Review: Paul Molnar’s Faith, Freedom and the Spirit


Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015.

I’ve had my review copy of Molnar’s latest book, graciously sent by IVP Academic, for most of the summer. Planning a vacation and other matters got in the way, but I finally finished. It is a dense, technical work of over 400 pages, entirely pertaining to a high-level, intramural debate within systematic theology today, namely among students of Karl Barth’s theology. In other words, this is not for beginners or for those generally curious about Barth and Torrance. It is an important debate, however, to which every student must give attention — with ramifications that extend beyond the fluid borders of Barth scholarship.

The dispute, as I know that many of my readers are familiar, is over Bruce McCormack’s interpretation of Barth’s theology. For McCormack, the key to Barth’s doctrine of God is how — in McCormack’s reading — the divine election precedes ontology, the ontology for both God and man. God’s being is determined in the act of electing man in Jesus Christ. As a primordial act, this should not be understood as a temporal sequence (election and then ontology) but as a singular act where “being” and “act” are bound-up with one another. There is no other God than this God who elects himself to be this God. Here are a few quotes, among many others, that Molnar cites from McCormack:

The act in which God determines himself essentially is election. If then this act is primordial, then election is primordial. There is no triunity in God apart from election, for the two occur in one and the same event. (Trinitarian Theology After Karl Barth, eds. Habets and Tolliday, 114; Molnar, 190)

There is no longer any room left here for an abstract doctrine of the Trinity. There is a triune being of God — only in the covenant of grace. (Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology, ed. Michael Dempsey, 128; Molnar, 192-193)

God’s being is grounded in an Urentscheidung (i.e., a ‘primordial decision’) in which he gives to himself his own being as God. (Mapping Modern Theology, eds. Kapic and McCormack, 14; Molnar, 194)

God has elected to be God in the covenant of grace and to be God in no other way. This is not a decision for mere role-play; it is a decision with ontological significance. It is a free act in which God assigned to himself the being God would have for all eternity. (Orthodox and Modern, 216; Molnar, 290)

…God gives both to himself and to humanity his and their essential being and does so with respect to one and the same figure, Jesus of Nazareth. (Orthodox and Modern, 228; Molnar, 311).

“There is a triune being of God — only in the covenant of grace.” “There is no triunity in God apart from election.” These and similar expressions are the focus of contention. If it is true that God is only triune — that is, who God is in his very being — in the covenant of grace, then the covenant of grace is necessary for who God is, which is to say, necessary for God. McCormack sees this as Barth’s most significant contribution to theology and is the basis upon which theology today should move forward. For McCormack, this is the consistent and thoroughgoing application of Barth’s rejection of natural theology and classical metaphysics, and Barth only fully discovered the decisive move (election determines ontology) in his volume on election (CD II.2) and illustrated in the doctrine of reconciliation (IV.1), as with Barth’s treatment of the logos asarkos, most famously, even though McCormack does not see Barth as always consistently applying this revolutionary insight.

Molnar disputes all of this. There is no change in Barth’s doctrine of God in II.2. Rather, Barth’s pointed insistence in II.1 resonates throughout the subsequent volumes:

God is who He is in His works. He is the same even in Himself, even before and after and over His works, and without them. They are bound to Him, but He is not bound to them. They are nothing without Him. But He is who He is without them. He is not, therefore, who He is only in His works. (CD II.1, 260; Molnar, 308; also cited by Alan Torrance, The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster, 90, n.28)

God is not bound to his works. He is God without his works. And later in his dogmatics, Barth writes of God becoming man, “God did not owe it to man. He did not owe it even to the man Jesus. He did not owe it either in His eternal counsel or in its execution. He did not owe it even to himself to an inner dialectic of His Godhead” (IV.2, 41; Molnar, 306). “Its occurrence cannot, therefore, be perceived or understood or deduced from any ontology which embraces Himself and the world, Himself and man, or from any higher standpoint whatever [than his ‘gracious good-pleasure’]” (Ibid.). This is one example of where Molnar attends to Barth in disputation with McCormack. It is beyond the scope of a blog review to lay-out all the merits and demerits of McCormack’s work on Barth. Suffice it to say that I found Molnar to be persuasive on these critical matters.

The debate over Barth’s “actualistic ontology,” as some like to say, does not begin until the third chapter, and Molnar covers a great deal more than my quotations above would indicate. The first chapter covers the pneumatological basis of Barth’s epistemology. In this chapter, Molnar uses Karl Rahner extensively by way of contrast with Barth. Rahner, unlike Barth, “attempts to validate knowledge of faith from the experience of self-transcendence” (22). However, “Any attempt to know God that seeks some form of direct knowledge of God (a knowledge without the mediation of his incarnate Word), in Barth’s view, always would mean the inability to distinguish God from us; and that would mean our inability to speak objectively and truly about God at all” (23). Rather boldly, Rahner claims that “the hope that a person’s history of freedom will be conclusive in nature…already includes what we mean by the hope of ‘resurrection'” (Theological Investigations 17:16; Molnar, 54) and “knowledge of man’s resurrection given with his transcendentally necessary hope is a statement of philosophical anthropology even before any real revelation in the Word” (TI 9:41; Molnar, 55-56). As a result, man is innately disposed toward God, in Rahner’s theology, not opposed to God, as we find in Barth. Molnar then shifts to a consideration of Tillich and Bultmann’s non-conceptual knowledge of God, which bears similarities to Rahner.

In the second chapter, Molnar continues discussing how the Holy Spirit yields knowledge of God. Now, John Courtney Murray and Wolfhart Pannenberg are his interlocutors, making contrasts with Barth and Torrance. The remainder of the book, chapters three to eight, pertains directly to the debate with McCormack. The third chapter notably includes some interesting discussion of other theologians who have appropriated aspects of McCormack’s theology: Benjamin Myers, Kevin Hector, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Dafydd Jones.

The seventh chapter is significant because it marks the one area of disagreement with Barth’s trinitarian theology. Favoring T. F. Torrance’s account, Molnar criticizes Barth for subordinating the Son to the Father in the immanent Trinity. For Barth, this is the basis for the subordination of the Son (for our salvation) in the economic Trinity. This chapter was previously published last year in the Scottish Journal of Theology, which is where I first read it. I am still undecided on precisely where I land in this debate about subordination in the Trinity, and you can read my previous posts on this topic here and here. I will need to postpone this particular discussion until another day.

In the final chapter, Molnar ties together the epistemological considerations in the first two chapters with the metaphysical considerations in the subsequent chapters. All together, this chapter serves as a nice summary presentation of Barth and Torrance’s theological program. It also serves as a nice testimony to the theological vision that inspires Professor Molnar.

This is an excellent book. I recommend it highly. This review is, obviously, not sufficient to demonstrate the depth of analysis involved. Let me quote from Ian Torrance’s blurb on the back cover: “The best studies of Karl Barth have moved well beyond mere exegesis of his text and now probe the fundamental assumptions on which exegetical perspectives have been based.” And D. Stephen Long, author of my favorite Barth book from last year, writes, “Few Protestant, let alone Catholic, interpreters of Karl Barth read him with as much skill and conviction as does Paul Molnar.”


Disclosure: I received this book from IVP Academic for purposes of review without any obligation to endorse the product.



  1. I’ve been reading the available sections on Google (four or five good sized sections) – from what I’ve read, I agree that it’s an excellent volume. I think Molnar nails it right on the head when he says (paraphrase) that making Gods being depend on election is to obliterate Gods freedom.

    • I suppose McCormack would respond that: because this election is itself freely determined (primordially), then it is truly free. The problem remains that creation — including its reconciled and beneficent relation to God — is itself necessary to God. Therefore, any meaningful and coherent understanding of grace is obliterated, and that is what Molnar expresses in the final chapter, among other concerns.

      In this way, yes, God’s freedom is obliterated: the freedom of the covenant of grace. Logically, it erases the joy and exuberance of the creature in response to God’s mercy. Is it really mercy if God is bound by his own existence as God?

      • ‘The problem remains that creation…’

        There’s the rub, eh? If God is only God for us, then He can’t be God without us, it seems.

      • Yes, McCormack could not be more clear: God cannot be God without us. In a very real and definite sense, we contribute to the determination of God’s very being, even if it is God who unilaterally determines this for himself.

      • “Cannot” is a bit misleading here (in the statement “God cannot be God without us”), I think. Barth says that by virtue of election God determines not to be God without us, i.e. to bind God’s very self to the covenant with creatures. This is entirely willed and, therefore, based upon nothing other than God’s freedom. God is no longer “God without us” because that is how God has chosen to be God; the restriction is self-imposed, and therefore utterly free.

        The connection between Trinity and election as presented in the “Grace and Being” essay is tenuous at points, but the issue of divine freedom — which has been the centerpiece of Molnar’s responses over the years — is simply not one of them.

      • That sounds right, Darren, from what I’ve read from McCormack in response to his critics. So, “it is God who unilaterally determines this for himself” is my way of saying what McCormack insists about this being entirely free, not bound from without. Nonetheless, this strong metaphysical claim is what, thereby, governs the relation between God and creation, and it is a metaphysics where God (even if self-chosen) is void of his very existence (certainly his existence as triune, which is his only existence) without the creature. Since this governs the divine-creature relationship, it puts an entirely new spin, so to speak, on language of God freely and graciously determining to become incarnate and redeem. This redemption is necessary for who God is. The question, for me at least, is not whether God is “free” to redeem (in a voluntarist sense) but whether he is free in relation to his being or essence.

        Invariably, we will come around to whether it makes any logical sense to speak of God “determining” or “constituting” his own triune existence: “act” as bearing a logical determination for “being” in a primordial event, instead of the classical claim that God’s being as triune simply is his being. Does is make sense to speak of “act” as logically prior to “being”? I have my doubts. It would seem to require a being who precedes the act in order to “be” the acting agent, which opens the question of this being’s identity. This is why, in the whole sweep of classical and modern theology, being is logically prior to act.

        I am, of course, not claiming expertise on any of this. I’m just trying to think through it as best I can, and I’m happy to have push-back.

  2. Of course McCormack would object to your invocation of “metaphysical” in this instance, but I’d rather not press on that point. He’s using the term in a somewhat idiosyncratic way, which I think is wholly in keeping with Barth’s anti-speculative instincts — the same instincts that drive him to reject natural theology, the analogy of being, and other things.

    Where I would like to push back is the notion that, in so determining God’s being as a being-for-us, God “is void of his very existence … without the creature,” or that God would not be triune without the creature. McCormack certainly does not intend the former, at least. What God could be, or would be, without the creature is not nothing; the content of God’s election, and therefore God’s being (as still a being in act!) would simply be different.

    What might this content be? What would God be like if God willed never to create and redeem? Barth’s particularism comes roaring into play when we begin to ask after counterfactuals. We simply know what has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ: God as God is.

    The question of whether act can precede being (or be equi-primordial with being, as McCormack has conceded) is indeed the linchpin to all of this. Either you think that this notion gets off the ground, or you don’t. But I’m convinced that Barth believed it did. So if it’s a matter of understanding Barth correctly, a better accounting has to be made with his revised ontology than what pervades the more conservative literature these days.

    • Yep, McCormack is definitely using “metaphysics” in an idiosyncratic way. For my part, I do not know how someone can invoke “being,” and “primordial being” no less, without involving oneself in metaphysics. But, of course, I know what he’s doing (“metaphysics” equals perfect-being speculation and such). I do not think that act can precede being, and I would love to read what metaphysicians would think about such a reversal — but the Barthian world is an academic island.

      I agree that we know God always and only from within the covenant of grace. But I do not see the God revealed therein as a God who needed this covenant in order to be who he is. I do not see the prophets and apostles making such a claim or operating with such an assumption.

      As for whether God’s being would “simply be different” without the covenant of grace, that is not what I have gathered from McCormack, but I could be wrong. I would need some guidance toward clarification on this point in his writings.

      On a final note, I am not nearly as interested in whether McCormack is rightly interpreting Barth — even though I have not been convinced that he does, and I would sooner concede a massive inconsistency in Barth. I am, as you are too I assume, far more interested in whether McCormack’s actualism is indeed good and coherent and faithful theology. I find it stimulating, often good, and a great boon for the vitality of systematic theology today, but I disagree with the basic foundations of the whole enterprise and the course on which it would place dogmatics in the future. I am convinced that it would be tragic for the future of Protestant dogmatics, whereas someone like David Congdon believes it is the only viable future for Protestant dogmatics. Stimulating indeed! I do not want to come across as bullheaded on any of this, and who knows where I will be in five years, or even one year, in my theology.

    • Kevin has pretty much covered my own objections, so I won’t add too much here, however, it seems that no matter how it’s parsed, on McCormack’s account, God can’t be God without the covenant/election/etc. As I see it, yes – God determines to be God for us, not without us, etc. But I think Hunsinger (in his ‘Charity’ book) is right to point out that this is in regards to God’s dealings with the world – or as Barth says, Jesus Christ is at the beginning of all God’s dealings with everything distinct from Himself. But none of that is constitutive of God’s being, which really is what McCormack comes off as saying. God determines to not be God without us, but He doesn’t constitute His being in doing so. That’s how I see Barth, at any rate 🙂

  3. Hi Kevin,

    Many thanks for your careful and thoughtful review. I am delighted that you were able to recommend the book highly. I think you focused on the key issues in just the right way. You are certainly right in saying that the ramifications of the discussion extend beyond the fluid borders of Barth scholarship. They extend to the heart of the Christian faith and concern the question of whether or not God’s triune being is discretionary, as it would be if God has to give himself his being in the act of election. God is eternally who he is and who he would be even if he never decided to create, reconcile and redeem the world. This is the point that Barth repeatedly made in his Church Dogmatics from beginning to end in order to assert that God is free in his love ad intra and ad extra and it is wholly in line with the classical theological tradition. Those who believe that we can no longer hold that God would have been triune without us and that Barth also must retract that belief are mistaken since it is the eternal Father, Son and Holy Spirit who freely determines himself in election to be for us. He is not constituted by that decision and he does not give himself his being in that decision because he already is who he is as the one who loves in freedom. It is the triune God who is free for us and not a God who needs to become triune to relate with us.

    I would just clarify one quotation that you cited from pp. 55-6 regarding Rahner’s view of the resurrection. The quote should read: “knowledge of man’s resurrection given with his transcendentally necessary hope is a statement of philosophical anthropology even before any real revelation in the Word.”

    Contrary to the view of Darren Sumner who claims that this is not an issue of the divine freedom, that is exactly what it is. God is not free in himself if election is the ground of God’s triunity. There is no way around that point. Of course God determined himself as the triune God to be for us from eternity. And of course that is a free decision. But the moment one suggests or implies that that self-determination was or is constitutive of God’s triune being, then and there God’s freedom has been compromised. It does not matter if it is then claimed that all of this is the result of a free decision because if God’s determination to be for us is needed in order for God to be or to become triune, then the truth is that God cannot exist without us. But for Barth and for the tradition it is just the God who could very well exist without us who freely chose not to do so. God will not be without us because in his grace and love he determines to be for us. This position takes seriously God’s antecedent existence. I think this harmonizes with what you went on to argue, Kevin. I hope you agree. It also harmonizes with what whitefroze rightly said yesterday about God’s antecedence.

    The idea that election is the ground of God’s triunity does not uphold the antecedent existence of the triune God. That is why Barth made the simple but profound remark that “Of course, the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God does not rest on election” (II/2, 107). And that is why he did not think of the immanent Trinity as a “counterfactual.” Instead he held that “The Son of God does not need His humanity as form needs matter, or idea phenomenon, or transcendental reason empirical being, or spirit nature or transcendence existence (if it is to be actual), or heaven the conceivable earth (if it is to be the inconceivable heaven). The Son of God does not need any completion, any concretion, any form which perhaps He lacks. He is not an abstraction . . . Nor is he an empty prius which waits to be filled out by something actual . . . He is actual in Himself—the One who is originally and properly actual” (IV/2, 53-4). Barth also held that if we refuse to listen to the fact that Christ is “antecedently God in Himself in order that in this way and on this basis He may be our God, then we turn the latter, His being God for us, into a necessary attribute of God. God’s being is then essentially limited and conditioned as a being revealed, i.e., as a relation of God to man. Man is thus thought of as indispensable to God. But this destroys God’s freedom in the action of revelation and reconciliation, i.e., it destroys the gracious character of this act” (I/1, 420-1). See also Faith, Freedom and the Spirit, 272-3.

    • Thank you, Professor Molnar. The IV/2:53-54 quote in your final paragraph is particularly illuminating, and I do not see how any of the revisionists can get around it, especially given that this is firmly within Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation. The quote from I/1 gets at the heart of all of this. If the revisionists are right, then my approach to evangelism would change rather drastically. I honestly do not know how to present the Gospel if “Man is thus thought of as indispensable to God.” How do you preach that?

      I will add “of philosophical anthropology” to the Rahner quote. Thanks again!

  4. Thank you for the reply, Professor Molnar. For the sake of clarity: I’ve not said anywhere that I believe God’s triune nature to depend upon election. That’s clearly the more provocative element of McCormack’s thesis, but I think it is a mistake to reduce the ensuing discussions over divine freedom, the immanent and the economic, the actuality of God in Jesus Christ, etc. to this claim. And McCormack himself has stated that he regards this element — the logical ordering of election and trinity — not as an interpretation of Barth but as an extension, i.e. where he as a constructive theologian believes Barth’s doctrine of God must point.

    God does not depend upon a determination to be for us “in order for God to be or to become triune.” But the triune God did determine in eternity to be God for us, and not to be God without us. Professor Molnar and I are in agreement on this (and on the point that this was Barth’s view).

    My point is simply that the two sides of this debate have long talked past one another with regard to the question of divine freedom — I suspect due to an unwillingness to grant one another’s metaphysical (or anti-metaphysical) premises for the sake of discussion. McCormack’s argument regarding the freedom of God to self-determine in election (regardless of whether or not this includes a determination for triunity) depends upon an actualistic ontology; as I see it, it is judged as failing to maintain God’s freedom only where it has been evaluated within a non-actualistic framework.

  5. Hi Darren,

    Thanks for your statement. I am glad that you and I do indeed agree that the triune God determined to be God for us and does not depend upon his election of us to be the God he is.

    The problem, however, concerns the fact that Barth’s thinking does not point in the direction suggested by those who would reverse (logically or otherwise) the doctrines of election and the Trinity. You say that the logical reversal of these doctrines was not meant as an interpretation of Barth. Why then was it suggested that Barth should have done this and that he was inconsistent for not doing so? Even as an “extension,” that is, as an expression of belief in where Barth’s doctrine must point, this does not work, because Barth never embraced the idea that there was or could be a mutually conditioning relationship between God and us.

    I do not think we have talked past each other on the issue of divine freedom. We are talking about two entirely different realities. McCormack honestly believes that election is the ground of God’s triunity. Barth never embraced such an idea. Moreover, I reject such thinking because God simply is the eternal Father, Son and Spirit who loves in freedom and is free in his love. God is not at all constituted by his act but simply is who he is in his act in eternity and in time.

    You think that McCormack’s position is judged problematic only by those who reject an “actualistic ontology.” This of course depends upon what one means by an actualistic ontology. McCormack’s actualistic ontology leads to the idea that God’s act of election determines God’s being because he claims God gives himself his being in the act of election. Barth never held such a view and for good reason. God’s act of election is indeed an act of the living God. But his act ad extra does not constitute his eternal being—it expresses it. So the criticisms of McCormack’s position do not simply arise from views that reject Barth’s actualism as you claim. They arise from the recognition that God’s act is his being in eternity precisely as the act of the eternal Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore, actualism can never imply a relationship of mutual conditioning between God and us. In your book on Barth’s doctrine of the incarnation you claim that the “later” Barth embraced the idea of mutual conditioning between God and us. Even your explanation of his own thinking demonstrates that he did not. Therein lies the problem. It does not lie in a non-actualistic perspective as you think but in the recognition, based on revelation, that God’s actions ad extra simply do not constitute his reality as the triune God. The problem concerns the need for a proper distinction in unity between the immanent and the economic Trinity. Therefore, the problem really is one of recognizing and maintaining the freedom of God’s grace.

    It is a whole other question as to whether or not Barth was out to revise ontology at all. On this point George Hunsinger helpfully writes that “Barth would have harbored no intention to construct a thoroughly actualistic concept of God’s being if that meant God’s being was merely a consequence of God’s actions, as required by prior ontological commitments” (Reading Barth with Charity, 4). His thinking was always based on revelation and not on any ontology—actualisitc or other. Hunsinger goes on to say, quite rightly in my view, that “Barth would have been averse to constructing a ‘postmetaphysical’ theology. He would have opposed it for theological reasons. It would have carried the danger he always sought to avoid, namely, that of setting up a conceptual scheme in which God was conditioned by the world” (ibid.).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s