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Trinity and freedom

A response to Molnar

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 February 2008

Jeffrey Hensley*
3737 Seminary Road, Alexandria, VA 22304,


Despite the renaissance of trinitarian reflection during the last half-century of Christian theology, the doctrine of the immanent Trinity – God's triune being in se as distinct from God's acts or operations ad extra – has suffered significant neglect. Following Karl Rahner's now famous axiom that ‘the “economic” Trinity is the “immanent” Trinity and the “immanent” Trinity is the “economic” Trinity’, contemporary theologians have focused primarily on the economy of salvation as the means by which God's triune being is known. Speculation about the inner life of God, abstracted from God's own self-revelation, has been eschewed for its tendency to turn the immanent Trinity into a rarified, esoteric doctrine with little influence on practical piety. Thus for most contemporary theologians, the neglect of the doctrine of the immanent Trinity is quite benign.

Article Review
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2008

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1 Karl, Rahner, The Trinity, trans. Joseph, Donceel, intro. Catherine LaCugna (New York: Crossroad, 2003), p. 22Google Scholar. See also Rahner, ‘Theology and Anthropology’, Theological Investigations, vol. 9, trans. Graham Harrison (New York: Herder & Herder, 1972), pp. 28–45.

2 Paul, Molnar, Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity: In Dialogue with Karl Barth and Contemporary Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2002)Google Scholar.

3 Ibid., p. x.

4 Ibid., p. 235.

5 Ibid., pp. 312–13.

6 Ibid., pp. 126–7.

7 Ibid., p. 196.

8 Much could be said about Molnar's reading of the various theologians he criticises. For example, Moltmann certainly is aware of the problem of divine freedom in relation to his view of divine passibility and seeks to reinterpret divine freedom accordingly (see e.g. his The Trinity and the Kingdom, trans. Margaret Kohl (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), pp. 52–6). For the purposes of this response, however, I will only raise questions concerning his interpretation and criticisms of Rahner, precisely because Rahner figures so prominently in his discussion and in the broader history of twentieth-century trinitarian reflection.

9 Molnar, Divine Freedom, pp. 326ff.

10 Ibid., pp. 286–7.

11 Ibid., pp. 61ff.

12 While my argument here concerns specifically the relationship of his philosophical anthropology and his christology, I am reading him, more generally, along the non-foundationalist lines which have been recently suggested by Nicholas Healy and Karen Kilby. See Healy, ‘Indirect Methods in Theology: Karl Rahner as an ad hoc Apologist’, The Thomist 56 (1992), pp. 613–34; Kilby, ‘Philosophy, Theology and Foundationalism in the Thought of Karl, Rahner’, Scottish Journal of Theology 55 (2002), pp. 127–40Google Scholar, and Kilby, Karl Rahner: Theology and Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 2004).

13 Rahner, ‘On the Theology of Incarnation’, Theological Investigations, vol. 4, trans. Kevin Smyth (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1966), p. 117.

14 Rahner, ‘Current Problems in Christology’, Theological Investigations, vol. 1, trans. Cornelius Ernst (Baltimore, MD: Helicon Press, 1965), p. 163, n. 1.

15 Molnar, Divine Freedom, p. 259.

16 Rahner, ‘Christology within an Evolutionary View of the World’, Theological Investigations, vol. 5, trans. K.-H. Kruger (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1966), p. 187.

17 Rahner, ‘Current Problems in Christology’, p. 165.

18 See e.g. Molnar, Divine Freedom, pp. 86ff.

19 Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, trans. William Dych (New York: Crossroad, 1990), p. 177. See also pp. 179, 203, 207, 212, and 229.

20 As Molnar points out, Divine Freedom, pp. 165 and 196.

21 Molnar provocatively pits the words of Rahner and Barth against each other on p. 163 of his text when he quotes Rahner in the Theological Investigations, vol. 9, as saying that ‘anthropology and Christology mutually determine each other within Christian dogmatics if they are both correctly understood’. Barth, for Molnar, counters in the Church Dogmatics, I/1, ‘There is a way from Christology to anthropology, but there is no way from anthropology to Christology.’ These quotations do seem to cut against my reading of Rahner until one notices the important qualifying clause in Rahner's statement, ‘if they are both correctly understood’. For Rahner, on my reading, anthropology is not correctly understood if it is seen as foundational to christology. The mutually determining relationship they can have only exists when christology is given primacy of place in the other of being and knowing. What then is mutually determined is the way in which both anthropology and christology are explicated. Christology becomes intelligible to the hearers of the Word given the anthropological context in which those hearers are situated. But that context does not determine a priori the account of the Word heard.

22 Rahner, ‘Current Problems in Christology’, p. 165.

23 Molnar states, ‘we can see that many who follow Rahner's basic insights have used this thinking to argue that there should no longer be any clear distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity. Rahner never intended to say what they say and in fact he affirmed God's sovereignty. Unfortunately, however, his symbolic logic leads to what others have concluded and to inconsistencies in his own position’ (p. 163).

24 LaCugna writes in her introduction to Rahner's Trinity: ‘Many theologians who insist on an ontological difference between “economic” and “immanent” Trinity do so because they see no other way to preserve God's freedom “not to create”. God may be self-communicating ad intra, but God need not bestow God's self ad extra (creation being one moment of God's self-communication). These issues continue to be under discussion among theologians, and Rahner's axiom really does not help clarify them. But then, divine freedom was not the issue around which he formulated the axiom. This is why it is more accurate to see the axiom as a methodological rather than ontological insight: the order of theological knowledge must adhere to the historical form of God's self-communication in Christ and the Spirit. Knowledge of God takes place through Christ and the Holy Spirit, according to the order (taxis) of the divine missions’ (‘Introduction’, p. xv; emphasis mine).

25 Molnar, Divine Freedom, p. 258.

26 Barth states, ‘If we really want to understand revelation in terms of its subject, i.e., God, then the first thing we have to realize is that this subject, God, the revealer, is identical with His act in revelation and also identical with its effect. It is from this fact. . .that we learn that we must begin the doctrine of revelation with the doctrine of the triune God’ (Church Dogmatics, I/1, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), p. 296).

27 Ibid., I/1, p. 306.

28 Williams, ‘Trinity and Revelation’, On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 142.

29 See Rowan, Williams, ‘Barth on the Triune God’, in Sykes, S. W. (ed.), Karl Barth: Studies of his Theological Method (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979), pp. 147–93Google Scholar.

30 Thus it is no mistake that Molnar is not fond of the language of ‘divinization’ with respect to human salvation (see e.g. Molnar, Divine Freedom, pp. 91, 115, 132, and 188) or ‘participation’ within the life of the Trinity with respect to human communion with God (see e.g. Molnar's critical discussion of Alan Torrance in Divine Freedom, pp. 235–61). The notion of participation is particularly important here if, for example, we want to broaden our concerns for ‘mutual interaction’ with and ‘free response’ to the triune God through developing Christian accounts of justice. Moreover, the lack of reflection on such matters of social justice in Molnar's account of the Trinity is striking given the ways in which both political and feminist theologians have understood, in part, the power of the doctrine to transform social relations.

31 Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/1, p. 384.

32 Ibid., I/1, p. 399.

33 Ibid., I/1, p. 448.

34 Rowan, Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition, rev. edn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 231Google Scholar.

35 Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1, p. 304.

36 Molnar, Divine Freedom, p. 215.

37 Ibid., p. 264.

38 Ibid., p. 263, n. 111.

39 These are his characteristic complaints with many feminist reconstructions of the Trinity and certain forms of social trinitarianism.

40 Arguably, this lack of discussion of how love informs Barth's account of freedom is the result of Molnar's preference for explicating the early volumes of the Church Dogmatics, where, again arguably, Barth himself has not sufficiently developed an account of the relationship between freedom and love. If Molnar had paid more attention to later volumes like IV/1 and IV/2, then perhaps he could have developed Barth's view along explicitly christological lines, where God is free in Christ, for example, to love sinners (IV/1) and to be a servant (IV/2). Thus freedom as ‘bare potentiality’ here is heavily qualified by Barth in its christological explication/expression.