The Crucified God, Five Decades On 

The Crucified God, Five Decades On 

Released in 1975, Jürgen Moltmann’s book The Crucified God explores the implications of Christ’s crucifixion for a theology of God. Nearly five decades after its release, the text is regarded as a classic text in considering the Cross.  

Jürgen Moltmann, now in his 90s, is a German theologian who was held as a prisoner of war after World War Two. Moltmann later recalled being shaped by that experience as well as learning about the holocaust. 

The Crucified God’s impact 

Ahead of Easter, and with its 50th anniversary taking place next year, Insights spoke to two of the Uniting Church’s theologians about the impact the book had in its context, on them, and what it might have to say to the church today. 

Rev. Dr Clive Pearson is a former Principal of United Theological College. He told Insights the book was a 20th century classic. 

“It is in the nature of a classic to address times and contexts beyond which it was itself written,” he said. 

“Moltmann’s emphasis on the cross and the suffering God should remind us to consider how these confessional claims are implicated and drive a passion for liberation, justice and the like. Moltmann’s theology would in due course engage with feminism and gender, spirituality and other religions, the secular society, the Christian voice in the public domain, the care of creation, the economically vulnerable etc. The Crucified God was one of several foundational texts upon which he constructed the theology that engaged with these themes / issues.” 

“Moltmann reminds us that the church’s identity (and the relevance of the gospel it proclaims) is inescapably woven into the cross of Christ. In and through the cross God is the subject as well as the object. God addresses us through the cross of Christ. The cross of Christ represents not only Jesus’s suffering and death but also God’s identification with the suffering of the world. The divinity of Christ should not be lost at the expense of the exemplary nature of his public ministry and teaching.” 

Rev. Dr Ockert Meyer lectures in Theology and Preaching at United Theological College. He described Moltmann’s impact on systematic theology as “huge.”  
“As he says of himself, rather than simply trying to defend orthodoxy, his aim was always to try and imagine new ways of thinking about God, theology and the world,” Rev. Dr Meyer said.  

“The Crucified God was Moltmann’s way of insisting that one cannot talk about God, apart from what we learn of God from Golgotha: from the cross and the dying Jesus’ perspective. This is of course not an original idea: already Martin Luther proposed a theologica crucis; a theology of the cross or the idea that the passion of Christ also means the passion of God. However, Moltmann went much further than Luther. It was one thing to speak about the crucified Christ, but quite another to refer to the crucified God.”  

According to Rev. Dr Meyer, the book’s main contribution lied in the way it challenged the concept of God’s impassibility: the idea that He does not suffer or change as the result of the actions of others. 

“This (the classic doctrine of impassibility) does not mean that God is apathetic or indifferent but merely that God’s nature is not determined by others,” Rev. Dr Meyer said. 
“God’s impassibility is intrinsic to God’s being. It means that God is not susceptible to emotional fluctuations in the ways that we are. If anything, it means that God’s love is not changed by the way that people respond to God.” 

“Moltmann’s ideas were deeply influenced and shaped by his own personal experiences – both as a prisoner of war in World War Two and witnessing the suffering of millions of Jews during the holocaust.” 
“What Moltmann is saying is that suffering is an unavoidable element of love and therefore, that God’s love is not diminished by suffering, if anything, it is deepened by it. In other words, if people asked, as Elie Wiesel did, pointing to the dying children on the gallows in Auschwitz: where is God? Then the answer is that God is there, hanging on the gallows.”  

Writing about The Crucified God years later in his autobiography, A Broad Place, Moltmann makes it clear that Golgotha became his most important interpretative lens for Auschwitz: 

What we dare to say about God ‘After Auschwitz’ surely depends on what we can say about God after the event on Golgotha, and the way we talk about God when we hear the echo of Christ’s death cry: ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ The whole book can be understood as an attempt to wrestle theologically with that death cry.  

“It is hard to quantify the book’s direct impact because there were so many other similar movements in theology at the time,” Rev. Dr Meyer said.  
“Its enduring influence lies also in the way that it dovetails with liberation theology and to a certain extent some sentiments of post-colonial theology (especially the view from below and that God is to be found in places of desolation, despair and even radical absence – what the cross has become symbolic and almost paradigmatic for.)” 

How the book shaped ministries 

Both Rev. Dr Pearson and Rev. Dr Meyer told Insights that reading The Crucified God impacted on their own theologies. 
While he was not aware of the book during his theological study, Rev. Dr Clive Pearson said he later came to learn about it during a lecture from Moltmann himself.  

“It was the early 1990s and I attended as conference in Dunedin, Aotearoa New Zealand. Moltmann was one of a number of outstanding theologians who would give a public lecture in Knox Church,” he recalled. 
“One of Moltmann’s aside (which he gave to Volf, his own former student) was that one must live theologically. In other words, it is not enough simply to produce the theological thoughts of others or interpret the way the world is through the lens of another. Our theologies should arise out of our own lived experience / theology – to which I would add, knowing what the shape of a Christian theology should assist in that task.  

“In the course of this lecture Moltmann left us spellbound. He spoke of how he had grown up in a secular fashion with the rise of Nazism; he was conscripted while only 16. His home town was Hamburg and he was present when it was firebombed by the Allies. There was much loss of life – including one of his friends. Moltmann was left wondering why had he survived. Why had he not died? This experience would become a part of what he would the experience of finitude. WE come to terms with our limits, our finiteness, our prospective endings.” 

“That experience of finitude sits alongside a further dimension of a theology informed by life. The Hamburg experience would become a ‘companion experience’. We all have these experiences. They are formative experiences that have happened in the past but their power is enduring. Sometimes they come back to the fore; sometimes they remain submerged, shaping us nevertheless.”  

“The firebombing of Hamburg was one of Moltmann’s companion experiences. It should be seen alongside his becoming a prisoner of war. Those in the camp were exposed to photographs of the concentration camps. Some took their own lives; Moltmann was himself suicidal, but was ‘befriended’ by Christians while he was in the camp. He received his first New Testament and was struck by the cry of Jesus on the cross at Mark 15:34: “my God, my God why have you forsaken me”. Moltmann was left feeling that here was ‘someone’ who could understand his desolation and abandonment. Later, Moltmann would reflect not on his own capacity for discernment and insight but of how “Christ found me.”” 

“My understanding of Moltmann’s Crucified God cannot be separated from hearing him speak in person at this conference.” 

“Perhaps one of the most important considerations in my own decision to study theology, was the theodicy,” Rev. Dr Meyer said. 
“The question about human suffering, Christ’s suffering, the suffering that is almost genetically imposed upon creation, has always haunted me. Given this, it is almost impossible not to take note of Moltmann; especially his Crucified God and Theology of Hope (these two should always be read side by side). When I first came across The Crucified God, the idea of God’s solidarity with us in our suffering was hugely attractive and compelling.” 
“It was a book that I took my bookshelf for many years – year in and year out – during Lent and Easter.”  

“What also attracted me to The Crucified God was the fact that the same Jewish theologians that have played formative roles in my own theological thinking, such as Franz Rosenzweig and Abraham Heschel, also profoundly influenced Moltmann, especially regarding his central concerns in The Crucified God.” 

Critiquing The Crucified God 

As with any theological text, there is a critique to be made of The Crucified God. Rev. Dr Meyer said the text was best read within its historical context, and that there were elements that could have been further explored. 

“I think it is important to read the book within its historical context (as post-Auschwitz theology) and as an attempt to highlight God’s pathos (following Heschel), countering the theist idea of God as an indifferent first mover or clockmaker,” he said. 
“The question, however, is if Moltmann did not perhaps go too far in this, first in whether he still honours God’s transcendence in the ways that both Rosenzweig and Heschel would. Closely related to this is whether Moltmann sufficiently makes a distinction between divine suffering and human suffering.” 
“If God is passible in the way that Moltmann holds, it must certainly mean something radically different than human pathos and change. It is important to bear in mind that today still there are highly competent theologians that would side with Moltmann on this and equally competent theologians that would radically oppose him on his main ideas on God’s impassibility.”  

“I am still very much attracted to the idea of God’s compassion as articulated by Moltmann. At the same time, I have also become a little bit more circumspect about embracing it without qualification. For most progressive Christians in wealthy countries Moltmann’s ideas are highly attractive, exactly because it makes God appear so human. But then there is also no expectation of God beyond love and compassion.” 
“However, if you speak to Christians in poor countries, their expectation of God is much more than merely divine gestures of compassion: they expect God to do something about their suffering. For them it is not enough to say that God is with you, but ultimately equally powerless to do anything about it. God’s pathos for them, means more than God’s ability to share our suffering; it must include God’s ability to change our suffering.” 

“In other words, my fear is that our ideas (in the UCA) about God’s pathos and compassion can easily become another kind of theodicy, very much like Job’s friends.” 

What the book can tell the church today 

Both theologians offered ideas as to what The Crucified God could teach the Uniting Church in 2024. 

“One of the things that I’ve always appreciated about Moltmann is his radical openness to change, to experimentation and developing of ideas, but more than that, his deep passion of life” Rev. Dr Meyer said. 

“Much of his theology springs from his “passion for life” (also the title of one of his books). When one is passionate about life, you need hope. (To this Moltmann responds with his “theology of hope”). It is the Dutch theologian, AA van Ruler (whom Moltmann credits for his interest in the importance of the kingdom of God) that said: True Christian hope changes the well-known saying ‘where there is life there is hope’ to ‘Where there is hope, there is life.’ For Moltmann, that hope lies (paradoxically perhaps) on Golgotha, in the cross.” 

Moltmann’s theology has evolved over the 50 years since the release of The Crucified God.  
“He would become well known as a theologian of hope,” Rev. Dr Pearson said.  
“For Moltmann hope is not the equivalent of optimism (which is our mood). The theology of hope rests in the completed work of Christ – in other words, it is ‘other’ than what we feel and what sometimes church leaders seek to encourage in order to galvanise momentum and support. There have been times in the past decade where the Synod has wanted us to be (in effect) optimistic in the face of real challenges but this is not a theological hope.” 

“On account of his awareness of suffering and the complexity of living in an increasingly secular society, Moltmann occasionally altered the stock question (going back to Bonhoeffer): “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” There is something self-referential in the question being posed that way. In Jesus Christ for Today’s World, Moltmann asked: where is Christ to be found? It is a question congregations and Synod might find well worth the wrestle.” 

The Crucified God is available to borrow from Camden Theological Library, or to purchase from Amazon. 


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