Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Moltmann on Christology: The Crucified God

This picture is of a painting by Marc Chagall, The Crucifixion in Yellow, which Jurgen Moltmann said was inspiring to him as reflected upon his significant contribution to the theology, The Crucified God.
I have had an interest lately in learning from two German theologians, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann. I have been exploring the Christology of Pannenberg in Systematic Theology (1998, 1991), Chapters 9, 10, and 11. He refers often Moltmann, The Crucified God, 1973, 1974. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 are the Christological portions of this book. Interestingly, Moltmann also refers to the Pannenberg work that has become a classic in this field, Jesus– God and Man, 1964, 1968. I should say at the outset that I think of them as theologically working on similar turf. The difference is not fundamental. Yet, as they carry out this conversation in public, I find it helpful to work through some of the basic issues in Christology.

            In Chapter 3, Moltmann discusses questions about Jesus. As he sees it, the first task of Christology is the verification of the Christian faith in its origin and the second is a critical verification of Christian faith in its consequences for the present and the future. He refers to how the first question is one Pannenberg took up in Jesus – God and Man. He notes that he agrees with Pannenberg concerning the unreliability of the information regarding the Jesus of history, but differs from him in the conclusions he draws.

1) Is Jesus true God? Moltmann begins with the distinction made in modern theology between Christology from above and from below. Since Moltmann sees a difference between him and Pannenberg here, I would like to explore what they say concerning the position of each.

From above refers the divinity of Jesus with the Incarnation at the center. Pannenberg says this approach was common in the ancient church, beginning with Ignatius and the second century apologists. It became the basis for much of the Alexandrian Christology of Athanasius in the 300s and Cyril in the 400s. The structure of the concept, that of the descent of the Son from the world above, is the opposite of what we gather from the process of the development of primitive Christian tradition. The unity of the man Jesus with God was something recognized over time. God becoming a human being runs the other direction. Pannenberg will note that this procedure is one that Barth will follow in Church Dogmatics IV.2, 59 and IV.2, 64. Barth has combined two doctrines, that of the two natures and that of the humiliation and exaltation of the Incarnate Son as two consecutive stages along the path of Jesus. By combining these two themes, Barth comes closer to the basic outline of the Gnostic redeemer myth, which is the basic concept of the Christology of Barth. For Barth, of course, the redeemed is humanity. Barth also adds the feature that the humiliation of God is also the exaltation of humanity. Pannenberg also refers to Emil Brunner in The Mediator as another example as is Heinrich Vogel. The presupposition of this approach is that it presupposes the Trinity and it therefore poses the question of how the Logos assumed human nature. Pannenberg says this approach is not feasible. First, rather than presupposing the divinity of Jesus, theology must present reasons for confessing the divinity of Jesus. Second, beginning with the Logos means dismissal of the real, historical man, Jesus of Nazareth. Third, one would have to stand in the position of God in order to follow the way of the Son into the world. At this point, Moltmann has what I think is an odd disagreement. He says that the “from above” approach simply assumes a finite being seeking the Infinite being of God who imparts permanence. One must simply accept the openness of one’s own finite existence in order to recognize its fulfillment of one’s own openness. We can only think in terms of a historically conditioned situation. We cannot leap over this limitation. Our question needs to begin with the man Jesus. Thus, he thinks the way from above to below has relative justification, but the historical reality of Jesus must become fruitful today in its fullness. I say odd because in offering this criticism, Moltmann is actually referring to an anthropology that Pannenberg has expressed as well. In fact, this anthropology is actually the basis of the “from below” approach that Pannenberg pursue in his Systematic Theology. Moltmann seems to reserve his criticism of the “from above” approach to Hegel and speculative philosophy.

In contrast to approaching Christology from above, and famously, Pannenberg wants to propose Christology “from below,” rising from the historical man Jesus to the recognition of his divinity. Such an approach concerns itself first with the message and fate of Jesus and arrives at the end at the concept of Incarnation. He admits that while Christology must begin with the man Jesus, its first question has to be about his unity with God. He says he finds a few traces of this approach in the ancient church, in rationalism, but primarily in Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Paul Althaus, Emil Brunner in his Dogmatics, Friedrich Gogarten, and Gerhard Ebeling. The approach “from below” means that the confession of the divinity of the man Jesus requires substantiation. The divinity of Jesus is not self-explanatory.[1]

Now, the reason I get into this is that Moltmann thinks Pannenberg offers an uncritical acceptance of the terminology of Barth and Weber. I may be very weak-minded here, but I hardly think this account is uncritical. My wonderment is whether Moltmann is still too close to Barth to allow legitimacy of a criticism. Barth by his admission offers a “from above” Christology, and Pannenberg wants Christology to move a different direction. Moltmann himself wants to move a different direction, but maybe he is not ready to admit the extent of his departure from Barth here. My judgment is that the difference here, if any, is slight. Given that Moltmann wants to make the historical reality of Jesus fruitful for today, he actually has a friend in Pannenberg and departs from Barth more than he may want to admit.

Moltmann will go on to pose three other questions in the next sections that I will not pursue. I will refer to the sections as he enumerates them. 2) Is Jesus true human being? He will explore the humanity of Jesus here. 3) Are you he who is to come? He will explore the question of the Messiah here. 4) Who do you say that I am? Here is a question for us all.

            As we move to Chapter 4, Moltmann discusses the historical trial of Jesus. He distinguishes his effort from that of Kahler and Bultmann. In this chapter, he wants to treat the historical task of describing the death of Jesus within the framework of his life as a theological task.

1) He deals with the question of the origin of Christology. He agrees with Kahler that without the cross there is no Christology. Christology needs to demonstrate itself in the light of the cross. The historical question here is the classic distinction between the preaching of Jesus that focused on the immanent rule of God and the preaching of the Paul and the early church that focused on Christ. The point here is the role of the cross in making that transition in preaching.

2) He discusses the way to the cross of Jesus. His point here will be to understand the end to which Jesus came in the context of his life. What did Jesus say or do that led to people thinking he deserved crucifixion? Here, he will look at the trial of Jesus in the narrow sense.

(a) He discusses Jesus, the Law and the charge that Jesus was a blasphemer. He admits that some doubt this charge is historical. However, he thinks that the charge by Jewish leadership that he was a blasphemer, a demagogue, a false Messiah, is difficult to dispute in view of his scandalous message. Pannenberg thinks the only sure point is that Jewish leaders handed Jesus over to the Romans for judgment as a messianic pretender and rebel. However, Jewish leaders presented this charge as a pretext for other views that made Jesus unacceptable to them, although the accounts of the proceedings do not make it clear what these were. Here, Moltmann is also saying that the real reason for the attitude of the Jewish authorities is the criticism of the Law that Jesus offered as well as the implied claim to plenipotentiary authority.[2] The point of Moltmann is that Jesus placed his preaching of God above the authority of Moses and the Torah. The appearance of Jesus, in the apocalyptic context, was a novelty that would arouse resistance. The Son of Man was to appear at the last judgment as a judge of sinners and the redeemer of righteous, but Jesus turned to the sinner and the lost. This drastic novelty made him withdraw from the circle of John the Baptist. He agrees with the studies of Kasemann at this point. Pannenberg will say that scholars need to begin from the eschatological nearness of God in order to understand the nearness of the Creator as well from this perspective. He does not think that detaching Jesus from the apocalyptic atmosphere that preceded and followed him is a likely historical postulate. Rather, in his thought, Jesus also connected with the apocalyptically determined message of the Baptist. [3] However, Moltmann disagrees that the distinction he is making detaches Jesus from the apocalyptic atmosphere of the times. He thinks that Pannenberg overlooks the new understanding of the content of the righteousness of God in Jesus and the Christ kerygma in comparison with the message of John. Pannenberg will affirm this distinction as well.[4] I am not sure if this is a change of position at this point. Moltmann points out that the message of Jesus could not receive legitimizing from the traditions of Israel, the rabbis, or apocalyptic. He also wants to draw a distinction between the anticipatory structure of the preaching of Jesus and its new content. The gospel of the kingdom that Jesus preached was of a proleptic in nature. He points out that the concept goes back to J. Weiss. His point is that the content is significantly different from apocalyptic because the preaching of Jesus promises the kingdom to the unrighteous as a gift of grace.

(b) He discusses Jesus, authority, and the charge of “rebel.” He thinks there was a political dimension of the gospel in a world in which religion and politics are inseparable. As I noted on the previous subsection, Pannenberg thinks this charge of rebel was a pretext to get the execution Jewish leaders wanted. If a pre-text, the charge would say something about the religious and political authorities of Jesus, but say nothing concerning the public ministry of Jesus. He may well be innocent of the charge. From what we know in the gospel narrative, I would say he was innocent of the charge. In his analysis of Jesus and the zealots, Moltmann wants to draw some parallels and clearly wants to paint a political dimension to the public ministry of Jesus that would make his execution justifiable from Romans eyes. The difference between the two is interesting here. If the political reason were a pretext for the religious reason, it would have implications that Moltmann might not want to pursue. Moltmann wants his theology to have political ramifications. It would be helpful if Jesus died, in part, for political reasons in the sense that he challenged political structures. The political difference between the two theologians is large, but that is not my focus. I simply note that here, the political agenda of Moltmann may color how he approaches the charge of rebel.

(c) He discusses Jesus, God, and the godforsaken. He powerfully points to the calm death of Socrates as a wise man, zealots died as righteous, Stoics with inner liberty, and Christian martyrs in calm faith. Jesus did not have a fine or beautiful death. The distinctive feature of the cross is abandonment of the Father. He preached the immanence of the rule of God and intimacy of relation with his heavenly Father. He had fellowship with the Father and had the confidence to turn toward the sinner and the lost. Yet, since he died because of his heavenly Father, the deity of the Father is at stake in the cross, a statement that Pannenberg will stress as well.[5] His conclusion is that Jesus died rejected as a blasphemer by the guardians of the Law, as a rebel by the Romans, and by the Father. Christian theology must face the cry of dereliction from the cross. It deals honestly with the cry from the cry of god forsakenness as it shares in the suffering of the present age. At this point, it becomes contemporary theology. He wonders how Christian theology can speak of God at all in the face of what Jesus said on the cross: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? In this Chapter, he has wanted to understand the death of Jesus on the cross in the context of his theological life and work. He put the righteousness of God into conflict with the Law. He put freedom into conflict with Roman authority. The cross puts the divinity of the one he called Father into question.

            In Chapter 5, Moltmann discusses the eschatological trial of Jesus. Here, he wants to approach the theological task of setting forth interpreting the Easter faith as a historical task. He will want to understand the death of Jesus in the context of his resurrection by God and of eschatological faith. Here, he will consider the recapitulation of the trial of Jesus by God and faith in the resurrection. It brings into an eschatological light the death of Jesus on the cross. It also brings his entire life, its word and deed, as well as his way to the cross.

1) He discusses eschatology and history. He wants to affirm that the risen Christ is the historical and crucified Jesus, and the reverse as well. However, he wants to ponder the justification for the eschatological recognition of who Jesus. The early church preaching of the church attached great weight to the unexpected factor of God raising him from the dead and the gift of the Spirit to Jews and Gentiles alike. The resurrection is the primal datum of the Christian faith. He notes that the early church did not dispute the resurrection but had various interpretations of his death. As an historical person, we would not know Jesus, since the crucifixion contradicted his word and deed. However, the early proclamation of the church looked at the resurrection as the beginning of the eschatological transformation of the world by its creator. Moltmann positively refers to a summary of the immediate inherent significance of the resurrection offered by Pannenberg. The end of the world has begun, God confirmed the pre-Easter activity of Jesus, the Son of Man is Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus reveals God, the motivation for the Gentile mission was the resurrection of the crucified, and the words spoken by the risen Lord are explanations of the significance of the resurrection.[6] Easter was prelude and anticipation of the qualitatively new future of God and the new creation in the midst of world of suffering. He looks to Bultmann, Rosenzweig, and Benjamin as referring to the significance of the future. We can understand Jesus only in the context of his future. We can grasp the future only by anticipation in the present. He views this as helpful against a positivist reading of history and the need to have an eschatological reading of history. Such an open history in the context of suffering death does not prove the Christian hope, but it makes it comprehensible. Since we are heading toward a difference on this topic, I want to point out that Pannenberg would affirm Moltmann throughout this section.

2) Moltmann discusses the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The first witnesses saw the risen Lord, in the context of their observing his word and deed and their discipleship, from the passion and a faith shattered by it, and the apocalyptic expectation of some Jews in the context of Roman occupation. Such a “seeing” is a revelation formula, a disclosure or revelation unseen by the world. The call and sending of the prophet is an anticipation of what God will do. This explains why the disciples returned to Jerusalem, not only the place of the death and appearances, but also where others told of the discovery of the empty tomb. Apocalyptic also anticipated that Jerusalem had a special role in the end of history. The resurrection means that the glory of God appears in the helplessness and shame of the crucified Jesus. It excludes the idea that Jesus returned to this former life. It symbolizes the future of the dead. It means that at the end of days, God will raise the dead, thereby demonstrating the power of God over the power of death. The end-time of the world and the beginning of the new creation dawn with the general resurrection of the dead. Those who believe this no longer have a sure hope in a near future of God that has already dawned in Jesus. The process of raising the dead has begun. This world of death and the coming of life are in tension with each other now. True life has appeared in the midst of false life. The future has already begun. The resurrection makes possible the impossible, such as reconciliation in the midst of strife, the law of grace in the midst of judgment, and creative love in the midst of legalism. He wants a new eschatological understanding of time. The intent of the attested resurrection of Jesus before all other people is proleptic attestation.

At this point, Moltmann notes that he agrees with Pannenberg in understanding the resurrection of Jesus in eschatological terms and seeing it as an anticipation of the resurrection of the dead. He disagrees with the Pannenberg criticism that dialectical theology has an authoritarian notion of the Word of God. He thinks he has grounded the concept of the promise in the particular historical differences that lie in the event of liberation, which in the Old Testament is the Exodus event and in Christianity in the event of the resurrection of the crucified Christ. For Pannenberg, the notion of promise in Moltmann sounds a lot like the way Barth approaches the Word of God. Obviously, the two disagree as to the impact of that statement. However, many scholars would agree with Pannenberg here. The notion Barth has of the Word of God can feel like little more than assertion and authoritarian.

To take this notion of prolepsis and promise further, for Moltmann, although apocalyptic did not think in terms of anticipation of its expected resurrection of the dead, it did have legends of the premature ascension of particular righteous people like Elijah and Enoch. He refers to Pannenberg here, who thinks that the special feature of Christian faith is this prolepsis. Jesus proleptically claimed the distant rule of God and referred his claim to God for future confirmation. Easter faith proclaimed the end of history, which God will reveal the glory of God as anticipated by the resurrection. As Pannenberg put it, in the fate of Jesus, the end of history has taken place beforehand as anticipation. Moltmann agrees with this as to the formal structure of the Easter visions. However, this does not provide any historical proof for the claim of Jesus. At this point, Moltmann touches upon a major problem that many scholars have with Pannenberg. Is he saying that one can have historical proof of the resurrection of Jesus? Moltmann thinks so. For him, what has happened in Jesus refers us to further confirmation to the end of history. The difficulty I have here is that Pannenberg says precisely the same thing. Thus, whatever he says about the resurrection, the event is like every other historical event in the sense that every event remains open to the course of history. In this case, the resurrection of Jesus, regardless of how one defines its nature, is a prolepsis and anticipation of an end that must still find actualization. Thus, when Moltmann says the resurrection is not an historical proof, I think Pannenberg would agree, if by proof one mean like a mathematical formula. For Moltmann, the resurrection is the language, not so much of fact, as that of faith, hope, and promise. For him, then, in contrasting himself to Pannenberg, the structure of the proclamation of Jesus and the early Christian faith is the word of promise. He sees the difference here in that the resurrection remains promise in Moltmann but in Pannenberg the anticipation is in the fact of resurrection. At this point, one could note that Pannenberg is being the apologist for the Christian faith. If God raised Christ from the dead, the classic Christian teaching regarding the Trinity and Christology are in some way true, even if one needs to re-think them due to the further light of historical reflection. Such is the basic theological project of Pannenberg. As Moltmann sees it, Pannenberg might refer to Moltmann as offering a verbal prolepsis in the language of promise, whereas Pannenberg might view the resurrection as a real prolepsis, as anticipatory event. He thinks they are saying the same thing, and I would tend to agree. For Moltmann, the “promise event” corresponds in a realistic way to the continuing difference between the reality of an unredeemed world and the coming reconciliation toward which Christian faith looks. Moltmann, however, thinks that the difference he has with Pannenberg is that the new creation in Christ will demonstrate the new element in the proclamation of Jesus and the new element in his anticipated resurrection from the dead. If so, the resurrection points to eschatological verification.

Let us pursue the difference further, for it brings to light another problem that scholars have with Pannenberg. For Moltmann, the unredeemed world is not capable of demonstrating the new creation. One cannot demonstrate the resurrection to this world, given the scandal of the cross. Thus, he asks again whether the proleptic feature of anticipation is the special element in the Christian Easter faith. For Moltmann, the issue is the question of the righteousness of God. The new and scandalous element in the message of Easter is that the one raised was also the condemned, executed, and forsaken man, Jesus of Nazareth. This means that faith is a joyful hope. He again refers to Pannenberg, who has stressed the formal structure of prolepsis in the claim of Jesus and its confirmation in the resurrection so one-sidedly that one can easily overlook the significance of the harsh antithesis between the claim of Jesus and its confirmation in the cross. Pannenberg has famously interpreted apocalyptic and Christology too much in terms of their significance for universal history, so that his theology is in danger of neglecting the fundamental question of righteousness. He will then refer to the apocalyptic context as Pannenberg sees it connects with a modern anthropology of the openness of modern humanity to the world. Moltmann does not think it wrong to establish such structural analogies. However, he thinks that the claim of Jesus and his resurrection can become a mere example of a universal-historical or anthropological notion, the truth of which is independent of the history of Jesus. For him, then, only in the question of righteousness in suffering the evil and misery of the world of humanity do we find the abiding question of apocalyptic.

Pannenberg responds that he finds it a grotesque suspicion that he has depreciated the central significance of the crucifixion of Jesus for the Christian understanding of the person and work of Jesus in what he wrote in Jesus – God and Man. The accusation is that it saw the resurrection, not the crucifixion, as the divine confirmation of his claim to authority. Yet, the resurrection presupposes his death.[7] In the postscript to the fifth German edition, Pannenberg stresses the reversal of meaning that occurs in the resurrection, in which the one rejected as a blasphemer stands justified before God. His presentation of Christology does not leave it with the assertion of Christian proclamation, but also attempts to provide a basis for why this assertion is appropriate as an exegesis of the meaning befitting the cross of Jesus in the context of his history.[8]

3) He discusses the significance of the cross of the risen Christ. He points to how Easter made the early community look forward. He refers to formulas of adoption, enthronement, and titles of representation such as mediator. They also looked backward into interpreting the mystery of the suffering and death of the exalted Lord. Moltmann refers to the idea of Pannenberg in Jesus – God and Man, p. 135-41 that the resurrection has a retroactive force in the confirmation of the claim of Jesus. This idea means retroactive not only for our knowledge of Jesus, but also for his being. He finds this helpful idea. Pannenberg admits that he did not make plain enough that the basis of this idea lies in the hermeneutic of historical experience. In a later work, The Way of Jesus Christ (p. 77), Moltmann says this idea is a forced assumption. Pannenberg explains that he has in mind the hermeneutic of Dilthey, that a descriptively demonstrable fact that has ontological implications. The significance of an event as we see it later connects closely with the events in the light of whose provisional conclusion upon which we look back. The thesis of a retroactive force corresponds to the constitutive significance of anticipation, which Moltmann also assumes.[9] Pannenberg adds that the retroactive constitution of the earlier in light of what happened later applies especially to the identity of the person. He thinks Moltmann misses this point.

4) Moltmann discusses the future of God in the sign of the crucified Christ. Pannenberg will stress that the deity of God in creation, in the sending of the Son and Spirit, has become dependent upon the course of history. The dependence of the deity of the Father upon the course of events finds powerful expression by Moltmann here, who illustrated it by the crucifixion of Jesus. The cross of Jesus calls into question the deity of the Father if his death is the death of the Son. Pannenberg will also refer to Chapter 6, Section 4 as a powerful statement of this theme.[10] The question Moltmann wants to raise is what the Father was doing during the crucifixion. The Father kept silent. Was the Father absent? Had the Father forgotten the Son? The paradox of the cross is that the almighty God is a helpless man.

Of course, Moltmann will take these reflections into rethinking the Christian concept of God. His reflections lead him to set aside the “two nature” theory of classic Christianity, not because he denies the deity of Jesus, but because he thinks the point was to separate the divinity and humanity of Jesus in such a way as to preserve divinity from suffering. Obviously, the cross means for him that, again, contrary to classical Christian teaching, God has brought suffering into the heart of divinity. He will also want to identify the economic and immanent Trinity, bringing them together in an eschatological notion of the history of the Trinity. He will especially pursue this idea in The Trinity and the Kingdom (1980, 1981), p. 158-61. In spite of the important differences discussed previously, then, Moltmann and Pannenberg end up in some important common places!

In a powerful way, Moltmann has shown to the satisfaction of Pannenberg and many other theologians that the cross means that the deity of the Father is at stake in the course of history. It has led to re-thinking the classical doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the relationship between God and suffering. Pannenberg unquestionably focuses upon the resurrection as an historical event, but one that remains open as to its interpretation in the course of history. Moltmann prefers to focus upon the resurrection as a promise that requires eschatological verification. The difference is real, but both are on common ground in considering the significance of the resurrection in the light of Jewish apocalyptic. Both seek to relate the apocalyptic vision of the future to modern notions of the openness of history and the significance of the future as determinative of the present. Pannenberg has also wanted to place the resurrection within his notion of universal history. For him, the resurrection becomes the key that unlocks the destiny of nature and human history. Moltmann and Pannenberg were part of the recovery of the importance of eschatology to theological discourse that the 1800s liberal Protestant theology had lost. Both Pannenberg and Moltmann will want to remind us that the actual course of history is unredeemed and full of suffering. History alone will not yield to the notion of a “new creation” and a divinely appointed destiny. Pannenberg will make this especially clear in his Systematic Theology at several points as he relates his discussions to theodicy. Yet, at this early date in the discussions between these two theologians, Moltmann might be clearer on this point than is Pannenberg.

On a personal note, it has been a joy to reflect on these matters, especially as we approach the season of Lent and Easter.

[1] (Pannenberg, Jesus -- God and Man 1964, 1968), 33-37.
[2] (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 1998, 1991), Volume II, 314.
[3] (Pannenberg, Jesus -- God and Man 1964, 1968), 62.
[4] (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 1998, 1991), Volume II, 326-7.
[5] (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 1998, 1991), Volume I, 314.
[6] (Pannenberg, Jesus -- God and Man 1964, 1968), 66-73.
[7] (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 1998, 1991), Volume II, 338.
[8] (Pannenberg, Jesus -- God and Man 1964, 1968), 403-4.
[9] (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 1998, 1991) Volume II, 303.
[10] (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 1998, 1991), Volume I, 329.


  1. FYI: here is a list of 205 texts which references Jesus dating from pre 70 AD to 200-250 AD: