Further Trinitarian Reflections: God’s Self-Limitation
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 the smuggling in of ancient Greek philosophical concepts that are alien both to the Jewish underpinnings of the New Testament and to contemporary interpretations of the social construction of human identity . At the same time it need be noted that in his theological construction Moltmann pushes toward, and arguably, at and beyond the edges of any strictly biblical theology in his reflection on the world’s influence on the triune God. The primary effect is an interpenetrating 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.[i] 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 needs to be perceived 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?”[ii] 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.[iii] 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.”[iv] 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 self-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.”[v]
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.[vi] 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.[vii] 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 ) 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.”[viii] 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.”[ix] 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.”[x] 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 distinct, 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 of 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,’”[xi] 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.”[xii] 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.” [xiii] In this respect, as Moltmann 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.”[xiv] 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.”[xv] God’s self-limitation, then, is meant both for his greater glory as well as that of the entire creation.
[i] Ibid., p. 99.
[ii] Ibid., p. 105.
[iii] Ibid., p. 106.
[vii] Ibid., p. 108.
[viii] Moltmann, The Coming of God, p. 325.
[ix] Grenz & Olson, 20th Century Theology, p. 73.
[x] Ibid., p. 74.
[xi] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, p. 109.
[xiii] Ibid., p., 111.
[xiv] Moltmann, God in Creation, p. 96.
[xv] Ibid., p. 97.