Trinitarian Reflections on the History of the Son
What then of Christ, in terms of what Moltmann refers to as the history and the sending of the Son? Specifically, what is the significance to which he is pointing in his Trinitarian and eschatological theology of God the Father of the Son as laid out in The Trinity and the Kingdom? My purpose here is two-fold. The first is to assess the extent to which Moltmann’s theology of Christ is compatible with the broad stream of Christian ecumenical orthodoxy. The second is to discern what may be unique in his theology and its significance in grappling with both the Trinity and the broader issue of faith within the context of our contemporary setting.
Congruent with the key presuppositions of evangelical theology, Moltmann’s methodology is to examine Scripture as the basis for determining the soundness of the doctrine of the Trinity rather than starting from the Trinity and working back into Scripture. In this respect he is in agreement with Pelikan and with what Bloesch describes in viewing the Trinity as a “later development” and therefore “as an outcome of the church’s reflection than as ground or basis of faith.” [i] The crucial question Moltmann ponders in his third chapter on “The History of the Son” is the extent to which “the seeds of which the development that ended in the church’s doctrine of the Trinity [are] to be found in the New Testament,” the view for which Moltman passionately argues. Such a view is broadly congruent with a wide stream of evangelical and Reformed theology. It is, however, in sharp contrast to the perspective that emerged in the critical biblical scholarship of the late 19th and 20th centuries in its broad reinforcement of liberal theology, which viewed the Trinity as “a subsequent dogmatization” based on the importation of Greek philosophy on the early church.[ii]
As a neo-Barthian with substantial apologetic intent, Moltmann’s New Testament focus is both ecumenically orthodox “in revising the church’s doctrine of the Trinity on the basis of the Bible” and compatible with broad streams of postmodern and liberationist theology in a manner in which “the liberating force of the biblical witness is preserved and not obscured.”[iii] Moreover, in starting from “the divine lordship” of Christ as articulated in the New Testament rather than from the “monotheism” of “the one divine subject,” the image of Yahweh in the Old Testament, Moltmann rejects any notion of a god behind the god of the triune construction.[iv] What he notes about the New Testament depiction is a narrative profusion of “relationships of the Father, the Son and the Spirit which are relationships of fellowship and are open to the world” (italics removed).[v] In this respect he is making the case in the spirit of Childs’ vision of the “Christian Bible” as applied to the Old and New Testaments in providing the overarching unity in a Christian reading even in his profound respect of and for the integrity of Jewish theology and biblical exegesis.[vi]
The originating point is the messianic calling of Christ by the “descending” Spirit stemming from his baptism by John in which the “eschatological message” of the proclamation of the kingdom was symbolically transferred from John to Jesus as reflected in his Galilean ministry (Mk 1:9-14). The descent of the Spirit with the “heavens parting” and the accompanying “voice…from heaven” proclaiming Christ as “My beloved Son” (Mk ) prefigures the transfiguration (Mk 9:2-10), a foreshadowing itself of the Resurrection. In this respect Mark’s intention is to be more than prescient when he starts his gospel with the proclamation of Jesus Christ “the Son of God” (Mk 1:1) in which all that follows may be read as commentary. Moltmann notes that “[a]t the moment” of Christ’s “enthronement,” the synoptic gospels have Jesus’ Father, referring to Christ as “‘my beloved Son.’” A critical part of the meaning of this “special relationship to God” is the transfer of the Old Testament title “Son” to Christ, signifying the actual fulfillment of the messianic prophecy.
As Moltmann so poignantly brings out, especially in The Crucified God, but also here in this chapter, this “was not the triumphal history of a messianic victor.” Rather, “it was much more like the suffering history of the servant of God promised in Isaiah 53.” What was even more unique, a novum, to be sure, but one arguably compatible with key Old Testament prophetic and apocalyptic threads, “was the passion history of Jesus very early on in Christian tradition” in which “the suffering history of the Servant of God also constitutes the majesty of the royal Son of God.”[vii] In eschatological terms Christ’s first coming was a prefiguring of God’s indwelling as the perfect “image of the invisible God,” (Col 1:15), in which the resurrection serves in turn as a signpost of the ultimate apotheosis in the final ushering in of the new heaven and new earth (Rev 21-22) when finally “all things are made subject” (1 Cor 15:28) to God.[viii]
A consuming focal point was the passion of Christ in which Moltman’s depiction in The Trinity of the Kingdom builds a great deal upon his argument in The Crucified God. The outward rejection of Christ initially by his own followers and the Jewish and Roman authorities cumulatively played into a felt abandonment by God. It is this which Moltmann characterizes as “the ‘cup’ which does not pass from him,” in other terms, “the eclipse of God” within him whose intimacy with the Father, the “appointed heir of all things” (Heb 1:2), has no rival. The tension in Moltmann’s depiction of Christ as Suffering Servant holds two key passages in Hebrews in dialectical, though ultimately reconcilable tension when both the cross and the resurrection are viewed in their eschatological and Trinitarian apotheosis.
On the one hand the writer of the epistle in conjunction with the description in all of the gospels depicts Jesus’ as the “author and finisher of our faith” overcoming in his faithfulness to mission the encounter with the Jewish Council and the Roman authorities. “[D]espising the shame,” the victorious Christ not only “endured the cross.” In being raised from the dead “he sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2) in anticipatory promise of God’s fulfillment of the entire created order. Moltmann in no way seeks to diminish this depiction, which is central to his eschatology as well as to any claim of biblical orthodoxy. Biblical orthodoxy as well as dialectics, Moltmann argues, also requires the critical counterpoint on the significance of what Christ underwent, “who, in the days of his flesh…offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears,” thereby learning and fulfilling his vocation only through “obedience by the things which he suffered” (Heb 5:7-8). It was only through such angst of unrequited abandonment of God the Father by the one who descended into hell in becoming sin for us that Christ became “perfected,” thereby earning by the drops of blood initially shed at Gethsemane the honorific title of High Priest capable of “sympathiz[ing] with our weaknesses…in all points tempted as we are, but without sin” (Heb 4:15).
As Moltmann describes the ultimate pathos, God’s most risky venture was that in the cross Christ was “assailed in his [very] person,” at the core of “his very essence, in his relationship to the Father-in his divine sonship.”[ix] Put in other terms, at risk in the journey from Gethsemane to Golgotha was the very core and integrity of the Trinity itself. Not only did the Son put at risk the fundamental relationship to his Father, but the Father, too, “suffers the death of the Son” so that in the most fundamental sense “the innermost life of the Trinity is at stake” (p. 81) in which Father and Son are in jeopardy of losing the connection with each other. Stated in Trinitarian terms “‘God’ is forsaken by ‘God’” who in turn through faith, to push Moltmann’s argument, had to depend on his triune self through the hope of the resurrection to overcome the world, ultimately in radical dependence on the personhood of the Holy Spirit.[x]
On this reading Moltmann is particularly critical of absolutist distinctions within the Trinity in which God as “impassible” does not suffer while Christ in his human incarnation does. Rather, in the suffering forsakenness of the Son by the Father, with echoes from Isaiah 54:7-8, Moltmann seeks to make the case that that the pain of the Father and the agonistic death of the Son were correlative. The plunge into hell is the deepest plummeted nadir of the Son’s descent into the most forsaken depravity of the human experience. This sacrificial risky love, which, on Moltman’s reading, extending to the core of the innermost essence of God; makes “impassibility, therefore impossible, which in turn, puts a permanent “impress on the trinitarian life in eternity.”[xi] As Moltmann poignantly describes the dialectical paradox:
On the cross the Father and the Son are so deeply separated that their relationship breaks off. Jesus died ‘without God’—godlessly. Yet on the cross the Father and the Son are at the same time so much one that they represent a single surrendering movement. [As Moltmann so movingly adds,] ‘He who has seen the Son has seen the Father.’[xii]
This offering of the Son by the Father was “through the eternal Spirit” which both Father and Son in their triune identity relied upon in unswerving faith despite and through the almost unbearable pain and felt abandonment they mutually underwent. Thus while Christ through his blood “offered Himself without one spot,” it was only “through the eternal Spirit” (Heb 9:14) that God’s communiqué was received by the early church. Therefore, Christ was “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness” (Rom 1:4) and received as such by the earliest of witnesses and to those of us to this day “who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn 20:29) throughout the 2000 year tradition of following in the way of Jesus Christ. From the vantage-point of the streaming flow of ongoing time, both the Son and the Father were affected by the uncertainty, angst, and pain of the risk of permanent alienation as the very cost, on my interpretation of Moltmann, that came with their joint vocation as Suffering Servant. Without an appreciation of the profoundness of the loss to both Son and Father, the persuasive power of the Holy Spirit in bringing the creation into unity with the consuming glory of the triune God cannot be sufficiently grasped. Put in other terms the Father and the Son depended on the work of the Holy Spirit for the ultimate restoration of eschatological fulfillment “as the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).
It is in the exaltation of the Son, where Moltmann draws out the final link in his discussion of the biblical roots in providing substantial buttress for a formal Trinitarian doctrine, that historical necessity itself imposed on the early church.[xiii] The critical linchpin was and is the revelation to those who have believed that Christ did rise from the dead and therein became the very “brightness of his glory…[,] the express image of His person,…upholding all things by the word of His power,” who as high priest, “sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high” (Heb 1:3). As with Christ’s ministry during his life and proclaimed throughout the New Testament, his “lordship” was far from self-evident in which its reception, then as now depends on “evidence of things unseen,” which was then as it is now sharply challenged by the persuasive power of other matanarrative construals.
[i] Jeroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1972); Donald G. Bloesch, God Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1999), p. 199.
[ii] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, p. 61.
[iii] Ibid., p.65.
[iv] Ibid., p. 63.
[v] Ibid., p. 64.
[vi] Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflections on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
[vii] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, p. 67.
[ix] Ibid., p. 77.
[x] Ibid., p. 80.
[xi] Ibid., p. 81.
[xii] Ibid., p. 82.
[xiii] This has been argued with much cogency by Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition.