A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)

Review of Paul Molnar’s Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity

Cultural Encounters (Summer 2006), 109-111

Paul D. Molnar’s important book on the Trinity is probably best understood as a voice of dissent against the prevailing tendency of late twentieth century trinitarian theology. The most influential Trinity books from the decades just past were concerned to emphasize the intimate involvement of the triune God in the world. That concern for intimacy was certainly understandable in itself, and also as a reaction to the widely-bemoaned position of irrelevance and abstractness into which the doctrine had lapsed. The doctrine had gone sickly, and re-engagement with the course of human events was the prescription from many doctors: Rahner said in 1967 that “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and vice versa”; Moltmann in 1980 linked God’s triunity with his suffering and the coming of the kingdom, taking his first steps toward a trinitarian panentheism; Jenson in 1982 went beyond identifying God by his saving acts, to locating The Triune Identity altogether in those actions; Pannenberg in 1988 described God’s “self-actualization in history” as awaiting fulfillment in the eschaton; LaCugna in 1991 taught that “the doctrine of the Trinity is not ultimately a teaching about ‘God’ but a teaching about God’s life with us and our life with each other”; and Peters in 1993 worried that “a Deus in se about which we cannot speak . . . an eternal God beyond the one we have experienced in the economy of salvation . . . only hypostatizes a figment of the philosophical imagination that takes our attention away from the God who was present in Jesus and continues to be present in the Spirit.”

Molnar, professor of systematic theology at St. John’s University in New York, was monitoring all of these developments closely. In a series of densely-argued articles, and ultimately in this comprehensive monograph (which gathers many of those articles), Molnar explored, documented, and refuted the trend toward what can only be described as reductively economic Trinitarianism. Molnar has no interest in distracting theological attention away from the economy of salvation where God meets us, but he believes that economy can only keep its gracious character if it is recognized as the economy of a God who is in himself, immanently, triune. After all, the economic Trinity can’t be the immanent Trinity unless there is an immanent Trinity for the economic Trinity to be. Thus Molnar’s major point is that “the purpose of a doctrine of the immanent Trinity is to recognize, uphold and respect God’s freedom” (p. ix). If we are to confess God’s freedom, that confession must begin by realizing that he eternally exists, within the fullness of the divine aseity, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…