Moltmann will remain a living presence in the WCRC

The World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) mourns the death of Jürgen Moltmann, who died at the age of 98 on 3 June 2024.

Moltmann accompanied the work of both the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and World Communion of Reformed Churches for more than 50 years and was one of the main contributors to the theologies of justice and life that have marked the theological self-understanding of the WCRC during this period.

“Professor Jürgen Moltmann’s impact can never be overstated,” said Setri Nyomi, WCRC interim general secretary. “On a personal level, I have learnt a lot from his books since my graduate student days in the 1980s. His works are a remarkable inspiration of hope grounded theologically. In addition, he has such a tremendous understanding of the Christian calling to include attention to transformation in the world. He was a remarkable theologian and theological educator whose life and works have positively impacted the world.”

Anna Case Winters, moderator of the WCRC’s Strategic Programme Planning Group, said, “This is such a great loss. What a fine theologian—and human being—he was. His impact on generations of theologians, myself included, is beyond measure.”

Moltmann was one of the first global theologians. Already early in his career, he engaged with theologians from what was then called the “Third World.” He appreciated the global broadening of Christian theology and followed the development of theologies of liberation in many parts of the world. He took these new theologies very seriously and engaged with them in very profound conversations.

This deep appreciation also allowed him to be critical. In a widely discussed open letter to Miguel Bonino in 1976, he reminded the theologians of liberation in Latin America of the penultimate status of Christian praxis. This preliminary character of human activity defies hasty identification with the Kingdom of God. In Moltmann’s understanding, we can detect a causal link between human activity and God’s Kingdom in the experience of liberation. But this causality cannot be operationalized; the Kingdom is never a product of human praxis.

Gender justice was of particular importance for Moltmann’s theological work and his public witness. For years, he published and engaged publicly with his wife, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel. At the 1989 General Council in Seoul, they presented together a Bible study on the General Council theme “Who Do They Say I am” in which they emphasized that reading Scripture from a male perspective alone is a reduction of the gospel:

For too long, we have heard only half of the gospel, that is, with the male half of humanity. Today, it is important to understand it fully in the fullness of the feminine and masculine creation of the humans and with the fullness of the Spirit, which comes to sons and daughters. It, therefore, goes without saying that men and women confess their faith together and interpret the gospel together.

From 1970 on, Moltmann was a main speaker at several General Councils. When he addressed the 2017 General Council in Leipzig, he summarized his journey:

I first spoke at a General Council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (Presbyterian and Congregational) in Nairobi in 1970 – 47 years ago. I followed the World Council of Churches’ Programme to Combat Racism, and, in 1976, I contributed to WARC’s human rights programme, “The Theological Basis of Human Rights.” I was present at the tragic act in Ottawa in 1982 when black South Africans refused to take Holy Communion with white South Africans, and the latter went away during the night. That same year, 1982, the Belhar Confession appeared in South Africa and paved the way for the disappearance of apartheid ideology from South African churches. I welcomed the covenanting of the Reformed Churches in Accra in 2004.

In his keynote, he concluded this journey towards a theology of justice by pointing to a shortcoming in the theology of justification by the 16th century Reformers and called upon the WCRC to address this limitation:

There is something missing at the heart of Reformation theology. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa brought it to light: the justification of the victims of the sins committed. […] We talk of “the forgiveness of sins by God’s grace alone, by faith.” That is also true and important, but it is only half the truth. The sinner who committed the wrongdoing is forgiven, but where do the victims of this sin stand? We pray, “Forgive us our sins,” but where are the victims of our sinful actions? The sacrament of penitence is one-sided, focusing on the perpetrator. The doctrine of justification forgets the victims. There is a gap here in the Christian doctrine of grace.

At the Leipzig General Council, three young women theologians responded to Moltmann’s address. They paid tribute to his wide range of significant contributions and his warm-hearted personality:

“One of Jurgen Moltmann’s many legacies is his personal reflection based on his experience with his younger brother, who lived with a disability. This disability perspective, although it may not always be explicit in his writing, is present as one of the lenses which shaped his theology. In one of his interviews, he said: ‘A church without disabled people is a disabled church.’ Moltmann reminded the church community to embrace the experience of disability beyond the charity gesture. We are deeply grateful for Moltmann’s theology and advocacy for People with Disabilities.” —Isabella Novsima, Indonesia, Ph.D. student at Drew University.

“What makes a theologian worth studying and worth remembering? The sheer number of publications? The knowledge of the tradition? The understanding of the underlying logic of others’ positioning? The courage to explore the difficult questions? The imaginative ways of approaching the dilemmas and questions of our time? Of course Jürgen Moltmann—together with his theologian wife, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel—had and could do all of that. However, I will remember him for his humanity: his kindness, his generosity, his openness to new ideas and voices, and his humility. He retained a sense of wonder—about life, about the world, about God—and that, I think, is what makes his work truly interesting and inspiring. We thank God for the gift of his life, theology, and person.” —Nadia Marais, South Africa, senior lecturer in systematic theology, Stellenbosch University.

“Moltmann: ‘I just came from McDonald’s to get a hamburger; the meal here isn’t really my favourite.’ I will always treasure this comment slipped by Moltmann on the one occasion I met him in person (he was 91 and the keynote speaker at the WCRC’s General Council). At this time of parting, I thank God for Jürgen Moltmann, his vast theological legacy, and the richly lived human experience that shaped his thought, which challenges our own.” —Marisa Strizzi, Argentina, Ecumenical Network for Theological Studies.

In one of his last books, Moltmann engages with the Christian belief of a life after death. He speaks about the presence of those who have died in what he calls a “second present.” In an interview, he shared the story that brought him to this understanding: “I visited the former Majdanek concentration camp in Poland in 1961. That’s when I realized that you can’t say that these people are dead. They are there. And they demand something from us.”

This understanding of a second present is rooted in the belief that “death is the boundary of our lives, but not the boundary of God’s relationship with us.” In the interview, Moltmann also spoke about his personal faith: “My hereafter is the future. […] I don’t have a God in heaven. That’s something for the angels. I am a human being, and I need God here on earth.”

“In this sense, Jürgen Moltmann will remain a living presence in the life of the WCRC,” said Hanns Lessing, WCRC executive secretary for communion and theology. “We are grateful for his many contributions and will remain open to what his insights are demanding of us.”

Image: Moltmann at the 2017 General Council (Anna Siggelkow/WCRC).

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