44. Moltmann's Theology of Contradiction

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  • 7/30/2019 44. Moltmann's Theology of Contradiction




    "As resurrection hope- liberates believers fromdeath, placing their confidence in God'sfinalvictory over death, so the cross enlists their lives in aconstant battle against death in all itsforms. . . The believer cannot identify with thepromise of resurrection without participation in

    the cross of thepresent. . . 'Peace with God meansconflict with the world/"

    ASTRAIGHT-FORWARD interpretation of the resurrection,an honest acknowledgment of death, and a systematic ex-

    L. ploration of their contradiction characterize the religiousthought of Jrgen Molt mann. Resurrection and death in contradictionthis tension is at the heart of Moltmann's theology.


    Moltmann's understanding of resurrection and death, and thedynamism of their contradiction, has significant implications for religion in America. His view undercuts any form of civil religion thatunites citizens, institutions, and God in a cooperative effort to achievepeace and justice in our time. Evolutionary continuity between America and the promised kingdom is contradicted by Moltmann's interpretation of Christian eschatology. Since a person at peace withGod is a person in conflict with the world, any alliance between churchand state, or church and university, or church and middle class mo

    rality (or anti-middle class morality), is an alliance immediatelysuspect. The Christian mission leads the church to oppose andtransform society, not to protect and preserve it.

    Christian social activists and personal pietists alike might agreeabout this without seeing the consequences for their own longstanding debate. But Moltmann's theology of contradiction offers anequally harsh critique of the liberal-conservative, corporate-individualistic, involvement-withdrawal controversy so often generatedwithin and between American churches. One party to the debate may

    recognize the brokenness ofcreation but fail to see that Christian faithis in God's new creation, not our mending. The other party may recog-

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    nize that healing must come from God, but fail to see that the scope ofthat healing goes far beyond individuals. Neither side ofthe debate(and this is what is typically "American") seems willing to accept thecontradiction that characterizes this world for Christian believers.

    The juxtaposition ofcross and resurrection denies any notion thatthere is a logical connection between present social action and thefuture kingdom. Also denied is any notion that the "Jesus trip" can bea private journey without pain.

    Oddly enough, neither side ofthe controversy can take the crossseriously because neither side takes the resurrection seriously. Theliberal is unwilling to accept the resurrection message that salvationfor all really will come from God, and that it will far exceed our socialvision. The conservative is unwilling to accept the resurrection

    message that salvation for allreally will come from God, and that itwill far exceed our private vision. The liberal is prone to say that allofus have almost arrived. The conservative is prone to say that a few ofus have already arrived.

    Both sides need to recognize that ifthe resurrection really is theraising ofJesus from the dead by God, then the cross is neither asocial strategy nor the necessary discipline for a middle class successstory. It is the "abiding key-signature" ofJesus' lordship in theworld.1 It is active solidarity with a broken creation that must wait

    for God's redemption. It is the contradiction one enters into when onehopes in the resurrection.


    Moltmann asserts that Christianity "stands or falls with the realityof the raising ofJesus from the dead by God."2 Jesus' unique identityis in the contradiction between crucifixion and Easter appearance. Thelife revealed in the resurrected Jesus is qualitatively new. It is not therepetition ofmortal existence nor the culmination ofsome immanent

    processive evolution. God takes up the old in creation ofthe new, butthe result is transformation, not renovation.

    The raising ofthe crucified one anticipates the transformation ofthe world through the presence ofGod in the cross. Cross and resurrection mutually interpret one another; only if we return to the formercan we properly comprehend the significance ofthe latter. Just as aperson offaith sees beyond the cross to the resurrection promise ofreconciliation, so a person of hope must see beyond or "back to" thepresence ofGod in the cross. Otherwise the resurrection is a denial,

    not a contradiction, of the reality of death. So it is that the Easter appearances ofone who lived and died in the world signal a return to thecross Until the fulfillment of God's promise the cross remains the

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    The continual movement from cross to resurrection and back to

    cross involves the believer in yet another contradiction. "Only with

    Easter does the cross of Jesus become a puzzle."3

    Why must the

    Messiah suffer such a death? Why must the one who bears the

    promise of victory over death bear the defeat of the cross? Why mustthe one whose appearance heralds the coming of God's kingdom first

    suffer God's abandonment?

    Moltmann finds one answer to these questions in the missionary

    sermons in Acts. God raised Jesus from the death meted out to him

    by his contemporaries. So God's glory is found in the resurrection,

    while humanity's evil is found in the crucifixion. But Moltmann finds a

    more profound answer in the writings of the Apostle Paul. The God

    who accepts Jesus in the resurrection abandons him in the cross. In

    this sense Jesus' sacrifice is God's sacrifice; Jesus' suffering is God'ssuffering. In the cross-resurrection puzzle, God becomes involved in

    the theodicy question, taking up judgment and damnation so that we

    may live.4

    Looking at the resurrection, the believer sees the crucified one.

    Looking at the crucifixion, the believer sees the one who is coming in

    glory. In this act of identification, the future is pulled into the suffer

    ings of the present. The cross becomes the present form of the resur

    rection. The cross is the God-forsaken suffering and death of the one

    who promises a kingdom in which God is all in all, and the dead areraised. This event of identification in contradiction is, for the believer,

    an eschatological demonstration of the faithfulness of God.

    Another way to speak of God's presence in the cross is to speak of

    the believer's relation to Jesus. Moltmann argues that believers find

    their future in Jesus, not merely like Jesus.5

    The church is not waiting

    for what has already happened to Jesus to be repeated. Rather it seeks

    to participate in Jesus' future. He is the source and not simply the first

    instance of risen life, and the present concrete manifestation of that

    source is the cross. That is where the believer anticipates the

    transformation of the world. An eschatological theology must find

    and show forth the spirit of resurrection in the suffering of mundane

    existence. "Easter is the invisible ground of faith, but the crucified one

    is the visible object and the continuing encounter of faith."6

    Instead of seeking God in some vague beyond, the believer must

    seek the God who is coming in the concrete agony of the cross.

    Fellowship with the risen Lord is fellowship with the crucified Jesus. It

    is fellowship with those who mourn, those who are weak and hungry,

    those who suffer persecution or neglect. The believer finds solidarity

    with the present unredeemed creation, struggling after salvation. In

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    the agony of this world the future of God's new creation is present

    only in Christ's cross.7

    In the disparity between the promised future and the experienced

    present, the resurrection initiates a missionary consciousness of his

    tory. Faith, hope, and love are united in active mission. Confident thatthe barriers of suffering and death have been bridged in deed and

    promise, faith transcends the brokenness of the world. Aroused by the

    contradiction between resurrection and cross, hope seeks to

    transform the world. Identifying with the creation that still suffers and

    dies, love embraces the world.

    The vision of a new creation is rooted in Jesus' resurrection, not the

    present human situation. The world and its inhabitants have obviously

    not been saved; the work of God has not been completed. The broken

    ness of creation meets us everywhere in hunger, crime, disease, andwarfare. The present has its relation to the promised future in

    contradiction. Christ has been raised beyond the reach of death; not

    so his followers. The end of death's dominion and the overcoming of

    all opposition to God is still to come.


    Even if one did not find Moltmann's interpretation of the resur

    rection convincing, it would be difficult to fault his understanding of

    death. His honest acknowledgment of the negativity of death is a

    much-needed cultural corrective, and it is consistent with much that

    one finds in both Old and New Testaments.

    Man becomes aware of himself and his life because he knows about hisdeath.8

    The hope of resurrection is a hope against death, for death is the "lastenemy" ofGod and man.9

    These two statements make basic claims about humanity in general

    and the Christian religion in particular. Yet how much modern re

    ligious thought, generated within or without the church, has dealt withthem directly?

    Moltmann's understanding of the resurrection never operates as a

    denial or an evasion of death. In his interpretation of the passion nar

    ratives, death is seen as irrevocable ending and loss.

    "The death of Jesus is . . . not beautiful."10

    The period in Jerusalem

    prior to the crucifixion is characterized by misunderstanding. Even

    Jesus' disciples cannot cope with his destiny. While one betrays,

    others fall asleep. Fear and uncertainty mark Jesus' own anticipation

    of death in Gethsemane. Separated from all his friends, he is tried and

    7Jrgen Moltmann, Religion, Revolution, and the Future (Scribner's, 1969), p. 12.

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    mocked, questioned and harassed. Finally he is abandoned by the very

    One he proclaimed. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

    (Mk. 15:34). Jesus gives a loud cry and breathes his last. "The

    suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his


    When we have run out of evasions, then death must be ac

    knowledged, and we too must face it as irrevocable ending and loss.

    Perhaps this is our most fundamental identification with Jesus of

    Nazareth. He becomes real to us in those moments of anger and

    aloneness when we, too, cry out "My God, my God, why have you

    forsaken me?" When we, too, are misunderstood by our closest

    friends, when we, too, are alienated by civic and religious institutions

    anxious only to preserve their power, when we, too, finally realize we

    are on the road to deaththen Jesus is our brother.Beginning with our identification with Jesus in his God-forsaken

    death, Moltmann unfolds his notion of the cross. The relation formed

    with God in the cross depends on no conditions of wealth, prestige, or

    skill. One does not even need to belong to a particular religious com

    munity. The universality of this relation is grounded in our common

    awareness of death in all its forms of ending and loss: death as

    separation from our children in divorce, death as hunger and disease,

    death as isolation in hospitals and homes for the elderly, death as

    alienating exploitation through color and sex. Through the crucifiedJesus, God is related to the God-less and the God-abandoned.

    In Jesus, God dies the death of God-forsakenness. Moltmann finds

    significance in the heathen centurion's legendary confession. This

    God-less observer follows Jesus' death cry with the words "Truly this

    man was the Son of God." (Mk. 15:39).12 Where is God now? He is

    there on the crossand at Auschwitz, and Memphis, and My Lai, and

    at all the unnamed places where death reigns through oppression, ig

    norance, and apathy.

    Moltmann is aware of the complexity in our shared God-forsaken

    ness. He recognizes that while the death of a friend or loved one

    confronts us with our own death, the two experiences are distinct.

    "Death . . . is not first known if man himself dies, but where the

    beloved dies, for we do not experience death in ourselves but in those

    we love."13 This is what it means to say someone suffers the death of


    When we find ourselves in such a situation, there is a duality in our

    sense of God-forsakenness. When we face the death of a friend and

    shake our angry fist at God, when we witness injustice and writhe in

    our frustration at God's absence, we may discover the very object ofour anger and frustration present in the situation itself, sharing our

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    Moltmann's articulation of the Father's sacrifice of the Son. "The

    Son suffers dying, the Father suffers the death of the Son. The grief of

    the Father here is just as important as the death of the Son."14 To say

    that God suffers Jesus' death is to say that God is affected by that

    separation and loss as we are affected by the separation and loss ofour own sons and daughters. God is on that lonely hill, Golgotha,

    sharing the agony of Jesus' few remaining friends. God is there as

    abandoned Son, and also as sacrificing Father.

    There are, then, at least two elements in our identification with the

    crucifixion. The Son dies abandoned; we all know something of his

    forsakenness in our own loneliness and alienation. The Father suffers

    the Son's abandonment; we all know something of his griefin our own

    separation and loss. From our perspective this duality leads us to say

    God is with us in our God-abandonedness. From a theologicalperspective it leads us to say God suffers his own self-abandonment.

    In order to avoid such paradoxical assertions and yet remain true to

    our experience of the cross, Moltmann adopts trinitarian language:

    Ifthe cross ofJesus is understood as a divine event, i.e. as an event betweenJesus and his God and Father, it is necessary to speak in trinitarian terms ofthe Son and the Father and the Spirit. In that case the doctrine of theTrinity is no longer an exorbitant and impractical speculation about God,but is nothing other than a shorter version ofthe passion narrative of Christin its significance for the eschatological freedom ofthe faith and the life of

    oppressed nature . . . The form ofthe crucified Christ is the Trinity.15

    Does the resurrection erase all this? No, it underlines the ines

    capable and irrevocable nature of death. In the resurrection the disci

    ples discover that the abandoned one on the cross really is the Son of

    God. Surely there is great joy at the promise of death's ultimate de

    feat, but where is God until that ultimate defeat? He is in the event of

    the cross. "There is no loneliness and no rejection which he has not

    taken to himself and assumed in the cross of Jesus."16

    The raising of

    the crucified one anticipates the transformation of the world through

    the presence of God in the cross. This statement completes Moltmann's concept of "the crucified God." It is the event of Golgotha,

    "the event of the love of the Son and the grief of the Father," from

    which derives the Spirit, "who opens up the future and creates life."17

    Moltmann speaks of the event at the cross as an event within God;

    he speaks of the doctrine of the trinity as a summary of the passion

    story. Such language has force and escapes being simply speculation

    because Moltmann grounds it in an honest acknowledgment of death.

    Even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief ofthe Father, the surrender oftheSon and the power of the Spirit. That never means that Auschwitz and

    other grisly places can bejustified, for it is the cross that is the beginning of

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    the trinitarian history of God. As Paul says in I Cor. 15, only with the resurrection of the dead, the murdered and the gassed, only with the healing ofthose in despair who bear lifelong wounds, only with the abolition ofall ruleand authority, only with the annihilation ofdeath will the Son hand over thekingdom to the Father.


    Moltmann shares the Old Testament understanding of death as

    that which "cuts man off from God by separating him from his

    promises and his praise."19

    Viewed in this light, Jesus' death is the

    deepest abyss of abandonment and exclusion from the promise. His

    resurrection is the greatest conquest of that abandonment and the

    dawning fulfillment of the promise. By sharing this new life in hope,

    the believer chafes all the more under the conditions of the present.

    "Where freedom has come near, the chains begin to hurt. Where life is

    close, death becomes deadly."20

    The ethical implications are clear. As resurrection hope liberates

    believers from death, placing their confidence in God's final victory

    over death, so the cross enlists their lives in a constant battle against

    death in all its forms. Moltmann's theology continually articulates

    these two elements in the Christian message: liberation from death,

    and enlistment on the side of the abandoned and forsaken.


    The element of contradiction in Moltmann's thought is most ob

    vious in the juxtaposition of resurrection and death. But it is present inother ways as well, and we will examine three of its expressions.

    (1) The religion of promise and "epiphany religion," In the

    "epiphany religion" characteristic of the Canaanites, the deity is

    understood to be disclosed in particular geographical and temporal lo

    cations that become sanctified bastions against the forces of disrup

    tion. One seeks to recognize the eternally present deity and participate

    in its original order.

    The threat to human existence from the forces ofchaos and of annihilationis overcome through the epiphany of the eternal present. Man's beingcomes into congruence with eternal being, understands itself in correspondence and participation as protected by the presence ofthe eternal.


    The religion of Israel, by contrast, proclaims a God of promise. The

    divine order is yet to be realized, and the task of the believer is to

    cooperate in the creation of the new rather than the preservation or

    renewal of the old. The life of Israel is a life of exodus, moving out

    from the point of revelation, rather than a life of residence, staying

    close to the point of revelation. This forward-looking or escha

    tological orientation enables Israel to move beyond geographical and

    temporal barriers and finally results in a universalization of the

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    promise, as all nations are brought under the power of the coming

    deity. Finally the God of promise raises Jesus, a Jew, from the dead.22

    But this is not the epiphany of the previously established. It is the an

    ticipation of the promised future.

    Moltmann contends that "epiphany religion" formed the basis ofthe Greek philosophy of religion. Christianity, under the influence of

    Greek thought forms, has often been transformed into a "mythical

    faith of remembering" in which the end is like the beginning.23

    It is a

    short step from the view that salvation is a return to paradise to a reli

    gion entrusted with preserving the past and ordering the present. And

    if revelation is the repetitive disclosure of the eternally present, then

    one can argue from the nature of existence to God, as well as from

    God to the nature of existence.

    Moltmann points out that arguments for the existence of God andschemes of verification for the content of divine revelation presuppose

    that "truth is experienced in correspondence, conformity, and


    But the resurrection contradicts experience. It fails to

    correspond to our repeated confrontation with death. It refuses to

    conform to established standards of scientific experimentation. It

    disagrees with our attitudes about the prescribed limits of truth. "If

    the event of revelation is found in the resurrection of the crucified one,

    then truth must also be understood eschatologically and dia-



    Things as they stand "do not yet contain their truth inthemselves."26

    The obvious contradiction between Christian revelation and

    experienced reality can be an argument against the latter as well as the

    former. The proofs of God from the world, from human existence, or

    from God himself are pieces of "anticipated eschaton"27

    The ques-

    tionableness of reality necessitates the questionableness of God, the

    theodicy question. But the pursuit of this question can only anticipate

    a God that is yet to come, not demonstrate a God that is here and

    now. The universal and immediate presence of deity is not the source

    of Christian faith but its end, not its ground but its goal. Arguments

    for the existence of God and schemes of verification are fragmentary

    sketches of the universal horizon of Christian mission. In this sense,

    natural theology is a theology of the future, a visionary theology that

    seeks to transform rather than interpret reality.28

    (2) Resurrection faith and historical method. The resurrection

    contradicts our modern view of historical possibility. Such a radically

    new event cannot be contained within the schemes of analogy and

    22Ibid., p. 141.23RRF p 22

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    similarity that ground contemporary historical research. Even a his

    torical method that could handle the contingent or the accidentally

    new could not handle the resurrection:

    Only if the whole historical picture, contingency and continuity and all,could be shown to be in itselfnot necessary but contingent, should we comewithin sight of that which can be called the eschatologically new fact oftheresurrection of Christ.


    The only kind of verification appropriate to this event is eschatological

    verification, comprehension from the end of history rather than from

    within history.30

    Historical research serves a positive function for theology by

    keeping the contradictory character of the resurrection in focus. His

    torical criticism forces believers to recognize that their understanding

    of the present as well as the past is disrupted by an event that looks tothe promised future for its verification. The miraculous character of

    the resurrection, the very thing that stymies modern historiography, is

    the eschatologically new, the source of hope in this event. In refusing

    to be domesticated, the resurrection thus remains an open question.

    At the same time, historical research, with its continual criticism of

    fantasies and illusions, keeps resurrection faith honest. Historical

    criticism is a kind of "negative theology," the "iconoclasm of hope

    turned backwards."31

    Theology is tempted to avoid the contradiction between the resurrection and modern historical method. On the one hand, it can subjec-

    tivize the resurrection and understand it as part of the kerygmatic

    event that repeatedly transforms human self-understanding. In this

    view, the miracle is no longer the raising of Jesus from the dead but

    the faith of the modern believer; the startlingly new is transformed

    into something that has been repeated again and again in the last two

    thousand years. But if this is so, must we not ask why the same prin

    ciple that justifies giving up the resurrected body to historicism does

    not also justify giving up the resurrected soul to psychologism?On the other hand, theology can engage in an ecclesiastical or doc

    trinal interpretation that preserves the Easter appearances for those

    who remain within the church, offering a special salvation history that

    runs parallel to secular history. Here the price of avoiding contradic

    tion is the maintenance of a historical dualism that will be continually

    threatened unless the church maintains a ghetto-like existence.

    Theology must accept the contradiction between the resurrection

    and modern historical method and let it become the starting point for

    an understanding of the present and the past that is oriented to thepromised future. The raising of Jesus from the dead is at once a

    prfiguration and a provocation Before its eschatological horizon

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    historians must take what they hope for as seriously as what they already know. And Christian believers must recognize that the resurrection, like any other occurrence sui generis, will be known to othersonly through the difference it makes in human affairs.32 The funda

    mental challenge of the resurrection is directed at our practice ofhistory rather than our theory of history.

    (3) Missionary unrest and presumption or dispair. The contradiction between cross and resurrection stimulates a missionary unrest.Arising from the disparity between the promised future and theexperienced present, it awakens historical consciousness. If reality istruly engaged in history, it has not become a rounded whole. The question is not how the present reveals the end of history, but how the endof history is in the present. Just as the resurrection contradicts the

    canons of historical verification, so the promised future contradictsthe possibilities ofthe present as seen from the perspective of the past.Moltmann urges the Christian to quit backing through history, numbto its real possibilities for change. "Awareness of history is awarenessof mission, and the knowledge of history is a transformatoryknowledge."33

    The contradiction between cross and resurrection sustains a critique of both presumption and despair, progress and resignation. Theresurrection denies the identification of the coming kingdom with our

    Utopian dreams. Long life, government by the people, pleasantworking conditionsthese are not the ingredients of the new creationthat comes to view in the resurrection.

    What is the abundance of life? The death of death. What is completefreedom? The elimination of every rule, every authority and power. What isGod? The elimination of nothingness itself, which threatens and cajoleseverything that exists and insults everything that wants to live but mustdie.34

    Resurrection hope always outstrips the successes of social action. It

    sees the victories of the migrant laborer, the legal aid unit, and theaffirmative action program as provisional, and it pushes on. So too, itovercomes discouragement at the defeats such enterprises suffer.Resurrection hope understands that "it is not human activity thatmakes the future."35 Grounded in a promise that transcends everypresent, resurrection hope will not be satisfied until God is all in all. Inthe meantime it is a limitless resource for the inventive imagination,provoking new acts of transformation.

    Just as the resurrection denies the "realistic" utopias of the status

    quo, the cross denies the "idealistic" fantasies ofpie in the sky by and32Jrgen Moltmann, "Towards the Next Step in the Dialogue," in The Future of Hope,

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    by. With the Apostle Paul, Moltmann sees baptism as participation in

    the crucifixion and death of the risen one. It signifies the believer's en

    trance into a movement of contradiction, the contradiction between

    life and death, between the coming lordship of Christ and the present

    world of brokenness and alienation. Followers of Christ emptythemselves into the world. They come to themselves, find life, and at

    tain to freedom through abandonment, death, and servitude. Why

    must this be so? Because the world in which they live stands in

    contradiction to the new creation in which they hope.

    As resurrection faith and hope transcend and transform the world,

    so resurrection love embraces the world. The believer cannot identify

    with the promise of resurrection without participating in the cross of

    the present. The expectation of life that comes with Jesus' Easter ap

    pearances, and the recognition of death that comes with his crucifixionare joined in love. "It is only in the things a man loves that he can be

    hurt, and it is only in love that man suffers and recognizes the

    deadliness of death."36 Love does not shy away from the pain of

    suffering and death. It turns to the abandoned, the renounced, the

    forsaken, and brings them under the promise of the coming God. It

    accepts solidarity with a yet-to-be-redeemed creation.

    How does one get from a theology of contradiction to standards of

    conduct? The real connection between Christian faith and ethics is the

    divine contradiction of death. Death is the ally of oppression: if thislife is all there is, the weak must seek protection from the strong, the

    poor must beg survival from the wealthy. The ethics of death is defen

    sive ethics, and the price of protection is bondage.37

    Resurrection faith, on the other hand, releases the believer to an

    ethics of life. "Freedom begins when men suddenly find themselves to

    be without fear."38 The believer, acting in response to the God who

    contradicts death, struggles to bring the present world into con

    formity with the vision of the world to come. But the believer does so

    as one who prepares for the promised arrival ofa friend, knowing that

    these preliminary works will be taken up and transformed in the ex

    citement of their meeting.

    Resurrection faith, hope, and love are founded on contradiction and

    they issue in contradiction. "Peace with God means conflict with the

    world" If one's hope is in the resurrection, one cannot reconcile

    oneself to the constraints of the world and the final constraint of

    death. God's raising of Jesus from the dead is not merely a

    consolation; it is the divine protest against a world that accomodates

    itself to death.

    Ibid., p. 208.

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