Our God Loves Justice

An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer

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W. Travis McMaken
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , November
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $19.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781451482744.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

W. Travis McMaken has not only written about the German theologian Helmut Gollwitzer (1908-1993), a student of Karl Barth known for decades of public political and theological engagement; he has also positioned Gollwitzer as a particularly significant voice for Christians in the United States in the post-2016 context.

That seems counter-intuitive at first. Why, in a time of backlash against marginalized groups, should Christians turn to the thought of a white man who faced persecution only for his politics? Why, especially, should we encounter this man’s thought placed in what McMaken admits is a white account of United States political, economic, and religious history (2, n. 3)? And yet, this book, delving into Gollwitzer’s place within dialectical theology, is surprisingly relevant to the context of post-2016 Christian political theology in the United States. Gollwitzer’s message that “the wholly other God wants a wholly other society” (93) is perhaps more potent in this context that it was even in his own.

McMaken skillfully conveys Gollwitzer’s biography, his political theology, his approach to major political issues, and his ecclesiology. He highlights the importance of Gollwitzer’s career as a public theologian in West Germany, his political evolution, and his participation in interfaith and political dialogues. In his chapter on Gollwitzer’s political theology, McMaken compellingly lays out three steps in Gollwitzer’s reasoning: (1) God is non-objectifiable (a basic claim made by dialectical theologians); therefore (2) all theology is contextual, defined by the encounter of people with God’s self-revelation in particular situations; and thus (3) all theology is political, impacting the particular social and economic relations in which people are enmeshed. This kind of theology is, as McMaken quotes Rolf Stieber-Westerman describing it, concerned with “the specific questions of real people here and now” (73).

Indeed, Gollwitzer was intently focused on the questions that people really were asking. McMaken shows how he interacted with questions such as the ordering of economies, the ethics of war (particularly the touchy issue of nuclear war in the context of West Germany’s relation to NATO), and the question of revolutionary violence. Some of Gollwitzer’s most relevant insights come out of his engagement with questions of democracy and socialism. McMaken demonstrates Gollwitzer’s intriguing use of the doctrine of justification to attack religious privilege and, in doing so, to undermine the basis of social and economic privilege. Moreover, Gollwitzer critiqued the use of Marxism as a religion, accepting Marxist analysis as a tool but finding fault with Marxism’s lack of a transcendent horizon. The limited horizon allowed by Marxism as dogma, Gollwitzer argued, led to inhumanity in interpersonal relations. Having been a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union who was eagerly studying Marxist ideas, Gollwitzer had a unique perspective on the potential of Marxist thinking for both humanization and dehumanization.

McMaken concludes with an examination of Gollwitzer’s theology of the church. Ever the dialectical theologian, Gollwitzer rejected the idea that the church should be static as an institution or a socio-cultural form. Rather, the church was to be shaped in each moment by encounter with God’s word in a given context. That, in turn, would have political implications, making the church a dangerous reality for the established order. Like Gollwitzer himself, the church should then take sides with the oppressed. The direction provided by the gospel indicates as much.

McMaken also offers translations of two essays by Gollwitzer as appendices: “Must a Christian Be a Socialist?” (1972) and “Why Am I, as a Christian, a Socialist? Theses” (1980). Both provide helpful context for McMaken’s explication of Gollwitzer’s entire work, especially showing the influence of Barth on Gollwitzer’s political thinking.

Throughout this book, McMaken expertly shows how Gollwitzer’s theology relates to the broader field of German-language dialectical theology. His grasp of Gollwitzer’s work and the relevant secondary literature is both deep and wide. McMaken does an excellent job of showing the nuances of Gollwitzer’s thought, as well as highlighting his special contribution to political theology as a thinker especially focused on the issue of “love in structures” (84, n. 107), on how to do theology with reference to concrete material conditions.

One could take issue with two minor aspects of McMaken’s approach, though. For one thing, he doesn’t clearly define “socialism” until page 105, where he presents Gollwitzer’s definition of the term. In addition, McMaken’s deep familiarity with dialectical theology is a bit of a double-edged sword in that he doesn’t leave much room for critique of dialectical theology, only for the idea that some dialectical theologies are better than others. That leaves it to the reader to ask whether and how the entire approach of dialectical theology might be critiqued.

So does McMaken succeed in showing that Gollwitzer is a theologian uniquely suited to informing post-2016 political theology in the United States? Most Christians who are already on the political left would likely say so. He does offer Gollwitzer as a compelling voice for a coherent theological perspective marked by lively engagement with a wide variety of the issues of his time. The religious left in the United States today could benefit from the kind of thoughtful political engagement that Gollwitzer demonstrated. In particular, McMaken succeeds in showing how dialectical theology, often seen as a theologically conservative “neo-orthodox” movement, offered a real intellectual basis for left-wing Christian political engagement well beyond the German church struggle of the 1930s. Beyond its relevance in the fight against Nazi ideology, dialectical theology remained relevant to a wide variety of political issues, and Gollwitzer’s life and thought demonstrates this relevance quite well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Waldron is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

W. Travis McMaken is Associate Professor of Religion and Assistant Dean of Multidisciplinary Humanities at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. He is the author of The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth (Fortress Press, 2013) and coeditor of Karl Barth in Conversation (2014).

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