Theology of Promise vs. Theology of Hope

by Vernard Eller

This article was originally published by The Christian Century Foundation, Chicago, IL, in The Christian Century, on December 14, 1966. It is reproduced here with their kind permission.

This work may be freely reproduced and distributed provided that that no changes are made, no revenues are collected beyond the nominal cost of media, and credit is given to the author, The Christian Century Foundation, and House Church Central. Any other use requires the written permission of the author. Citing this material on other Internet sites is encouraged, but is to be done only by providing a hypertext reference to this file on this server.

While this letter makes reference to a number of prior articles in The Christian Century, the astute reader will nevertheless be blessed by the contrasts Dr. Eller makes between human-and a God-centered theology.

Comments on an Unsolicited Series


Stop the train! There is an open Switch ahead that could deposit our whole Theological Express down a dead-end siding!

"The Theology of Hope" is absolutely the wrong name for what we are talking about, and we ought to get it changed while there is still time. "The Theology of Promise"--the Promise of God--is right. The distinction is this:

"Hope" is, or can be interpreted as, an inherent religious characteristic and capability of man as man. "Promise," on the other hand, describes an action and activity of God as God.

Take the "hope" line and we could wind up right back with Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, making theology an analysis of man's religiousness rather than a testimony to God's mighty acts. Then we would have to have another Karl Barth--not that another Barth would be so bad, but all this business of groping around in dark church steeples, grabbing bell ropes and arousing the sleeping citizenry should not happen except when absolutely necessary.

However, if "promise" is made the word, then the only definition of "hope" that can come under the label is hope as a response to God's prior promise. At least that one dangerous switchpoint would be closed.

My first inkling of our situation came as, with somewhat paternal eye, I watched the unfolding sequence of your "unsolicited series"--on "the theology of hope"--although I very much doubt that you were aware of what you were doing in scheduling the articles as you did. As I look back now at my "Genesis" piece Nov. 1) i see that I used the word "hope" only in the label "the theology of hope" and not at all in describing its content. I must admit that I did not use promise either, but at least all the words I did use were "God" words rather than man words. Also, all the men I named as theologians of hope are in actuality theologians of promise. The Bible scholars among them are necessarily so, because the Bible provides not the slightest excuse for a theology of hope; i.e., an analysis of human hopefulness. Of the others, undoubtedly Harvey Cox shows the greatest propensity for doing theology by looking to man rather than to God. But even he, if he will stay on the track he has laid out (hint! hint!), has protected his concept of hope with his crucial distinction between "eschatology" and "teleology." For if ever he tries to make man the lord of history he will have slid back into "teleology," because man--even with all his decisions and purposes--undeniably is an inherent part of creation rather than its transcendent Source and End.

Reading on into the following week's "Exodus" by Roger Hull, we find that "hope" is used very sparingly and then always as a subsidiary of "promise," never as an independent phenomenon. "The kingdom of God"--most dearly a "God" word--is his dominant concept.

In "Leviticus" (Nov. 15), however, Paul Schilling plays a very, dangerous game. To make a philosopher--and particularly an atheistic philosopher-founding father of the theology of hope almost dooms it to being precisely that, a theology of hope. Philosophy has its hands full in dealing with any concept of God, and a promising God is simply too concrete, particular and specific to be handled philosophically at all. The transition from a philosophy of hope to a theology of promise is anything but automatic, easy and natural; they do not have all that much in common. Schilling himself does come down on the side of promise by carefully specifying a radical correction of Bloch's thought and inserting a God of promise. Yet not only Schilling but every other theologian who proposes to look to Bloch is going to have to make this radical correction--and sooner or later someone will neglect to do it. Bloch is a false friend who inevitably tempts theology away from its true perspective.

Ronald Goetz, in his "Numbers" article (Nov. 22), does very well at keeping his primary focus upon God rather than upon human hopefulness--after all, his article is about God. And yet he walks a knife-edge, for he almost implies (almost) that it is man's need for hope that requires God to be a God of promise. But to start with man's need for hope, even if one proceeds to answer it with the promise of God, cannot be the authentically Christian approach. Rather, it is because God has promised--because he took the initiative--that man has even the possibility of hoping. It is the case that promise creates hope, not that man's need for hope creates the idea of a promising God. Goetz does not fall over this line, but he does walk very close to it.

The fall, then--in the scripture of the Century--is found in Leon Putnam’s "Deuteronomy," which concludes the November five. Putnam opens explicitly and overtly by analyzing "hope" as a human capacity, an innate tendency of the human spirit. He is more than half way through his article before he gets around to mentioning God, and the mention he does make is of most questionable adequacy. He speaks of "the eternity of God," a very unpromising concept. He wants to make Paul Tillich--of all people--a theologian of hope. Tillich's picture of God is much too uneschatological, too unhistorical, too abstract to fill the bill as Promiser; the Ground of Being is as inadequate for the job as is Bloch's No God at All.

Putnam also denies any significance to Harvey Cox's distinction between the God "above" and the God "ahead." But if he would read Jürgen Moltmann's The Theology of Hope (mistitled) and note the incisive, painstaking distinction made there between "transcendental eschatology" with its "epiphanies of the eternal present" and the biblical eschatology of promise and fulfillment, he would understand what Cox is talking about. By treating God too little and too late Putnam gives us a picture of what the theology of hope inevitably will become if it is not first and more essentially a theology of promise.

Your unsolicited Pentateuch, Mr. Editor, not only has introduced us to the theology of hope but has revealed a fate that could await it. Please God that it may be true as you have said, that the theology of hope "bids fair to displace the so-called secular theology of the past few years"; but let us hope that it will not happen so hurriedly that this theology will chase off in all directions, as theologies by nature are wont to do. To that end, then, let us indeed stop the train, repaint its lettering, and start all over with the Theology of Promise!

ADDENDUM: Langdon Gilkey’s review of Moltmann's The Theology of Hope (Dec. 20) was not part of your unsolicited series and does not fit the critical pattern I have developed above, but while I am at it I do have some unsolicited comments to offer as a concluding unscientific postscript.

Gilkey's copy of the book must have been different from the one I read. I confess that I brought to Moltmann a prior understanding of "eschatology" which I then found him confirming and enhancing. But either Gilkey brought an understanding of an entirely different sort or I completely misread Moltmann.

What Gilkey saw as being Moltmann's primary thrust, I saw not at all. Gilkey saw:

The effort of this theology is to locate everything, insofar as is possible, in the future. What we know of God concerns entirely what he will do, and consequently every major theological category has only a future or futurist content.... All epiphanies or self-manifestations of God in the present are denied....

I saw (or thought I saw until I read Gilkey) that human history is eschatological (end-state oriented) in the same way that a football game is, and that God is just as present and active throughout as any quarterback is. Consider that every call and move of a quarterback is eschatological, made with an eye toward influencing the final score; all he does is beside the point except as it contributes to how the game comes out at the end. But this so-called futurist orientation in no way cuts off the relevancy of the past and present. Quite the contrary. A good quarterback is a man with a memory, a man who knows how both his team and the other team operated on each previous play--this constituting invaluable information for planning the next play. He is also a man who very much must be able to live in the present and do what is necessary right now to contend with the tacklers at hand--although he will always try to contend in such fashion that the ball gets advanced toward the goal line in the process.

The past (God’s past) is promise and his present is pregnant (there is a title for the theology if promise somebody wants it: The Pregnancy of the Present). God’s promise (and promises) are no more "bare verbal promises" or "an objective presence of the Word" than is the case when a quarterback performance through three quarters of play carries "promise" for the outcome of the game. And the only epiphanies or self-manifestations that Moltmann outlaws are what he calls "epiphanies the eternal present"; i.e., quarterbacking which is more concerned about what the fans think at the moment than about the progress of the game.

Perhaps it is a good thing that Gilkey was unwilling to "admit in print" the ways in which Moltmann had changed his thinking. Now he can go back, read the book again and come up with some changes really worth printing about.

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Copyright (c) 1968, The Christian Century