Theology Thursday - Moltmann on the Dangers of a "Remnant" Mindset

In his book, The Crucified God, Jurgen Moltmann explained the implications of Jesus’ crucifixion. God died on the cross; what does that mean for the Christian life? Well, it means hope! But, more than a simplistic longing for “the end to come,” Moltmann pressed home the vertical and horizontal implications of Christ’s death on the cross. “The alternative between arousing faith in the heart and the changing of the godless circumstances of dehumanized man is a false one,” he wrote.1

Moltmann believed Christians ought to avoid two dangerous errors; (1) a vacuous theological liberalism that sought to change the world without a Christian message, and (2) a “doctrinaire” faith that deliberately locks itself away from the world that needs the Gospel. In this excerpt, he explains the dangers of a self-imposed ghettoization of the Christian faith and message:2

Where does the identity of Christian faith lie? Its outward mark is church membership. This, however, takes us no further, but merely moves the problem on. For the Christian identity of the church is itself questionable, when the form it takes is affected by so many other interests.

One can point to the creed. But to repeat the formula of the Apostles’ Creed is no guarantee of Christian identity, but simply of loyalty to the fathers and to tradition. One can point to particular experiences of vocation, conversion and grace in one’s own life. But even they do not guarantee one’s identity as a Christian; at best, they point to what one has begun to believe in such experiences.

Ultimately, one’s belief is not in one’s own faith; within one’s experiences in faith and one’s decisions, one believes in someone else who is more than one’s own faith. Christian identity can be understood only as an act of identification with the crucified Christ, to the extent to which one has accepted the proclamation that in him God has identified himself with the godless and those abandoned by God, to whom one belongs oneself.

If Christian identity comes into being by this double process of identification, then it is clear that it cannot be described in terms of that faith alone, nor can it be protected against decay by correct doctrinal formulae, repeatable rituals and set patterns of moral behaviour. The decay of faith and its identity, through a decline into unbelief and a different identity, forms an exact parallel to their decay through a decline into a fearful and defensive faith.

Faith is fearful and defensive when it begins to die inwardly, struggling to maintain itself and reaching out for security and guarantees. In so doing, it removes itself from the hand of the one who has promised to maintain it, and its own manipulations bring it to ruin. This pusillanimous faith usually occurs in the form of an orthodoxy which feels threatened and is therefore more rigid than ever.

It occurs wherever, in the face of the immorality of the present age, the gospel of creative love for the abandoned is replaced by the law of what is supposed to be Christian morality, and by penal law. He who is of little faith looks for support and protection for his faith, because it is preyed upon by fear. Such a faith tries to protect its ‘most sacred things’, God, Christ, doctrine and morality, because it clearly no longer believes that these are sufficiently powerful to maintain themselves.

When the ‘religion of fear’ finds its way into the Christian church, those who regard themselves as the most vigilant guardians of the faith do violence to faith and smother it. Instead of confidence and freedom, fearfulness and apathy are found everywhere. This has considerable consequences for the attitudes of the church, faith and theology to the new problems posed by history. ‘Why did the church cut itself off from cultural development?’ asks R. Rothe, whose messianic passion in the face of the modern age can speak for itself here:

  • I blush to write it down: because it is afraid for faith in Christ. To me, it is not faith in Christ if it can be afraid for itself and for its Christ! To me, this is not to have faith, but to be of little faith. This, however, is the consequence of a lack of faith that the Saviour is the real and effective ruler of the world; and only when this faith is lacking is such fear psychologically possible.

Christians, churches and theologians who passionately defend true belief, pure doctrine and distinctive Christian morality are at the present day in danger of lapsing into this pusillanimous faith. Then they build a defensive wall round their own little group, and in apocalyptic terms call themselves the ‘little flock’ or the ‘faithful remnant,’ and abandon the world outside to the godlessness and immorality which they themselves lament.

They lament the assimilation of Christianity to the secularized society which has declined since the ‘good old days,’ and bewail the loss of identity of those who in theology and in practice involve themselves in the conflicts of this society and work with others to resolve them.

But by this reaction, they themselves are running the risk of a loss of identity by passive assimilation. They accept the increasing isolation of the church as an insignificant sect on the margin of society, and encourage it by their sectarian withdrawal. The symptoms of the increase of this kind of sectarian mentality at the present day include the preservation of tradition without the attempt to found new tradition; biblicism without liberating preaching; increasing unwillingness to undergo new experience with the gospel and faith, and the language of zealotry and militant behaviour in disputes within the church.

People boast of their own growing meaninglessness, and the failure of the world to understand, as the ‘cross’ which they have to bear, and they regard their own obstinate lack of courage as bearing the cross. Because the situation has become so obscure and their own identity so uncertain, they seek to cut the Gordian knot with the sword of a decision taken in isolation.

This leads to the fragmentation of the church into the true ‘church of Jesus’ and the evil, political ‘church of Barabbas’; or the true ‘church of Mary’ which alone hears the word of the Lord, and the ‘church of Martha’ preoccupied with useless social activity. Friends and enemies are clearly distinguished, if possible with the aid of the godless communists, so that a final decision can be made and the situation can be clarified once again.

The missionary situation of the ‘open church’ is left behind in a retreat into the apocalyptic situation of the ‘closed church’. People grow tired of maintaining the open situation of dialogue and co-operation with others, in which the boundaries are always fluid, and look for the final hour, in which the only possible response is yes or no.

Notes

1 Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (reprint; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 27.

2 Ibid, pgs. 19-22.  

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There are 4 Comments

TylerR's picture

This book is one of the most interesting and intriguing I've ever read. I'm about halfway through it. I think it's so interesting because it doesn't come from the same evangelical cookie-cutter perspective. Of course, there's nothing wrong with the evangelical cookie; it's a tasty cookie - the best cookie! But, Moltmann is something very, very different. 

His comments here are very powerful. When I first read them, I immediately thought of the worst flavors of Baptist fundamentalism, and then I thought of Carl Henry's book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalismand then I thought of the tensions between (1) pressing the horizontal implications of the Gospel now, and (2) one's view of the Kingdom of God and Jesus' Kingship. 

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

josh p's picture

Pretty interesting stuff. I’ll have to read the book to get the full context but it kind of sounds like he is drawing a false dichotomy between zealous orthodoxy and social concern. Maybe it would be more like an isolationist orthodoxy that he is confronting. Certainly relevant to the modern theological debate. Am I reading him right?

TylerR's picture

He's complicated. I'm not certain how much contact he had with real conservatives, so some of what he says along that line rings a bit hollow to me. But, his basic point is worth thinking about. He's certainly a much better writer than Carl Henry (or, at least, his translator was!), who echoed some of the same concerns about isolationism from a very different theological perspective. 

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Bert Perry's picture

Moltmann, who is still alive at age 92, was actually led to Christ by an American chaplain while he was a POW in the UK, did his university studies about an hour north of the Fulda gap in Gottingen, and finally settled as a professor just south of a massive U.S. base in Stuttgart.  He hears about U.S. evangelicals simply by reading the paper and watching television.  

Combine that with the fact that the debates between fundagelicals and liberals here have their roots in the German form criticism, and that the distinction between "Old church" and "New Church" in Germany resembles little so much as the distinction between the Missouri Synod and the ELCA, and I'm guessing that he probably understands us more than we do at times.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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