Karl Barth on Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope

To Prof. Jürgen Moltmann


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, 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? 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” 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 …

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


Karl Barth

– Karl Barth, Letters 1961–1968 (trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 174–6.


  1. Wow, this is great. I had never read this before. Thanks for posting it. Can you imagine what it would have felt like to receive such a letter from Barth?


  2. However, at the same time as writing to Moltmann, Barth wrote to another friend about Theology of Hope and said that he found it “very stimulating and exciting, because the young author amkes 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 CD. 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.”

    Moltmann comments on Barth’s letter to him in his recent autobiography and suggests that Barth was more critical in the letter that Barth sent to him “so that the young theologian wouldn’t get a swelled head”.


  3. My own concern relates to the unilateral way in which you subsume all theology in eschatology….

    What disturbs me is that for you theology becomes so much a matter of principle (eschatological principle).

    Would it not be wise to accept the doctrine of the immanent trinity of God?

    Wow. There’s so much great stuff here — just what I would hope a letter from Barth to Moltmann would say. Thanks, Jason, for posting this.


  4. Ry and Kevin … you’re welcome. I was excited when I first read it too.

    Dan, thanks for that reminder from Barth’s letter to Richard Karwehl. You do have a wee typo though: Barth wrote that he found Theology of Hope ‘both a stimulating and an irritating book’. As for A Broad Place, strange you should mention that. I just ordered a copy today.


  5. Interesting!

    I was quoting, verbatim, from the letter to Karwehl as it is quoted in A Broad Place. Is Moltmann misrepresenting Barth or is something being lost in translation? Assuming that the letter to Karwehl was written in German, I’d need to see the word used (aufregen? reizen? some other word that could mean both exciting and/or irritating?) in order to know what is going on.


  6. Interesting indeed!

    I was quoting from Karl Barth, Letters 1961–1968 (trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 174; it’s the letter immediately prior to the one cited in this post. I don’t have a copy of the German so I can’t check either. Something strange is going on here. So … should we go with Bromiley or Kohl?

    ‘Stimulating and exciting’ sounds like a bit of twin act. I would have thought that ‘irritating’ makes more sense in the context, but context isn’t everything …


  7. Kevin Davis. I gather from your comment that you do not favour the theology or writings of Moltmann. Am I right? (Please reply)

    Personally, Karl Barth was a great theologian with completely valid points. The most important thing is though that he keeps God at the centre of his theologizing. He also discusses many different topics in theology.


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