the godless at his own expense, who calls us not to have dominion but to take up the cross and follow him? That is why I enjoy Moltmann. The man does have a way of getting at the questions.

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