Communities of Faith and Radical discipleship – An Inerview with Jürgen Moltman

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 16, 1983, p. 246. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Moltmann feels that the future of the Protestant church in Europe lies not with the large state church, but with small communities of faith, where the charismatic gifts of all can be recognized, and where Christians can live out a radical discipleship. In this interview he discusses the development of his theology, his interest in the international Pentecostal movement and his participation in the Christian-Marxist dialogue of the 60s.

In this interview, noted German theologian Jürgen Moltmann discusses the development of his theology, his interest in the international Pentecostal movement and his participation in the Christian-Marxist dialogue during the 1960s. Moltmann feels that the future of the Protestant church in Europe lies not with the large state church, but with small communities of faith, where the charismatic gifts of all can be recognized, and where Christians can live out a radical discipleship.

Moltmann: I was drafted in 1943, when I was 17, and began my first assignment as an assistant in the antiaircraft division in Hamburg. In July 1943 Hamburg suffered a week of bombings that left the whole city covered with ashes. I was wounded; most of my co-workers were killed. In 1944 I became a soldier and in 1945 a prisoner of war, taken first to a Belgian concentration camp where the living conditions were quite rough. Then I was transferred to a camp in Scotland, and later to one in England. where I remained until 1948. During those years -- especially in Belgium -- I lost all hope. My fellow prisoners and I had no idea what was happening at home. We were broken men. Some of us fell sick during that time and died out of hopelessness. But I myself was gripped by a new hope which enabled me to survive. That hope was the hope of Christ, to which some Christian fellow prisoners testified in conversations with me.

Thus it was that, during the concentration camp years, I abandoned my original plan to study mathematics and physics, and decided to pursue theology. I even had the opportunity to begin my theological studies in the English camp. Some theology professors among the prisoners were teaching theology to the others. Thus, when I returned to Germany, I had already completed my Hebrew studies.

While I was a prisoner, the crucial question for me was what kind of faith enabled a person to survive in such situations. There was no strong Christian influence in my family. In fact, I was the first black sheep of the family to study theology. My parents were not too enthusiastic about it -- they had something more practical in mind for me. The primary issue in my decision to study theology, however, was that of the Christian faith, and the certainty that enables a person to confront nothingness.

Volf: Could you describe the most important stages of your theological development?

Moltmann: I finished my theological studies in Göttingen in 1952. Then I began to work in the church. I did not want to do scholarly theological work, but rather something for the Kingdom of God. So I served in the pastorate for six years in a small church in Bremen. This was a very important stage in my theological development, since it was in Bremen that I experienced the meaning of Christian community -- an experience that affects me still in a fundamental way.

I was in the United States when the English translation of Theology of Hope [Harper & Row] came out in 1967. Americans received it as a statement supporting American optimism. During the Vietnam war, however, I could not support American optimism. For that reason, I promised my friends that whenever I came back to the United States I would speak no more about hope, but only about the cross. Thus it was that I came to the next stage in my theological development, reflected in The Crucified God [Harper & Row, 1974].

I had begun with hope and the resurrection of Christ and then had come to the cross of Christ and the experience of suffering; but the next step was still missing -- namely, the step toward Pentecost and the experience of the Spirit. I attempted to fill this gap in my book The Church in the Power of the Spirit [Harper & Row, 1977]. Thus, three stages were completed. The method consisted of an attempt to present a whole theology from three individual perspectives: from the standpoint of the resurrection, the cross and Pentecost. I did not continue along these lines; rather, I turned to somewhat calmer contributions in the field of dogmatics, or to writing on the theological problems of the present time. I have begun a book on the Trinity and the Kingdom of God and would like to continue further along these lines, as long as the Spirit comes to me.

Volf: You have had contact with the international Pentecostal movement. What Impression have you gained of this movement?

Moltmann: Because my contact with the Pentecostal movement was purely coincidental, I cannot formulate an impression of it. I am not at all in a position to survey it as a whole. My contact with the movement was of a purely private nature, during a visit to Sweden. The Missionary Alliance Church had invited me to hold some lectures in Linköping. At the close of this lecture series I was to deliver the sermon in a service held in a Pentecostal church. After my sermon, the members of the Pentecostal church (as well as those of the Missionary Alliance Church) began to speak in tongues. (My translator, Ulle Engström, suddenly stopped translating, telling me that he could not understand it.) This was followed by interpretations of what had been spoken. I had the impression that the church was a very lively one. The reaction to the sermon was quite strong. Perhaps my impression is that these Pentecostal churches are in a position to express what they feel, think and believe, while the Christians in our state churches do not give spontaneous expression to their faith but instead express their faith in institutional ways. The spontaneous expression of the experience of faith made an impression on me, but it was a purely subjective impression.

Volf: Do you see the possibility of integrating the charismatic gifts into the larger denominations in a more fundamental way than has as yet been the case?

Moltmann: I see the necessity of having these charismatic gifts come to and upon the churches. Our state churches know only the charisma of the preacher; he is hired specifically as the one with the charisma, the one who has the Spirit. The others should listen to what he says and believe what he preaches. I find this attitude to be extremely narrow. The New Testament pictures the body of Christ as composed of many members, but in our state churches the body of Christ consists of one big mouth and many little ears. In order for the charismatic gifts to play a more vital role, the larger churches must found smaller churches. Our churches are too large -- they are not truly communities of faith, but church districts for the spiritual care of the people. Thus they are not voluntary fellowships. If we had smaller churches in which people knew each other, and came together of their own accord, then we too would experience the gifts of the Spirit. I think that the structure of large churches does not allow this. Who in the world could suddenly get up after the sermon in the Stiftskirche in Tübingen and start speaking in tongues? That would be impossible in a church so big that one needs a microphone in order to be heard. That is possible only in smaller churches in which the whole congregation is easily in view.

Volt: What role can or should the international Pentecostal movement play in worldwide Christendom in the approaching decades?

Moltmann: If there is such an international Pentecostal movement with its own organizational structure, then this organization should not hide its light under a bushel, as the New Testament puts it. There are tendencies among Pentecostals (as in other Christian groups) to withdraw and limit their involvement to their own circles instead of being open and seeking contact with other churches. For that reason, a number of Pentecostal churches have expressed reservations regarding the ecumenical movement based in Geneva. Other Pentecostal churches, however, are working together with the ecumenical movement -- for example, the movement "Brazil for Christ." headed by Emanuel de Melo. They have come out from under the bushel, into the mainstream, to inspire Christianity worldwide with the spirit of Pentecost. Then they must also listen and incorporate what other Christian traditions have to say into the Pentecostal movement. The process cannot be one-sided.

Furthermore, although the Pentecostal movement should keep its emphasis on personal piety and the awakening of personal faith, it should also, for example, take more seriously the social and political problems in the slums of Latin America. It should not only awaken the heart but also change the structures, if those structures are unjust, if they throw human beings into the mire of life. When I was in Latin America, I was amazed to see that Pentecostals were the only group (apart from some basic communities) who made a conscious effort to go into the slums. But when it came to the sanitization of these slums, to building schools or hospitals, the Pentecostals did not get involved. The movement should not forget to add the social and political aspects of discipleship to the personal aspect, on which it is strong. That is only a recommendation, however, and not a judgment.

With regard to North America, one might ask what position the Pentecostal movement, or evangelicals, took on the Vietnam war. It would have been good if these conservative Christians had not simply spoken out against personal, but also against political, sins. Christ is Lord not only of renewed hearts but of the whole world.

Volf: You are a Reformed theologian. Yet you unhesitatingly identify believer’s baptism as the correct model of baptism. How did you come to this conviction?

Moltmann: I am neither the first nor the only Reformed theologian to have difficulties with infant baptism. Karl Barth’s reservations about it are well known. I do not think that infant baptism is well supported either by the New Testament or by theological considerations, although it has become tradition here. But this tradition is gradually losing its sway. In the big cities of Germany, the number of infant baptisms in Lutheran churches is declining by more than 50 per cent. A great number of children growing up in these cities are not baptized. Thus our church is being forced to change over to believer’s baptism, even though it does not accept the theological and biblical grounds for it. I have arrived at my position both on biblical and on theological grounds, and because of the movement from the established state church to communities of faith, a movement that is now in full swing.

Volf: In your book The Passion for Life: A Messianic Lifestyle [Fortress, 1978] you say that the future of the Reformation lies in its left wing. Could you elaborate on that?

Moltmann: The fundamental concept of the Reformation was that of the mature church. Luther first said that a community of believers possessed the right to judge church teaching. In his early years, Luther viewed such a visible community as the true church. In 1525, however, he suddenly gave up this idea and began to follow Melanchthon in supporting the idea of a state church. Luther’s original conception was realized by the Anabaptists and the so-called "enthusiasts" (Schwärmer), as he mockingly characterized them. The future of the Reformation, in my opinion, lies in this left wing, in the visible, voluntary assembly of believers. The priesthood of all believers, the promise of the Reformation, can be realized only in the freely assembled community.

Second, the left wing of the Reformation also contains those Anabaptist churches which rejected all forms of violence. The first Christian conscientious objectors were from Mennonite and southern German Anabaptist churches. For this stand they were persecuted and executed both by Catholics and by Protestants. Today we call these churches historic peace churches. In an age of atom and hydrogen bombs -- an age when the destruction of the whole world is possible -- we are finally accepting the view that the church must take a clear stand for peace. Therefore, we must alter our judgment of Mennonites and other Anabaptists. I believe that the church should no longer bind itself with the state in such a way that it sanctions military service and weapons. Rather, the church must clearly represent the message of the Sermon on the Mount. Therefore, the future of the Reformation belongs not to the state church -- that is, to the union between throne and altar -- but to the left wing of the Reformation, which lived out a radical discipleship.

Volf: Recently, Ernst Bloch’s Das Prinzip Hoffnung was translated into Croatian. Where do you see parallels and differences between Bloch’s book and your Theology of Hope?

Moltmann: Commonality and parallels between the two books exist wherever Bloch thinks Jewish or messianic. His deepest roots, I believe, lie in the messianism of the Jewish tradition from which he stems and out of which he unconsciously lives. This is especially obvious in his first book, Geist der Utopie. It ends with a prayer. Later he abandoned these religious-messianic overtones and sometimes appeared to be quite banally atheistic. We clarified our differences once in this way: In Das Prinzip Hoffnung, Bloch speaks of transcending, but without transcendence; in Theology of Hope, I speak of transcending with transcendence.

Bloch has written a book about atheism and Christianity [Atheism in Christianity (Continuum, 1972)]; it first appeared with the subtitle "Only an Atheist Can Be a Good Christian." I mentioned that it should be the other way around: only a Christian can be a good atheist. Bloch then used that statement as the second subtitle of his book. He meant that only an atheist who does not worship false religious and economic gods can be a good Christian. I meant that only a Christian who believes in the crucified Jesus is free from the pressure to create gods and idols for himself. On this issue Bloch and I have come quite near to each other.

Volf: In the ‘60s, you took part in the Christian-Marxist dialogue. What have you learned from Marx?

Moltmann: What fascinated me were actually the writings of the young Marx. In these, the critique of religion was a prerequisite for the critique of politics, of law and of all the structures of human society that turn people into oppressed and humiliated beings. This critique of religion ends with the revolutionary imperative to tear down all forms that oppress people. That made sense to me right away because that is also my point of departure. From Marx I have learned the necessity of asking whether a religion or a religious community functions to provide comfort through the hope of a better afterlife, to justify unjust forms, or to stimulate the spirit of justice through which unjust forms are changed. Is religion an opium, lulling people with the promise of an afterlife, or is it a cup of coffee for the present?

My Catholic colleague, Johann Baptist Metz, and I began with this question in developing a political theology -- a theology critical of society, a liberating theology. Then, the Latin Americans incorporated this into their liberation theology. During the Marxist-Christian dialogue, a great number of Marxists said to me: If we had been exposed to the kind of Christianity that Dom Helder Câmara represents in Brazil, we would always have remained Christians and would never have become Marxists.

The prerequisite for any future Christian-Marxist dialogue is the recognition of the equality of the dialogue partners. It has often been said that when Christians come to power, they let Marxists know it. Only when they are in the minority do they show openness. But the reverse is also true. When Marxists come to power they let Christians know it, and only when they are in the minority do they show openness. Thus, it is very important to establish the equality of the partners in this dialogue, and to make sure that each takes the other seriously in his or her strengths without ridiculing his or her weaknesses. Naturally, each can display to the other his or her mistakes and misdeeds, but that is not dialogue. That is the last judgment. In a dialogue, therefore, each must be prepared to consider sincerely the answers of the other and to reflect on what he or she considers good in those answers, thereby finding an aid to his or her own thinking.

The best thing imaginable would be for Christians and Marxists to enter into dialogue and discover questions for which neither has an answer. I would like to name two significant problems for which neither has yet been able to find a satisfactory solution: the impoverishment of the Third World not only through capitalistic but also through socialistic forms of exploitation; and, the ecological crisis. Whether nature is destroyed through capitalistic or socialistic industry, the result is the same. Neither Christianity nor Marxism has yet developed a truly helpful concept of nature. I think that is Marx’s weakness. He explained history as a universal science, but he had little understanding of nature. In the 19th century, this issue was not in the forefront. But for us it is in the forefront; that is, if we want to survive.

Volf: At what significant points do you think Marx needs correcting?

Moltmann: That is a question that needs to be put to Marxists themselves. Some people differentiate between Marxologues and Marxists. Marxologues are those who explicate the thought of Karl Marx. Marxists are supposed to be free to go beyond Marx’s thought and develop new ideas. The ecological crisis leads me to believe that Marx’s concept of nature is in urgent need of correction.

There is room for correction also in Marx’s critique of religion. What Marx said about religion may have reflected the state of religion in his time, but it is not true of today. Christianity, Islam and other religions have revealed a tremendous regenerating power in our time, and have an important impact on the world. It was pure fantasy of Marx to imagine that religion would die out with time. By contrast, religion will continue to be resurrected, and Marx and Marxists will continue to be bewildered by its vitality. That is a prognosis which holds true also for Marxist countries, as the revival of religion in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria presently demonstrates.

Marxists are wrong when they call atheism the prerequisite for Marxism. If Marxism wants to renew itself, it should critique its critique of religion. I imagine that there are other significant aspects of Marxism that need to be corrected, but that does not mean giving up the fundamental Marxist concepts of revolution, justice, peace and humanity -- ideas that need to be brought to bear upon the world.