Jesus' Speech, God's Word: An Introduction to Eberhard Jungel

Article excerpt

Reading Eberhard Jungel's work is a delight and a frustration--usually about equal doses of each. Of all contemporary Protestant thinkers in Germany, he is at once the most invigorating and the most demanding. He is also seriously underappreciated. Unlike his near-contemporaries Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg, he is little known in North America, though the work of translators and interpreters in the 1980s has improved the situation. Even in Germany, where students flock to hear him lecture and preach, he remains a somewhat tangential figure in the theological establishment.

Why the neglect? Partly it is because he has consciously distanced himself from intellectual fashion, partly because he has not established anything like a school (he abhors the notion of having disciples). Moreover, many of his basic theological commitments--his strict Christocentrism, his repudiation of modern understandings of selfhood and of Marxist-oriented political theology, and above all his awe in face of the mystery of divine speech--isolate him from the dominant theological agenda in Germany and abroad. Whereas Pannenberg appeals to the residual positivism of North American Christianity (especially of the conservative brand) and Moltmann to its ethical and ecological agenda, Jungel lacks an obvious point of contact.

To this has to be added the sheer difficulty of Jungel's writing. He is fearfully elliptical, combining detailed analysis with a strongly prescriptive tone. He tends to excel in writing short, dense essays, often in the form of commentary and reflection on classical theological and philosophical texts--texts which are themselves largely closed to modern readers. All of this combines to make him a rather forbidding figure: abstract, austerely professional, critical and often controversial, "the thorn in the flesh of Protestant theology," as he once described himself (not without a hint of overstatement).

Yet disciplined study of his work pays rich dividends. Simply following the workings of an astonishingly purposeful Christian mind is its reward. More than that, Jungel's work offers astute guidance to believers trying to make sense of the theological, philosophical and cultural traditions of modernity. More than most contemporaries, he has worked hard at disentangling Christian faith from its misalliance with the metaphysics and cultural practices of subjectivity, and to recover the public significance of authentic and distinctive Christian habits of thought and speech about God and the human world. If his chosen idiom appears distant to mainstream North American Christians, as it surely does, it may be because he is struggling to speak again the forgotten languages of Zion, Wittenberg and Basel.

Born in Magdeburg in 1934, Jungel was brought up in the bleak Stalinist culture of the German Democratic Republic. His experiences as a believer under East German socialism, which included being expelled from high school, not only gave him a permanent interest in atheism but also led him to think of the church as "the one place within a Stalinist society where one could speak the truth without being penalized." He studied with some of the leading figures in German theology in the 1950s--Karl Barth, Gerhard Ebeling, Heinrich Vogel, and Ernst Fuchs, under whom he wrote a brilliant doctoral dissertation. Shortly after the building of the Berlin wall, he began his teaching career as a seminary professor at the Kirchliche Hochschule in the East. From there he moved to the more colorful world of Zurich in 1966 before taking up his present position in 1969 as professor of systematic theology and philosophy of religion in the Protestant faculty at Tubingen, where he is also head of the seminary. He is a prolific author, and has written major contributions on New Testament studies, the theologies of Luther and Barth, classical philosophy, theory of language, philosophy of religion and Christian dogmatics. Alongside this, he has published many books of sermons and more popular addresses on issues of faith, church and society. …