Deep appreciation abounds as renowned German theologian Prof. Dr Jürgen Moltmann turns 95

Prof. Dr Jürgen Moltmann speaks with the students at the WCC’s Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, December 2019. Photo: Peter Kenny/WCC

As Prof. Dr Jürgen Moltmann, one of the most widely read theologians of our time, turned 95 on 8 April, the World Council of Churches (WCC) ecumenical fellowship shared its deep gratitude not only for his complex body of work but for his theology of hope.

For decades, he has shared books, lectures, presentations and discussions that have been received and beloved by audiences far and wide. With topics ranging from the afterlife, to justice, peace and the integrity of creation, Moltmann continues to make immeasurable contributions to ongoing theological formation.

He came to prominence in 1964 with the publication of Theology of Hope, which offered a message that chimed with the turbulent 1960s and the search for a better future.

Born into a secular family in Hamburg, Moltmann served in the Hitler Youth and the German Army as a “patriot” in World War II, ending up as a prisoner-of-war. His commitment to theology was awakened at a POW camp in Britain that received visits from ecumenical figures such as Willem Visser ‘t Hooft, general secretary of the WCC, then in process of formation.Moltmann turned his back on nationalism and the horrors of conflict.In 2019, he vividly shared this aspect of his life with students at the WCC Bossey Ecumenical Institute. He spoke about nationalism being a setback for humanity.

“The church of Christ is not national, but it is a church of all the nations and humanity,” Moltmann said to the students. One of his most recent books, Hope in These Troubled Times, was published in 2019 by WCC Publications and, in North America, by Westminster John Knox Press.He also published The Living God and the Fullness of Life (WCC Publications/Westminster John Knox Press) in 2016.

Moltmann was born on 8 April 1926. From 1952, he was a pastor in Bremen as well as a student pastor. After stints at the Kirchliche Hochschule Wuppertal and the University of Bonn, he taught from 1967 until his retirement in 1994 as a professor for systematic theology at the Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen.
Happy 95th birthday, Prof. Dr Moltmann…

WCC moderator Dr Agnes Abuom congratulated Moltmann on his birthday. “We thank God for the privilege to celebrate with you in prayer your 95th birthday,” said Abuom. “This year the celebration is slightly different, as you continue to be a gift to many through your writings and spirituality.”

During a historic time when the entire globe is in a lockdown mode, many people across the world feel desperate and have a dim view of the future, Abuom reflected, making a Moltmann’s theology of hope even more vital. “Hence as we celebrate and wish you a happy 95th birthday, we are encouraged to continue our Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace amidst many challenges,” she said.

WCC acting general secretary Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca said that Moltmann’s 95th birthday is an occasion that brings joy and deep reflection for Moltmann’s many contributions over so many decades. “Prof. Dr Jürgen Moltmann continues to help transform Christianity in the contemporary world by deeply influencing new generations of theologians,” said Sauca. “Whether people choose to see his theology through a personal or political lens, there is one consistent shining aspect that, perhaps now more than ever, we hold dear: hope.”

H. E. Metropolitan Gennadios of Sassima, vice-moderator of the WCC central committee, recalled meeting Moltmann in the 1980s through their work together with the WCC Faith and Order Commission.

Metropolitan Gennadios reflected that Moltmann insisted that theology must have a vision, and must always and deliberately be ecumenical in character. “Another insight that has stamped both the form and the content of Moltmann’s work is the idea that all theology is political, and the act of theologizing and the theology which is produced are inherently political,” he said. “He had a special charism to hire also with respect and honor from other confessional theologies like the Orthodox.”

Rev. Dr Susan Durber, minister, Taunton United Reformed Church and moderator of the WCC Faith and Order Commission, reflected on the “shining gems” in Moltmann’s theology. “His account of the God who suffers with us, in The Crucified God, was surely a defining theological work of the twentieth century, written from his body as much as from his mind,” Durber said. “And his later reflection on the future of creation responds to the urgent call of the twenty-first century. Thanks for this faithful servant of God whose voice sounds so clearly through the decades of his work.”

Bossey Ecumenical Institute dean Rev. Fr Dr Lawrence Iwuamadi recalled Moltmann’s visit with Bossey students in 2019. “His message of hope, on the importance of valuing our common humanity and the whole of creation was a compelling message from a nonagenarian who travelled alone on a six-hour train journey from Tübingen to Geneva,” said Iwuamadi. “God bless him on his 95th birthday.”

Dr Antje Jackelén, archbishop of Uppsala and primate of the Church of Sweden, acknowledged with both honor and joy Moltmann’s theological and spiritual inspiration in so many parts of the world. “His resolute commitment to walking a theological path with passion for the ways of the gospel and the ways of the world remains exemplary,” said Jackelén. “I cherish vivid memories from his seminar on the theology of mystical experience in the 1970s!”

Rev. Dr Odair Pedroso Mateus, interim WCC deputy general secretary and director of the WCC Faith and Order Commission, said he is celebrating Moltmann’s birthday in three ways. “The first has to do with his engagement with liberation theology. Seen in hindsight, Moltmann’s debate with Latin American theologians in the 1970s was less of a polarisation than a gracious disagreement within a common commitment to human emancipation,” he said. “Secondly, as a member of the Faith and Order Commission, he was determined to see ecumenical results.”

This pushed Moltmann, along with Lukas Vischer, to hold the ecumenical consultations on the procession of the Holy Spirit (Filioque) that culminated in the 1979 Klingenthal Memorandum, added Mateus. “Finally, he challenged ecumenists to reflect on the limits of unity in reconciled diversity as a model of union by insightfully calling it ‘the sleeping pill of the ecumenical movement.’ ”

Rt Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, presiding bishop of the Church of Norway, and former WCC general secretary, said that Moltmann has given theological substance to the work of the ecumenical movement in its search for unity in faith, life and witness. “He has given many churches and Christians all over the world the courage to hope and to be agents of hope in their struggles and their trust in the triune God,” said Tveit. “He has particularly helped the ecumenical movement in the search for justice and peace as a genuine expression of our common Christian calling and mission.”

Tveit added that the WCC has a great legacy from Moltmann’s work. “Generations of ecumenists and theologians have been inspired by him to do theology, and new generations will do so, as well.”

Bishop Petra Bosse-Huber, from the Evangelical Church in Germany, wished Moltmann a blessed birthday. “Engaged with ecumenical themes your whole life, you have become one of my favorite theological teachers as well as an inspiring role model for my own ecumenical journey,” said Bosse-Huber. “We need your ‘theology of hope’ as a source of spiritual strengths in every church worldwide and also in the important work of the WCC during these dramatic months. We thank God for your lifelong witnessing!“

Rev. Dr Chris Ferguson, general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, said that Moltmann has been one of the most important theological voices in guiding the confessing and witnessing of our global Christian family. “In his address to our 2017 General Council meeting he declared, ‘I see how a comprehensive theology embracing life is arising world wide…’ For his vast role in that rising, we give thanks to the God of Life.”

Former WCC publisher J. Michael West recalled working with Moltmann on many books, and the two books he contributed to WCC Publications were, West said, “so directly pertinent to the themes and concerns of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, focused on the God of Life and on rethinking hope in these challenging times. They have also helped to reconnect him to his ecumenical home at the WCC, to which he has contributed so much over the decades.”

Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chair of the council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, congratulated Moltmann as well. “Jürgen Moltmann is one of the world’s most important theologians of the 20th century,” said Bedford-Strohm. “To this day he passes on his ideas and reflections to the younger generation.

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