Essay / Misc.

Divine Freedom & Immanent Trinity

Paul Molnar’s book Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity is now available in paperback. I just wrote a review of it for Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture. If you haven’t seen this journal, check it out: it’s new, so ask your school library to pick it up. Editor Paul Louis Metzger is trying to bring together articles that carry on “a biblically informed, Christ-centered trinitarian engagement of contemporary culture.” As a contributing edtior, I’ll be writing a few pieces for it from time to time. To pique your interest, here is an advance look at the review which will be coming out in this summer’s issue.

Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity: in Dialogue With Karl Barth and Contemporary Theology By Paul D. Molnar. New York: T & T Clark, 2005. 357 pp. $39.95 paper.

Paul D. Molnar’s important book on the Trinity is probably best understood as a voice of dissent against the prevailing tendency of late twentieth century trinitarian theology. The most influential Trinity books from the decades just past were concerned to emphasize the intimate involvement of the triune God in the world. That concern for intimacy was certainly understandable in itself, and also as a reaction to the widely-bemoaned position of irrelevance and abstractness the doctrine had lapsed into. The doctrine had gone sickly, and re-engagement with the course of human events was the prescription from many doctors: Rahner said in 1967 that “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and vice versa;” Moltmann in 1980 linked God’s triunity with his suffering and the coming of the kingdom, taking his first steps toward a trinitarian panentheism; Jenson in 1982 went beyond identifying God by his saving acts, to locating The Triune Identity altogether in those actions; Pannenberg in 1988 described God’s “self-actualization in history” as awaiting fulfillment in the eschaton; LaCugna in 1991 taught that “the doctrine of the Trinity is not ultimately a teaching about ‘God’ but a teaching about God’s life with us and our life with each other;” and Peters in 1993 worried that “a Deus in se about which we cannot speak … an eternal God beyond the one we have experienced in the economy of salvation … only hypostatizes a figment of the philosophical imagination that takes our attention away from the God who was present in Jesus and continues to be present in the Spirit.”

Molnar, professor of systematic theology at St. John’s University in New York, was monitoring all of these developments closely.

In a series of densely-argued articles, and ultimately in this comprehensive monograph (which gathers many of those articles), Molnar explored, documented, and refuted the trend toward what can only be described as reductively economic trinitarianism. Molnar has no interest in distracting theological attention away from the economy of salvation where God meets us, but he believes that economy can only keep its gracious character if it is recognized as the economy of a God who is in himself, immanently, triune. After all, the economic Trinity can’t be the immanent Trinity unless there is an immanent Trinity for the economic Trinity to be. Thus Molnar’s major point is that “the purpose of a doctrine of the immanent Trinity is to recognize, uphold and respect God’s freedom.” (ix) If we are to confess God’s freedom, that confession must begin by realizing that he eternally exists, within the fullness of the divine aseity, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

According to Molnar’s opening sentence, this is something that “All Christian theologians realize.” But then he devotes most of the book to showing in detail how a wide range of contemporary theologians do not in fact realize it, or how they have failed to uphold its implications with systematic consistency. Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity ranges pretty far from the two related doctrinal loci indicated in its title: it includes substantial treatments of the incarnation and the resurrection, explores the doctrines of revelation, creation and grace, and examines relational ontology from several angles. And the book finds its widest application not so much as a treatise De Trinitate, but as an essay in theological method, or perhaps better, normative dogmatics directed against theologizing from a basis in human experience. Molnar is concerned to show how Christian theology ought to be done, and although the bulk of pages here are given to criticisms, negative judgments, and cautionary tales, these are always in service of that positive vision of a trinitarian theology that confesses God’s freedom consistently throughout the system. Molnar’s main point is easily enough stated in the title and can be elaborated in a brief essay. What makes this book worthwhile is precisely its systematic range, confidently tracing doctrinal connections not immediately obvious. A competent beginning theologian could have catalogued every deviation from immanent trinitarian orthodoxy in recent decades. Molnar adds to this an acute sensitivity to what might be called the doctrinal ecosystem: how an extinction in one environmental niche has subtle effects throughout the whole system via hidden connections and webs of dependence. When the doctrine of the immanent Trinity goes on the endangered list, the sustainability of Christian theology is compromised.

Molnar’s book contends against the ideas of a host of certified Important Theologians, but he does not seem to think of himself as filing a minority report. He positions his own arguments in the lineage of Thomas F. Torrance, and, more decisively, of Karl Barth, whose theology looms so large in the work that he is deservedly invoked in the subtitle. All roads seem to begin and end with Barth in this book, but that is because Molnar sometimes uses Barth as a useful placeholder for something like “the overall meaning of the biblical witness as responsibly recognized in doctrinal confession.” As a work in the field of Barth studies, the book is clear and satisfying, and some of the most interesting sections are the documents of in-house debates among theologians who have been formed by their reading of Barth: see the interactions with Gunton, McCormack, Jüngel, Farrow, and Alan Torrance. Although Molnar’s focus is on the twentieth century, part of his confidence comes from standing consciously in the longer trajectory of Christian thought (signaled chiefly by occasional interventions by Thomas Aquinas, but also Athanasius and Augustine), where the doctrine of the immanent Trinity has held a strategic place. That historic profile contrasts sharply with the trends Molnar documents in contemporary trinitarianism.

Originally released in 2002 as a hardcover, Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity has now reappeared in paperback. So the book somehow found its audience, even though its subject is specialized, its interlocutors diverse, and its mode of argumentation unusually demanding. It has been well reviewed in the scholarly journals, especially considering its polemical thrust and its counter-revolutionary stance. My favorite review of the book is Jonathan R. Wilson’s notice in Pro Ecclesia that, certain disagreements notwithstanding, he found Molnar’s central argument convincing and had thus changed his mind about much of what has transpired in trinitarian theology in the past fifty years. It is rare to find a reviewer candid enough to admit that a book has changed his mind on an important issue. But that response is appropriate to the kind of book Molnar has written, which is sustained doctrinal argument at a highly disciplined level. May this paperback edition find more readers and change more minds.

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