In Quest of Protestant Faithfulness in Postmodern America: A Boomer’s Engagement with the Faith of Our Elders—Packer, Bloesch, Fackre, Brueggemann, Moltmann
The current posting is based on a recent discussion on the Confessing Christ discussiuon list which can be accessed here http://confessingchrist.net/Discussion/tabid/92/Default.aspx
Moltmann’s Trinitarian Theology: Preliminaries
At the core of Moltmann’s vision is an intercommunicative model of the Trinity based on the radical concept of the crucified God. As discussed in the previous chapter, Brueggemann touches upon the God whose reach extends beyond covenantal legalism, a God capable of embracing pain, including the capacity to suffer. However, unlike Moltmann, Brueggemann neither developed a theology based upon the Isaian vision of the Suffering Servant (Isa 52:13-53:12), nor, given his Old Testament focus, a formal theology of the triune God. Moltmann is in line here with the broad stream of Christian theology in turning to the centrality of the Incarnation depicted most fully in the Gospel of John as the basis of a fully-fledged Trinitarian interpretation of God. In this respect the challenge of all Christian orthodox theology is the search for congruence with the fundamental Israelite Shema of the ultimate singularity of the Lord God (Deut 6:4).
A basic difference from a great stream of traditional Trinitarian reflection is Moltmann’s rejection of the portrayal of God, in his terms, as supreme substance in singularity of identity, “immovable, infinite, unconditional, immortal, and impassible.”[i] For Moltmann the concern is not “the divine essence” of God which he maintains is “presupposed by the existence of the cosmos” based on God as creator and sustainer.[ii] The question rather is “Who is God?” What is his character? Even what is his nature? On these critical concerns, unless there are ways of moving beyond a traditional Christian perspective of God as substantive, uniform identity, Trinitarian theology becomes subsumed within the notion of the singularity of God’s overarching being, making the Christian claim a monotheistic redundancy without viable triune content. So Moltmann argues.
What he posits in its stead “is a concept of the divine unity as the union of tri-unity, a concept which is differentiated and is therefore [because of the differentiation] capable of being thought first of all.”[iii] More concretely, Moltmann’s intercommunicative interpretation of the social Trinity serves “as the testimony to the history of the Trinity’s relations of fellowship” within the character and nature of God, which becomes, in turn “open to men and women, and open to the world.” It is consequently this “open Trinity” which Moltmann seeks to illuminate as both “a fellowship with God” and “a fellowship in God” (italics in original).[iv] This unity of the Trinity on his account is “at heart…a soteriological one” in terms of the movement of creation through the red thread of God’s persisting prompting in bringing the creation to fulfillment in God in new heaven and new earth. It is also a doctrinal one on the essential nature and character of God to whom “the whole creation can be united” into perpetuity even as Moltmann does not pursue the eternal significance of his Trinitarian view of God beyond the eschatological apotheosis to any significant degree.[v]
Moltmann places a great deal of attention in probing into this Trinitarian vision in which “[t]he person who…owes his freedom to Christ’s representation…believes in God for Christ’s sake.”[vi] In starting with Christ as the very “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), Moltmann maintains that “God himself,” as a crucified deity is intimately and in some sense eternally “involved in the history of Christ’s passion.”[vii] On this revelation of God through the cross of Christ, any notion of God as impassible and incapable of suffering is nothing other than an incredible contradiction on its most fundamental face. In pushing this theme Moltmann challenges any notion of a bifurcated deity in terms of a God who suffers and one that cannot suffer.[viii]
Rejecting any theological dualism of “either [God’s] essential incapacity for suffering or a fateful subjection to suffering,” Moltmann lays out a third option of God’s “active suffering—the voluntary laying oneself open to another and allowing oneself to be intimately affected by him; that is to say, the suffering of the passionate God.” Moltmann’s proviso is that God’s suffering is not the result of some “deficiency of being.” In his absolute being, a perspective most underdeveloped in Moltmann, God is “‘apathetic.” However, he does experience suffering at some profound level, to his depths “from the love which is the superabundance and overflowing of his being” as it encounters the reality of the suffering in the world. It is in this respect that God is “‘pathetic’” in his inexhaustible empathy to the pathos of the human condition and the entire created order in its “groaning” for restoration in God’s consummatory glory. In this respect, too, it is not only the created order, but God, also, who groans because he loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son for the world’s restoration. It is just because of this that he “remains master of the pain that love causes him to suffer.”[ix] It is precisely in this respect that his triune sovereignty—God himself as suffering servant—remains intact. In this respect, too, there is no sharp bifurcation even with a clear differentiation between God the Father who suffers with the Son and the obedient Son willing to embrace the cross for the sake of his Father and the world as laid out hymn-like fashion in Philippians 2:5-11.
In starting from “the pathos of God,” through the ultimate symbol of the cross, Moltmann is able to grapple with God “in his passion and in his interest in history.” This he juxtaposes from any inaccessible, “absolute nature” as would be reflected through a more disinterested philosophical speculation. [x] For it is this “pathetic” God that undergoes the humiliations, tortures, exiles, and in some profound sense the deaths experienced by human beings; both those faithful and not so faithful to his prompting them to a life of faith and obedience. Healing comes from prayer and by the acknowledgment and embrace of God’s loving presence in the midst of the pain of the One who in his “self-differentiated” compassion so loved the world by taking its pain, sin, suffering, and alienation on as the basis ultimately of its transcendence through unrequited agape love.[xi]
Moltmann accepts the reality that the fullness of God’s being, character, and will are beyond comprehension. Nonetheless, he identifies love as God’s most central characteristic, a “loving God [that shows] he is a loving God through his suffering” as his most enduring trait without which he, in the most fundamental sense would not be God in any way that Moltmann can comprehend.[xii] God’s “universal sorrow” has as its counterpart, the eschatological hope for which even God hopes, and for which he strives, as Moltmann might put it, with all his might for the “redeeming joy” that his fulfillment will be enacted in some sense beyond history as well as incarnated within as the first-fruits of God’s divine glory. For it is this hope within history “which overcomes the world.”[xiii] As Moltmann more formally states it:
The fellowship of the God who is love has these two sides: it leads us into God’s sufferings and into his infinite sorrow; but it will only be consummated in the feast of God’s eternal joy and in the dance of those that have been redeemed from sorrow. For true love bears all things, endures all things and hopes all things in order to make the other happy, and thereby to find bliss itself.[xiv]
At the more fundamental level the issue of God’s passionate suffering is grounded in the mystery of theodicy wherein on Moltmann’s interpretation, not only the consequences of sin, but suffering, particularly innocent suffering, requires not only some sort of what can only be perceived as inadequate explanation. It also necessitates a deep rooted catharsis that goes to the core of the relationship and pathos between God and humanity. As Moltmann puts it, “[i]t is in suffering that the whole human question about God arises; for incomprehensible suffering calls the God of men and women in question.”[xv] On this the biblical prototype is Job whose only real “theological friend” is “the crucified Jesus on Golgotha.”[xvi]
As someone who has witnessed the most brutal evil in the 20th century, Moltmann does not so much provide an answer to the question of why a just and loving God allows suffering. Instead, he identifies God’s most intimate characteristic as that of taking on suffering into his own social being and in the process bearing it with and for the world, struggling with creation in the promised search for “God’s [own] eschatological deliverance” and also the world’s. In this respect both Job and Jesus are Moltmann’s foremost biblical theological friends. Given the reality of suffering, unjust or otherwise, in which God suffers with, from, and for the world, any theology which does not rise to the level of somehow accounting for the full reality of human experience, including that of profound suffering and inexpressible joy, is not worthy, on Moltmann’s account, of serious consideration.[xvii]
[i] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, p. 11.
[iii] Ibid., p. 19.
[iv] Ibid., p. 20.
[vi] Ibid., 21.
[viii] Ibid., p. 22.
[x] Ibid. p. 26.
[xi] Ibid., p. 30.
[xii] Ibid., p. 38.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 42.
[xv] Ibid., p.47.
[xvi] Ibid., p. 48.
[xvii] Ibid., p. 60.