A Broad Place: An Autobiography

  • Jürgen Moltmann
  • Dec 1, 2007
  • Series: Volume 11 - 2008

Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography. Trans. M. Kohl. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008. 406 p. Hardback, $27.00. ISBN 978-0-8006-6214-1. 

The title of this autobiography comes from a biblical text, Job 36:16 (p. 64). Although his use of this verse is related originally to somber circumstances (a message for the funeral of a student), it summarizes nicely the life of this world-renowned German theologian. Moltmann's work touches on an amazingly wide spectrum of topics, and his experiences cover the globe. A list of his teachers (e.g., G. von Rad, G. Bornkamm, J. Jeremias, E. Wolf, O.Weber), colleagues at his teaching posts (e.g., W. Pannenberg, J.-B. Metz, E. Jüngel, E. Käsemann, G. Ebeling, P. Beyerhaus, J. Ratzinger), and his acquaintances from around the world reads like a who's who in theological circles of the last several decades.

An autobiography can be a difficult work to review. It is a genre of telling, a recounting of a life. A reviewer, therefore, is not confronted directly with reasoned arguments of an author's positions, but rather is allowed into a personal story out of which these positions arise and into which they weave themselves. To simply recap that tale would be to lose too much of its fascinating details. And, in Moltmann's case, of these there are many. Some of the most riveting are the lingering impact of surviving the fire-bombing by the Allies of his hometown of Hamburg in July of 1943 (pp. 16-18) and the description of his conversion to the Christian faith in a prisoner of war camp in Scotland (pp. 28-35). To these powerful accounts could be added the interesting stories about his time in the pastorate from 1952 to 1958, his start as a professor at the Church Seminary in Wuppertal until his arrival at Tübingen in 1967 (where Moltmann would teach until retiring in 1994), the multiple guest professorships (e.g., Duke University, Emory University, the Gregorian Institute), participation in multiple international conferences, and his impressions of engaging theological currents on various continents. A Broad Place presents as well Moltmann's extended collaboration with the World Council of Churches through his participation in its Faith and Order Commission, his service as co-editor of Evangelische Theologie and Evangelische Kommentare, and his role as part of the editorial team of the Roman Catholic journal Concilium. A very rich professional career indeed! 

In lieu of reviewing autobiographical details, I prefer to speak about how I first became acquainted with Moltmann's work and the continuing impact those concerns have had on my own thinking. As a seminary student in the late 1970's, I began to read works by Latin American liberation theologians. One of my goals in that research was to try to understand the backgrounds to this new way of doing theology. It quickly became apparent that one of the primary influences on Liberation Theology was Jürgen Moltmann. Several streams of this German's thought impacted these Latin American theologians. Moltmann interacted with them in print and at several conferences (see his account on pp. 196, 222-32, 367-71), and he published a famous critical article that is cited to this day ("An Open Letter to José Míguez Bonino," Christianity and Crisis 36 [1976]: 57-63; for a recent recounting of this engagement, see José Míguez Bonino, "Reading Jürgen Moltmann from Latin America," Asbury Theological Journal 55, no. 1 [2000]: 105-14).

The first aspect of Moltmann's thought that deserves mention is found in his Theology of Hope (1967), which investigated the bearing of the future upon the present. If Christians looked forward to a coming Kingdom, what might be the implications of this promise for Christian praxis? Liberation theologians appreciated Moltmann's focus on the future and its stimulus in wrestling with the concept of utopia, but they also criticized his view. The feeling was that Moltmann's belief was that the future should draw us to new vistas and actions, whereas the conviction in Latin America was that the suffering of today should be the chief motivator to work toward a different future (e.g., Rubem A. Alves, A Theology of Human Hope [1969], pp. 55-68; Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation [1973], pp. 182, 215-20; José Míguez Bonino, Going Theology in a Revolutionary Situation [1975], pp. 132-53). The importance of relating eschatology to present socio-economic, political, and religious concerns has stayed with me ever since that initial reading of Moltmann and his liberationist interlocutors. This perspective, in my view, echoes the thrust of the Old Testament. Moltmann has continued to write about the future, most recently in The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (1997), which presents his thoughts on the import of the resurrection of Jesus and of premillennialism. 

A second area in which Moltmann has influenced Latin American liberation theology comes from his work, The Crucified God (1972; cf. A Broad Place, pp. 189-200). In this book Moltmann explored the theme of God's suffering through the suffering of Christ on the cross and the consequences this raises for Christian faith. This book especially stimulated reflections in the work of Jon Sobrino, a Spanish Jesuit ministering in El Salvador (Christology at the Crossroads: A Latin American Approach [1978]; Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological View [1993]). God's suffering demonstrates that he cannot allow suffering to be limitless and without end; he redeems it, as he did at the cross, and so he invites Christians to a discipleship of suffering with those who suffer. This, of course, dovetails nicely with the liberationist call to accompany the poor, whatever the cost.

A third and final area is Moltmann's theology of the Holy Spirit (The Church in the Power of the Spirit [1977], The Trinity and the Kingdom of God [1981], The Spirit of Life [1992]), especially its formulation from a social point of view (within the Godhead itself, along with its implications for Christian community) and its connection with ecology (God in Creation [1985]). The theologian who picked up and developed these topics within the Latin American context was Leonardo Boff. 

This engagement with Latin American Liberation Theology, of course, is just one among the many and varied issues that have motivated Moltmann's theological reflection. Others that he describes in A Broad Place include:

  • The Christian-Marxist dialogue (pp. 119-30)
  • The interface of medicine and theology and concern for the disabled (pp. 87-90, 207-8)
  • The Jewish-Christian dialogue (pp. 266-82)
  • The contributions of feminism, not least of all of his feminist theologian wife Elisabeth, to his thinking (pp. 321-33)
  • His fascination with Eastern thought and religion (pp. 212-14, 338-45, 364-67)
  • The commitment to an ecological agenda (pp. 211-12, 337-38)

His truly has been a productive career that has influenced theological thinking in profound ways all over the world. But, in addition to the insights that can be drawn from the content of Moltmann's theology, what might be some lessons for evangelicals today concerning theological method that might be learned from his life and work? I would like to mention at least three. 

First, reading a book like A Broad Place can help dispel false stereotypes. Evangelicals sometimes have the idea that those of ecumenical persuasions have an agenda to water down or undermine Christian faith. Moltmann is a wonderful example of someone committed to the ecumenical movement, who is deeply concerned about the worship and mission of the church worldwide and who has invested his entire life in trying to make Christian theology relevant to the harsh realities of human existence. He also is truly ecumenical, in that he can appreciate those of more conservative persuasions, like Pentecostals, who, he says, are closer to the pulse of the poor in the Third World than many liberation theologians (see pp. 232, 350-52). Creative dialogue with Moltmann by evangelicals in fact has occurred by theologians like Stanley Grenz and John Franke (Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, 2001), and in biblical studies with, for example, Richard Bauckham (e.g., with Trevor Hart, Hope against Hope: Christian Eschatology at the Turn of the Millennium, 1999).

A second lesson is that theology should be born in and for a particular context. Moltmann has worked on topics of systematic theology, such as the Trinity and justification, but he has forged his thinking in conversation with his political theology and in connection to his desire to probe theological categories in ways pertinent to the world today. Moltmann views the fruits of the situatedness of his reflections as something that he can add to what already has been done by others in the past, but at the same time they can serve as another step in the never-ending task of ‘doing theology' for humanity to the glory of God. The following quote captures this commitment nicely: 

My contributions to theology presuppose an intensive conversation between theologians past and present, and take part in this conversation with proposals of my own. Human theology is theology on the road and theology in time. In my contributions I have recognized the limitations of the place where I stand and have not made the impossible attempt to present the whole of theology. I have tried to set myself, in my own time and in my own place, within the wider and yet still uncompleted whole of theology. (p. 286)

Much of this conviction that theology should always be engaged he has learned from his interaction with Third World theologians. This leads to a third lesson. Moltmann has an insatiable craving to learn - to learn from diverse experiences and be stretched by others of different persuasions. This eagerness and openness should be a model for all those who work in theology and biblical studies; he serves as a challenge to move beyond either limiting our task to managing and repackaging what others have done in the past or being content with simply becoming experts in a prescribed field of study. Moltmann demonstrates that, if one wants to impact the world with the Christian faith, then it is crucial to venture into multiple disciplines and converse with those of other convictions. 

Intellectual autobiographies are a reader's helpful conversation partners that can stimulate self-evaluation and reflection on the scholarly vocation. A Broad Place is no exception. In terms of format, I would have wished that a subject index would have been included in order to facilitate locating discussions on the multiple events and topics of Moltmann's life and work, and the last few chapters of the book read more like a transcription of a diary and lack the vividness of the earlier sections. These are minor quibbles. All in all, I highly recommend this engaging book.

M. Daniel Carroll R., Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary
December 2007