The Open Social Trinity
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.[i]
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.[ii]
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.”[iii] 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.”[iv] 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.”[v] 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.[vi] 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.[vii] 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,’”[viii] 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).[ix]
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.”[x] 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.[xi]
Hart hits very close to Moltmann’s core project if the convergence of the economic and immanent Trinity “is taken to mean that “God depends upon creation to be God and that creation exists by necessity (because of some lack in God).” In such an interpretation, “God is robbed of his true transcendence and creation of its true gratuity.”[xii] It is true that for Moltmann, God’s passibility, his vulnerability is a voluntary self-limiting, but by this he also presses the point that given his very nature as creator, a God of love could do no other than to give to humanity and the created order “its time” in the economy of God’s kingdom, which, on Moltmann’s interpretation has a retroactive impact on the very nature and substance of God’s triunity. To this, McDougall raises a core challenge that, despite the emphasis he places on biblical foundations, “Moltmann’s theological move to postulate such an eternal self-limitation is certainly a highly speculative move that lacks any direct support in the biblical witness.”[xiii] This is so, one might argue, even as it possesses a certain explanatory power in shedding light on Moltmann’s effort to attain an underlying coherency in his broader theological project.
It is also worth emphasizing at this point Moltmann’s rejection, and perhaps caricature, of any notion “about ‘the mystery of the Trinity’…pointing to some impenetrable obscurity or insoluble riddle.”[xiv] However much there may be some convergence in their perspectives, Moltmann and Hart exhibit profoundly different emphases in their Trinitarian theologies, ultimately over the passibility and impassibility of God’s need to suffer in order to be the God whose Son went to the cross, and the role of God’s transcendence even in the midst of his incarnational indwelling within the created order. Hart, for example, does not deny the importance of a dynamic vision of the Trinity, one of Moltmann’s major concerns. What he wants to assure is that “[t]he insuperable ontological difference between creation and God—between the dynamism of finitude and an infinite that is eternally dynamic” is maintained.[xv] This, he believes is viable through the capacity of “creatures [hence of, creation as well], embracing” God’s infinity “in an endless sequence of finite instances,” which for Moltmann is the Spirit’s work of deification in bringing creation toward its ultimate destination;[xvi] what McDougall, in turn, refers to as “drawing creation into” the “life of fellowship” of the divine Trinity itself. “In so doing, the Spirit acts to consummate the original intention of creation, that is, to make all things [in Moltmann’s words,] ‘the home of the triune God’” through which the creation itself participates in God’s triune being even as the distinction between the creation and the creator is maintained.[xvii]
For Hart, the persisting gulf between God and humankind is not an intrinsic barrier toward living a life that is increasingly attuned to God. He maintains, rather, that the gap between that which can be attained, “the presence of the infinite God” within human flesh, and the creation itself, can never fully realize the desirable (total union with God) because the desirable is infinite in its capacity to transcend every achievable human incarnation in which God existed fully complete in his triune plenitude before the creation and will exist similarly even after the consummation comes to fruition.[xviii] For Hart, God will be all in all because God is all in all even before the creation, which on his view adds nothing to the plenitude of God even as the bestowal of the gift of creation was an overwhelming expression of his desire. There is nothing static about this as Hart has it in the ever present possibility of going from glory to glory in the infinite embodiment of the indwelling spirit and power of God to infuse and transform human reality within the context of its own finitude and historicity “in an infinite display of analogical differentiation.”[xix]
Continuing with his words, creation is infused with “the infinite plenitude of the transcendent act in which all determinacy participates” wherein “God is the being of all things, beyond all finite determination, negation and dialectic, not as the infinite ‘naught’ which all things are set off.”[xx] Rather, through what he describes as “the analogy of [God’s] being—the actual movement of analogization, of our likeness to God within an always greater unlikeness,” we have the capacity, that is, the possibility of participating in God’s triune identity in and through the various finite manifestations that characterize our lives in which the specter of non-being as false identity is also an ever present existential possibility.[xxi]
In short, for Hart the gap between our finite being and God’s ever infinite splendor is never overcome even as “deification” can be experienced in the here and now embodying in analogical plenitude God’s glory in an infinite array of display in concrete manifestations as diverse as the universe itself. For Hart, this “gap” is the basis of God’s apatheia, which if diminished results in a rhetorical attenuation of nothing less than God himself even ultimately in his fully incarnated manifestation. It is in this latter respect, the reflection of God’s incarnational glory even onto deification, that Moltmann and Hart share a common aspiration. For Hart, however, the viability of God’s incarnation depends on the depth and range of his transcendent beauty, which Moltmann does not conceptually deny, but dramaturgically underplays throughout the passion of his theological narrative.
By contrast, for Moltmann God is eternally wounded in his triune being as a result of Golgotha in a manner that resonates with rather than in any way inviolates his fullness. For Moltmann, there is something profoundly suspect about any claim of God’s eternal glory that itself is not a dynamic process of perpetual agonistic overcoming in the very midst of the history of God himself in the unfolding of human and creational time. As Moltmann has it, therefore, in contrast to Hart, the crucified God in his triune fullness unequivocally embraces the pain and shame of the cross as the provocative and exceedingly risky means of its transcendence in the resurrection and ultimate promise of the final eschaton that on his reading the Spirit brings to fruition. This persisting dialectical dynamic within the stream of time as well as in the diversity of the divergent Trinitarian functions in the midst of its interactions in history is crucial to Moltmann, without which in the most fundamental sense, there would be no triune God as revealed most fully in the New Testament. In contrast, Hart emphasizes at least the possibility of a perpetual indwelling of the infinite Spirit of God manifested within creation (deification) in which God’s apatheia does not result in dialectic contradiction as a result of human suffering and evil. This is so on Hart’s reading even as contradiction in creation is a consequence of an all-too-common occurrence of human sin, but not of the intrinsic nature of creation, itself.
The difference between the two can also be parsed in that Moltmann focuses primarily on what he refers to as “the history of God” within the context of human and creaturely time leading to, but not, extending in his theology, in any dynamic sense beyond the eschaton (1 Cor 15:28). For Hart, by contrast, the starting point is the eternal significance of God’s ontological reality and the appropriation of his glory in human and creaturely time. The difference in emphases has a great deal to do with how the transcendent/immanent manifestations of God’s revelation are perceived in which neither Hart nor Moltmann take a strictly polar approach even as each pulls very strongly toward one pole (apatheia) or the other (pathos) as theological starting point for very compelling reasons that go to the heart of their respective projects.
[i] Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action: Volume One: Reason and the Rationalization of Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984); Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action: Volume Two: Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987).
[ii] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, p. 171.
[iii] Ibid., p. 172.
[iv] Ibid., p.173.
[v] Ibid., pp. 175, 76.
[vi] Ibid., p.136.
[vii] David B. Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eesrmann’s Publishing Company, 2003), p. 166.
[viii] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, p. 153.
[ix] Ibid., p. 154.
[x] Ibid., p.161.
[xi] Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 192.
[xii] Ibid., p.157.
[xiii] Joy Ann McDougall, Pilgrimage of Love: Moltmann and the Trinity and Christian Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 84.
[xiv] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, p. 161.
[xv] Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 193.
[xvi] Ibid. p.194.
[xvii] McDougall, p. 86.
[xviii] Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 196.
[xix] Ibid., p.141.
[xx] Ibid., p.242.
[xxi] Ibid., p. 243.