Paul D. Molnar. Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015. See here for Intervarsity Press’s page about the book.
Paul D. Molnar teaches Systematic Theology at St. John’s University, which is located in Queens, New York. Faith, Freedom and the Spirit seems to build on an earlier book that Molnar wrote, Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity: In Dialogue with Karl Barth and Contemporary Theology (New York: T&T Clark, 2002). Molnar also responds to certain critiques of that work.
I had heard the terms “economic Trinity” and “imminent Trinity”
before, and I had a vague idea what they meant. A theology student told
me years ago that God the Son (who became Jesus Christ) is equal to God
the Father in terms of his nature and power, yet submits himself in
obedience to the Father in terms of his function, role, and activity.
The latter, according to this student, is the economic Trinity. I still
felt that I should probably look up these terms in order to understand
Molnar’s book. Here is what wikipedia says (and
please don’t chew me out for using wikipedia!): “The economic Trinity
refers to the acts of the triune God with respect to the creation,
history, salvation, the formation of the Church, the daily lives of
believers, etc. and describes how the Trinity operates within history in
terms of the roles or functions performed by each Person of the
Trinity—God’s relationship with creation. The ontological (or essential
or immanent) Trinity speaks of the interior life of the Trinity—the
reciprocal relationships of Father, Son, and Spirit to each other
without reference to God’s relationship with creation.”
How exactly does this relate to Molnar’s Faith, Freedom and the Spirit?
The economic Trinity describes the roles that the Father, the Son, and
the Holy Spirit perform in their relationship with creation, especially
humanity. God the Son as Jesus, for example, submits himself to the
Father’s will and dies for our sins, and so Jesus fulfills a role as
redeemer in his relationship with certain human beings. The Holy Spirit
indwells believers. The immanent Trinity, however, concerns the
relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit with each
other, apart from their roles in relating to creation. The Father, the
Son, and the Holy Spirit existed eternally, long before creation, in a
relationship of love.
According to Molnar, there are theologians who are trying to collapse
the economic Trinity into the immanent Trinity, and they are saying
that the influential twentieth century theologian Karl Barth actually
came to do the same thing in the course of his thought. One view is
that God the Son was always incarnate, even before Jesus was born.
After all, one can argue, there is no before or after with God, since
God is eternal and outside of time, so can we legitimately say that God
the Son was fleshless, then became a human being in the first century
and learned about human suffering so he could relate to us better, then
went back to heaven with resurrected flesh, and the insights that he
gained from the incarnation? No, some seem to say: there is no before
or after with God, so God the Son was always incarnate, always carrying
that knowledge of what it means to suffer! Another view is that God
somehow decided to fashion the Trinity because God was planning to
relate to human beings as a Trinity: as Father, as Son, and as Holy
Spirit. The Trinity, according to this view, does not seem to be
something that God intrinsically is and always has been, but rather is
something that God decided to become in light of how he would relate to
Molnar emphatically disagrees with these views, and he argues
extensively that they are not faithful to what Karl Barth actually
taught. Molnar does believe that Karl Barth went off the right path, in
some instances. Barth seemed to imply that God the Son becoming a
human being was inevitable, which arguably undercuts God the Son’s
freedom by saying that he had to do something. According to
Molnar, Barth also occasionally leaned in the direction of treating God
the Son as naturally inferior to God the Father, rather than as equal
with God the Father in his nature. Still, Molnar does not think that
Barth went as far as some theologians think, and he maintains that, in
many respects, Barth is consistent with the Bible and the overall stream
of historical orthodox Christian theology.
Molnar also interacts with the views of Barth and theologian Thomas
Torrance about divine revelation. Molnar highlights that, for Barth,
God reveals himself to people through the Gospel and person of Jesus
Christ, and God through the Holy Spirit convinces them thereby about the
truth of the Gospel and their need for salvation from sin. According
to Molnar, Barth is different from theologians who believe that humans
can find God through self-acceptance, by listening to their conscience,
or by looking to nature or philosophy. No, Barth believes that God must
reveal himself to sinful human beings through Christ and the Holy
Spirit for them to know God.
These topics of the nature of the Trinity and divine revelation look
like two different topics, and one can ask how Molnar believes that they
intersect with each other. One can also inquire why Molnar thinks that
they are important. Why should I care, for example, whether or not God
the Son was always incarnate? Is this debate and the others Molnar
discusses substantially equivalent to the debate over how many angels
can dance on the head of the pin, or do they have profound, significant
Well, one topic that flows through the book is that of freedom: God’s
and ours. Molnar seems to argue that God has freedom in the sense that
God chose to redeem human beings. God did not have to do so, and his
plan to do so had nothing to do with how he instrinsically is in the
Trinity. God chose to love us. I have heard more than one
preacher say something similar: that God did not love us out of any
neediness on God’s part, for God was already giving and receiving love
within the Trinity. Somehow, in this argument and in the arguments that
Molnar makes, there is a sense that God cannot be dependent on us, that
it compromises God’s honor and majesty to say that he is.
Regarding our freedom, Molnar appears to agree with Barth that God by
revelation frees human beings from their slavery to sin and thus
inspires them to obey God. Do these inspired human beings then have the
freedom to sin? It is hard to tell from Molnar’s discussion. On the
one hand, such a model presumes that the humans receiving divine
revelation get a new worldview, one that yields them to God. On the
other hand, however, Barth acknowledged that even Christians can fall
into the temptation of trying to dodge the challenges of the Gospel by
substituting for Jesus their own version of God.
Molnar did try to pull the different pieces of his book together in
his conclusion, and I do give him credit for his attempt, even if I am
not entirely clear how they hold together. Still, I have questions.
Why can we not say that God had to redeem us? Perhaps God’s
love compelled him to do so. Molnar says in one place that he is open
to saying that the love that the Son has for the Father is related
somehow to the love that God the Son has for us (i.e., Christ redeemed
us out of his love for the Father, or God extends the love that exists
in the Trinity to us); Molnar says elsewhere in the book, perhaps
quoting a theologian with whom he seems to agree, that freedom for God
does not mean that a variety of alternatives are equally on the table
for God to pursue. God is righteous and acts righteously. Maybe love
is so much a part of who God is that God could not just sit back and let
humanity fall into oblivion, but God felt compelled to save us.
I also wonder how Barth would address why some human beings appear to
receive God’s revelation, while others do not, for Barth places a lot
of emphasis on God’s agency in the revelation and conversion of people,
while saying that we cannot climb our own way to a knowledge of God.
Some characterize Barth as a universalist, so perhaps Barth thought
that, eventually, God would reveal Christ to everyone, who would then be
inspired to turn to God.
This book was very repetitive, in that it continually repeated
certain themes. I do not entirely fault Molnar for this, for he was
extensively trying to document and to show that certain theologians have
Barth wrong. I wish, though, that he spent more space explaining why
he thought his discussions were so significant. I will add that the
book did have an interesting discussion of God’s passivity and
impassivity. This is relevant to the issue of Christ’s suffering, for
an aspect of God is that God does not suffer: God cannot be hurt by
human beings but is always happy and at peace. Molnar seems to contend
that passivity and impassivity are both part of God—-that, yes, Jesus
suffered, and yet there is a peace that exists within God that God
imparts to us.
I apologize for any misunderstanding of Molnar on my part!
I received a complementary copy of this book from Intervarsity Press in exchange for an honest review.