Saturday, May 1, 2010

Moltmann's "Open" Social Trinity

In continuing the "thick work of exploring aspects of Jurgen Moltmann complex Trinitarian theology, I thought it best to divide of this section of my unpublished essay, The Trinitarian Vision of Jurgen Moltmann: An Eschatological Perspective into two parts. The section that follows here focuses on some of Moltmann's parsing of the difference between the "economic" and "immanent" Trinity related to God's "subsistence" in himself and existence within human history and created time. Moltmann does acknowledge that God "subsists beyond history, but does focuses almost exclusively on the the triune God within history and created time.

I will follow up in the next post with a brief analysis of the key differences between Moltmann and Hart on their largely diverse positions on God's eternal suffering verses his "apathea" (Hart's term).

Note: I realize this is heavy going and I labor myself as I thoughtfully re-read the words I have written in putting this essay on Moltmann together. With this acknoweledgement, two things come to mind: (a)the issues discussed by Moltmann and Hart are complex and require a degree of complex explanation as a legitimate theological exercise even if the result is fewer readers; (b)after completing this cycle of posts I intend to create texts that are more accessible to larger numbers of people and, arguably, more important. However theology warrants its day which I do not intend to skirt in this blog.

The Open Social Trinity Part One

Moltmann incorporates a good deal of theological reflection and historical exegesis in his concept of the open, social Trinity. The primary focal points include the nature of God’s character, the relationship between what Karl Rahner has described as the “economic” and “immanent” Trinity, and a constitutive/relational contrast on the formation and operation of the Trinity. Democratic politics and feminist and liberationist theologies provide some of the not difficult to discern sub-text that gives shape to Moltmann’s Trinitarian vision, in which one might hear the echo of the intercommunicative social theory of Jurgen Habermas.

Moltmann’s critique of what he interprets as static definitions of God’s substance and absolute subjectivity has been discussed. In short, Moltmann maintains that:
[T]he trinitarian Persons are not ‘modes of being’; they are individual, unique, non-interchangeable subjects of the one common, divine substance, with consciousness and will. Each of the Persons possesses the divine nature in a non-interchangeable way; each presents it in his own way.

Each Person “possesses the same individual, indivisible and one divine nature” in which there is intrinsic unity, yet each “possess[es] it in varying ways.” This largely accords with a great deal of classical orthodox Trinitarian theology. What is more novel is the distinction Moltmann makes between the Trinitarian relationships, which diverge in function and in consequence of world historical contingency in which God acts in time, and the underlying substance of God which remains the same regardless as to person or contingency within the fundamental constancy of the triune God. As Moltmann puts it, “[t]he trinitarian Persons subsist in the common divine nature; they exist [original italics] in their relations to one another.” The first reflects the constitutional makeup of God in which the Father precedes the Son and the Spirit; the second, the manner of their interaction in human history.

Both of these expressions are critically important and dialectically intertwined. Yet, the heart and soul of Moltmann’s Trinitarian theology is the manner of their radical egalitarian and diverse interaction (perichoresis) within the context of God’s fundamental purpose in bringing creation to its ultimate consummation. In Moltmann terms, “through the concept of perichoresis, all subordination in the doctrine of the Trinity is avoided” notwithstanding the acknowledgment of the constitution of God “the Father as starting point.”

This “starting point” has traditionally has been viewed as God’s unequivocal and unremitting sovereignty, the latter concept of which Moltmann attenuates a great deal as fundamentally contradictory to any notion of God as love. His critique of Barth and Rahner’s modalistic representations, which he doubts has never “really been overcome,” provides an important critical baseline in contemporary theology through which Moltmann launches his own Trinitarian thesis. It is this which warrants additional commentary.

Our main entry point is Moltmann’s probing into the relationship between the economic and immanent Trinity. The former has at its basis a soteriological function as the means through which God reveals himself to humankind, while the latter, to which Moltmann gives little sustained focus, is the embodiment of God’s innate being beyond creation. In contrast to the classical vision of God’s “impassibility, immutability, and nonsuccessive eternity,” Moltmann’s depiction of the divine revelation seldom extends beyond the apocalyptic moment of new heaven and new earth. While not deeply examining the relationship, Moltmann rejects as utterly speculative any radical disjunction between the economic and immanent Trinity. He stresses instead their continuity in the ineradicable nature of the suffering God, an incarnational deity, seemingly without transcendent remainder beyond history even as hope extends to the eschaton, the red thread pulling human and natural history to its ultimate destiny.

In a formal theological sense, Moltmann does give credence to God’s utter incomprehensibility, hence, transcendence as an outer, and even when pushed, an impassible boundary. Nonetheless, the brunt of his theological vision gravitates toward the utter trustworthiness of the God who suffers, who cannot by his own innate nature as incarnational love deny his fundamental purposes and basic character. With an exceedingly strong proclivity toward divine passibility in the image of the crucified God, there is, on Moltman’s account an ultimate singularity between the economic and immanent Trinity in that “[t]he triune God can only appear in history as he appears in himself, and in no other way.” While there are depth dimensions to the fullness of God’s reality well beyond our own comprehensibility, there is a quintessential consistency wherein God as revealed to human beings “‘cannot deny himself,’” and in any fundamental way be radically different than what such unveiling discloses. Thus:

"Statements about the immanent Trinity must not contradict statements about the economic Trinity. Statements about the economic Trinity must correspond to doxological statements about the immanent Trinity" (original italics).

The nub of Moltmann’s argument is that “[t]he economic Trinity completes and perfects itself to immanent Trinity” as part of the emergent soteriological process that comes to fruition “when history and experience of salvation are completed and perfected.” The process of unveiling within the history of human and creational time as the red thread pulling the eschaton toward its cosmic destiny depends on the viability of God’s perpetual self revealing, however fragmentarily and ambiguously perceived. Any notion of an impassible God and a suffering Son as somehow reconcilable is, on Moltmann’s reading, fundamentally contradictory on its face. Whether in the process Moltmann collapses too much of what Hart describes as God’s “incomprehensibility, absolute power, simplicity, eternity,” and “uncircumscribab[ility], elusive of every finite concept or act” in his quest for comprehensibility and coherency is an issue further explored below.


  1. Good job George. You came across loud and clear. I think your focus on the economic trinity is tright. Herb

  2. Thanks Herb,

    I was pretty much trying to lay out something of Moltmann's position; especially his key statement that:

    "Statements about the immanent Trinity must not contradict statements about the economic Trinity. Statements about the economic Trinity must correspond to doxological statements about the immanent Trinity."

    I think that's viable as far as it goes, but in the next post which I'll get to soon, I will attempt to place Moltmann's views in sharp juxtaposition to David Hartman's.