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Interpretation and Historical Criticism: Jrgen Moltmann

BEN WIEBE Thunder Bay, Ontario

The impact of Jrgen Moltmann in Christian theology began at a time when theology had become very unsure of itself. His work marks a break as well as a new direction for theology. Therefore his first major book, Theology of Hope, written more than fifteen years ago, may rightly be seen as a watershed in theology. The writings and the influence of this preacher theologian have continued to grow.1 The break and the new direction for theology are significant. Involved is a fresh approach to the relationship of scripture, history and eschatology, and therefore a critical evaluation of the way in which scripture is interpreted. The challenge he presents is to think through to the roots the origins of Christian faith, and that means taking account of the gospel which is the criterion for and the meaning of Christian theology. Interpretation is of evident importance as a discerning process because theology not rooted in scripture cannot be Christian theology; and again, because of its eschatological character the gospel is open to the future so as to include all men and their times.2 That means interpretation takes account not only of the time and setting in which scripture is given but also of scripture in its eschatological character. And this also means as direction for the exercise of faith and hope in thought and action in the world today.3

'Before coming to his present post as professor of systematic theology at the University of Tubingen, he served for some five years as preacher and continues to be involved in preaching. In addition to Theology of Hope his writings now include The Experiment Hope; Hope and Planning; The Crucified God; The Church in the Power of the Spirit; Religion, Revolution and the Future; The Passion for Life (A Messianic Lifestyle); Man; Theology of Play; the Gospel of Liberation; and The Future of Creation. 3 Jurgen Moltmann, The Experiment Hope (Fortress Press, 1975), p. 7. 3 Jrgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, German ed. 1965; English ed., 1967 (SCM Press Ltd., London), p. 11.



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The question of the way in which historical ciriticsm may serve in the process of interpretation continues to be an important concern. This is true not only in circles where its use has been severely restricted but also where it has for long been used with great confidence. There is a recognized need that as a method historical criticism itself be historically and critically studied.4 In the process of interpretation Moltmann calls for consideration of the "history and the future" of scripture together. This sets a certain relation or context for historical criticism in the interpretation of scripture. The aim of this article is to examine his review of historical criticism and the way in which it may serve in the interpretation of scripture. An examination of historical criticism and its function includes several facets. At what point does the historical-critical investigation of the past arise? On what basis does it operate and what aims does it serve? In Moltmann's view the relationship between gospel and historical criticism cannot be a one-way affair. The appropriate relationship is one of interaction. Historical-critical reflection begins where traditions have no longer kept pace with the present, where established patterns of life and thought are no longer experienced as self-evident. Because of new discoveries and experiences already in the seventeenth century questions arise about the meaning and continuity of scripture and tradition in relation to the present.5 Historical criticism of traditional thinking undermines prejudice against the 'new' in the future and so makes possible new freedom in the face of social and political institutions. It also means that when the basis for a pattern of life or tradition is subjected to criticism a gulf develops between past and present. The historical-critical sciences of the enlightenment created a consciousness in which the Christian tradition could no longer stand as absolute or without question and criticism.6

One of the places I have found this recognition most clearly is in Peter Stuhlmacher's Historical Criticism and Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1977). 'Moltmann, Hope and Planning, p. 56. *Moltmann, Religion, Revolution and the Future (Charles Schribner's Sons, Publishers, 1969), p. 84. instrument for the service of freedom Moltmann emphasizes the use of historical criticism in the present. This means Christianity comes to be seen in relation to other 'truths' in history. It supports "freedom of the Christian faith as well as freedom from the Christian faith."

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The success of the methodical approach in the natural sciences encouraged the effort to make the same application in the process of acquiring knowledge of history. The nineteenth century reached the point where the natural sciences constructed an exact and verifiable system of the laws of nature. Since 'exact* science meant natural science, the question arose as to the scientific character of historical research and the general laws of the course of history.7 Though a difference of method in the human sciences came to be recognized, certain minimum requirements associated with natural science have also been introduced into the science of history. Such requirements as: (1) The correctness of statements of historical science is proved by reference to sources that can be verified by anyone at anytime, "and thus by verifiable events".8 As history, in contrast to legend or fiction, assured knowledge depends on verifiable agreement between statement and fact. (2) This process of gaining knowledge of history presupposes that our insights are controllable. They are bound to the sources and bound to the criticism of the sources approached from within the perspective of controllability. This perspective determines the reality of that which will be recognized. (3) "This controllability, however, presupposes that historical objects can in principle be reconstructed."9 This is what makes historical knowledge dependable. The possibility of reconstructing the materials and the documented events is the method which marks facts as facts. This distinguishes the science of history from legend, lively remembrance, or statements of experience and encounter. (4) Historical science, also, works with definite hypotheses, plans, and outlooks by means of which the events are perceived as events. Natural science makes use of experiment to yield an answer from nature and so lets us understand it. The aim is to take a like step to assure historical knowledge. But historical objects are always already bound up in contexts and outlooks in which knowledge of them is transmitted. The work of the historian is to discern and trace the historical facts through his sources. These facts become the starting point for the sources to be subjected to the criticism of historical consciousness, and this criticism itself always involves "the historian's own power of picturing and

'Moltmann, Theology of Hope, p. 238. Ibid., p. 239. Ibid.


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imagining how things may 'in fact* have been."10 This process is thus always combined with reconstruction and interpretation. In terms of effect Moltmann observes that this methodical process serves to 'objectify' historic reality. With the aim of establishing historic reality it must presuppose that this reality is established fact and no longer subject to change. This, for reasons that are apparent, become more difficult the more it is a question of 'contemporary history.' For here the object is not firmly established and the observer stands, not over against history, but in the midst of events. Indeed the accounts of the historian himself of events exert their effect and influence on events. There is thus a twofold movement: the first derives from the process character of all past life and the second from "the continual change in the man who contemplates history and is himself subject to historic development."11 The critical question that arises is whether the science of history which resolves history into 'object' and knowledge "does justice to the historic character of history and to the-possiblyhistoric character of its own knowledge."12 This leads of itself to the question of the overall view or philosophy of history. On this account Moltmann traces the philosophic outlook of some major historians. A widely representative view is the one which sees the events and relationships in history in terms of an enclosed whole, that is, each single event or feature is seen as a link in the chain of immanent historic progress and of total self-realization of the spirit or the idea.13 History is interpreted as a universal whole in which 'everything together upholds and maintains itself (F. C. Baur is in this line). And the essence of history is interpreted in the light of some factor that does not change. Events become understandable when they are seen as 'manifestations' of this common factor. In line with what was true in Greek thought there is no sense for the changing and the suddenly new.14 The assumption, on which this view proceeds, is the

10 Ibid. The separation "of fact and meaning is not one which is possible in principle, and can be asserted only when our own interpretation of what we call 'fact' remains naive, uncritical, and unconscious," p. 241. 11 Ibid., p. 240. ,2 Ibid., p. 238. ,3 Ibid., p. 250. ,4 Ibid., p. 254. When the primary question is that of the essence or substance, whether this is history as 'expressions of life,' of Dasein, then the history which arises and passes, bringing the experience of change and concrete movements, becomes a matter without significance as in Greek thinking. It is in the context of God's promise to Israel and in the gospel events of promise that history comes to be perceived in categories of the new and the promised, p. 259.

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absolute 'lawfulness' of development within a closed nexus of cause and effect (a view taken over by R. Bultmann, among others). The effect of this is to bring theology and Christian faith to a critical crossroad. When the historical method with the above inclusions is accepted as final, faith in Jesus appears to lose its basis. Ways of establishing faith on the basis of another reality are sought which cannot be attacked by historical criticism. This reality may be that of 'personal experience,' 'intuition,' or personal 'encounter.' The results are the well-known separation of subject and object in man's relationship to world and history. And in the study of scripture it means that historical and theological exegeses fall apart (historical positivism of 'facts' in a world of unbelief on the one hand and an unhistorical subjectivism on the other). This also produced a double relationship to Jesus, the 'Jesus of history' and the 'Christ of faith,' as it is said.15 The question of the reality of the resurrection of Jesus serves as a test case for the way in which historical criticism bears on interpretation. Since the 'raising of Jesus from the dead by God' is reported and proclaimed as an event by the gospel witnesses, the question as to its reality will in the first instance take the form of historical question. Even if these witnesses did not attempt on the lines of ancient chroniclers or modern historians only to report what happened, "yet they did speak of a fact and an event whose reality lay for them outside their own consciousness and their own faith."16 The reality of this event was indeed the origin of their consciousness in remembrance and hope.17 The question as to the reality of the resurrection from the standpoint of historical examination is in harmony with the gospel accounts insofar as they themselves speak of an event which can be dated in relation to other events. But it is alien to these accounts if, "and in so far as, the historical form of the question implies a definite anterior understanding of what is historically possible . . ."18 This understanding is one which since the birth of the modern age does not coincide with the understanding which the gospel texts themselves have "of the historically

1 'Moltmann, Hope and Planning, pp. 63ff. Moltmann refers to this division as a sort of fate in which we have to live. It is a far-reaching problem which is further illustrated in the separation of science and existence: science as a neutral truth of statements removed beyond all subjectivity and an existential truth removed beyond all objectivity. Moltmann at the least recognizes the need for both poles in human experience, p. 70. "Moltmann, Theology of Hope, p. 172. 17 Moltmann, Hope and Planning, p. 75. 'Moltmann, Theology of Hope, p. 173.


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possible as being the divinely possible."19 The concept of the historical and what is historically possible and probable have, since the Enlightenment, been developed on the basis of man and his ability to calculate and make history. As an understanding that works from analogy, and therefore recognizes probability for a past event on the basis of what presently happens or can be experienced, the raising of Jesus cannot be included within its scope (the assertion of the resurrection is then an 'historically' meaningless statement).20 In the interaction between gospel and the question of the 'historical' several different paths may be taken. It may simply be granted that the event of the resurrection does not fit in with our concept of the historical and that we should thus seek other ways for modern man to relate to and appropriate the reality of the resurrection. Yet in doing that "the whole realm of the knowledge of history and our dealings with it is abandoned to historical expositions of the world."21 If the reality of the resurrection cannot be comprehended within the historical means of this time, neither is the concept of the historical thus formulated comprehensible for faith. To leave aside the historical question as to the reality of the resurrection is to leave the message of the resurrection hanging in the air, and with it the existence affected by it. There is, then, no clear reason for this message to be proclaimed or any need to make a decision with reference to it. Another path to follow is no longer to regard the historical method and this view of history as final, but to seek new ways of developing the historical approach to history. That is to seek an expansion of the method of historical criticism that would take account of the other side of analogy for the purpose of historical understanding. For indeed access in knowledge by comparison need not be merely by recognizing only the similar and common elements amid the dissimilarities in events and expressions of life, but can also be sought in observing what is dissimilar, unique, and the suddenly new. The method of understanding by comparison might thus be expanded to include the different and the new.22

"Ibid., pp. 173, 174. "Ibid., p. 174. 2, Ibid., p. 177. "Ibid., pp. 174ff. As Moltmann says, Christianity finds itself in difficulty on two sides in regard to the modern concept of history. In the face of the pantheistic idea of the nature of history, i.e., D. F. Strauss's, it becomes impossible to regard a person and an event in history as absolute. In face of the positivistic and mechanistic definition of the

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He who inquires into the reality of the resurrection of Jesus is confronted in the gospel texts by realities of history but more than that, with a different "outlook on the experience and significance of history, which sets the event here recorded in a different light."23 The question of historical criticism about the reality of the resurrection is in turn called in question as to the basic experience of history which is the ground of this inquiry. The approach which questions the resurrection always brings a certain historical view of the world to bear in the questioning. "The latter must be subjected to questioning in the process of understanding, as surely as the proclaimed resurrection of Jesus is subjected to historical questioning."24 The raising of Christ does not mean simply the suddenly new but the category of the ultimately and the eschatologically new. The gospel proclamation of the resurrection points indeed to a historical person, that is, Jesus of Nazareth, and to a particular time, that is, between his crucifixion and his appearance to his disciples, and to a particular place, that is, Jerusalem. But the event itself of "the resurrection of Christ is without parallel in the history known to us." And it is for that very reason that it can be regarded as a history-making event in the light of which human history is illumined, questioned, and opened in hope.25 Our history is characterized by guilt, suffering, and death. Christ's resurrection from the dead calls this very history and this whole system of guilt, suffering, and death in question. Consequently the resurrection of Christ does not

nature of history as a self-contained system of cause and effect, the assertion of the raising of Jesus by God appears as a myth concerning a supernatural incursion which is contradicted by all experience of the world. In the context of positivism the objective truth of scientific knowledge is considered to be the absolute truth of being. This makes it unhistorical; neither the historicity of the phenomenon, of the observer, nor of its communication in knowledge is recognized. The crisis in modern physics makes it evident once again that scientific theories are not 'ultimates' but models, i.e., observations with the limits established by experiments. Scientists themselves are recognizing this 'aspectual' character of scientific knowledge. Cf. Christianity in a Mechanistic Universe, a Symposium edited by D. M. Mackay (The Inter-varsity Fellowship, 1965, London, England, pp. 28ff). All of which makes clear that whether in science or history or theology methods cannot be allowed "based on the principle that what must not be cannot be." Hope and Planning, pp. 174ff., 208-210. "Ibid., p. 174. "Ibid., p. 175. "Ibid., p. 180. Moltmann concludes therefore that the resurrection event transcends historical opinion. Jesus as the crucified one and the resurrection faith of the disciples are historically comprehensible. But the event of the resurrection in the light of historical questioning "leads neither to the fundamental provability of the resurrection nor to fundamental provability of the resurrection or to fundamental historical scepticism." It is not grasped apart from faith but neither is it understandable as a projection of faith, p. 174.


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appear or present itself as "an analogy to that which can be experienced any time and anywhere, but as an analogy to what is to come to all."26 This is in harmony with the fact that the gospel witnesses do not "assert that the crucified one has already appeared in an event that is available to everyone and in an experience that can be repeated at all times. He appeared only to particular persons (1 Cor. 15:3-6) who, on the strength of that, strive to fill the whole world with the gospel."27 This means in its witness that church must engage with views of history and of the world in a struggle for the future of the truth. The proclamation of the gospel is contested and gives account of itself in conflict with other concepts of history.2 So Moltmann would emphasize the open relationship in which gospel and historical criticism interact. In that role historical criticism has a necessary and important place. Even with the limited presuppositions set out above there is point in asking how far and with what measure of probability the actual course of events may be ascertained. What relationship is there between the gospel proclamation and the historical Jesus? Involved in the basis of faith for every Christian is the question whether his faith in Jesus Christ is true and in accordance with Jesus himself. "The way in which faith turns back to Jesus and his history in self-criticism derives from faith itself."29 It is in this way that faith is helped to distinguish itself from its own superstition or unbelief and to seek the truth of Jesus himself. This task can only be carried out as Christian theology does its work on historcial lines without losing sight of its own ends.30 For interpretation this means that the New Testament proclamation cannot be reduced in a historical sense to factual truth of the past (which then will really concern no one). At the same time it will not allow itself to be reduced by existentialist interpretation to its truth about existence whose reference to reality would then be uncertain. The alternative posed in this dualism "is an alternative in which the gospel does not reveal itself."31 The history of Christ has validity for proclamation insofar as it is eschatological history. Because of the eschatological character of the event of Christ the biblical statements

"Ibid. "Moltmann, Hope and Planning, p. 39. "Moltmann, Theology of Hope, p. 181. "Moltmann, The Crucified God (SCM Press Ltd., London, 1974), p. 115. "Ibid. "Moltmann, Hope and Planning, p. 75.

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of proclamation reach out beyond the historical situation in which they were first given, into the universal. This means Christian knowledge and proclamation are not static. The scripture must be freed from historicizing interpretation that would freeze it in the past so that the future of God, which will become our future, may be discovered in it. And at the same time scripture must be freed of a fundamentalist interpretation that would deprive the Bible of its character as history and so petrify it.32 Otherwise Christianity has the past for its lord instead of knowing itself in relationship to the living God; moralism and legalism come to govern Christian life.33 Specifically, the process of interpretation of scripture will include several different aspects: (1) Historical exegesis to discover what the text meant literally, i.e., for the people of Biblical times. This stage will seek to determine the literary sense of a text or a symbol; (2) interpretation will determine the meaning of a test or symbol in its bearing on current life problems; (3) "it will include an exposition of the meaning of our experience, for words and symbols without experience are empty; and, finally, (4) the presentation of the eschatological meaning of a text for that hope that drives men on to new actions and experiences."34 Interpretation therefore unites historical exegesis with present experience and hope in that which is coming. It builds a bridge between past and future in such a way that the present finds direction. This involves hearing the message of scripture in terms of its own historical context as well as the way it points out beyond itself into the future. This message is always heard, and calls forth our response, in our own historical setting. In that way the scripture cannot be naively taken over. Taking account of our particular historical setting is part of the process in following the direction and hope given in Christ. The constant in the churches of history is the relation of faith and life to the crucified Jesus and invariable is the alignment of the proclamation of the church and of life to the future of Christ.35 That means proclamation is not a matter of wisdom and truth in doctrinal principles but the announcing of the eschatological event of Christ.36

"Moltmann, The Experiment Hope, p. 7. "Ibid., p. 10. "Ibid., pp. 8,9. "Moltmann, Religion, Revolution and the Future, pp. 102-103. "Ibid., p. 103.


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The church in witness and proclamation is itself involved in the movement of the history opened up by Christ. It is a relationship to history which is in process and not yet finished, or concluded. The church itself is not yet final. It is in trusting the absolute truth of God that theology can perceive its own path on the way to final truth. (The church is the object of the reign of God but not yet itself the fully present kingdom of God on earth.) "A theology that encapsulates itself in its own tradition and its own circles petrifies and dies."37 This does not mean the relativising of Christian faith but being brought into relationships marked by openness to and for others. A historical-critical computing of 'facts' understands how things stand and lie but does not understand in what direction they are moving. "Yet anyone who does not measure things by their intended meaning sees them not only superficially but also incorrectly."38 In terms of the history of Christ this means that it is to be "proclaimed insofar as it is eschatological history."39 The biblical texts outline a relationship and a path of concern between the Christ event, on the one hand, and the future of Christ and the kingdom of freedom, on the other. With that in mind it becomes clear why this Christian proclamation or message lays claim on our understanding and cannot be arbitrarily appropriated or left to the past. Out of this concern between the Christ event, and the kingdom which comes inrighteousnessand life, will come a passionate understanding led by hope. On this path faith and obedience seek practical correspondence to the truth of Christ.40 Evaluation and Response Within the scope of this evaluation and response certain points as they involve historical criticism may be set out. On the one hand, it is clear that Moltmann sees historical criticism as essential to the interpretation of scripture. This is so because it corresponds to the character of scripture as coming to be in a historical setting.41 It is of a piece with the incarnation that the message of scripture takes genuine human form. And because scripture is historically mediated this makes historical criticism desirable and inevitable. The role of historical criticism has

"Moltmann, The Experiment Hope, p. 13. "Moltmann, Hope and Planning, p. 82. "Ibid., p. 88. 40 Moltmann, Religion, Revolution and the Future, pp. 96ff. 4 'References in the New Testament like Luke 1:1-4; Luke 3:1-3 are but an indication what that involves.

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perhaps become more clearly recognized.42 On the other hand a difficulty has been with a certain kind of use of historical criticism to take account seriously of scripture on its own terms. The difficulty was often hidden under the cover of neutrality or objectivity. It has been one of the fruits of a more persistent and honest criticism itself to recognize that no person operates without some perspective or standpoint. Moltmann in his overview is helpful when he shows that the concept of historical criticism is often so formulated or limited as to prejudge the matter. With others he sees this as the point at which Christians need critically to interact with the view of history that is involved. The point might be made in a different way by saying that an approach that would do justice to scripture must at least be open to God (as transcendant) and the possibility of faith. To treat the text of scripture as if it were simply an object, to assume that we can really understand scripture by debating its meaning purely on the level of ideas and concepts falls short of the mark. Involved in this view is an approach to scripture which implies that it can be 'scientifically' studied without considering the interpreter's historical and cultural situation. Numerous instances might be given from church history that go to show how a particular alignment with a prevailing culture kept people from hearing the witness of scripture. It may seem obvious to us, but where there is little or no awareness of this possibility there is surely the most clear danger of this failure in hearing today.43 The alternative that remains is to seek to be more aware and to go again to scripture, read it still more modestly, with still less confidence that we already know precisely what it says, with still more attention to historical setting and literary context, with still more readiness to hear. As Alexander Campbell pointed out, just as there is a certain hearing distance in order to hear another person

"George Eldon Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1967) pp. 17Iff. The book as a whole is helpful in reviewing the place of various aspects of criticism. Of more recent date is the volume edited by I. Howard Marshall, New Testament Interpretation, Essays on Principles and Methods (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), a book that takes a wide overview of many concerns involved with historical criticism by people of evangelical persuasion. "As Moltmann expresses this point, it matters whether one reads scripture as one identified with the well-to-do and those able to exercise power or whether one reads it in the midst of the poor and powerless. He says the Bible is not "the book of ruling priests and lords. It is also not a book of laws for the just, but of promises for the hopeless and of the gospel of God for sinners. In order to read this book properly, therefore, we must read it with the eyes, and in the community, of the poor, the godless, and the unjust. Then we read in it God's history with his enslaved and obstinate people of Israel as well as God's history with the crucified Jesus of Nazareth," Moltmann, The Experiment Hope, p. 7.


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properly so there is an appropriate alignment in relation to scripture in order to hear it aright. In a related area Moltmann helps to clarify matters in seeing the way historical criticism tends to distance the present from past events which it examinesas events that are past and need no longer concern anyone in the present. Now, insofar as historical criticism serves to distinguish what Paul or John meant from what we might assume he meant or wish he had meant it serves a needed and vital role. Moltmann's point is that a historical-critical computing of 'facts' may understand how things stand and lie, but does not understand in what direction they are moving. To sum up, while one might wish that Moltmann had dealt with other points that have been of concern in this context, he is helpful in clarifying the limits and the function so as to free historical criticism for more discerning use. It is essential as a way to illuminate as well as to check interpretation of scripture. The recognition of the 'limits' of historical criticism should help to set it free for its true use. A use that is indispensable if arbitrary appropriation of the gospel is to be avoided. This brings serious responsibility to the task of understanding and making visible the structure of interpretation so that scripture may remain the book of the church. Otherwise it becomes a matter of subjective vision, limited to an individual or a group.44 Thus the most complete framework in which to affirm the authority of scripture is the context of its being read and enacted in the believing community which uses its guidance to respond to concrete issues in the witness and obedience of this fellowship. This means readiness to take account of study and living of the gospel in ages before us. Scripture is decisive and listening with fellow believers present and past is a way to learn, to test, and to clarify our understanding.45 Taken in this way we do not possess the gospel as an object or a commodity, but it is to take scripture as it wants to be taken: as the promise of and power for fresh insight, for change, for life in faith, love, and hope.
"There was strong appreciation of this on the part of early Restoration leaders like Alexander Campbell and J. W. McGarvey. Campbell advocated a "critical and thorough knowledge of the Bible," which included a study of the language and idioms, the history and geography of scripture. Such historical critical study of scripture he counterposed to creed-bound interpretation of scripture. Cf. Alexander Campbell, The Christian System (Gospel Advocate Company, Nashville, Tennessee, 1964), pp. 2ff. "Mohmann emphasizes doing theology in the context of the church. Cf. his The Passion for Life: A Messianic Lifestyle (The Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1978), pp. 9, 115. Though one may strongly disagree with certain views Moltmann takes, he himself may be seen to exemplify that interpretation need not be captive to private view or tradition. One need only cite as example the clear emphasis on the church as a community of believers and his strong emphasis on believers baptism as contrasted to infant baptism, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, pp. 228ff., 291ff., 334.

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