Jürgen Moltmann, Theologian of Hope, Dies at 98

Prof. Dr Jürgen Moltmann spoke with the students at the WCC's Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, on December 3, 2019.
Prof. Dr Jürgen Moltmann spoke with the students at the WCC's Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, on December 3, 2019. (photo: Peter Kenny/WCC)
By World Council of ChurchesJune 6th, 2024

Jürgen Moltmann, the most widely read Christian theologian of the post-war era, has died at the age of 98 in Tübingen, Germany.

Moltmann was Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen.

A committed ecumenist, Moltmann was a member of the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches (WCC) from 1968 to 1983, taking part in many meetings, conferences, and dialogues.

Said WCC’s moderator, Rev. Prof. Dr Heinrich Bedford-Strohm of his passing, "Jürgen Moltmann was not only a dear friend to me personally. He was also a great friend of the World Council of Churches and the ecumenical movement. He was committed to it throughout his life. His Theology of Hope has been inscribed in the history of theology worldwide. Not only has the life of a great theologian now come to an end, but also the life of a great human being, a man with a wide heart. He is now experiencing the fullness of love of the kingdom of God, of which he wrote so much and which he himself radiated so much.”

The WCC general secretary, Rev. Prof. Dr Jerry Pillay, also comnmented, "We are all saddened by news of Jürgen Moltmann's death. He has contributed so much to the ecumenical endeavour and so befriended us at the WCC. For my generation, Moltmann's theology was an inspiration to us, and in South Africa his theology was avidly read as we struggled with hope against apartheid. His work remains a guide and encouragement for all of us."

Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca, who served as the WCC’s acting general secretary from 2020 to 2022 and worked for the WCC since 1994, recalled, “As director of the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, I welcomed Jürgen Moltmann to the institute several times, where he always entered into lively discussion with students. He was also greatly interested in the dialogue with Orthodoxy, and developed a very strong relationship and friendship with the Romanian Orthodox theologian Dumitru Stăniloae.” 

He continued, “Especially in his work on the Trinity and the Holy Spirit and the filioque clause, he created possibilities for dialogue with Orthodox theology. Under the auspicies of WCC's Faith and Order, he was instrumental in the elaboration of the Kingenthal memorandum (1979), which recommended that all churches revert to the original text of the Nicean Constantinopolitan Creed.

A pioneer of political theology, ecological theology, and post-Holocaust Christian theology, Moltmann was perhaps best known for his 1964 book, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and Implications of a Christian Eschatology, published in English in 1967.

The book radically reframed eschatology, traditionally understood as the Christian doctrine of “the last things,” to focus on the ground of hope in Christian faith and the responsible exercise of this hope in thought and action in the world today. 

The book quickly gained international renown, spawned a decades-long readership both academic and lay, and exerted strong influence in the churches and preaching.

During Moltmann’s last visit to the WCC in Geneva in 2019, he offered a lecture on “The Spirit of Truth” to mark publication by the WCC of his book, Hope in These Troubled Times

“The fight for truth against falsehood is a matter of life and death. It is the struggle for the survival of humankind,” Moltmann said in his lecture.

“Nationalist power politics is no longer interested in truth,” he said. “They wage war under the guise of peace, a hybrid form of war with economic sanctions and cyber wars, fake news and lies.” 

Church of Norway Presiding Bishop Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, who was the WCC’s general secretary from 2010 to 2020, said of Moltmann, “My heart is filled with sadness and deep gratitude as I learn about the death of Jürgen Moltmann. His life and work as a theologian, teacher and leader for the churches in the last decades, are a great and unique gift to the ecumenical fellowship.” 

He continued, “Moltmann has articulated the challenges and the profound answers to them from a unique competence and a deep theological reflection, carrying forward a faith and love to the triune God, to God`s creation, to the one humanity, and to the church and their fellowship. For me personally he has been and will be a teacher and guide in our work as theologian and church leaders, and I will always remember the lovely encounters and conversations with him.”

The originality and depth of Moltmann’s work and the breadth of his interests and sources earned him critical acclaim across the theological spectrum, including from Orthodox, Pentecostal, and Jewish theologians.

Moltmann was a brilliant thinker and prolific author. During six decades and in 40 books, he further extended the theology of hope, recasting major topics in Christian theology, including the cross and salvation, Trinity, the Holy Spirit, God in creation, as well as theology of joy, passion for life, friendship, and love. Many of his texts are regarded as classics.

Moltmann made a particular contribution to the WCC’s work of Faith and Order on the ancient and unresolved problem between Eastern and Western Christianity about the reference to the Holy Spirit in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 CE.

Western, unlike Eastern, Christianity has used the Latin term filioque to refer to the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the son. Moltmann favoured the use of the Nicene Creed without the interpolation of the filioque. This has now become the norm in the WCC’s prayer life.

Said Faith and Order moderator, Rev. Prof. Dr Stephanie Dietrich, “We express our deep gratitude for Jürgen Moltmann's life and his longstanding engagement in our work. He exemplified ecumenical leadership, attentively listening to and integrating theological insights from other traditions. His theology fostered new ecumenical understandings across denominational borders, advancing the unity of the global church.”

Not to be confused with simple optimism, real Christian hope begins with Christ’s resurrection and its promise of new life, Moltmann says. In the crucifixion we see God’s identification with humans and their suffering; in the resurrection we witness God’s promise to heal and transform human existence and all creation. “The godforsaken Son of God stands shoulder to shoulder with all those who feel godforsaken,” he wrote.

Moltmann was born in 1926 and, as recounted in his memoir, A Broad Place: An Autobiography, his childhood was not particularly religious. But his experiences during the Second World War deeply scarred him, and his three years as a post-war prisoner of war led him first to despair and eventually to conversion, finding God in human suffering. 

“I began to understand the assailed Christ . . .  who takes the prisoners with him on his way to resurrection. I began to summon up the courage to live again, seized by a great hope,” he wrote.

Moltmann earned his doctorate from the University of Göttingen in 1952, going on to a pastorate in Wuppertal and then to the University of Bonn. He settled finally in Tübingen in 1967, and retired there in 1994. 

He was married in 1952 to Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, also a noted theologian and a pioneer in contemporary feminist and eco-theology. She and Moltmann authored some works together – including God: His and Hers – and often lectured together. They were parents to four daughters. 

One of Moltmann’s final works, Resurrected to Eternal Life: On Dying and Rising, published in 2021 in English, began, he said, in intensely personal reflection after the death of his wife in 2016. It 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,” Moltmann wrote. It is fulfilled in resurrection, which “will banish darkness from creation forevermore, until we stand together in the light.”

Originally from Webpage "The WCC"

CCD edited and reprinted with permission

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