Wednesday 21 June 2006

For the love of God (18): Why I love Eberhard Jüngel

A guest-post by Thomas Adams

In a world where faith is usually on the defensive, confidence is an essential quality for a theologian. And Eberhard Jüngel has confidence in spades. Indeed, it seems to me that the expression “no apologies” (or “no apologetics”) could serve as the overarching motto for his entire theological program. Whereas others try to ground Christian theology in philosophical principles or human nature, Jüngel asserts (again and again) that “God has spoken”—in Christ, on the cross, once and for all. Despite the complexity of his thought, Jüngel is first and foremost a listener to the Word of the gospel as revealed in Scripture, and his theological method is therefore a daring “chasing after” the Word.

Unlike others who have contributed to this series, I do not have an interesting story about how I came to love and admire Jüngel. I have never met him, or heard him speak, or taken a class on his theology. But on the recommendation of this blog, I naively requested a copy of God as the Mystery of the World (1977) via inter-library loan. The experience of reading this sprawling masterpiece, so dense and so rich, was both frustrating and exhilarating. I learned quickly that Jüngel does not accommodate himself to the reader; instead, the reader must accommodate himself to Jüngel (again, “no apologies”!).

But the theological workout paid sizable dividends, as reading God as the Mystery of the World triggered a seismic shift in my theological perspective. Here I found a thinker whose brilliance was so enormous that his theology could somehow encompass the great minds of the past, both theological and philosophical. Barth and Bultmann, Luther and Aquinas, Hegel and Nietzsche, Descartes and Heidegger—all contribute in different ways to Jüngel’s symphonic theology.

Jüngel also has a polemical side—another admirable trait, in my opinion—that was on display during the controversy surrounding the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. His desire to bring “clarity” to the debate resulted in the book Justification (1999), a masterly presentation of the essence of Lutheran theology. In keeping with the spirit of his entire career, Jüngel declared that Justification “is not a book that takes pleasure in compromise. An ordered theology makes no compromises.” For Jüngel, the gospel needs no apologies.


Uncle Les said...


Thankyou. I am an acquaintance of Ben's and I am on a wonderful journey of exploring the landscape of modern theology.

I was really taken by your blog and have followed up the Theopedia link and am going to dip my foot into Jungel's thoughts.

You made the comment at the end "an ordered theology makes no compromises.” For Jüngel, the gospel needs no apologies."

This is an awesome way to end. Keith Green's biography is entitled "No Compromise". I think, more and more, that this mindset needs to filter through the church and its theology.

Uncle Les said...


I have read an introductory article on Jungel and came across the following quote:

Eberhard Jungel (1934 - )
Despite the relative recency of Jungel's work, he remains representative of a theological school which derives its thought primarily from Karl Barth, who was ascendant in the earlier part of the 20th century.

Jungel has helped perpetuate a perception of reality as essentially two-tier, consisting of the supernatural and the natural. He has also reinforced those who look to Jesus as an archetype - one from whom we can obtain a blueprint of reality and therefore the solution for our problems.

Brought up in Communist East Germany, Jungel moved to teach theology in Zurich and then at the Protestant Faculty at Tubingen University. He showed a keen interest in the work of both Barth and Bultmann. Some perceive him as attempting to cross the divide which apparently separates the two.

Jungel's work spanned a wide variety of subjects, including the philosophy of religion, religious language, christology, doctrines of God, the trinity, anthropology and religion, and natural theology.

His approach to the latter subject, which was particularly at issue in the 1980s, is revealing of the central conclusions which inform the rest of his work. The latter part of the 20th century is characterised by efforts to move away from the idea of the supernatural. As the idea that the universe is an unbounded system gains wider acceptance, so the likelihood of a detectable "other" dimension which is (a) perfect and (b) is the home of God and various heavenly spirits seems more and more improbable.

Natural theology is the search for evidence of God in the natural order which can be discerned without the help of the concept of revelation - that is, the passing of knowledge from the "other" dimension to the natural order by various means. Jungel rejects natural theology in this sense. In his view, this sort of natural theology compromises the "particularity" of the Christian revelation. It does so because Jesus thus becomes only one instance of a more generally available knowledge of God. Jungel appears to insist that a Christian revelation focused in Jesus has delivered a set of absolute truths to mankind, applicable to all people for ever.

If revelation is rejected then the created order has not been penetrated or disturbed by God over the ages. Rather, it has been subject to an historical process only. This contradicts what Jungel perceives as a crucial intervention in our world by God. For him, Jesus is an "elemental interruption" in the natural order and in that sense is the revelatory "Word" of God - the way God has spoken to us. "Natural theology" in its usual sense changes to become for Jungel human thought concerned with the implications of revelation through Jesus.

It's not surprising that Jungel's conclusions about the nature of man propose that the only way of discovering the purpose of mankind is to search the nature and purpose of Jesus. This is because Jesus determines the humanness of everyone. This is in turn because he is to be defined as "God's humanity" - the primary decisive way in which God has transformed our reality.

In other words, our humanity is defined through Jesus as God entering the world from outside the universe. If we want to know how to behave, Jesus is our primary source of such knowledge. So, for example, we can survey the life of Jesus and conclude that it is truly human to strive for righteousness. To know Jesus is to know God.

Because in line with Barth and others he holds that God is wholly different from humanity, Jungel needs to assert that we know God only through Jesus. God is completely "other". Therefore we can know God only through revelation. That is, God reveals himself through Jesus, and Jesus through the scriptures. Thus Jesus is the only source of faith."

We know God only through Jesus? Is this truly Jungel's perspective?

What is Jungel's perspective on the Old Testament?


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Thomas. Splendid.

I discovered Jüngel in 1992 and saw immediately that here was a worthy scion and creative reader of Karl Barth.

Perhaps you can help me out with one area of Jüngel's thought that puzzles me (there are lots of lacunae in my reading!) - viz. his political theology - as I think out loud.

In Karl Barth: A Theological Legacy (1986, German edition 1982), Jüngel has no trouble seeing off Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt's over-egged thesis about the tail of socialism wagging the dog of Barth's theology: "Simply put," Jüngel concludes, "for Barth, the political is surely a predicate of theology, but theology is never the predicate of the political."

Then, in a discussion of justification and the relationship of law and gospel, Jüngel draws a critical distinction between the anthropologies of Barth and Luther: for Luther the human is constituted by "passivity and receptivity", for Barth by "action and self-determination". Barth's anthropology, Júngel suggests, explains the tight relationship between ethics and dogmatics in Barth's thought, and indeed the "political impact" of Barth's dogmatics.

But this, it turns out, now concerns Jüngel - this commitment to the primacy of actuality in ontology and justification that issues in Barth's ethical privileging of human agency with its political consequences. Hence Jüngel's obsession with "a proper ordering of theory and practice" and his "unease with 'political theology'" (John Webster), e.g. that of Dorothy Sölle.

I suppose my philosophical problem with all this is whether this distinction between subject and predicate, theory and practice, can bear quite the weight Jüngel gives to it. Stanley Hauerwas, for example, reads Barth slightly yet immensely differently on the relation of doctrine to ethics. For Hauerwas, "the task of the theologian is not to deny that for certain limited purposes ethics can be distinguished from theology, but to reject their supposed ontological and practical independence" (my italics). For me, the salutary influence of Wittgenstein is evident in Hauerwas - and it is just what is missing in Jüngel.

My theological problem - or rather question - is whether Jüngel's framework would seem to have a conservative bias built into it. But then, in his Christ, Justice and Peace: Toward a Theology of the State (1992, German edition 1984), Jüngel is driven to ask the radical Hauerwasian question "whether the time has not come in which Christians can only be credible witnesses to Jesus Christ as conscientious objectors."

How does all this fit together? Am I missing something? And where would you place Jüngel politically, say, in comparison to Moltmann and Pannenberg?

Sorry to be so long-winded, but some readers will be aware that how theology politics is, for me, a critical determination of its legitimacy.

Uncle Les said...

Apologies - my second post had the FULL article not the last paragraph which I meant to quote.

So much for my copy and paste skills!!!

David W. Congdon said...

The political question is an important one. Jüngel avoids outright political theology, because he is concerned with dogmatic issues. But his aversion to political theology is not, in my opinion, because of a built-in conservative bias. It is rather a result of his persistent concern that Christianity will be construed as a religion of works and activity, rather than a faith that receives from God in a state of creative passivity. I do not know where his actual political commitments lie, but I will try to find out.

That "introductory article" is not well-written or carefully thought through. Barth and Jüngel do not think that all knowledge of God comes through Jesus alone, only that Jesus serves as God's only self-revelation. Revelation indeed comes through other means — OT prophets, e.g. — but they all must be judged against the criterion of divine self-revelation in Jesus.

David W. Congdon said...

I welcome anyone and everyone who is interested in Eberhard Jüngel to visit and participate in my blog dedicated to discussing Jüngel's theology, God as the Mystery of Theology. I hope to make this a group site, more like the Gunton Research Blog. Right now I am starting to work through God's Being Is in Becoming. The site is still young, so I welcome people's input. As I have time I will continue to update, and hopefully others will be able to add their posts as well.

(P.S. Ben, you've listed my Jüngel site with personal blogs, but you don't have a link for Eberhard Jüngel in your "Theologians" section; it might be more appropriate there)

guanilo said...

Very good. I admire a theologian who makes no apologies. I wish I knew Jüngel better, something I hope to remedy soon - how is it that Kim seems to know every theologian in this series so well? (-:

D.W. - I don't know if you're familiar with this book, but my teacher Paul DeHart has written an excellent overview of Jüngel's theology, Beyond the Necessary God. It's worth checking out.

Thomas Adams said...

Kim -- Thanks for your comments. With regards to Jüngel’s political theology, it sounds like you’re better informed than me (I second Gaunilo’s question: How do you know so much? And why don’t you have your own blog?). Politics and ethics are certainly not prominent in the works of Jüngel that I’ve come across, and you’re correct that this omission probably stems from his emphasis on the passivity of humans before God. Also, Jüngel is adamant that the church must have its priorities straight; that is, a clear and forceful proclamation of the gospel must proceed all other activities, whether they be ecumenism, political action, or what-not. He’s quite skeptical of Christians that advocate action over grace, and talking over listening to the Word of God. Of course, this attitude exposes him to the charge (made perennially against Lutherans) of “quietism”, but that’s a risk he’s probably willing to take in order to articulate the gospel message in an uncompromising fashion.

As for where he stands on political issues, I’m not sure. My guess is that his upbringing in East Germany has made him skeptical of grand utopian schemes, so perhaps he’s a conservative in that (limited) sense. Interestingly, his theological emphasis on human passivity has made him very sympathetic to the plight of “non-producers” in our societies, specifically, children, the elderly, and some types of handicapped people. I would assume, but I don’t know for sure, that this stance would also lead him to oppose abortion.

Gaunilo – I’ve read DeHart’s book, and it really helped me better understand Jüngel’s thinking. I would also recommend Webster’s book “Eberhard Jüngel, an Introduction to his Theology.”

David W. Congdon said...

I second the recommendation of DeHart and Webster, and I would add the volume edited by Webster entitled, The Possibilities of Theology.

David W. Congdon said...

As great as God as the Mystery of the World is -- and it is surely a masterpiece -- I think Jüngel's best writing has to be God's Being Is in Becoming. I'm reading it for my third time now, and it always surprises me with its depth and intelligence. The book is the most beautiful dogmatic writing of recent years for its compactness and brilliance. I highly recommend it, especially as a great piece of Barth interpretation.

Anonymous said...

D.W., Gaunilo and Thomas - thanks so much for your comments - they're very informative and immensely helpful (though this blog is costing me a fortune in books; I'll be heading over to Amazon in a minute to check out the DeHart; the Webster, I'm glad to say, I've already got!).

The traditional Lutheran fear of works and his East German background helps to make sense of Jüngel's caution on political theology, though doesn't that fear itself carry a conservative bias against the pro-active governments of democratic social democracies without which -ironically - it is precisely the non-producers who suffer? Perhaps a dose of the traditional Calvinist fear of idolatry - in this case, marketolatry - would lend balance to Jüngel's not illigitimate concerns. But you've got to admire the man's unapologetic attitude and willingness to bear the false witness of quietism, particularly in the wake of WW II and the Bonhoeffer experience.

You guys are too kind about my reading, and well over the top about my "know[ing] so much". For one thing, I'm 58 (though I'm actually younger than most kids I know!). Time.

I guess I've read a lot, and pretty widely (though also very slowly), which is both my pleasure and - as a minister (i.e. a community theologian) and university chaplain - my duty. No one is saved through knowledge, but plenty have gone to hell on the back of ignorance.

My friend and colleague the late Colin Gunton tried to get me to do a PhD under his supervision, but I insisted that seven years at university (BA English, Wesleyan Unversity, Middletown, Connecticut, 1970; MA Theology, Oxford, 1981) was more than enough, that I'm a jack rather than a master, and that handing me the doctorate would be the devil himself trying to tempt me into university teaching, whereas I've always felt called to minister to local folk who need cod-learned gadflies like me around to help keep their faith honest, intelligent and articulate, there being far too many working ministers about who don't know their theological arse from their Myers-Briggs elbow. Anyway, I learned how to swim "against the stream" from the master, Karl Barth, whose Romans had first brought me to faith and vocation.

I blabber too much. So like I need a blog of my own! Besides, I can't even "cut and paste" (which sounds to me more like a football play than an IT technique). I'm just chuffed to be able to have a chat with the likes of you guys on a site like FT, and to drop in for a look at many of your own.


guanilo said...

"there being far too many working ministers about who don't know their theological arse from their Myers-Briggs elbow"

Um, just so you know, I'm very seriously considering stealing that line for my blog header (as soon as I'm ready to replace the de Lubac quote)

Ben Myers said...

Gaunilo, I didn't know Paul DeHart was your teacher. I'll second the recommendation of his Beyond the Necessary God -- I found this book tremendously exciting; it's probably the most profound book about Jüngel in English.

I'll also second the recommendation of Jüngel's God's Being Is in Becoming, and I agree that this is really his best book (even though God as the Mystery is a "greater" book with a more impressive scope). God's Being Is in Becoming is one of the best things I've ever read, and I tend to re-read it at least once each year. Never has Barth's theology been more powerfully put to use!

And to add a comment to the discussion of Jüngel's politics: A central aspect of Jüngel's aversion to "political theology" is his emphasis on thinking. Just as he believes (on the basis of Luther's doctrine of justification) that passivity has priority over activity, so too he believes that thinking has priority over praxis. Thus in the foreword to God as the Mystery he contrasts the "quickness" of political action with the "slowness" of thinking -- and he says, "I gladly confess that it is my fear that I have not been slow enough in my thinking". And in this foreword he also quotes with approval the saying of Heidegger: "Im Denken hingegen wird jeglich Ding einsam und langsam" (in thinking, everything becomes lonely and slow).

I don't know whether or not there is an underlying conservatism at work here. But it's important to see that what Jüngel is really trying to do is to defend the intrinsic value of theological reflection. In his own words: "God is interesting for his own sake."

guanilo said...

And likely my diss. adviser in a year or so as well. He'll be delighted to know his book has been this helpful to Jüngel's readers.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Ben, Heidegger is perhaps not the best authority to cite in defence of Jüngel's antipathy to political theology!

Does anyone know if Jüngel joins Ratzinger in his condemnation of liberation theology?

David W. Congdon said...

That's hard to tell. He speaks about the necessity of Christian faith being a liberating faith in his summary essay, "My Theology," in Theological Essays II. He uses the word "liberate/ing" a number of times, but that doesn't mean he is necessarily pro-liberation theology.

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