Review: Paul Molnar’s Faith, Freedom and the Spirit
September 3, 2015
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.