How Jürgen Moltmann Reads and Interprets the Bible

How do we know that we understand the Bible when we read it? The word "hermeneutics" refers to the way we read and interpret the Bible, and if our hermeneutical approach is wrong, then we will not understand the Bible. Often disagreements in theology come down to people reading the bible in different ways (i.e. hermeneutics). The Bible is hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16) and we need teachers to explain to us what we are reading (Acts 8:30-31). So I often analyze the hermeneutical methods of great theologians, and ask what how do they read the Bible so well? So in this post, I will review the hermeneutical method of Jürgen Moltmann, to learn how to read and interpret the Bible like him, so by following his example, I may learn to understand the Bible when I read it like him. 

The Matter of the Scriptures

In Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology, Jürgen Moltmann shares his method for interpreting Scripture. Moltmann isn't your typical New Testament or Systematic Theologian in his method for reading and interpreting the Bible. I once heard Jürgen Moltmann say "theology is not subject to the dictation of the texts or the dictatorship of the exegetes." Moltmann does not merely recite Bible verses, nor rearrange verses into a systematic theology—Moltmann engages critically with the Scriptures, and allows Scripture to criticize Scripture, in order to see past the surface of the canonical Bible text to determine the underlying 'matter of Scripture'.

Moltmann's method is much like Luther's famous dictum "Whatever does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching" because Moltmann is willing to declare a verse in the Pauline and Petrine epistles of the New Testament canon to be false or wrong, if that verse does not rightly teach the 'matter of Scripture' (that is Jesus Christ!) 

In the New Testament 'the matter of scripture' is the unconditional endorsement and universal enactment of God's promises through and in Christ, and the beginning of their fulfillment in the experiences of God's Spirit. The Christian scriptures are 'holy' inasmuch as they correspond to God's promise in Christ and in the Spirit; they are 'hallowed' or sanctified by their function for the proclamation of the gospel to the nations, and for the new life in the Spirit. They are writings on which the church is founded, and life-renewing texts of the promise. [1]

The 'matter of Scripture' is not identical with the New Testament or the Bible—the 'matter of Scripture' corresponds to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and may be discerned by the power of the Holy Spirit through the reading of Christian Scriptures. 

We find independent status being given to scripture in the various doctrines about the verbal inspiration of scripture. These various writings are then holy in the literal sense, because the Holy Spirit itself guided the pens of the writers. . . . To see the Spirit at work only in the verbal inspiration of scripture is a reduction of the mighty efficacy of God the Spirit which does not accord with 'the matter of scripture'. 'The matter of scripture' does not receive its due through fundamentalism. [2]

Moltmann mentioned Fundamentalism as an example of how the Bible may be bounded and enslaved by rigid hermeneutical methods, and he believes his method is superior, because it has allowed him to remain 'critical and free' towards the Biblical writings, and this has enabled him to hear the 'matter of Scripture'. "Authoritarian" readings of the Bible, as Moltmann calls them, has enabled past cultures to use the Bible to impose patriarchy and disparagement of women, and advocated slavery, and other practices that are opposed to the 'matter of Scripture'.

But in my dealings with what the biblical writings say I have also noticed how critical and free I have become towards them. Of course I want to know what they intend to say, but I do not feel bound to take only what they say, and repeat it, and interpret it. I can quite well conceive that it is possible to say what they say in a different way. In other words, I take Scripture as a stimulus to my own theological thinking, not as an authoritative blueprint and confining boundary. It is 'the matter of Scripture' that is important, not the scriptural form of the matter, even if it is only through that form that we arrive at the substance.

'God's Word is not bound.' It is not bound to patriarchal culture and the disparagement of women, or to a slave-owning society, or to the pre-modern transitions from nomadic to agrarian life, and from rural life to life in the towns—even though all this is the context in which the biblical writings were framed. Only what goes beyond the times in which the texts were written and points into our future is relevant—God's history of promise, and the history of his future.  This 'matter of Scripture' gives us creative liberty towards the utterances of Scripture which are subject to their time. It is along these lines, I believe, that I developed my use of the Bible. [3]

Moltmann's rejection of 'Fortress Theology'

Moltmann rejects the typical way that New Testament, Dogmatics and Systematic Theologies are done. Moltmann criticizes the great theological summas of history (such as Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, Thomas' Summa Theologica and other 16th century summas) as "Fortress Theologies", because people become isolated within these summas, and these summas erect walls that prevent people from engaging with people outside (emmigration), and prevents other people from entering into discussion (immigration). Instead of writing his own summa, Moltmann wrote a series of 'systematic contributions' that addressed specific theological topics where he had something new to add, or allowed him to engage with others without erecting any walls like the Fortress Theologies have done.

There are theological systems which do not merely aim to be free of contradictions in themselves, but which aspire to remain uncontroverted from outside too. In these systems, theology becomes a strategy of self-immunization. Systems of this kind are like fortresses which cannot be broken into, but cannot be broken out of either, and which are therefore in the end starved out through public disinterest. I have no wish to live in any such fortress, and I have resisted the temptation to view Barth's Church Dogmatics as a fortress of this kind, as the Barthians do. For it is not a fortress, even if some of his followers let Barth think for them, so as to feel safe with him, while other people put him down as neo-orthodox, so as not to have to read him and grapple with what he says. My image of theology is not 'A safe stronghold is our God'. It is the exodus of God's people, the road to the promised land of liberty where God dwells. [4]

Criticism of Moltmann's Theological Method 

Is Moltmann 'picking and choosing' his way through the Bible? Critics of Moltmann suggest that his method for interpreting the bible is 'naïve' and 'à la carte', meaning that Moltmann rejects the inconvenient portions of the Bible that do not align with his presuppositions, and that he only accepts the convenient portions of the Bible that affirms what he already believes. Moltmann responds that his method (especially in his earlier books) may be justified on the basis that it is the same as that of Karl Barth and Basil the Great. Moltmann also says the he was disillusioned by German liberalism, and that he always felt most home in the Bible, especially Luther's Bible, and that his thinking is entirely based in the Bible, especially Luther's Bible, and he is not importing a foreign theological agenda into the Bible. Moltmann defends himself against this criticism as follows:

Other people have ironically criticized my use of the Bible as a 'use à la carte', although it is no different in principle from the way Karl Barth or Basil the Great used Scripture—except in the deficiency of my biblical knowledge. In Theology of Hope (1964; ET 1967) I was still able to pick up the Old and New Testament exegesis of Gerhard von Rad and Ernst Käsemann with which I was familiar. But then, sometime in the 1970s, the exegetical discussion became hazy and confused for me, and the hermeneutic discussion even more. I found it more of a hindrance in listening to the biblical texts. In Germany, historical and theological exegesis parted company. Historical criticism disappeared almost entirely. Finding myself at a loss, I then doubtless developed my own post-critical and 'naive' relationship to the biblical writings, and tried to find my own way through the texts. As I did so, I discovered how much at home I felt in the Bible, and how gladly I let myself be stimulated to my own thinking by different texts. For the quotations I have more and more kept to the Luther Bible that the German people became literate, and because the Luther Bible put a profound impress on language of German culture from Lessing and Goethe to Thomas Mann and Berr Brecht, from Kant and Hegel to Nietzsche and Heidegger. [5]

What I appreciate about Moltmann's method, is that he's willing to admit that there contradictions and errors in the Bible (not merely 'Bible Difficulties' awaiting to be resolved by new manuscript evidence.) When he encounters two conflicting verses, Moltmann admits that a 'theological conclusion' is required to determine the 'matter of scripture' in each case. Others who claim the contradictions are merely "biblical difficulties" often resort to absurd harmonizations in order to evade admitting the problem, and at times, these harmonizations may result into harmful theological doctrines like "Biblical Patriarchy". Also, the harmonizing is an hermeneutical method that has a tendency to conflate theological conclusions with the Biblical text as well. 

For the church to be given independent status over against 'the matter of scripture' is a position found throughout church history. For a long time the laity was forbidden to read the scriptures without the guidance of a priest of the church, because the Bible is a book with 'dangerous reminders' for the rulers. When the church put together the canon, it selected from a wealth of Christian writings and traditions according to certain viewpoints. According to their avowed intention (intentio recta) these viewpoints were related to the matter of scripture, but in their veiled intention (intentio obliqua) they at the same time asserted ecclesiastical domination and male supremacy. . . . 

The point at issue now is no longer the relationship between scripture and the church; here we are dealing with altered and additional 'holy scriptures'. . . . Hitherto only the androcentric and misogynous 'texts of terror' in the Bible were criticized, and that rightly so; for the myth in Genesis 3 about the Fall brought about by the serpent and the woman (to take one example) was already falsely interpreted in 1 Tim 2:11-15 as a justification for the repression of the woman: the woman was created second and was the first to fall into sin, so she ought to keep silent, and 'will be saved' by bearing children. But any such interpretation is false, being in contradiction to 'the matter of scripture' and to Christian experience in the Spirit. [6]


Moltmann once said that talking about theological method is like "clearing ones' throat, but if you do it too long, then people will leave." Refining our hermeneutical method is arduous but rewarding, especially when we imitate the methods of great theologians like Jürgen Moltmann. Moltmann's hermeneutical method for determining the 'matter of Scripture' within the Bible using material criticism is a productive method to following, to help us understand the Bible when we read it and interpret it. I somewhat agree with the criticisms of Moltmann's method, that it may allow our subjectivity to bias our reading of the Bible, but then again, everyone has rose colored glasses through which we see the world, and these bias lenses may not be removed.

Moltmann's theological method has been very productive for providing new systematic contributions (especially in his seven part series). Refining our hermeneutic is necessary, since all Christians are theologians, in order to better understand the Bible when we read and interpret it. Although Moltmann protests against "Fortress Theology", those summas have been very important to the Church's understanding of the Bible, and I believe that the methods of Karl Barth, Thomas, and others should also be analyzed. Here and now, anyone who takes up Moltmann as a guide, will be greatly aided by following his hermeneutical method for determining the 'matter of Scripture'.   

[^Header Image] "Luther's Bible" By Torsten Schleese [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
[^1] Moltmann, Jürgen. Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology. Trans. Margaret Kohl. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2000. 136. Print.
[^2] Ibid. 136.
[^3] Ibid. Preface. xxi-xxii.
[^4] Ibid. Preface. xx.
[^5] Ibid. Preface. xx.
[^6] Ibid. 136-7.

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