Johann Baptist Metz’ “Negative” Approach to Theology

Table of Content


            It is axiomatic for people to take human suffering as a case against the faith which they profess. Arno Schmidt’s novel Leviathan for instance captures with remarkable succinctness – as well as with exceptional graphicness – this classic conundrum. A telling example is what this quote provides:

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    And one of the children was almost entirely torn to pieces, neck and shoulders, everything, by two huge shell fragments. The mother kept on holding the child’s head and staring in astonishment at the huge carmine pool of blood….The pastor comforted the weeping woman saying, “The Lord gave; the Lord has taken away.” And, damn him, that coward and sycophant added, “Blessed be the name of the Lord!”…Have these people never considered that God could be the guilty one?[1]

            Schmidt’s sullen disgust for an apparently bloodthirsty God surely strikes a sensitive chord; for problem of human suffering has inspired a good number of learned men and women to plumb the mystery of the belief on a God who is omnipotent and benevolent on the one hand, as against the reasoned acknowledgment that concrete experiences of evil and suffering are constitutive aspects of human existence as such on the other hand. But what this quote from Arno Schmidt more importantly denotes, even as it portrays an unfortunately malaise and disconcerted idea of God, is that one’s experience of suffering proffers critical questions about God. Among many others, the above-quoted passage provokes questions that matter in one’s faith: What kind of powerful God is he who cannot prevent evil occurrences to exist? What kind of benevolent God is he who can bear from his glorious throne this blood-splattered murder without lifting a finger to help? What kind of wise God is he who did not foresee the staggering dominance of evil in his created world?

Put simply, the deadlock is expressed by the question – if God is powerful, unparalleled in goodness and especially all-knowing, why did he permit evil and suffering to exist?[2]

Rationale and Scope

            In view of the foregoing, this paper is aims at successfully presenting a theological discussion that seeks to frame the tenability of arguing for the existence of God under the purview of humanity’s positive experience of suffering. In particular, this study expounds on the theological ramifications of Johann Baptist Metz’ “negative” – i.e., that which takes into account the concrete human experience of contradiction as the primordial catalyst for constructing a consequent divine image – manner of doing theology within the said context. In order to do this, two quotations from Metz’s book Memoria Passionis, which shall be cited later on in the study, shall serve as primary references from where critical comments shall be proffered.

            Furthermore, it helps to note that this paper shall not in any way attempt exhaustively cover all the aspects of Metz’ theology. What this paper instead attempts to do – as this is what this paper is primarily about – is to appreciate Metz’ fundamental stance on theology by evaluating the legitimacy of his claims (based on the two quotations) which he propounds, and examining their relative limitations thereof. Two chief aspects of Metz’ theology merit some attention – the crisis of faith engendered by a painful experience of human suffering and the challenge of discerning a faith that meaningfully speaks of God within these otherwise contradictory contexts. These aspects, it can be argued, act as the reasoned bases which give appear to justify his adoption of a theological stance that is characteristically critical of the highly philosophical tonality of classical theodicy.

I.                   The Tenability of Johann Baptist Metz’ “Negative” Approach to Theology

a.      Affirming the Contemporary Challenges to Christianity after Auschwitz

Key to understanding Johann Baptist Metz’ theology lies in appreciating the context from which his theological stance takes cue. Specifically, it entails looking at the salient themes and theological concerns ensuing from the highly provocative atmosphere following the Second World War. Quite interestingly, it may prove helpful to note that a large corpus of theological literatures pursued during those times had, one way of another, something to do with the divisive debate between (1) those who believe that Auschwitz has effectively rendered theological discourses an effort in futility on the one side of the spectrum, as against (2) those who firmly maintain that theology was still an intelligible undertaking not despite, but because of the massive forms of evil witnessed in that dreaded place on the other side of the spectrum. One has to note though that Johann Baptist Metz belonged to the latter group; i.e., he was a theologian who endeavored to show that “Theology after Auschwitz”, while should transcend the highly conceptual character that marks traditional theodicy, was still very possible. But far from being a blind adherent of the tenets which classical theodicy has long established, Metz was someone who surely had a clear grasp of the concrete problems which Christianity faced in the wake of the Second World War. He cites,

    …the boundaries of modernity Christianity has to deal with different challenges: It does not only have to defend its conviction that the Christian Creed is true in the light of the contemporary pluralism of religions and worldviews and facing the methodological atheism of the world of sciences; moreover, Christianity is jeopardized by the question if it is aware of the history of catastrophes in our age and of the shock of contingency, talk about God with abstract, impassionate concepts, i.e. beyond and far away from the human history of suffering, exclusively.[3]

Herein it is necessary state that “the history of catastrophes in our age” of which Metz spoke denotes in part the significance of Auschwitz for theology. It may be recalled that Auschwitz was not an ordinary place. It was for many Jews a memory hell, as indeed for the world a memory akin to hell. The colossal scale of suffering witnessed in it, where from 1939 to the early 1940s some six million Jews were smoked to death, made it an epic type of human suffering and destruction – a plight incomparable to any human miseries ever recorded. Since Auschwitz left a good number of people, mostly Jews (as well as sympathetic Christians), unable to withstand the heat of the impenetrable mystery that needs to be unlocked in justifying God – all too good, wise and powerful – who fell silent the exact same time he was needed the most, it, as consequence, produced a fair amount of atheists – i.e., protest atheists to be exact. And the type of atheism they embraced feeds on the fact, and capitalizes on the anger exuded by divine hiddenness. What Auschwitz did was to make the world realize the urgency of responding to the need revolutionize how theology was being done in this present age; for there could possibly be no other metaphor that can represent the horror that suffering can bring, just as there could be no other metaphor that can capture humankind’s call for a revolution in the image of God as Auschwitz alone did.

Having argued the foregoing, it is with good reasons to suppose that Metz has indeed raised a legitimate concern in saying that “Christianity is jeopardized…(by the) history of catastrophes” of the present age. This is because, in the wake of Auschwitz, Christianity was made to bear not anymore the challenges which intellectual atheism poses as the concrete problems which “protest atheism” engenders. Auschwitz was in many ways life-defining for Christianity, for not only was the image of God as “all-powerful, benevolent diety is bound to be shattered in the presence of burning children“, it more importantly revealed that “theology cannot provide adequate answers for the enormity of suffering and the grotesqueness of human behavior encountered during the Holocaust.”[4] And for someone who knew that end of theology lies in framing “the history of catastrophes” under the purview of divine reality, however difficult such endeavor may sound, Metz has indeed read the signs of his times quite well.

b.      Using Contradiction and Suffering as Biblically-Rooted and Relevant Inspirations for Contemporary God-Talks

Now therefore, granting that theology is still possible after Auschwitz, one surely needs to elucidate the implications of this specific line the inquiry by asking: what kind of God-talk must a Post-Auschwitz theology embrace? Johann Baptist Metz believes that a “crisis-oriented God-Talk” best addresses humanity’s search for some answers. Says Metz:

    The crisis-oriented type of God-Talk […], which does not express itself in categories of trust, acknowledgement or joyful acceptance of life, is theologically rooted in the Biblical traditions that are connected to the question of theodicy and its apocalyptic understanding of time. This type is religiously and spiritually expressed predominantly in patterns of fear, grievance, sadness, in a cry from the depth of the soul; and it knows about God in the dimension of danger. Facing the painful contradictions [in life] this type of God-Talk regards hope as an expectation that is still temporarily extended. […] in today’s debates concerning God’s omnipotence this horizon of “missing God“ has to be emphasized by all means: God’s omnipotence is a power that does not leave the past untouched, that directs its interest in justice to past sufferings…[5]

The quote hereinabove stated exemplifies the radical presupposition Metz adopts in constructing a historically responsive (read: “temporarily extended”) type of God-Talk, in that his “negative theology” takes root from humankind’s experiences of contradiction and suffering instead of being anchored on the philosophical analogies as done by classical theodicy. Two chief reasons can be cited to justify such an unconventional approach.

            First, it can be argued that Metz’ position is founded on the image of God revealed by no less than the Scriptures itself. Put simply, Metz’ unique theological framework is at its core biblically founded. For the longest time, Christianity has made use of the language of proper to Greek metaphysics in its attempt to understand the nature of God. To use Michael Schmaus’ words: “since the time of Augustine and especially since Aquinas, systematic formulation differing only in details has termed God the truth, absolute being, being itself, subsistent being, pure act, and has seen in these definitions the metaphysical essence of God.”[6] But a deeper scrutiny of the content of the Bible would reveal that God is not necessarily the type of divinity described in metaphysical perfections as someone who is portrayed as living and responsive, if not a providential deity. In fact, the God of the Bible is Someone unto whom tormented sufferers call for solidarity and sympathy, inasmuch as He is a God who responds, reacts and answers prayers advocated by people in distress. Which is why, one can rightly say that Metz’, in arguing that contemporary God-Talk must informed by “patterns of fear, grievance, sadness, a cry from the depth of the soul (inasmuch as) it knows about God in the dimension of danger”, is generally correct in assuming such theodicy is biblically rooted.

The second reason why Metz’ “negative theology” can be evaluated as a legitimate approach to theology lies in its perceived relevance in respect to the changed situations of the modern world. After Auschwitz, the relevance of theology is measured no longer by its consistency with demonstrable logic as its ability to make itself at home – and indeed pertinent – to the vicissitudes of the world. Concretely, this entails articulating matters of faith in the midst of massive suffering in the world, without losing the vision of a God who speaks to His suffering people. More and more, contemporary believers are seeking for an image of God that speaks volumes for their own situations. Which is why, it may not be entirely incorrect to say that “the traditional model of God as king and ruler, gifted with attributes of omniscience and omnipotence, who in creating and sustaining the world preprograms its development, who establishes its laws of nature but sets them aside to intervene miraculously when occasion warrants,” has been deemed “less and less seriously imaginable.”[7] In view of the foregoing, Metz’ approach is tenable insofar as it seeks to address contemporary need to speak of God within what he succinctly calls “apocalyptic understanding of the time”. Accordingly, Metz’ method of doing theology conceives of God not as abstract or impassionate concept but as someone who, because He is involved in human affairs, leads all people towards a better existence. Far more essential, not only is his theology able to speak to – and speak for – those whose experiences of contradiction are telling, it too attempts brings humanity’s negative experiences up into the larger scheme of God’s transforming plan, which is the direction of the interest of the world towards “justice to past suffering.” German theologian Jürgen Moltmann is able to express a similar thought in saying,

    The theologian is not concerned merely to supply a different interpretation of the world, of history and of human nature, but to transform them in expectation of a divine transformation.[8]

II.                Limitations and Relative Disadvantages of Metz’ Theological Approach

But even while Metz’ theological approach is justified by the fact that (a) it reads well the signs of the present times inasmuch as (b) it is speaks for those who suffer much, and that (c) it is, essentially, Biblically rooted, it has to be likewise noted that a “negative” approach of doing theology has its inherent limitations and relative disadvantages. For this study, three aspects merit considerable attention in this regard.

First, it can be argued that a type of theology which is constructed by treating humankind’s experience of contradiction and suffering as the primordial objects of subsequent theological reflections is incurably restrictive. For by focusing too much on those whose experiences are marked by pain and torment, a negative theology may not be able to speak relevantly to those whose experiences of God come from a more favorable condition. For instance, persons who may feel blessed in their lives and, as a consequence, portray God Provident Father or gracious Benefactor surely possess an image of God which is no less truthful than those who, on account of painful experiences, see God as a Fellow-Sufferer or an Omnipotent Rectifier. The point in contention here lies in arguing that the limit of “negative theology” lies in the fact that it is only partially relevant. And for all its promises, there are nevertheless good reasons to suppose that a “negative theology” begins its theological undertaking which already sidelines – and leaves on to a highly disadvantaged place – a good number of believers who may not be able to connect to its highly poignant message.

Second, it is imperative to argue that any type of theology which seeks to be speaks to and on behalf of the suffering people is much too often careful about suggesting a theodicy that may either justify the suffering of the people or pin the blame on God. For this reason, a “negative theology” too often does not attempt to give definitive answers pertinent to the religious dimension of human suffering, as well as, in the ultimate analysis, the role of God as the supreme authority from where all things of the world derive their meaning. “Negative theology” is thereby limited by its inability to articulate a definitive portrayal of God for its theodicy. Metz himself, it is good to know, acknowledges this limitation. According to him, the sacred goal of God-Talks is not to proffer definitive answers but to appreciate the weight of the problem. Put simply, theodicy for Metz is more about asking – and clarifying – questions as giving answers. Metz contends,

    This is part of a negative theology that does not resolve the problem of theodicy but recalls it continuously as an unforgettable question and reminds us of it fighting against a normality which is (mis-)guided by oblivion.[9]

Last but not least, it can be further claimed that a salient shortcoming of Metz’ theological approach, notably when his stance is interpreted towards the extreme, lies in its tendency to transform into a type of spiritual dolorism. This is because, while the positive experience of contradiction and suffering can be taken as insightful references for profound theological reflections about God, a “negative theology” may – again, if taken to the extreme – nevertheless take all types of suffering as necessarily constitutive of all theological reflections. This should not be the case however; for indeed, God-Talks cannot be reduced into the question of human suffering alone. In the ultimate analysis, one needs to acknowledge that Christianity is not really about enduring the weight of suffering for its own sake. It is, on the contrary, about being empowered to break free from the clutches of misery that human suffering brings. This, in principle, is what the Cross of Jesus Christ stands for. A. McGrath agrees with the thought herein stated; and as a way to end this presentation, it is certainly insightful to take his words for it:

 “…being a Christian does not mean avoiding suffering, as if God calls believers out of this world into the cozy Christian environment from which difficulties are banished. No. Believers are called to remain in the world, sharing its pain, and working to transform it from within. The cross of Christ stands as a solemn and powerful reminder that God himself was prepared to suffer in order to redeem his world, and that he expects his people to share in the same commitment and pain as they share in the task of restoring a fallen world into its former glory.”[10]


             This paper therefore concludes that Johann Baptist Metz’ “negative” approach to theology – i.e., that which takes into account the concrete human experience of contradiction as the primordial catalyst for theological reflections – has legitimate bases that support, as well as relative limitations or shortcomings inherent in it. In many ways, the discussions hereinabove developed were able to show the aspects that explain why such is so.

            On the one hand, it was contended that Metz’ approach to stems from a legitimate desire to make Christianity realize the supreme importance of reading the signs of the times quite well. In particular, Metz believes that Christianity can no longer speak of God in abstract or metaphysical terms, since a “Post-Auschwitz theology” necessitates framing the problem of human suffering under the lenses of a God who knows the plight of His creatures. Secondly, another reason why Metz’ approach is a legitimate way of doing theology lies in the fact that it is Biblically founded to say the least – i.e., to speak of God as Someone who is responsive to the suffering of His people is in fact the overarching concern of the Bible. Thirdly, the perceived relevance of a theology that speaks to and on behalf of the suffering people was also noted as one of the legitimate bases that justifies a “negative” approach to theology.

            On the other hand, the discussions also identified three limitations and/or shortcomings. First, it was noted that a negative approach to theology is incurably restrictive in that it is possible that its content may not speak to or on behalf of those who experience God in favorable conditions. Second, it was also argued that a “negative theology” does not attempt give a definite image of God as an answer to the religious dimension of suffering. And lastly, “negative theology” can also be taken extremely, and can thereby be construed as a theology that treats the existence of suffering as a necessary aspect for theological reflections.


Johnson, Elizabeth, “Does God Play Dice? Divine Providence and Chance”, Theological Studies          (Volume 57, Number 1, March 1996).

Klein, Emma, “God and the Holocaust”, The Tablet (Volume 24, Number 7850, January 1991).

Lee, Jung Young, The Theology of Change. A Christian Concept of God in an Eastern    Perspective. New York: Orbis Books, 1979.

McGrath, Alister, Suffering. Tennessee: Hodder and Stoughton, 1992.

Metz, Johann Baptist, Memoria Passionis: Ein provozierendes Gedächtnis in pluralistischer       Gesellschaft. Freiburg: Herder, 2006.

Moltmann, Jürgen, Theology of Hope. London: SCM Press, 1970.

Schmidt, Arno, Leviathan. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1949.

Schilling, Sylvester Paul, God and Human Anguish. Tennessee: Abingdon, 1977.

Schmaus, Michael, Dogma [Volume 2, God and Creation]. London: Sheed and Ward, Inc., 1969.

[1] Arno Schmidt, Leviathan (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1949), page 58.

[2] Says S. Schilling, “If men and all other things in the world were created by an omnipotent, omniscient, and infinitely good God, then because omniscient, he knew ab initio (from the beginning) that there would be evil in the kind of world he was creating; because omnipotent, he could have prevented this evil and indeed could eliminate it even now; and, because perfectly good, he would not have willed to create the kind of world in which evil would exist, and he would not allow it to persist. Yet evil is rampant on earth.” (Cf. Sylvester Paul Schilling, God and Human Anguish [Tennessee: Abingdon, 1977], page 40).
[3] Johann Baptist Metz, Memoria Passionis: ein provozierendes Gedächtnis in pluralistischer Gesellschaft (Freiburg: Herder, 2006), page 35.  Quoted passage was translated from German.

[4] Emma Klein, “God and the Holocaust”, The Tablet (Volume 24, Number 7850, January 1991), page 80.

[5] Johann Baptist Metz, Memoria Passionis, pages 33-34.
[6] Michael Schmaus, Dogma [Volume 2, God and Creation] (London: Sheed and Ward, Inc., 1969), page 60. Jung Young Lee agrees with Schmaus’ contentions and says, “Christian theology has been deeply influenced by Greek philosophy. Christianity was born in the Greek world and formulated by the Greek mind. The Greek way of thinking became the foundation of Christian theology in the West. (Thus)…the simple message of Christianity was transmuted into the metaphysical dogmas of the church through the intellectual apparatus of Greek philosophy.” (Jung Young Lee, The Theology of Change. A Christian Concept of God in an Eastern Perspective, [New York: Orbis Books, 1979], page 11.)
[7] Elizabeth Johnson, “Does God Play Dice? Divine Providence and Chance”, Theological Studies (Volume 57, Number 1, March 1996), page 12.

[8] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (London: SCM Press, 1970), page 84. Emphasis is Moltmann’s.

[9] Johann Baptist Metz, Memoria Passionis, page 34.

[10]  Alister McGrath, Suffering (Tennessee: Hodder and Stoughton, 1992), page 9.

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