John Polkinghorne’s favorite contemporary theologian is Jürgen Moltmann.Fraser Watts and Christopher C. Knight, eds., God and the Scientist: Exploring the Work of John Polkinghorne (Burlington: Ashgate, 2012), 270.
Even so, he once lamented the “spectacle of a distinguished theologian [Moltmann] writing over three hundred pages on God in creation with only an occasional and cursory reference to scientific insight.”John Polkinghorne, Science and Creation (London: SPCK, 1988), 2. The text in question was Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: An Ecological Doctrine of Creation (London: SCM, 1985). It is as well that he later wrote of Moltmann and science in different and positive vein.John Polkinghorne, “Moltmann’s Engagement with the Natural Sciences” in M. Volf and M. Welker, God’s Life in Trinity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 61-70.
The bar for what constitutes adequate engagement with science would have to be high indeed to deny that God in Creation was a case of it. Moltmann described this work as “an attempt at a doctrine of creation that is compatible with the natural sciences.”“God’s Kenosis in the Creation and Consummation of the World” in John Polkinghorne, ed., The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001). Speaking more generally, he observed that “[o]nly that which is compatible with scientific reason or which opens up for science new horizons of interpretation can count as divine revelation.”Sun of Righteousness, Arise! God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), 196. Early in his literary career, he was saying that “[i]t is only together with the sciences that eschatological faith can arrive at confidence in history.”This was said in 1966 in an essay included in his collection on Hope and Planning (London: SCM, 1971). I follow the re-translation of this sentence in “Theology in the World of the Modern Sciences” in Science and Wisdom (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 23. He issues more theologically specific statements also such as is reference to scientific disciplines discovering “the complexes of life and thus also complexes of the Spirit.”History and the Triune God: Contributions to Trinitarian Theology (London: SCM, 1991), 134. Whatever he accomplishes, his scientific ambition is clear.In his essay on “Moltmann on Creation”, Graham Buxton picks out Moltmann’s dialogue with scientists as one evidence of his willingness for inter-disciplinary engagement: see Sung Wook Chung, ed., Jürgen Moltmann and Evangelical Theology: A Critical Engagement (Eugene: Pickwick, 2012), 42. See also Richard Bauckham’s reference to theology and science in Moltmann, The Theology of Jürgen Moltmann (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1995), 190.
Thinking Twice before God in Creation
Although God in Creation is the principal source for understanding Moltmann’s view of creation, two preceding contributions are particularly noteworthy. The first is an essay on “Creation as an Open System.”Published in Moltmann, The Future of Creation (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979). In line with the persistent eschatological orientation of his theology, Moltmann here advanced “an eschatological understanding of creation” p. 116 which he took to be in accord with the Old Testament.He cites Ludwig Köhler: “In OT theology, creation is an eschatological concept”, 118. Creatio ex nihilo is creatio mutabilis, producing an open history. The created and historical orders are scenes of open conflict between the forces of destruction and of salvation so that the history of God is “the opening up in time of closed systems.”p. 126 Nor is eschatological destiny a statis; it is a dynamic openness as God comes to dwell with us in his fulness.
Moltmann’s offering here is not simply theological. Science describes a world in which complex systems have evolved into increasing openness and potentiality. The cosmos is not determinate. If the eschatological kingdom of glory perfects a cosmos of this kind, we must conceive of the cosmos in terms of “the openness of all finite systems for infinity.”p. 127 Moltmann also appeals to quantum physics to support a theological conviction about the inter-relational, as opposed to the subject-object, nature of human connection with the natural order. His account of creation as an open system moves towards conclusions on freedom, servanthood and justice so that this essay illustrates an important principle which he applies to every doctrinal locus: dogmatics and ethics must be conjoined. Where science enters the equation, its findings are used to advance a comprehensive outlook on the issue in question.
The second is a brief but significant discussion of “The Creation of the Father” in the first volume of Moltmann’s systematic contributions to theology, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, the immediate predecessor to God in Creation.The Trinity and the Kingdom of God: The Doctrine of God (London: SCM, 1981). Moltmann maintains that the difficulty with the way in which creation is traditionally viewed is that it is “without any significance for God himself”p. 105 because creation is conceived as an entirely contingent act of will which is in accordance with the divine nature but this is a nature which is constitutionally self-sufficient. Instead, he proposes, we ought to view creation as the outflow of an inner-Trinitarian love which seeks to express love for its other.Inner-Trinitarian love for the divine other is the love of like for like; its outflow is love for the unlike human other. This does not present us with a God needily dependent on the existence of a world; creation is free self-expression. However, let us get the terms of theological analysis right: “in God necessity and freedom coincide.”p. 107 “For God it is axiomatic to love freely.”Ibid. From eternity, God is self-communicating love.
The tradition throws up a metaphysical along with a theological difficulty. Creation is traditionally viewed as ‘outwards’; but if God is omnipresent, how can there be an ‘outside’? There cannot; so for God to create, self-limitation is necessary, whereby God withdraws himself, and so space is formed for the nihil in which God creates. There are thus two acts involved: first, God releases the space; second, he creates in it. Here, Moltmann reproduces Isaac Luria’s mystical doctrine of zimsum, ‘concentration’ or ‘contraction’, ‘a withdrawal into the self’. Moltmann supports the judgement that this “is the only serious attempt ever made to think through the idea of ‘creation out of nothing’ in a truly theological way.”p. 110 It should be appropriated in a Christian Trinitarian context which specifies the creation of the world through the Son and by the operation of the Spirit. Creation has its root in and follows from the love of the Father for the Son. Through the energies of the Holy Spirit, creation comes to share in divine inner-Trinitarian life without collapsing into pantheistic identification with deity.
God in Creation
These two works set forth ideas which are taken up, contextualized, expanded and supplemented in God in Creation. Its sub-title, ‘An ecological doctrine of creation’, must not mislead us into thinking that ecological and environmental concerns pervade the detailed discussion. Rather, they give it its orientation. Nor is this just one possible orientation among others to the doctrine of creation:
What we call the environmental crisis is not merely a crisis in the natural environment of human beings. It is nothing less than a crisis in human beings themselves . . . a crisis of life on this planet . . . so comprehensive and so irreversible that it can not unjustly be described as apocalyptic . . . As far as we can judge, it is the beginning of a life and death struggle for creation on this earth.p. xi. In 2001, Moltmann wrote: “It was only slowly, at the beginning of the 1970s, that we became conscious that human history runs its course within the ecological conditions of the earth . . .”, Science and Wisdom, 111. Ecological concern features from the beginning of his discussion of ‘The Cosmic Christ’ in the volume which followed God in Creation in Moltmann’s dogmatic series, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions (London: SCM, 1990), 274.
Environmental concern supplies the context in which we need to learn the permanently valid truth that “[t]he inner secret of creation is this indwelling of God”, the all-pervading Spirit, and it is announced from the beginning of Scripture that “the inner secret of the sabbath of creation is God’s rest.”p. xii
As he did in the volume on the Trinity, Moltmann pursues from the outset the question of God as a relational being whose destiny is his cosmic home as opposed to being the sovereign ruler who relates to his creation as subject to object, a notion which has led humans to relate to his creation in the same way. That way lies ecological disaster. God as Spirit indwells the open system of creation which is destined for the kingdom of divine glory. Where the accent in the theological tradition has previously been on transcendence, Creator and creation must now be conceived in terms of divine immanence. We must incorporate the Jewish (rabbinic and kabbalistic) understanding of the Shekinah, God’s dwelling amongst us, into our Christian Trinitarian framework. Inter-relation and inter-penetration, not subject and object, are the theological order of the day when the relation of God to the cosmos in which he is immanent is properly grounded in Trinitarian perichoresis.
I have already anticipated the framework within which Moltmann expresses his convictions about the open system and the zimsum which are central to God in Creation. For Moltmann, creatio ex nihilo means the immutable ontological dependence of the cosmos on the sovereign will of God. God’s withdrawal and contraction is the creational expression of the self-emptying of God in Christ described in Philippians 2.p. 88 Creation is kenosis; as he puts it elsewhere, “Kenotic self-surrender is God’s Trinitarian nature, and it is therefore the mark of all his works ‘outwards’.”Moltmann, “God’s Kenosis”, 140-41. For Shekinah and the kenosis of the Spirit, see the volume which succeeded The Way of Jesus Christ, namely, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (London; SCM, 1992), 51. Moltmann’s reflections on both space and time in God in Creation take place within this framework. The space of the world corresponds to God’s world-presence, which “initiates this space, limits it and interpenetrates it.”pp. 156-57. Moltmann thus fuses a “Christian and Jewish kenotic theology”, “God’s Kenosis”, 137. He later makes the further move of speaking of the divine withdrawal in creation of his uncreated light, Science and Wisdom, 119. The Augustinian insight that time comes into existence with creation must be enriched by viewing creation both as the expression of God’s eternal reality and as marking out the history of nature en route to the kingdom of glory and the Sabbath rest of God.Note, however, that this is not understood in terms of automatic progress. In a later essay, Moltmann declares that “[t]emporal and spatial distances disappear in the simultaneity and omnipresence of the Eternal One. The ending of both time and space take place in the coming of the eternal and omnipresent God, that is to say, in “the eschatological moment.”Science and Wisdom, 107. In the eschatological moment, God “de-restricts himself”, a “mirror-image of the primordial moment”, 108. There is no mistaking the radicalism of creation kenosis: as Moltmann puts it in that later essay, “God is only Almighty where there is nothing” and such is the restriction on divine omniscience involved in creation that God cannot foresee the content of human decisions so “he waits for those he has created, and awaits them. He is curious about the path they will take, for they are his future. He learns from them.”Science and Wisdom, 120.
Although Moltmann believes that theological accounts of creation often place undue emphasis on the opening chapter of Genesis and neglect an approach to creation which is governed by the Christological proper center of all theology, his allusion to the significance of the Sabbath indicates his studious attention to the Genesis narrative in the course of adumbrating his theology. This is also evidenced by his discussion of ‘heaven and earth’. On the basis of an exegetical look at the different uses of the word ‘heaven’ or ‘heavens’ in the Hebrew Scriptures, Moltmann notes that one use of the word and concept of ‘heaven’ symbolically lends itself to the conclusion that the determined side of the open system of creation is ‘earth’ and the undetermined side ‘heaven’ and this theologically describes the interplay of lawful regularity and genuine ontological openness of nature conceived in terms of its history.p. 163 “ . . . [C]reation lives from the continual inflow of the energies of the Spirit of God . . . because heaven is open . . . the world has a future.”p. 183
Modifying Tradition and Meeting Expectations
Where does evolution come into the picture? Obviously, Moltmann regards creation and evolution as compatible but he holds that discussion has been dogged by the false assumption that humans are “the meaning and purpose of evolution.”p. 197 We neglect not only the creatio continua of evolution by placing too much emphasis on creatio originalis, but also the nova creatio when we view evolution anthropocentrically. Anthropocentricity actually undersells humanity which should be understood fundamentally in terms not of its protological creation or this-worldly evolutionary development but of the imago trinitatis which it is destined to attain only eschatologically. Moltmann titles his penultimate chapter: “Embodiment is the end of all God’s works” (Friedrich Oetinger). Thus, we arrive at the Sabbath feast of God’s creation.
So, is all this an extreme modification of tradition? If not, it is either the modification, simpliciter, or abandonment. It is certainly not a straight re-statement. A strict answer to the question obviously requires setting out criteria for what count as modification, extreme modification and abandonment. A substantial answer to it requires attending not just to Moltmann but to panentheism in general, the “quiet revolution in twentieth century theology”, since Moltmann’s thought is either a form of or close to panentheism.For the “quiet revolution”, see Philip Clayton and Arthur Peacocke, In Him We Live and Move and Have Our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). Lacking space and time (the co-ordinates of creation!) for either a strict or a substantial answer, let me just observe that Moltmann would not quarrel with the judgement that his modification is at least a ‘strong’ one; he is aware that zimsum is not an innocent tweak on tradition. Developing a robust account of divine immanence, of Spirit in the world, will always cause a thickish cloud to pass over tradition as long as the principle is not laid down in advance: God is immanent in the world according to his power, not his substance. Moltmann does not subscribe to such a dualistic formulation. Therefore, if we take ‘extreme’ as a term of intensity rather than evaluation, it is fair to say that Moltmann offers at least an extreme modification of the traditional understanding of creation, and if the substantial separation of God and world is regarded as a necessary condition of a theologically healthy doctrine of creation, it is also fair to say Moltmann has abandoned tradition (again, if ‘abandonment’ is not regarded a priori as an emotive and necessarily pejorative word).
As for evaluating Moltmann, if we cannot even answer our descriptive question strictly or substantially, evaluation would be invidious. I have my theological opinions, of course, and they typically belong in the domain of orthodoxy, but the more comfortable we are with the appearance that Paul could in some sense sanction talk to the effect that in God we live and move and have our being, the more we shall be inclined to grant that panentheistic theologies at least encourage a development in traditional orthodoxy to accommodate the demand that we give an account of divine immanence. As for whether or not such development calls for an adjustment, well, the reader will expect that anyone who has cravenly avoided defining ‘extreme’ and ‘modification’ is going to studiously avoid pronouncing on ‘adjustment’. I am pleased to conclude by wholly meeting the reader’s expectations.
A Modern Creature: Introducing a Conversation
Geoffrey Fulkerson and Joel Chopp, The Henry Center
Søren Kierkegaard | The Real Beauty of Creation: A Kierkegaardian Account
Andrew Torrance, University of St Andrews
Robert Jenson | Robert Jenson’s Story of Creation
Stephen John Wright, Nazarene Theological College, Manchester
Herman Bavinck | Herman Bavinck as a Man of Science
John Bolt, Calvin Theological Seminary
Eberhard Jüngel | A More Natural Theology: Eberhard Jüngel on the Relationship between the Doctrine of Creation and Christology
R. David Nelson, Baker Academic & Brazos Press
Adolf Schlatter | Creation and Science under Jesus’ Rule: Perspectives from Adolf Schlatter
Robert Yarbrough, Covenant Theological Seminary
Jon Levenson | The Tapestry of Creation: Jon Levenson on Creation and Omnipotence
John Hilber, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary
Rudolf Bultmann | Myth, Science, and Hermeneutics: Rudolf Bultmann on Creation
Joshua Jipp, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Kathryn Tanner | How We Say What We Say about God and Creation
Myk Habets, Carey Baptist College, New Zealand
Oliver O’Donovan | The Ends of Science in Oliver O’Donovan’s Doctrine of Creation
Matthew Arbo, Oklahoma Baptist University
Jürgen Moltmann | Tradition Modified: Moltmann’s Contemporary Doctrine of Creation
Stephen N. Williams, Union Theological College, Belfast