The Freedom of the Triune God and Our Own: a book review

Paul Molnar, professor of systematic theology at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, previously published a major work on the Immanent Trinity, the inner-relations of the Triune God in eternity–Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity: In Dialogue with Karl Barth and Contemporary Theology (T & T Clark, 2005). In Faith, Freedom and the Spirit (IVP Academic 2015), he returns to the topic of Trinity, this time exploring the economic Trinity–God’s revelation to us in time, especially as it relates to theeconomy of salvation.  He wrote this book “as a discussion of just how a properly conceived pneumatology would assist such theologians speaking of the economic Trinity to think more accurately about divine and human interaction in the sphere of faith and knowledge within history” His aim is to “explore God’s relations with us and our relations with God within the economy by focusing on the activity of the Spirit who enables faith and freedom” (7). He affirms human freedom and the Triune God’s actions within history; however he refuses to reduce Trinitarian theology and Christology to a historicized versions of it, and reflects thoughtful on the role of Spirit in mediating the gospel of grace to us.

Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology by Paul D. Molnar.

Throughout this book, Molnar is in dialogue with Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance and several contemporary theologians. Molnar has published monographs on both Barth and Torrance. In general, Molnar defends Barth against the neo-Barthian revisionists and uses Torrance to critique Barth in the places where Barth is inconsistent. Barth remains the genius of twentieth century theology, but where Molnar disagrees with him, he tends to follow Torrance. This is especially true when it comes to Torrance’s careful distinction between Christ’s vicarious activity for us and his ‘inner being as the Word’ (341-44).  Barth certainly affirms both, but his writings are inconsistent and allow for confusion regarding Christ’s mission and processions, and the error of subordinationism (339-340).

Faith, Freedom and the Spirit is made up of eight chapters.  The first two chapters explore the role of the Holy Spirit in imparting faith and bringing true knowledge of God through the incarnate Word. Chapters three through six critiques the missteps by contemporary theologians in understanding the relationship between the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity, as well as contemporary misreadings of Barth. Chapter seven explores the obedience of the Son in the economic Trinity (and why this doesn’t necessitate subordinationism, especially according to Torrance’s reading). Chapter eight unfolds the theology of grace and how it enables true human freedom (freedom to live by the Grace of God through surrender to Christ)–God’s work in human history. A brief conclusion reviews the terrain and declares the necessity of the Spirit’s work for living the Christian life.

Molnar offers a good critique of those theologians who would collapse the immanent Trinity into the economic Trinity, especially those who do so by misreading Barth. By giving priority to Gods being as Father, Son, Spirit, before God’s actions in the economy–creation, election, incarnation, etc., Molnar guards God’s freedom, and  gaurds against the outcomes of modalism and subordinationism. On this score, he is particularly incisive in his critique of the Neo-Barthian revisionists like Bruce McCormack, Ben Myers and others, but also theologians like Robert Jenson  who argue for a ‘historicized Christology’–where Christ’s eternal being is constituted as the outcome of Jesus’s human relationship with the Father(237). He rightly notes the theological problems with making the economy of God everything we say about God’s internal composition, even as he affirms that what we know of God comes through His self revelation in Christ.

Certainly Molnar is a better reader of Barth (and Torrance) than I. I trust his conclusions and I think he makes judicious use of both Barth and Torrance’s theology; however I was his interactions with ‘contemporary theologians’ (McCormack, et. al) presents them merely as foils to his presentation of the true Barth.  This makes the center of this book feel more like an apologia for his reading of Barth than a constructive theology.  This caused me to feel somewhat bogged down by the middle chapters, even though I found myself nodding along with his argument.

Yet thankfully Molnar has constructive things to say.  I was challenged to think through, again, my understanding of the Trinity. I resonate with Martin Kahler’s phrase, “Mission is the mother of theology” and there is a sense where this remains true. But Molnar, following Torrance, points out that “the incarnation (like creation) is something new even for God” (350). God exists as Trinity in eternity before he exists for us in the economy of salvation. Therefore God’s mission is always subsequent to the Triune God’s existence. If this is not true, then the identity of the Son collapses into God’s plan for human salvation and there is no inner being of God outside of the economy of salvation. This leads to modalism, and Origenism.  Molar offers an important reminder that when it comes to understanding the relationship between the persons in the Godhead, it isn’t just the economy, stupid, as important as election, redemption, sanctification, and mission remain for our theology and experience of God. Jesus is both the Logos asarkos and the Logos ensarkos (the Word and the Word Made Flesh)–God the Son existing from eternity and the Incarnate one. The focus of this book remains on the Economic Trinity, Molnar is careful to make sure it coheres with what he says of the Immanent Trinity elsewhere.

Secondly, Molnar stresses the Spirit’s work in bringing us to faith, enabling our experience of freedom and giving us the conceptual understanding necessary for us to know God. Our salvation is enabled and revealed to us by Jesus our Incarnate One; yet our knowledge of Jesus, our understanding of his work, and our experience of God is mediated to us in, by, and through the Spirit. The Christian life is walking in the freedom to live by God’s grace. This is not possible apart from the Spirit’s work in us. All of the Christian life is pneumatological! The fact that we share in the life of the Trinity is the Spirit’s work.

This is not a light book, but it is certainly helpful for clarifying our understanding of God and some Christological dead ends. My understanding of the Trinity is enhanced by reading it, so is my appreciation for Barth and Torrance. I recommend this book to all who have an interest in Trinitarian Theology. Those who have a stake in Barth’s theology, and discussions around alleged changes in the late Barth’s understanding of election will find Molnar’s arguments interesting and substantive. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.



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