Thursday, April 29, 2010

God's Self Limitation: Initial reflections on Jurgen Moltmann's Trinitarian Theology

Stemming from the previous post in a brief discussion of Moltmann and David B. Hart's discussion of the suffering or "apathia" of God, what follows here is the first of a several part probing into the Trinitarian theology of Moltmann, which will include in later postings, explicit comparison to Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth.

Theology invariably followed in the shaping of formal articulation of Trinitarian doctrine in the face of Greek philosophical probing during the first few centuries of the church’s existence. Moltmann does not deny the profound influence of this. In laying out the scriptural basis for the Trinity what he objects to is any reductionistic explanation for its emergence based on philosophical precepts. At the same time it needs to be noted that Moltmann engages in his own theological reflection in which he pushes toward, and arguably, at least to some extent, beyond the edges of any strictly biblical theology in his reflection on the world’s impact on the triune God. The primary impact is an interrelated one in which as God gives “the world his impress, so his world puts its impress on God, too, through its reactions, its aberrations, and its own initiatives.”

Moltmann does not claim equal reciprocity, but that “in its’ own [original italics] way there can be no doubt at all. If God is love, then he does not merely emanate, flow out of himself; he also expects and needs [italics added] love,” the love of the world, his intended home in which he “desires to dwell” and to reconcile even at the risk, as Moltmann has it, of God’s core triune identity. Moltmann does not deny that at some ineffable level God cannot fail. Yet, unless the risk of suffering love is ultimately of little account, the prospect not only of utter failure of achieving the world’s reconciliation, but of the disintegration of the incarnational embodiment of the triune God in the world’s rejection of the gift of reconciliation needed to be perceived by God as a real possibility. On Moltman’s account of the crucified God, in risking this, the Cross became the supreme propitiation.

The world’s impress on God extends to the purpose of creation on whether it was “necessary for God himself, or merely fortuitous;” that is, did “it proceed from God’s nature, or from his will?” The question, in turn, is whether the world is temporary or in some fundamental sense eternal, a concern which extends to the core of Moltmann’s interpretation of “Christian panentheism;” God’s perpetual indwelling within the world. In his radical rejection of divine impassibility, God’s core characteristic is radical love rather than supremacy, sovereignty, or almightiness. By its very nature, such supreme love requires creation, “the fruit of God’s longing for his ‘Other’ and for his Other’s free response [in turn] to the divine love.” In the form of intra-trinitarian communication, God expresses himself through a very profound self-loving. Yet love, in its most radical sense cannot be merely “like for like” without “love of the other,” which “communicates itself by overcoming its opposite.” For Moltmann the counterpoint to God’s loving (Jn 3:16) is the world as radical other given that self-love alone even within the Trinitarian indwelling of God’s social identity “is not yet creative love.”
Otherwise put, the Son is the incarnational embodiment of God’s panentheistic passion for the world, “the foundation for the salvation of creation’s very existence” and not simply an “‘emergency measure’” for the consequences of sin. The more fundamental purpose of Christ’s coming is full embodiment as perfect image of God in human flesh, which includes, but extends beyond that of reconciler from the consequences of sin. Thus, creation plays a pivotal role in bringing the Trinity itself to its consummation in time, and is, therefore, ontologically significant, through which “the history of mankind” becomes viewed “as a history in God.” This is crucial even as, in a point of clarification that warrants clear explanation, “the distinction between the world process and inner-trinitarian process must be maintained and emphasized.”

Moltmann posits that “[i]n God necessity and freedom coincide” (italics in original) in the creation of the world; necessity stemming from the nature of God as love (1 Jn 4:16); freedom in terms of his superabundant plenitude. Thus, “[f]rom eternity God has desired not only himself,” even in his triune fullness. He desires “the world, too,” particularly through “[t]he eternal Son of God” as an everlasting incarnation in which “[a]ll things were made through him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (Jn 1:3). To state this in related terms, “[t]he Son is the [italics removed] Logos in relation to the world;” an essential aspect of God’s Trinitarian existence. On the flow of Moltmann’s argument, God would not exist without the world as envisioned from creation to consummation. Or at least he would not exist within the superabundant manner in which he does in incarnational conjunction with his world in which both God and “the whole creation groan and labor with birth pangs” (Rom 8:22) for the consummatory apotheosis in which God will be all in all.

To be sure, as Moltmann puts it, “[i]t is not out of inner necessity” in any literal sense. Rather, “it is out of his overflowing love, that God goes out of himself and wills the existence of other beings, not divine, who will be in accord with the divine bliss through their joy in existence.” This is a critical qualification that should not be missed, even as, when all that he says on the topic is taken into account still leaves the question of the necessity and freedom of God unresolved in mystery, where perhaps it belongs.

As summarized by Grenz & Olson, Moltmann’s view is subtly related, though sharply distinctive from that of Barth’s who also posits God’s core attributes of love and freedom in close proximity. For Barth, a balanced interpretation of their relationship requires more emphasis on God’s freedom than suggested by Moltmann in his argument that by the necessity of his nature, God had no other choice than to create the world without which his expression of love would only be “like-for-like.” By contrast, for Barth, “[w]hile God’s love for the world is real and eternal, it is not necessary.” To state it in direct contradistinction to Moltmann, “God would still be love even if he did not choose to love [or create] the world.” For Barth, the Trinity is self-contained as the full manifestation of the infinite plenitude of God’s love in itself. In his graciousness and plenitude he did create and love the world to the point of the agonistic death of his incarnate Son, but necessity, on Barth’s account had nothing to do with it. For Barth, the most distinctive characteristic of God is his “absolute[eness] in relationship to the world.” To blunt or obfuscate this in any way is at the least, to move toward the worship of the creation rather than the creator, particularly in the light of a great deal of contemporary theology since the time of Schleiermacher with its naturalistic human-centered focus.

Clearly, Moltmann was no supporter of any form of natural religion remotely connected with pantheism. However, the press of his theological construct does require a panentheistic theology, in which, while God and the world are distinctive, can never be as radically differentiated as posited by Barth. I raise this contrast between Barth and Moltmann not to seek to substantially work through it at this point. My more modest intent is simply to lay out a counterpoint to Moltmann’s theological construct over the critical relationship between immanence and transcendence which he grapples with in subtle ways even as his resolution leaves gnawing questions and concerns that remain unresolved in his panentheistic theology.

Moltmann constructs his theology of God through what might be conceived as the extra biblical-concept of God’s self-limitation. This is a doctrine that emerges in his press for explanation over the centrality of God’s commitment to the world as a necessity of both his outward and inner love to the point of radical suffering for the sake of his beloved. In seeking to bridge the chasm between radical transcendence on the one hand and un-avowed pantheism on the other hand Moltmann lays out some very subtle relationships between God’s inward and outward activities. Based on the very substance of God’s creativity, Moltmann posits “an equally eternal non-divine or counterdivine entity” that corresponds to “God’s self-constitution in eternity.” This stems from “a self-limitation” [italics in original] of the omnipotent God, preceding his creation, thus, making “room for this finitude beforehand, ‘in himself,’” that is, within the infinite space of the open, social Trinity. It is God who withdraws into himself, becoming, one might say, “of no reputation, taking the form of a servant” to creation, and in himself, becoming “obedient to the point of death” (Phil 2:7-8), as manifested through the incarnational presence of Christ crucified and resurrected.

Moltmann’s broader point is that his self-limitation for the sake of “‘creation outside God’ exists simultaneously in God, in the space that God [graciously] made for it in his omnipresence.” God embodies time with and “in his eternity, finitude” with and in his infinity, space” with and “in his omnipotence and freedom” with and “in [italics in original] his selfless love.” The self-limitation, then, is intended to gain the world in which there is a to and fro of “light flooding back into God” in the ongoing creativity of his triune self and “break[ing] forth from him” into the creation, however fragmentarily, with the red thread of the eschatological fulfillment pulling the creation and the triune God himself toward the final apotheosis (1 Cor 15:28). In this, the Spirit plays a crucial role in the very “sigh[ing] and long[ing] for the revealing of the liberty of the children of God” in the very “cr[ying] out for redeeming freedom in enslaved creation.” In this respect, as Moltmann (1993b) puts it, the Holy Spirit is the very indwelling of God in men and women, which, in its active presence is nothing less than “the very “efficacious power of the Creator and the power that quickens created beings.” In this respect, too, “the Spirit acts as an independent subject, and he does so not merely for men and women.” More, “in the glorification of the Son and the Father he acts on the Son and Father as well.” God’s self-limitation, then, is meant both for his greater glory as well as that of the entire creation.

Monday, April 26, 2010

God's Suffering and Apatheia

In a recent discussion on the Confessing Christ discussion list, I included the following reflections, referencing Jurgen Moltmann's The Trinity and the Kingdom of God in his emphasis on the suffering Christ and God and David B. Hart's, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth in his emphasis on the apathia or "impassibility" of God. The full commentary can be accessed here, in which the following are some key extracts.

That Christ suffered and that he and the father are one are good enough for me (see Deut 29:29). If we believe we are created in the image of God than one can reasonably suppose there are some striking analogies between the characteristics of God and are own; the capacity of suffering being one; noting as well that any analogy of likeness between God and ourselves invariably breaks down at many levels; hence our understanding of suffering may have some rather connotational differences in the wide ineffable of God's comprehensiveness in which his ways are not our ways--nothing like our ways, perhaps. In my book essay on Moltmann I have discussed the distinction between Hart's perspective in Moltmann's in some depth, which I may make available in another format.

I think Moltmann's position is that Christ as suffering servant introduced an eternal pain into the very essence of God almighty. Perhaps at some imaginative level which I wouldn't want to take too far beyond imagery, liturgy, and thoughtful exploration that in the cross, God himself (a gender pronoun Moltmann uses liberally) was somehow affected by the redemptive love and sacrifice of his son, in which at one level he (the father) knew that he (the son) had it within him to take on the journey to Calvary, in which yet the undergoing of the experience itself was essential to its realization which opened up another level of "knowing" than the type of God knowing before the creation of time. I want to move carefully into this arena in staying away from an open theology in which somehow God "becomes" in the very process of ongoing historical unfolding, but I do think there is something incredibly provocative in Moltmann's theory that both the father and the son put everything at risk at Golgotha and were rescued ultimately by the Holy Spirit. That is how I have interpreted key passages in Moltmann's The Trinity and the Kingdom of God.

I know this still doesn't address the question on whether God suffers before the cross. The short answer is that this question is beyond my capacity to answer, though I would suggest, perhaps yes based on what I have previously stated toward the beginning of this message. On that I would not take issue with the view that God experienced suffering before the incarnational apearance and crucifiction of Christ. This doesn't mean, however, that God changes at least in any profound sense, which is different from denying (which I don't) that he isn't affected by the travails and joys of the human race--affected in ways that we can only understand in part in which our understanding(and the analogy of likeness)likely breaks down at a fairly elementary level--hence, the critical dialogue between Moltmann and Hart on the suffering verses apathia of God remains an essential one worthy of much close reflection on our part in which the mystery of revelation perpetually outdistances our capacity to grasp.

In succeeding posts I will lay out some of my fuller reflections on Moltmann and Hart's views on these critical topics.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Leading a Bible Study on 1 Peter 2:1-10

This semester our church based adult study group has been studying the life and teaching of the Apostle Peter. In the process we've reviewed key passages in the gospels and Acts and have now turned to 1 Peter. The first two chapters of this letter are incredibly rich in both portraying Christ as a precious stone and the church, as the holy community, called to live, humanly speaking, in the full light of the gospel revelation. Our class discussion has focused on (a) the need to die daily in Christ as our due spiritual service (Romans 12:1); (b) the enormous gap between the holiness of God and our own sinful nature, and (c) the privilege, saving power and healing grace in opening ourselves to all that God is seeking to bestow on us in embracing the ever fresh revelations that God grants through the Holy Spirit in becoming the people of God who he intends and very much desires us to become.

At certain times and in certain "seasons" in our life such "turning," especially among those of us who have had a distinctively "born again" experience, seems so obvious and is, whether obvious or not, a seemingly essential phenomenon of a distinctively evangelical calling. Nonetheless, the realities we experience in our lives, both real and imagined can press on upon us so suddenly and sometimes so subtly that what seems obvious at certain times in our lives, the clarity and power of our faith, seems anything but so evident as we encounter pressures of many sorts, which call us in some way to transcend where we currently are at with them. For otherwise we can become (re)-engulfed in a sense of fatalism, resignation, fear, bitterness, anger, malice, guile, hypocrisy (the hypocrisy of saying we believe when we act as if we don't (James 1:5-8), envy and all evil speaking as Peter (1:2:1) depicts some of the daily temptations that beset us and certainly myself so easily.

Such experiences, the many temptations, large and small, that we face in our everyday lives at home, work, in our interface with popular and mass culture and in the interior depths of our heart, minds, soul, and spirit are not, so it seems, so dissimilar to what the early Christians experienced if we take the writings of the New Testament epistles with any seriousness. Thus what we see in all of these letters is inspiration through a re-telling of the image of the crucified redeemer in language that reaches to the mystical heights, yet which can at least be partially grasped through the means of faith via the indwelling grace of God's revelation. Thus, the power and most beautiful excellency of the indwelling grace poetically described in the first couple of chapters in 1 Peter, Ephesians, Colossians, chapters 2-5 in 2 Corinthians and peppered throughout Hebrews is both a natural overflow of the profusive grace that overwhelms the writer of each of these texts and a source of the most sublime and awe inspiring motivational stimulation in which writer seeks to communicate to reader than through nothing less than God's post resurrection intermediary, the Holy Spirit, the "deposit" granted to us by a most holy and awesome God in anticipation of the consummation of God's kingdom in new heaven and new earth when Christ returns the Kingdom back to God the father so that God may become all in all.

Regardless as to how literal or metaphorical one takes such language in grasping something of the ineffable mystery of God's ultimate purposes, of which we can only but grasp in part, and clearly in faith and not by sight, the image presented here of God in Christ reconciling the world remains very much a counter-image of so much of what we experience amidst the everyday realities. This seems particularly so amidst events or situations that press especially heavily upon us, during major crises, unanticipated change, or in some other sense where in one way or another we feel overwhelmed. It is here, in the midst of these challenges where the rubber hits the road; where if we are going to re-encounter the faith of the living Christ as a living presence we will have to do so in some fresh encounter with such events in a manner that somehow absorbs and transcends them, creating new life out of old fears or an overwhelming sense of cynicism or resignation in which "the world" gets the victory at least for a while.

Thus, we might hear some of the key texts in the first two chapters of Peter's first epistle in the light of our own hopes and experiences some 1900+ years later:

On the Glorious Mystery

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again as a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith through salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (1:3-6).

"Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently...searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the suffering of Christ and the glories that would follow, to them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven--things which angels desire to look into" (1:10-12)

Therefore, to you who believe, he is precious, but to those who are disobedient, the stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone and a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense (2:7-8a).

"But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may claim the glorious praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people, but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy" (2:9-10).

Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory in him, receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your soul (2:8b-9).

Therefore, Gird up the Loins of Your Mind

"Now for a little while, if need be you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much moiré precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom you have not seen you love" (1:6b-8a).

"Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1:13).


"Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God that he may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you. Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world" (5:6-9).

No doubt our 21st century realities, especially in our various suburban enclaves are very much different than those the early church faced in the first century, which included persecution, martrydom, a deep belief in the imminent second coming of Christ, the incredible motivational dynamic of a cultural and religious movement in which new church communities sprang all over western Asia and Greece and Rome. We experience none of this in our current setting. We can practice our faith in safety and security. Most of us are not poised in anticipation of the ultimate consummation of God's kingdom, but largely focused in preserving our faith intact amidst the ebbs and flows of our daily lives. Thus, while declining as a vigorous cultural force, the Christian "movement" at least in its US middle class milieu, is gaining little alternative traction in its move to the cultural outskirts. While its very marginality holds an incredible potential for authentic renewal, enacting such a vision would require a tremendous act of religious countercultural imagination along with a willingness to live out its implications based on its foundational assumptions for which the biblical text via the small still voice of the Holy Spirit has the capacity to open up afresh.

As 21st century Christians do we have the capacity and the desire to respond to such promptings with ears that are at least willing to hear. No doubt, I am preaching to the choir in which I am choir member numero uno in which I as well need ears to hear in the very midst of my "unbelief."

Majestic One, grant us another entry into your vision afresh and give us the courage to embrace all you have for us, which both costs us and gives us our lives.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

'Secular Parables"

The phrase, I think, is from the renowned 20th century theologian Karl Barth. The impulse for this message came from reading Joan Didion's short essay "On Morality" published in a book collection titled Eight Modern Essays, 6th edition, edited by William Smart, which I purchased to help me in my work as a college writing center tutor. Thus far I have read through most of the essays by George Orwell and am now reading through those written by Joan Didion.

Didion is a brilliant writer whose depth of consciousness reflects a capacity with words and experience in giving picture to the seemingly most uncommon banalaties and conceits of the human imagination which, if not unparalleled, would be very difficult to match in drawing the reader in to seeing some ineffable reality as the author has encountered it herself.

The example below is one she makes in passing, but speaks volumes for what it implies for those with ears that are willing to hear from another voice than that of Didion's many poignant secular odes.

"Across the road at the Faith Community Church a couple of dozen old people, come here [southern California] to live in trailers and die in the sun, are holding a prayer sing. I cannot hear them and do not want to, [but]...if I were to hear those dying voices, those Midwestern voices drawn to this lunar country for some unimaginable atavistic rites, rock of ages cleft for me, I think I would lose my own reason.

A number of things stand out, one of them being the hymn, Rock of Ages as a secular trophe in movies or literature portraying Christians in less than flattering ways. What also stands out is the unstated prejudice in Didion's off-handed remarks on the motivation of those gathered together in seeking the Lord's support and guidance in the "twilight" years of their lives. To be sure, this is an example of Didion's early writing and years before she had written what perhaps was her most poignant book, A Year of Magical Thinking, describing her experience of mourning following the death of her husband. (

In my depiction of her passing comments I do not intend to create a caricature, but I do not want her "self-evident" observations to go by without remark. To be sure I cannot even begin to know what those trailer park residents were experiencing or anything about their lives, but I do sense that they may have experienced something that I and countless millions do and have done through the eons when sifted through the ineffable presence of the spirit of God, "My soul finds rest in God alone, my salvation comes from him, he alone is my rock and salvation, he is my fortress, I will never be shaken....Trust in him at all times O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge" (Psalm 62: 1-2, 7-8.

Surely, we need writers of the same caliber as Didion and Orwell who can communicate something of the depth, complexity, beauty, poignancy, and pain embedded in our collective faith journeys as displayed in the powerful secular parables of such brilliant essayists as George Orwell and Joan Didion.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The following questions posed by J.I. Packer from his essay, Puritansas Interpreters of Scripture may be of interests. Though challenging to even come close to adequately grappling with their meaning seems fairly clear, which if applied with diligence holds much potential in expanding our understanding and appreciation of God's revelation in and through Scripture. Question One, as simple as it may appear to be, may be rather complex requiring some reasonable sense of original meaning, which good commentaries can help address, how the text may have been re-interpreted in later intra-biblical (Old and New testament)readings, how the texts have been interpreted through different historical periods (and what such interpretations open to us as a form of imaginative hermeneutical dialogue), and finally, what the text means for various communities of contemporary readers as well as our own unique understanding.

Question: To what extent (I think a fair degree) is there a plain meaning of the text that with the aid of the Holy Spirit is more or less obvious and constant, say, for example, when Jude speaks of "the faith once for all delivered to the saints," or the writer of the letter to the Hebrews states that Christ is "the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

George Demetrion

Six key questions on biblical interpretation from J.I. Packer’s essay, The Puritans as Interpreters of Scripture
1. What do the words studied actually mean?
2. What light do other Scriptures throw on the texts under study? Where and how do these texts fit in to the total biblical revelation?
3. What truths do they teach about God and about humankind in relation to God?
4. How are these truths related to the saving work of Christ, and what light does the gospel of Christ throw on them?
5. What experiences do these truths delineate, or explain, or seek to create or cure? For what practical purpose do they stand in Scripture?
6. How do they apply to myself and others in our actual situation? To what present human condition do they speak, and what are they telling us to believe or do?


The purpose of this blog is to explore the many facets of Christian faith journeying grounded in a biblio-centered perspective. Among the key topics to be probed here are biblical studies from personal and scholarly perspectives, a deep reflection on a broad array of mostly Protestant devotional literature, theological probing, and daily life application in home, work, community, and congregational settings. I expect that this blog will grow exponentially as topics emerge over time. My hope is that ordained and lay ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ will read and participate in the interactive forums provided by this blog.

George Demetrion