Anvil journal of theology and mission
Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: for the 21st Century, (London: SCM Press, 2021)
by James Butler, Church Mission Society
Where to begin with a book which is widely regarded as a classic, and one I’ve heard described by one theologian as the most important book of the last 50 years? I do not claim to have grasped its profundity, nor taken in its careful argument in a such a way to make such claims, nor to add much to all that has already been written. While some of it is highly technical and specific (and I’m grateful to the foreword from Richard Bauckham for guidance on where to focus my attention), as Moltmann carefully opens up his main thesis, I could see why this was a classic that demanded careful attention.
Moltmann’s key claim is that we must have a theology of eschatology; a theology that pulls us out of the mechanistic closed universe of modern thinking, and to realise that the kind of hope Jesus promises is not one in continuity with the way the world is, but a radical change. He is critical of what he calls “a theology of the eternal present”, where theology becomes linked to the revelation of God in place. Moltmann argues that God’s presence, for Israel and in the life, death and revelation of Jesus is about promise. The point of God’s presence is always in relation to the promise of the future that is yet to come to pass. This means that Christian theology must have the future in sight, it must be about the future that God promises to bring about, rather than about bringing the present into line with God’s eternity. In this way it unsettles followers of God to “strike out in hope towards the promised new future” (p.89). Moltmann takes almost the entire book to work through the theological implications of such a position: he traces the problem through (mainly German) theological thought in chapter 1, discussing it in relation to history in chapter 2 (particularly through the history of Israel), and through Jesus, and particularly the resurrected Jesus, in Chapter 3. Chapter 4 then begins to explore the consequences of this eschatological perspective to understand what “history” is.
It is only chapter 5 where some of the more practical implications of this theology begin to be explored. In particular, he looks at what it means for the church and Christianity in the modern world. It is by far the shortest chapter and remains fairly abstract and big picture. I think it is safe to say, though, that in reality much of the rest of Moltmann’s great library of works is him working through the implications of this Theology of Hope for the church, for mission and for the world.
The new edition has a new introduction by James Hawkey and includes a lecture from Moltmann delivered in Westminster Abbey in March 2020. Neither add a great deal to what is already there, and Richard Bauckham’s introduction remains a much more significant help in engaging with Moltmann’s work, but they do highlight the continuing need to reflect on eschatology in light of all that is going on in the world. The fact that Moltmann’s lecture took place just before Britain went into full lockdown seems particularly poignant.
So why should you read this book? Well, I have greatly appreciated the challenge to think about the world and theology eschatologically. In the West we are wedded to a sense of progress, to a capitalist outlook that assumes that all can be put right if we work better and harder. Moltmann’s Theology of Hope interrupts this assumption and sets our sights on the future promises of God. Similarly, for churches increasingly drawn to see the world in immanent terms, we desperately need this challenge and to be drawn into God’s promised future; something which is in radical discontinuity with the world as it is, and something we are being invited to participate in and hope for.
This book is not easy going, but it is rewarding. It is not particularly focused on practice, but it paints a compelling vision of theology, and indeed mission, that is focused on God’s future through Jesus Christ, by the Spirit.