Is There Hope for Religion?

Theology of Hope

by Jürgen Moltmann
Harper & Row, 342 pp., $8.50

Christian theology in the twentieth century has faced two crises and now faces a third. First, the presuppositions of liberal theology—primarily, that an ethical teacher, the “historical” Jesus, could be detached from the framework of eschatology and the miraculous within which he is presented in the Gospels—were shown to be without historical foundation. To adapt Newman’s remark that whatever historical Christianity may have been it was certainly not Protestantism: whatever the preaching of the earliest Christians may have been it was certainly not liberal Christianity. The liberal Christian was shot and stuffed by Schweitzer in his Quest of the Historical Jesus at the beginning of the century. Granted there is no single portrait that can be detached from the figure presented as Messianic, the fulfillment of prophecy, the preacher of an eschatology, what then are we to think of this figure, so strange and commanding and yet so discordant with how we take the course of the world to be?

Again, recognition that the eschatological was a fundamental element in the New Testament documents helped scholars toward a reappraisal of the character of the documents themselves. Whereas it had been a presupposition of the liberal approach that the New Testament was a mixture of history and legend, the great task being to disentangle the historical from the legendary, it was now seen that the New Testament writings were expressions of the faith of the primitive Church. In even the roughest of the Gospels, that of Mark, the theological themes are so interwoven with the narrative and characterization that a purging of the theological elements leaves nothing intelligible or coherent remaining. This is not to say that the New Testament is without historical value, but to bring out the degree to which a man’s response to the gospels and other writings cannot be separated from his response to the faith of which the writings are a witness.

The second crisis is connected with the first, though not directly dependent upon it. It is rather the other side of the problem confronting us once we see the Bible as challenging our present existence and not simply providing us with material for speculation and religious reflection. In both the Protestant and Catholic traditions it seemed to have been assumed that revelation, what (it is held) God has said to man, presupposed both the religious consciousness, that which shows itself in the other religions and in mysticism, and a body of knowledge—“natural” theology—capable of being established independently of, and logically prior to, what is said by way of revelation.

The great shock to this assumption was given by the dialectical theology of Barth. The publication of Barth’s commentary on the Letter to the Romans shook the ground upon which theologians thought they stood so firmly. In the history of theology, the work of Barth can only be compared with the work of Augustine or Aquinas or Calvin. Such men bring about revolutions in thought, shifts in the theological perspective. They have the effect…

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