Karl Barth’s Letter to Jürgen Moltmann and related correspondences

Com o intuito de colocar dentro do contexto uma frase de um especialista em Karl Barth “and anyone who reads Karl Barth’s letters will know that he is never gracious or one to praise other theologians,”

Karl Barth

Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann had a very famous correspondence of letters in the 1960’s. Unfortunately, many only read Barth’s response to Moltmann without correct context and conclude that Barth sent Moltmann only a scathing letter of rejection, and this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The following letters are from Karl Barth: Letters 1961-1968, and anyone who reads Karl Barth’s letters will know that he is never gracious or one to praise other theologians, so any form of positive response in Barth’s letters from this time period (1961-1968) is in fact a strong praise!

I’ve shared the complete letter from Barth to Moltmann, and then Moltmann’s response to Barth. And then included Moltmann’s description of the correspondence in a quotation from Moltmann’s autobiography: “A Broad Place and lastly, I’ve included several fragments from Barth’s letters where he refer’s to Moltmann’s book, The Theology of Hope, that are very enlightening to demonstrate that Barth admitted praise of Moltmann that I’m unable to find him doing of anyone else.

Karl Barth’s Letter to Jürgen Moltmann

To: Prof. Jürgen Moltmann

From: Karl Barth
Basel, Bethesda Hospital,

17 November 1964

Dear Colleague,

It was most kind of you to have a copy of your Theologie dei Hoffnung sent to me. During my stay in the hospital, which is to end the day after tomorrow, I had the leisure to read it all at once and assimilate the basic contents. It is time for me to express my thanks not only for the attention shown to me but also for the instruction and stimulation I received from reading your work. May I say a couple of words about the impression it made on me? I have been looking for decades-I was looking even in the twenties-for the child of peace and promise, namely the man of the next generation who would not just accept or reject what I intended and did in theology but who would go beyond it positively in an independent conception, improving it at every point in a renewed form. I took up and studied your book with this expectation, and at beginning of my reading I seriously asked myself whether Jürgen Moltmann, who, as far as I recalled, was as yet unknown to me personally, might not be the man. I have in fact been impressed not only by your varied scholarship but also by the spiritual force and systematic power that characterize your book. This attempt, as I foresaw, had to be ventured one day, and the critical insights you have brought on both the right and left hand must and will carry the discussion further. It is to be hoped that note will be taken of you in all circles. I am glad to see how you deal with some earlier efforts to portray me and to note what you say about the present state of knowledge concerning me.

But, dear Dr. Moltmann, I do not find in your Theology of Hope what is really needed today to refine C.D. and my own theological thrust. I will not hold it against you, as Gollwitzer does,(1) that your book gives us no concrete guidance on ethics in this sphere, determined and bordered by the eschaton. Nor does it seem any more important to me that one looks in vain for a concrete eschatology, i.e., for an elucidation of such concepts as coming again, resurrection of the dead, eternal life etc. You obviously did not intend to write an eschatology, but only the prolegomena to one and to the corresponding ethics. My own concern relates to the unilateral way in which you subsume all theology in eschatology, going beyond Blumhardt, Overbeck, and Schweitzer in this regard. To put it pointedly, does your theology of hope really differ at all from the baptized principle of hope of Mr. Bloch?(2) What disturbs me is that for you theology becomes so much a matter of principle (eschatological principle). You know that I too was once on the edge of moving in this direction, but I refrained from doing so and have thus come under the fire of your criticism in my later development. Would it not be wise to accept the doctrine of the immanent trinity of God? You may thereby achieve the freedom of three-dimensional thinking which the eschata have and retain their whole weight while the same and not just a provisional) honor can still be shown to the kingdoms of nature and grace. Have my concepts of the threefold time [C.D. III, 2, §47.1) and threefold parousia of Jesus Christ [C.D. IV, 3, §69.4) made so little impact on you that you do not even give them critical consideration? But salvation does not come from C.D. (I started out here when reading your book) but from knowledge of the “eternally rich God”(3) with whom I thought I should deal (problematically enough). If you will pardon me, your God seems to me to be rather a pauper. Very definitely, then, I cannot see in you that child of peace and promise. But why should you not become that child? Why should you not outgrow the inspired onesidedness of this first attempt in later works? You have the stuff (and I congratulate you on this) from which may come a great dogmatician who can give further help to the church and the world.

Tell your wife I read her essay on Fontane with great interest.(4) In spite of my well-known suspicions of the North German plain I am a great admirer of this noble Prussian and constantly turn to his novels afresh.

With friendly greetings, renewed thanks, and all good wishes for your–future,



1. On the cover of the first edition
2. E. Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung, 3 vols. (Frankfurt/Main, 1954-1959).”
3. Cf. the second verse of M. Rinckart’s (1586-1649) “Now Thank We All Our God” (in English: “this bounteous God”).
4. E. Moltmann-Wendel, “Hoffnung–jenseits von Glaube und Skepsis. Theodor Fortane und die bürgerliche Welt,” ThExh, N.F. 112 (1964).
5. For Moltmann’s reply (4 April 1965) see appendix, 8.

~ Karl Barth, “Karl Barth: Letters 1961-1968“, Letter #172

Jürgen Moltmann’s letter replying to Karl Barth

To: Dear Dr. Barth,

From: Jurgen Moltmann:
4 April 1965

The long, personal, and kindly letter which you wrote from the hospital regarding my Theology of Hope came a long time ago and keeps looking at me questioningly as I go on with my work. I would have thanked you for it, and answered it, long ago if I had been able to find the quiet to do so. Only now have I reached the point of telling you how much your letter moved me and still does. That you should have read my fragmentary theological effort so thoroughly causes me shame, as does all that you wrote, since it was only with great trepidation that I ventured to submit it to you. I cannot deny a certain inspired preoccupation with this one eschatological or messianic idea. You are perfectly right in thinking that we have here only prolegomena to eschatology. I gratefully accept your reference to a lack of concrete eschatology. I will devote the immediate future intensively to meditations on the apocalyptic texts in the New Testament. In the chapter on the ethical consequences of Christian hope I have deliberately stopped at a certain point so as to avoid the suspicion that all that is said systematically up to that point simply serves to exercise a certain criticism of church and society. In the lectures on social ethics I gave at Bonn I tried to move ahead here to a theological concept of work, etc. Perhaps this will issue one day in a volume on the practice of hope.

The nub of your criticism caused me the most cogitation, namely, that in place of eschatology–to escape its dominating one-sidedness–the doctrine of the immanent Trinity should function as an expository canon for the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ. I must admit that in studying C.D. at points I always lost my breath. I suspect you are right but I cannot as yet or so quickly enter into this right. Exegetically friends, namely, Ernst Kaseman, have forced me first of all to think through eschatologically the origin, course, and future of the lordship of Christ. In so doing I thought I could so expound the economic Trinity that in the foreground, and then again in the background, it would be open to an immanent Trinity. That is, for me the Holy Spirit is first the Spirit of the raising of the dead and then as such the third person of the Trinity. In recent times the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has come to have a wholly enthusiastic and chiliastic stamp. Joachim is more alive today than Augustine. Thus some depict direct knowledge as a transcending of faith and others depict faith as a transcending of the Christ event. Through an eschatology christologically grounded in the cross and resurrection of Jesus both, I think, might be taken up again into the history at whose eschaton God will be all in all, and they might be changed thereby.

Since I studied in Gottingen with O. Weber and E. Wolf, C.D. has been my constant companion. It is far from my intention to try to replace it with anything else. From this castle I simply wanted to make a sortie into the lowlands of lesser conflicts. If in so doing I broke rank a little and at many points followed up the author’s criticisms of his earlier statements with criticisms of his later statements, this was not intended to be a parting of the ways. Polemics always makes one a little one-sided. But according to my impression the present theological and intellectual situation is such that I must champion the truth polemically and one-sidedly in the hope that it will itself emerge in the process.

When I sit at my desk, C.D. always faces me with a question. Often I, too, look at it with questions. How could it be otherwise? It bears witness to me not only of peace but also of promise, and for that I am truly thankful.

With friendly greetings and all good wishes,



~ Karl Barth, “Karl Barth: Letters 1961-1968“, Appendix #8

Jürgen Moltmann’s autobiography commentary on Karl Barth’s letter

5. Karl Barth read the Theology of Hope together with Eduard Thurneysen immediately after its publication. On 8 November 1964 he wrote to an old friend that he found it ‘very simulating and exciting, because the young author makes a vigorous attempt to cope better with the eschatological aspect of the gospel than the old man in Basel did in his Romans commentary and his C.D. I read him with a completely open mind, but hesitate to follow him because this new systematization, though much can be said in its favour, is almost too good to be true’ (Briefe 1961-64, 273). To me personally he wrote more critically, so that the young theologian wouldn’t get a swelled head: ‘To put it somewhat brutally: isn’t your Theology of Hope just a baptized version of Herr Bloch’s Principle of Hope?’ I suspect that he had in fact never read a word of Bloch’s, so the admission that follows is more important: ‘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’ (Briefe, 276). It was only later that I followed up this hint of Barth’s about his youthful decision and came upon his love for Christoph Blumhardt, whom he had visited in Bad Boll in 1915. In his Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century (1947; ET 1972), he called Blumhardt a ‘theologian of hope’ (German ed., 590), and his first commentary on Romans of 1919 is still full of Blumhardt’s spirit of hope. In 1919, in an essay on Friedrich Naumannn and Christoph Blurnhardt in The Beginnings of Dialectic Theology (1962; ET 1968; German ed. vol. 1,37-49), he assigned Naumann to ‘the past’ and Blumhardt to ‘the future’ and extolled Blumhardt’s hope: ‘Hope for the visible intervention of God’s sovereignty over the world, hope for deliverance from yesterday’s condition of the world, hope for the whole of humanity, hope in God for the physical side of life … Blumhardt will remain alive because his concern was the victory of the future over the past’ (German ed., 49). Can a theology be made out of this? In 1920 Barth still had in mind a radically eschatological theology: ‘A theology which wanted to dare to be eschatology would not just be a new theology; it would also be a new Christianity, indeed something essentially new, itself already part of the “Last Things”, towering above the Reformation and all “religious” movements’ (Die Theologie und die Kirche,1928, 25; cf. ET Theology and Church, 1962).

Barth presumably ‘decided not to touch it’ because in the end, like Franz Overbeck, he viewed such an eschatological theology as too radical, and because, on the other hand, Blumhardt was still very much impris-oned in the nineteenth century’s faith in progress. In 1922 Barth’s second commentary on Romans appeared, and lo and behold: Blumhardt has now been replaced by Kierkegaard, and the time-eternity paradox has superseded the dynamic dialectic of past-future. Blumhardt’s dynamic forward-looking hope has fallen victim to the enveloping mantle of eternity in the moment of time, and Blumhardt’s importunate expectation of Christ’s future has been replaced by the contentedness of faith in the eternally bounteous God. Eternity is now supposed to encompass time from all sides—pre-temporally—con-temporally—post-temporally—but it is no longer to have any particular ties with the future of the God ‘who will come’. My Theology of Hope had reminded Barth of this key turning point in his theological development in 1920-21. Hence this contradictory reaction.

~ Jurgen Moltmann, “A Broad Place”, pg109-111

Karl Barth’s opinion of Moltmann revealed in a letter to Richard Karwehl

To: Pastor Richard Karwehl

From: Karl Barth

8 November 1964

[..] Jurgen Moltmann, Theologie der Hoffnung, both a stimulating and an irritating book, because the young author makes an energetic attempt to deal with the eschatological aspect of the gospel better than the old man of Basel did in Romans and C.D. I read him with great openness but hesitate to follow him because this new systematizing–though there is much to be said for it–is almost too good to be true. But the book is worth reading. [..]

~ Karl Barth, “Karl Barth: Letters 1961-1968“, Letter 171

Karl Barth praises Moltmann in a letter to Wolfhart Pannenberg

To: Prof. Wolfhart Pannenberg

From: Karl Barth

7 December 1964

[..] And mark you, Dr. Pannenberg, I have read it– as some weeks ago I read the Theology of Hope of Jurgen Moltmann–with the sincere curiosity whether I might be dealing at last with the child of peace and promise whose work would represent a genuine superior alternative to what I myself have attempted and undertaking in theology the last forty-five years. Fora long time I have been waiting for this better option and I only hope it will be alert and humble enough to understand and recognize it as such should it come my way. But in your project, too, I am not yet able to see it, believing rather that for all the originality with which you have ventured and executed it we have a serious regression to a mode of thinking which I cannot regard as appropriate to the matter and am thus unable to adopt. [..]

~ Karl Barth, “Karl Barth: Letters 1961-1968“, Letter 174

 Karl Barth praises Chapter 5 of Moltmann’s Theology of Hope to Ernst Wolf

To: Prof. Ernst Wolf

From: Karl Barth

23 March 1965

[..]  we shall be dealing with chapter five of Moltmann’s Theology of Hope. So far I have found the book an interesting but unripe fruit, though much better than Pannenberg’s Christology. At the moment I am at work on the second volume of Kasemann.[..]

~ Karl Barth, “Karl Barth: Letters 1961-1968“, Letter 184

Karl Barth praises the first 100 pages of Moltmann’s Theology of Hope to Martin Vomel

To: Pastor Martin Vomel
Frankfurt am Main

From: Karl Barth

10 August 1966

Dear Pastor,

For the first fifty to one hundred pages of Moltmann’s Theology of Hope seemed to be such a olive leaf, but not after that, because his hope is finally only a principle  and thus a vessel with no contents. But the true dove, perhaps many doves with the true olive leaves, will come one day. Noah waits patiently and meantime is closely occupied with what is happening in Roman Catholicism (Vatican II). Do not let yourself be either disturbed or afraid.[..]


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