The Theologian Who Never Experienced God

Over the weekend, I read Jürgen Moltmann’s Experiences of God, another book from my thrift store sale bag. Having read Moltmann’s Theology of Hope in seminary, I was interested to form a more concrete opinion about Moltmann’s theology.

Experiences of God is a short book (80 pages) divided into four parts: (1) Why Am I a Christian?, (2) Hope, (3) Anxiety, and (4) The Theology of Mystical Experience. Unfortunately, Moltmann’s presuppositions lead him to disastrous conclusions in each of his main points, but his scholarship and clear reasoning enabled me profit from the work despite severe disagreement.

I admit this is a long post concerning a random theology book published in 1980. Feel free to skip to the summary at the end.

Why Moltmann Is Not a Christian

Moltmann begins the book with an autobiographic essay. He describes his hopelessness as a prisoner of war in WWII and how that experience motivated him to study theology. He also recounts what influences shaped his theological positions and concludes:

In [God] I found the power of a hope which I can believe, live and die with. But whether this means that I am a Christian–that I really do not know, in spite of all the arguments and in spite of all the telling. Neither nor anyone else can decide. It is in the hands of the one to whom I trust myself (p. 18).

Moltmann is not a Christian. This sounds harsh and judgmental, but it’s a fact. My criticism here is not an insult. I simply intend to demonstrate that Moltmann is misappropriating the term “Christian.” Yes, God is the ultimate arbiter of all things. However, the term “Christian” refers to a set of beliefs regarding who God is. Someone cannot claim to be a Muslim and proclaim, “There are many gods in addition to Allah.” Likewise, if the term “Christian” is to mean anything, it cannot be divorced from the essential doctrines of the Christian faith.

Moltmann does not place his trust in the Christian God. Moltmann’s conversion does not include repentance from sin and trust in Christ’s substitutionary death in payment for those sins (Gal 1:4). From the earliest Christian writings, rejecting these tenets constitutes “another gospel” that should not be considered Christian (Gal 1:6-9). If Christianity is true, Moltmann has placed his trust in a false god.

Wishful Thinking

Moltmann rightly stresses the importance of eschatology for the Christian. “Without the expectation of Christ’s second coming there is no Christian hope” (p. 33). However, Moltmann’s concept of Christ’s second coming (or parousia) does not appear to be primarily literal (p. 34). Moltmann’s hope is centered on a global political freedom (p. 34) and a realized liberal social agenda (redistribution of wealth, pp. 26-27; environmental protection, p. 27). He assumes that God’s future judgment will not punish evil but will instead simply “establish his righteousness everywhere and in everyone” (35).

Moltmann misses the key to Christian hope. Christians hope in promises. They confidently expect that God’s revelation will continue to be true forever. They trust God’s promises to revoke the curse, reward faithfulness, and punish evil (Rev 22:3; 2 Cor 5:10; Matt 25). Moltmann’s hope is not based upon the promises of Scripture. For the Christian, such a hope amounts to nothing more than wishful thinking.

Patripassianism

Moltmann proposes that anxiety can be overcome through resistance and endurance modeled after Christ and God. Moltmann argues for patripassianism, the belief that God the Father (patri-) suffered (-passian) in a human sense just as Christ suffered. Patripassianism directly contradicts the doctrine of impassibility–the teaching that although God has emotions directed toward his creatures, His emotions are not affected by them. For an excellent post on impassibility and its importance, see Mark Snoeberger’s “Is Impassibility Passé?”.

For Moltmann, this view springs out of his devaluing the trinity as “a product of Hellenistically influenced, philosophical theology” (p. 16). Moltmann starts with Adolf von Harnack’s assault on the trinity and traces the development of patripassianism through two Jewish sources—Rosenzweig’s interpretation of the Shekina and Heschel’s interpretation of the OT prophets. He also points to Kierkegaard as significantly influencing his thinking (pp. 16-17, 50-54).

Why does patripassianism matter? Two reasons. First, this view has been working its way into evangelical circles through sources such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Second, it seems this view is often a veiled attack on the trinity or the attributes of God’s greatness. We need to remember that God had to send His Son because only the God-man could be without sin and suffer as a member of the human race.

Pantheistic Mysticism

Moltmann advocates what he calls a “pantheistic vision of the world in God” (pp. 78-79). God is directly accessible in everything surrounding us through meditation, contemplation, and mystical union. This accessibility is supposedly possible via Christ’s redemption of everything through His suffering on the cross.

This position is obviously problematic. It is built on a universalist view of the atonement, virtually denies God’s transcendence, and raises human experience to equal standing with special revelation. While Christians do directly encounter God through sanctification, Christians must subject all their thoughts to the teaching of Scripture (2 Tim 3:16-17).

Learning from Moltmann

Four lessons can be learned from this critique. (1) Christianity is a community marked by their common beliefs. Those who don’t believe Christianity’s essential doctrines should not be granted Christian recognition. (2) Christians must base their hope on the promises of Scripture. We must not confuse our desires with God’s promise. (3) Beware of patripassianism. God sent His Son for a reason; God the Father does not suffer as we suffer. (4) Scripture is the only true source for doctrine. Christians will encounter God as they grow in sanctification, but God will not teach us anything apart from His Word.

3 thoughts on “The Theologian Who Never Experienced God

  1. This was well thought out and well written. I get the idea, though, that you are the subject of the title. I will not say that anyone who has not knowingly nor willingly experienced God is not a Christian but I do know that God longs to be experienced intimately. Moltman does approach the panentheism of Tillich, and that is rightly addressed. But to claim that our Lord may only be known via HIS word is erroneous. Which is not to say that He cannot nor sould not be experienced through faithful Bible reading and study. That study should propel the believer to get to know Christ and to not be content to not merely know about Him.

    God Bless

    Christopher

  2. The early Christians were not identified so much by their beliefs as by their behaviour from whence their beliefs could be inferred. When you say those who dont believe Christianity’s essential doctrines should not be granted Christian recognition, although this is a standard position I am not convinced it is a fair statement. It also suggests that only one of the 28,000 denominations of Christianity can be right. (I presume this means you are implying that only those who accept Roman Catholic doctrine are Christian since they have the biggest single denomination)The good Samaritan had Jesus support because of his actions whereas the others who walked by on the other side regardless of their stated beliefs were not accepted as deserving of support. When James defines true religion he does so in terms of Christian actions which is pretty close to Paul’s by their fruits ye shall know them. On Moltman you have rushed to judgement but I for one am not entirely convinced.

  3. Christopher and peddiebill, thanks for raising your concerns. In response to your comments, let me say a couple of things.

    First, I’m not arguing that Christians experience God only through His Word. Of course, they will also experience God through ministry of the Holy Spirit. Even when reading the Bible, Christians experience the Holy Spirit’s illumination outside of the text. However, the only knowledge Christians gain from such experiences must be mediated through Scripture. I’ll try to post about this in more detail later in the week.

    Second, Christians can and do disagree on a great many points of doctrine. If Christian recognition was limited to those with full doctrinal agreement, then I suppose one could call only a dozen or so people “Christians.” However, I’m not talking about the ordo salutis, modes of baptism, or church polity. Moltmann has a different faith and hope than Scripture teaches. He is not a Christian.

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