Theology as Eschatology? Barth's Proleptic Response to Moltmann

"From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day."

These famous words come from Theology of Hope, the book that launched J├╝rgen Moltmann into the theological arena. In a way, they set the entire trajectory of his career, even when balanced by his theologia crucis in The Crucified God and expanded in greater detail in The Coming of God.

And while many have praised Moltmann for recapturing the eschatological centerpiece and character of all Christian theology, Karl Barth was not as easily convinced. As many of you are likely aware, Wyatt Houtz (aka, "PostBartian"), a friend of the Karl Barth Discussion Group, has posted about the correspondence between Barth and Moltmann with regard to Theology of Hope. Though he did in fact praise Moltmann's work in correspondence with Wolfhart Pannenberg and Eduard Thurneysen, he was more critical in his correspondence with Moltmann: "Isn't your Theology of Hope just a baptized version of Herr Bloch's Principle of Hope? You know that I also once had it in mind to strike out in this direction, but that I then decided not to touch it."

Here Barth likely had in mind the eschatological character of his commentary on Romans, which some believe was discarded for Christology in his Church Dogmatics. We will leave that debate to the side for the moment and turn our attention to a fascinating paragraph (yes, a paragraph!) from CD I.2 in 1938. The passage is remarkable not only in itself, but also because it could easily have been written as a response to Moltmann's entire project. I leave you with the text of that passage:

"And now it obviously remains to consider the final truth: God is the Redeemer. He who has made man and reconciled him to Himself, encounters him in His Word in order that He may be his entire future, fulfilling and consummating what is promised in His creative and reconciling work. Again, this has to be recognised in the action of God as Creator and Reconciler. It is only here that He meets us clearly as the God of everlasting faithfulness, who neither seeks us, nor allows Himself to be sought by us, without allowing us to find Him. But redemption does not simply dissolve into atonement. It is not a matter of course that a regnum gloriae follows the regnum gratiae. It is not a matter of course that God will also be our entire and perfect future. It is not a matter of course that Jesus Christ comes again and that in His Holy Spirit we may have here and now the pledge of His faithfulness and coming. Eschatology, then, cannot and must not be considered and treated merely as an appendix to the doctrine of the atonement. Jesus Christ in His New Testament totality can really be understood only as this Saviour who is to come. If He is not the One who comes, He is not the One who has already come. If the atonement which has taken place in Him is not understood in the future sense, it cannot be understood in the perfect tense, which means that it cannot be understood at all. Our regeneration, justification and sanctification, the Church and the sacrament, the whole existence and the whole work of Jesus Christ in the present are eschatological, i.e., they are actual only in the coming Redeemer. What can we have here in this present which we do not have in hope? But when we have said this, we have to remember that here, too, a reversal is possible. A system can be constructed of which the central fact is that God's action is that of One who is not yet present, His kingdom is only future, the Church is distinctive only as contrasted with this coming kingdom, the life of the Church and believers is a mere expectation and hastening forward, the whole reality of the atonement is the precipitation of man into a state of longing which is never more than longing, and faith is a vacuum and nothing more. Viewed from an eschatological centre of this kind, creation recedes into the dim distance, perhaps in a very distorting light, with the fall and the present need in the forefront. From this point of view again, the doctrine of God inevitably acquires the character of a massive postulate. It is, of course, impossible to overlook the fact that God in His Word is also the coming Redeemer. And this fact can easily make a consistently eschatological systematisation of dogmatics appear a very illuminating and tempting possibility. It does not need to be proved that the Bible and especially  the New Testament give plenty of encouragement to adopt this course. And if among the Reformers we find little or no inducement to an eschatologically centred dogmatics, we have to remember that their attitude to the last thing was the weakest aspect of their doctrine, and the least worthy of imitation, so that we certainly cannot regard ourselves as bound by them. Why should we not actually adopt this course--perhaps by way of reaction to a powerful and dangerous systematisation of creation? We certainly could, if obedience to the Word of God allowed arbitrary reactions of this kind. But aberrations on any side, and therefore on this side, obviously cannot be permitted if our concern is with a faithful account of the content of the Word of God. In the living Word the effected atonement does not evaporate into a longing for the coming redemption, nor the Church into the coming kingdom of God, nor faith into hope, nor recollection into expectation. Again, in the living Word creation does not withdraw into a dualistic distance or even contradiction. And in the living Word it is quite impossible that God, the subject of the whole process, should acquire the character of a postulate guaranteeing the initiation of the great future transformation. Gratitude and longing, patience and impatience, final peace and final disquietude, fidelity to the Church and a passionate desire for the new aeon: these will not neutralise and blunt each other in a thinking and speaking that are controlled by the living Word of God, nor, on the other hand, will they releases each other in such a way that the one will express itself unrestrainedly to the exclusion the other. In a co-existence that is to be neither resolved nor suspended, they will form the thinking and speaking appropriate to Christianity and to the Church. For this reason the doctrine of redemption cannot become the centre of a system. For this reason it must be accompanied by the doctrine of God, the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of atonement. It must not be subordinated or superordinated, but co-ordinated with them in a real union by reason of their common origin and end in the Word of God. It cannot be an a priori any more than they can. Along with them it can only be related to the a priori which by its very nature is not a principle that we can control, and never can be, but has instead all the qualities of a genuine a priori."