Monday, 2 March 2015

Salvation & the Trinity (1): The Divine Dance of Love - Reconceiving the Trinity

Reformed theology has argued that all theology begins with the doctrine of God and God's self-revelation. How then is the proposed concept of salvation as wholeness (coming with the Kingdom of God) related to the doctrine of God? Both Moltmann and Pannenberg assert that salvation as wholeness flows from the trinitarian inner being of God, introducing the metaphor of the divine "perichoresis" in modern theology.
In four blogs on salvation & the Trinity, I'll explore how a "perichoretic" trinitarian theology allows for a fuller understanding of the distinct role of the Holy Spirit, shedding new light on charismatic experiences.

[Part 12 in a series on New Wine and systematic theology, drawn from my research master thesis Life to the Full. From Creation to Re-Creation, VU University 2014]

The Divine Dance of Love: Reconceiving the Trinity

The Trinity may not be a contested doctrine within mainstream Christianity, to most believers it probably does not seem a very relevant doctrine either. Reformed and Evangelical Christians certainly would profess that God is a triune God, but often find it hard to explain - the doctrine seems to be rather abstract and of little relevance to the faith of ordinary believers and to the way they are church.[1] In theology, the doctrine of the Trinity remains a crucial area of controversy and confusion. And although many approaches are offered, pneumatology – or rather: the distinct role of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity - often remains their weakest link.
Maybe this is also the reason why the debates on the Trinity within Protestant theology hardly seem to have led to a reconceiving of the nature of salvation. Could it be that Protestant theology has been so strongly Christocentric, that the work of the Spirit came to be christologically understood in terms of “grace of Christ”, inducing a functional neglect of the distinct role of the Spirit within the salvific work of the triune God?[2] And could it be that this has led to the neglect of a pneumatological understanding of the nature of salvation?

The quest for a significant doctrine of the Trinity has been high on the agenda of Western theology for  a while. “It can fairly be said that the chief ecumenical enterprise of current theology is rediscovery and development of the doctrine of the Trinity”, American Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson noted already in 1997.[3]
Remarkably, this has not been the case within Dutch theology. “Up to the present, the recent revival of trinitarian thinking has hardly affected Dutch theology”, Dutch theologians Gijsbert van den Brink and Stephan van Erp observe as recent as 2009. In a concise overview they make clear how and why leading Dutch theologians of the twentieth century either ignored the doctrine, or used it for their own purposes, or uttered critical reservations regarding its sense and significance.[4] It must be noted, however, that over the last few years some more Dutch studies on the Trinity have been published, mainly PhD-theses.[5]
“It can also fairly be said,” Jenson states, “that Barth initiated the enterprise.”[6] Indeed, Karl Barth purposefully placed the Trinity at the beginning of his Church Dogmatics, signifying its importance and centrality to the exposition and proclamation of theology (over against Schleiermacher, who put the Trinity at the end of The Christian Faith - but in line with traditional Reformed dogmatics). But it can be argued that his inclination to focus God’s revelation solely christologically left little space for a truly trinitarian theology and a distinct, active role for the Spirit.[7] Karl Rahner took an important step further in the renewal of trinitarian thought, by his famous dictum that “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity”, that is to say, God communicates Himself to humanity ("economic" Trinity) as He really is in the divine Life ("immanent" Trinity).[8]

Recent decades have seen a resurgence of theologies of a so-called “Social Trinity”, drawing both from Rahner’s dictum and the 4th century Cappadocian Fathers. This resurgence has been ignited by the radical proposals of both Moltmann and Pannenberg in the 1980s and 1990s. Arguably the most influential has been Moltmann’s proposal in The Trinity and the Kingdom.[9] We will first have a brief look at his proposal, and then to Pannenberg’s approach.

Moltmann: Perichoresis and the Trinity as “Being-in-Reciprocity”

Both Barth and Rahner fall short in developing a truly trinitarian doctrine of God, Moltmann claims. According to Barth, the doctrine of the Trinity has to be the assertion and emphasizing of the notion of the strict and absolute unity of God. Therefore, the unity and lordship of God precedes the Trinity. Then it is impossible, says Moltmann, to go on talking about “three Persons”, to whom subjectivity and “I-ness” would have to be ascribed in relation to other persons. The only remaining possibility is to talk merely about “three modes of being” in God, as Barth indeed does.[10]
Initially, Barth emphasizes the revelation of the Father (in Christliche Dogmatik im Entwurf, 1927), later to begin with God’s revelation in Christ (Church Dogmatics, 1932), Moltmann analyses. In both cases, the Spirit is really no more than the bond of love - the vinculum amoris - between the Father and the Son (as has often been the case in Western theology since Augustine).[11] But with Barth, even the Son cannot be fully perceived as “Person”, Moltmann argues.

“If this approach provides no justification for the Holy Spirit’s independent existence as Person in the Trinity, we must ask in return whether in this ‘duality’ God the Son can really be called Person in the full sense of the word. The principle ‘God reveals himself as the Lord’, means that all activity proceeds from the Father, both within the Trinity and in history.”[12]

Likewise, Rahner surrenders the trinitarian differentiation in God to the lordship and unity of God, says Moltmann. Rahner points at the modern, changed concept of “Person”, and argues that we ought no longer talk about una substantia - tres personae, but about a single divine subject in three “distinct modes of subsistence”. In his attempt to avoid tri-theism, Rahner loses a truly trinitarian perspective, Moltmann rightly analyses, as the Father ultimately is the single God-subject.

“For Rahner the one, single God-subject is the Father. The Son is the historical instrument, and the Spirit ‘in us’ is the place of God’s self-communication.”[13]

Instead of beginning with the philosophical postulate of the absolute unity of God (and then finding a problem in the biblical testimony), we should start from the biblical history and testimony of the three divine Persons (making the unity of the three Persons the problem), Moltmann states.[14]
The problem in Western theology is that first (in the early church, since Tertullian) it has tried to depict the Trinity in terms of substance, and later (in modern theology, since Hegel) in terms of subject. Presenting the trinitarian Persons in one homogeneous divine substance has led to an understanding of the divine being as one, immovable, impassable, and so forth. Likewise, the modern understanding of subjectivity has led to an understanding of the divine being as an absolute subject (disintegrating the trinitarian Persons into mere aspects of one subject, modalism - as we saw with Barth and Rahner). Both the Trinity of substance and the Trinity of subject have unintentionally but inescapably led to the disintegration of the doctrine of the Trinity in abstract monotheism, Moltmann analyses.[15] Protestant theology may be speaking of the Trinity, says Moltmann, but it generally fails to be fully trinitarian in its thinking and outworking.[16]
Over against these approaches in terms of either substance or subject, Moltmann then proposes a social doctrine of the Trinity, perceiving God’s unity in the perichoresis of the divine Persons.[17] For, Moltmann argues, as we take our point of departure not in Greek or Modern philosophy but in the testimony of the Bible, we should think of the one God in terms of loving relationships and fellowship - the God of the Bible can only be thought of in terms of reciprocal relationship.[18]
The three divine Persons are not “modes of being” but individual, unique, non-interchangeable subjects who exist in their particular natures as Father, Son and Spirit in their relationship to one another – being a “person” in this respect means existing-in-relationship. The character of this relational Trinity is grasped beautifully – Moltmann asserts - in John Damascene’s doctrine of the eternal πεϱιχώϱησις - perichoresis.[19] The eternal divine life is like a dance of love, in which Father, Son and Spirit dwell and exist in one another in “a process of most perfect and intense empathy”, “to such an extent, that they are one”. This perichoretic intimacy is not just embracing each other, but also entering into each other, permeating each other, dwelling in each other - one in being, one in the intimacy of their friendship and self-giving love. Thus the concept of perichoresis contributes to avoiding all forms of subordinationism in the doctrine of the Trinity.[20]

“In their perichoresis and because of it, the trinitarian persons are not to be understood as three different individuals, who only subsequently enter into relationship with one another (which is the customary reproach, under the name of ‘tritheism’). But they are not, either, three modes of being or three repetitions of the One God, as the modalistic interpretation suggests. The doctrine of the perichoresis links together in a brilliant way the threeness and the unity, without reducing the threeness to the unity, or dissolving the unity in the threeness. The unity of the triunity lies in the eternal perichoresis, the trinitarian persons form their own unity by themselves in the circulation of the divine life.”[21]

The dynamic character of this understanding of the Trinity opens new perspectives on the relationship between God and creation, as Moltmann connects the – rather static –  understanding of the perichoresis of the Church Fathers to his eschatological understanding of history, giving the perichoresis a dynamic thrust . Creation is part of the eternal love affair between the Father and the Son. It springs from the Father’s love for the Son and is redeemed by the answering love of the Son for the Father. Creation exists because the eternal love communicates himself and seeks fellowship and desires response in freedom.[22]

Compelling yet problematic

When presented like this, and read from a Reformed or Evangelical perspective as an account of God’s passionate love for his creation as expressed throughout the Old and New Testament, Moltmann’s dynamic proposal of the perichoresis is compelling. And indeed, it has been adopted by many Reformed and Evangelical theologians.[23] However, as we saw in the previous chapter, Moltmann’s basic structure is rooted in Hegelian idealism. When read from this perspective, his passionate imagery is loaded in terms of Hegel’s Spirit (Weltgeist) that externalises itself  in coming to being (in nature), becomes self-conscious (in humans), and that has to overcome existential alienation through recognizing the Spirit in everything - as all existence is an all-inclusive whole and essentially spirit - and thus “coming to itself”. The basic structure of creation springing from the inner trinitarian life and drawn back into it and thus finding fulfilment, then reflects Hegel’s historical process of the self-realization of the Absolute Spirit.[24] It is hard to ignore this keynote in Moltmann’s theology (even though Moltmann himself claims to reject this Hegelian interpretation - the most fundamental difference may be that Moltmann refutes any monistic perception of God, as the “Absolute Spirit” of the world, advocating a passionate, triune God-in-relation, who remains – so he claims - essentially transcendent).
Likewise, Moltmann has often been charged with being “Neo-Platonic” too, as creation is perceived to be “emanating” from the inner being of God, to find fulfilment only as it returns into the inner being of God. [25] The suggestion is certainly there in Moltmann’s accounts, but this charge is much more debatable. Not only does Moltmann explicitly state that “creation cannot be conceived of an emanation from the supreme Being”, instead it is “the communication of his love” (creation is creatio ex amore Dei, and as such God communicates himself[26]), there is also much in his theology that is at odds with Neo-Platonism.[27]
What has been heavily disputed by Reformed and Evangelical theologians, is Moltmann’s insistence on the vulnerability and “suffering” of God, that flows from his understanding of the perichoresis. God’s love seeks to be answered by his creation and since this must be a response in freedom in order to be genuine love, God renders himself vulnerable . The creation of the world is therefore not merely “an act of God outwardly”, it is at the same time “an act of God inwardly”, affecting him deeply. Moltmann even speaks of God’s “self-humiliation”, as God limits himself with the creation of the world. God “suffers” with the world, because of the world, and for the world, Moltmann asserts. In this sense, God needs to be “delivered from the sufferings of his love” , what will occur when his love finds fulfilment.[28]
Understood in terms of a loving relationship between the Creator and his creation, these assertions make sense (and can indeed be seen as a correction of Greek notions of divine impassibility). But Moltmann tends to go further than this understanding, speaking in ontological terms about the “self-withdrawal” of God, letting go of classic notions of God’s sovereignty and lordship, and making God’s “fulfilment” dependent on human response, as humans mutually “suffer with God and for him”.[29] Again, this reveals Moltmann’s Hegelian frame of reference.

Pannenberg: At the heart of reality is self-giving love

Pannenberg largely concurs with Moltmann, making a strong case for a social understanding of the Trinity within mainstream Protestant theology, including the key metaphor of the divine perichoresis. But Pannenberg’s argument is more precise than Moltmann’s, seeking to avoid several of the imbalances that Moltmann is prone to. However, some problems remain.
In our previous chapter we saw that according to Pannenberg, true knowledge about God and his salvation can only flow from God’s self-revelation. This determines that Pannenberg omits the regular prolegomena and begins his dogmatics with the doctrine of God (Chapters 5 and 6). [30]  The subsequent loci are to be the unfolding of this doctrine. [31]  And since our knowledge of God comes through God’s self-revelation in history, the doctrine of God is to be a doctrine of the Trinity – for in history God has revealed himself as three Persons.[32]

The Trinity as rooted in Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom

Instead of starting with God’s self-revelation in the Old Testament, Pannenberg opts for taking his point of departure with God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, and then looking backwards in time. At the heart of the message of Jesus was the announcing of the nearness of the Kingdom of God, and it is here - Pannenberg argues - that the trinitarian understanding of God in the Christian faith finds its genesis.[33] Occasionally the God of Israel already was referred to as “Father”, as the epitome for God’s comprehensive care. But “on the lips of Jesus, ‘Father’ became a proper name for God.”[34] Inherent to Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God is his claim to divine lordship, and the Early Church understood his resurrection as “a divine confirmation of the claim implied in his earthly ministry”, that Jesus indeed was God. The deity of the Son was confirmed by the use of the title “Kyrios” - unequivocally a term for God - for the exalted Jesus. At the same time, the message of Jesus clearly differentiates the Son from the Father (and thus establishing him as a second member of the one God of the shema), as the Gospels express a unique dynamic between Jesus and the Father, and between the nearness of the divine reign and his own coming.[35]
But in God’s revelation in Jesus also a third “member” of the one God of the shema is added, Pannenberg asserts.[36] The Gospels trace back the relationship of Jesus with the Father to the presence and working of the Spirit within him - from the infancy story in Luke, stating that Jesus was conceived of the Spirit (Luke 1:35), to the impartation of the Spirit to him at his baptism (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1: 32-33), and his dependence on the Spirit in his acting, speaking and works (Mark 1: 12; Luke 4: 1, 14; John 5:19). The apostle Paul is clear on the Spirit being the third member, Pannenberg argues, relating both the “Kyrios” and the “Pneuma” to the saving plan of God in his letter to the Romans.
The Spirit, as the third member, not only worked in Jesus - and raised him up from the dead - but is also imparted to the believers, as the Spirit of sonship.

“Elsewhere, too, the Spirit of God is either presupposed or expressly named as the medium of the communion of Jesus with the Father and the mediator of the participation of believers in Christ. According to Paul Jesus Christ was raised and instituted into divine sonship by the power of the Spirit (Rom. 1:4), and the God who raised up Jesus from the dead will by his Spirit, who dwells in believers, bring their mortal bodies also to eternal life (8:11). The Spirit of sonship who is given to Christians (8:15) is the Spirit who instituted Jesus into sonship. All sonship, then, rests on the working of the Spirit (8:14).”[37]

Notably, it is right here, at the very genesis of the trinitarian understanding of God in the Christian faith (according to Pannenberg), that the content of salvation is perceived in pneumatological terms, namely as “receiving the Spirit of sonship” and thus being adopted as children of God (Romans 8:15).[38]

The Trinity: A perichoresis of self-giving love

Due to Pannenberg’s rather abstract language and philosophical approach, the essence of his trinitarian theology is easily overlooked, but that would be a shame. For at the core of his trinitarian theology is the passionate claim that at the heart of all reality, is self-giving love.[39] The triune God, who created the universe and human being in his image (imago Trinitatis), is characterized by mutual self-giving love - each Person of the Trinity loves, adores and glorifies the others, giving himself to the others, constituting the identity of the others.[40]
This is not to be understood as if the three Persons ontologically exist apart from each other, only then to engage in their relationships. Such a view would no longer be trinitarian but tritheistic, Pannenberg warns, and must be refuted. At this point he is critical towards Moltmann’s proposal.[41] Instead, personhood itself should be understood as inherently relational. This notion is the key to Pannenberg’s understanding of the Trinity (and - as we will see - to his understanding of salvation). At the heart of Pannenberg’s understanding of the Trinity are, as Stanley Grenz has aptly pointed out, two important ideas: self-differentiation, and, what Roger Olson has called, the “Pannenberg’s Principle”.[42]

1. Mutual self-differentiation of the trinitarian Persons

Within trinitarian theology, the term “self-differentiation” traditionally was used to refer to the bringing forth of the second and third trinitarian Persons through the Father, an understanding that implicitly gave ontological priority to the Father in the Trinity. Drawing from Hegel, Pannenberg uses the term differently, relating it to the essence of personhood. “Person” is a correlative term, he asserts, involving both self-differentiation and dependence. In the words of Grenz:

“The essence of person lies in the act of giving oneself to one’s counterpart and thereby gaining one’s identity from the other.”[43]
In order to give oneself to the other, one needs to be distinct from the other first. Self-differentiation, then, is inherently part of personhood. But bound up with this personal self-differentiation is the concept of dependence. For “the one who differentiates oneself from another is dependent on the other for one’s identity.”[44]
Pannenberg draws here from Hegel’s thesis that “person” is a correlative term, but to develop this idea he explores the Father-Son-relation in the New Testament kerygma. Father and Son are very closely related in their identity, Pannenberg points out, referring to the assertions that “to know the Son is to know the Father” (John 8: 19), and that the Son is “the only access to knowledge of the Father” while at the same time it is “only through the Father” that “Jesus is known as the Son” (Matthew 11:27).[45] Father and Son are mutually constituting each other’s identity and are thus dependent on each other for their being person. At the same time, this requires self-differentiation, because in order to be able to give oneself to the other, one needs to be distinct.[46]
Giving oneself to the other, and accepting to be dependent on the other, is a free act of agreement. For Pannenberg this is revealed ultimately by the fact that Jesus distinguishes himself clearly from the Father, “but in renouncing himself completely, he makes room for the action of the Father and the coming of his Kingdom.”[47] In giving himself freely to the Father and his kingdom, the Son proves to be truly Son. Likewise, the Father gives himself freely to the Son as the Father. In the words of Schwöbel,

“The self-differentiation of the Son from the Father corresponds to the self-differentiation of the Father from the Son, which consists in the fact that the Son receives all power in heaven and on earth from the Father (Matthew 28: 18) until God’s rule has become universally victorious, when the Son will return the power to the Father (cf. 1 Corinthians 15: 24, 28).”[48]

This mutual self-differentiation of the Father and the Son is dependent on  a similar self-differentiation of the Spirit, Pannenberg asserts, as both the Father and the Son are dependent on the Spirit as the active medium of their community. The Son is not the Son without the Spirit, as the Father is not the Father without the Spirit, as they give themselves freely to each other in the Spirit. In Pannenberg’s view this is revealed ultimately in the resurrection, as this event depicts the dependence of the Father and the Son on the activity of the Spirit - the Son is raised by the Spirit.
The concept of the Trinity that Pannenberg develops, in this way implies that the three Persons have to be understood as three centres of activity, that are mutually intertwined and dependent on each other in their active relationships.[49] Thus, the category of relation is not external but internal to the concept of divine being.[50]
Humans beings, created in the imago Trinitatis, only reach their fulfilment as they reflect this reciprocal perichoresis – living “ecstatically” in mutual self-giving to other human beings and to God, and thus “participating in the divine trinitarian life.” They can only do so as they follow “the pattern of the Son” through the Spirit, who is

“the principle of communion in the immanent Trinity and so the medium of the participation of created life in the divine trinitarian life.”[51]

Pannenberg thus defines the fulfilment of created life – or: its salvation - as “participation in the divine trinitarian life” through the Spirit. This imagery is compelling, as it speaks of “the heartbeat of the divine love” that “encompasses the whole world of creatures”, and of a passionate God who seeks to draw his beloved creation back into the eternal, embrace of intimate love.[52] It definitely makes sense that Evangelical and Reformed theologians such as Timothy Keller emphatically speak of this being drawn back into “the divine dance of love.”
However, within Pannenberg’s account some serious questions arise. How is this “participation” to be understood – does it entail sharing in the divine nature? Do humans become divine then? Is there an essential distinction between the sonship of the eternal Son and the sonship of human beings? Pannenberg may argue so, but at the same time the Hegelian thrust is paramount throughout his elaborations. As he argues that one finds fulfilment when one “grasps the distinction between the self and the world” but also becomes conscious of the “infinite” or “the divine Spirit” that is the basis for “interrelatedness of the I and the things of the world, especially similar living creatures”, the influence of Fichte, Schelling and mostly Hegel is heavily felt.[53] This, in itself, does not render his account faulty of course. But it does not entirely clear how then to avoid the implications of Hegel’s structure, namely that “salvation” then ultimately entails self-realization in freedom, and that when this occurs the “finite” (human beings) become “infinite” (God, divine)?[54]

2. Pannenberg's Principle: God’s deity and the Kingdom

Closely related to Pannenberg’s concept of the mutual self-differentiation of the trinitarian Persons, is a second concept, coined by Olson as “Pannenberg’s Principle”. In his briefest phrasing, “God’s being is in his rule.”[55] In the words of Grenz, “God’s being, which is likewise his deity, is linked with his rulership over the world.”[56]

Pannenberg introduces this principle primarily because after taking his point of departure in the revelation of the three Persons, he now has to deal with the unity of God. This unity, he concurs with Moltmann, cannot be found in one divine substance or subject. But simply appealing to the divine perichoresis will not do, Pannenberg argues.[57] In contrast to Moltmann, Pannenberg appeals to the monarchy of the Father and the lordship of God over his world to establish the unity of the triune God. To put it bluntly, God cannot be God without his Kingdom. His deity depends on it, Pannenberg asserts.
This idea might be explained with the following syllogism: A Creator-God must reign over his creation (premise 1); The rule of God is rejected by his creation (premise 2); Therefore, God isn’t God (conclusion). As long as creation doesn’t freely agree with God’s rule (following the pattern of the Son), God’s deity or even his divine being, is at stake. At some points Pannenberg speaks about this epistemologically, as if God’s deity merely needs to be recognized and acknowledged (his phrasings may then be found to be in accordance with traditional theology). But elsewhere it appears that Pannenberg takes this idea further in a radical way, as he speaks of it ontologically.[58] Somehow the deity of God is dependent on the historic process.

“By handing over lordship to the Son the Father makes his kingship dependent on whether the Son glorifies him and fulfils his lordship by fulfilling his mission (…) so that his kingdom and his own deity are now dependent upon the Son. The rule or kingdom of the Father is not so external to his deity that he might be God without his kingdom.”[59]

The unity of the triune God, then, must be found in the mutual activity of the three persons in constituting the monarchy of the Father.  The divine essence is ultimately “the epitome of the personal relations among Father, Son, and Spirit.” These divine  relations unfold throughout the course of the history of the world, and their unity will be revealed as God’s Kingdom is consummated.[60] In this way, Pannenberg concludes - in contrast to much of traditional theology - that “the monarchy of the Father is not the presupposition but the result of the mutual activity of the three persons in history, so that the history of the world becomes as well the history of God.” The question of the unity of the triune God, therefore, “cannot be answered from the perspective of God’s essence apart from the mutual relations of the three persons as disclosed in their work in the world - that is, not apart from the economy of salvation.”[61]

To what extent is Pannenberg's proposal problematic?

Obviously, Pannenberg’s assertions are problematic for Reformed and Evangelical theology, for at least two reasons.
    First, the suggestion that the deity of God, his divine existence, is dependent on the historic process in creation. Is his deity dependent on humanity’s acknowledgment of his divine reign? If humanity does not acknowledge God as God, he does not exist? Does he “exist” as an eternal, transcendent reality at all then?
    Second, the suggestion that God then somehow is “ in the process of becoming”. When Pannenberg is read from the perspective of his Hegelian basic structure, this suggestion seems hard to avoid: God appears to be in a process of “self-realization in history”, like we saw with Moltmann.

However, it is important to note that Pannenberg fervently rejects both suggestions, and distances himself from Moltmann.
    With regard to the first suggestion, Pannenberg concurs with Moltmann that God is inherently relational and his historical relations to the world cannot be external to the interior life of God (God is affected by the world), but in contrast with Moltmann he seeks to retain the notion of God’s sovereignty. He does so by emphasizing that the coming of the reign of God does not depend on creation, but on the mission of the Son in the world, that is to be completed through the mission of the Spirit. In other words, the deity of God depends on God-self (expressing the mutual dependence of the three divine Persons for the constituting of their identity). This can still be understood from a Hegelian concept of the Spirit’s self-realization, but Moltmann’s much-criticized notion of a suffering God in need of redemption is refuted. [62]
    With regard to the second suggestion, Pannenberg might be more difficult to understand but his rejection of any notion of the ”becoming” of God is fundamental. Whereas Moltmann without hesitance speaks of God’s “becoming”, Pannenberg has a strong aversion against any suggestion that God is “developing” or “becoming” and refutes such notions in process theology more clearly and decidedly than Moltmann.[63] In his thorough study on Pannenberg’s understanding of “the future of God”, Mostert demonstrates that this is not merely a matter of terminology, but that Pannenberg’s refutation is “fundamental, involving both ontological and theological principles.”[64] Mostert points out that Pannenberg is able to reconcile both assertions (God being affected by history, and God not developing in history) by distinguishing between the immanent and economic Trinity. “On the level of the economic Trinity, there is undoubtedly an element of development and history within the divine reality itself”, Pannenberg argues.[65] Therefore, it is possible to talk about God’s involvement with history in dynamic terms, even in terms of self-actualisation (think of “Pannenberg’s Principle”, that God’s being is in his rule, and that his being “depends” on the coming of his Kingdom). But on the level of the immanent Trinity “there can be no self-actualisation in God”, for God “as causa sui, owes God’s being to nothing else, neither past, present, nor future.  God is already fully actual.”[66] It is only at the eschatological consummation that the essence of all existence is decided, but - Pannenberg argues - this cannot apply to God in his eternal, immanent being. It is possible, however, to speak of the eschatological consummation of God’s rule over all finite reality as “the point at which God’s essential being will be both constituted and unambiguously known”, because “what will then turn out to be the case about God will have been God’s essence all along.”[67]

Next blog post in this series: Salvation & the Trinity: Reconceiving Salvation.


[1] See Gijsbert van den Brink and Kees van der Kooi, Christelijke dogmatiek (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 2012), 87.
[2] Graham Tomlin makes a case for this suggestion, in Graham Tomlin, The Prodigal Spirit. The Trinity, the Church and the Future of the World (London: Alpha International, 2011), 15.
[3] Robert Jenson, ‘Karl Barth’, in: David F. Ford, The Modern Theologians, 2nd ed., Malden/Oxford 1997, 47.
[4] Van den Brink and Van Erp ascertain that - while internationally  “numerous theologians from widely divergent denominational backgrounds” are rediscovering the “hidden spiritual and theological resources” of the early Christian tradition, in what is no less than a “new paradigm” - “the Dutch have mainly been conspicuous by their absence until the present day”, and might be “missing the boat”. The authors find an exception in O. Noordmans (1871-1955), who stressed the “pivotal importance of the doctrine of the Trinity”. In the economy of salvation, Noordmans asserted, God reveals Godself as Father, Son and Spirit - in fact, he argues, the whole of the Bible is full of this pattern (Gijsbert van den Brink and Stephan van Erp, ‘Ignoring God Triune? The Doctrine of the Trinity in Dutch Theology’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 11:1 (2009), 72-90).
[5] See A. Baars, Om God’s verhevenheid en Zijn nabijheid. De Drie-eenheid bij Calvijn (Kampen: Kok, 2004), a dissertation at the Christian Reformed Theologische Universiteit Apeldoorn (TUA); A. Meesters, God in drie woorden. Een systematisch onderzoek naar de Cappadocische bijdrage aan het denken over God Drie-enig (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 2006), dissertation at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen (RUG);  W.M. Dekker, De relationaliteit van God. Onafhankelijkheid en relatie in de Godsleer en ontologie van Francesco Turrettini en Eberhard Jüngel (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 2008), dissertation at the Protestantse Theologische Universiteit Utrecht; J.Y. Kim, The Relational God and Salvation, soteriological Implications of the Social Doctrine of the Trinity – Jürgen Moltmann, Catherine LaCugna, Colin Gunton (Kampen: Kok, 2008), dissertation at the Theologische Universiteit van de Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland; and Almatine Leene, Triniteit, antropologie en ecclesiologie. Een kritisch onderzoek naar de implicaties van de godsleer voor de positie van mannen en vrouwen in de kerk (Amsterdam: Buijten & Schipperheijn, 2013), dissertation at the University of Stellenbosch (South Africa), but Leene is Dutch and addresses the Dutch theological context. Not in the last place must the recent Christian dogmatics by Gijsbert van den Brink and Kees van der Kooi be mentioned, that boldly takes a trinitarian doctrine of God as its point of departure: G. van den Brink and C. van der Kooi, Christelijke dogmatiek (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 2012).
[6] Jenson, ‘Karl Barth’, 47.
[7] Tomlin, The Prodigal Spirit, 18.
[8] Karl Rahner, The Trinity (London: Burns & Oates, 1970), 22.
[9] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom. The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1981), translated from Trinität und Reich Gottes (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1980).
[10] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 140-141. See for instance Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1936), 358-359.
[11] Barth, Church Dogmatics 1/1, 332, 480, 487.
[12] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 143.
[13] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 147.
[14] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 149. Dutch Reformed theologians Gijsbert van den Brink and Kees van der Kooi obviously follow Moltmann in this proposal in their Christelijke dogmatiek, rejecting the traditional order in the doctrine of God of first elaborating on the nature and attributes of God, only then to discuss the divine Trinity. Rather, the Trinity ought to be the “gateway” to the doctrine of God, they state (Van den Brink and Van der Kooi, Christelijke dogmatiek, 83-88).
[15] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 16-18.
[16] Much has changed in Protestant theology, of course, since the “trinitarian revival” of the second half of the twentieth century.
[17] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 150.
[18] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 19.
[19] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 174-176. Peri- (around), -chorein (to contain). Syrian monk John Damascene, born in Damascus (675 or 676) and died in the monastery of Mar Saba, near Jerusalem (749), is considered the last of the Father of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The verb perichoreo, though, was earlier used by Gregory of Nianzus (329-389/390), using it to describe the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ but also extending it to the mutual permeating of the three divine Persons.
[20] Müller-Fahrenholz, The Kingdom and the Power, 146.
[21] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 175.
[22] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 59.
[23] Well-known Evangelical and Reformed proponents of the concept of perichoresis and the “divine dance of love” that creation is welcomed into, are Stanley J. Grenz, Miroslav Volf, John Piper, and Timothy Keller.
[24] See G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), translation of Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807).
[25] For instance Douglas Farrow, ‘The End is the Beginning: A Review of Jürgen Moltmann’s Systematic Contributions’, Modern Theology, 14:3 (1998), 425-447; Douglas Schuurman, Creation, Eschaton, and Ethics: The Ethical Significance of the Creation-Eschaton Relation in the Thought of Emil Brunner and Jürgen Moltmann (New York: Peter Lang, 1991).
[26] Moltmann, God in Creation, 75-76.
[27] See Ernst M. Conradie, Saving the Earth? The Legacy of Reformed Views on Re-Creation, Studies in Religion and the Environment Vol. 8 (Vienna: LIT Verlag, 2013), 280 (“Here one may mention his early emphasis on the history-creating promises of God, the hope for the emergence of that what is new instead of a contemplative search for that which is abiding, his persistent critique of various forms of dualism, his appreciation of that which is material, bodily and earthly, his understanding of God as passionate, vulnerable and in solidarity with creation, and so forth”).
[28] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 59-60.
[29] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 60.
[30] Chapters 2-4 could be perceived as some kind of prolegomena, though, even as they provide neither a doctrine of Scripture (as in traditional dogmatics) nor a founding of theology in experience of faith (as in neo-protestant theology). Theology, Pannenberg states, is a presentation within the context of the general religious nature of humankind, and the idea of God is foundational to the structure of human person and of human society and therefore it is possible to speak of “God” in a plural and largely secular world.
[31] Grenz, Reason for Hope, 12.
[32] Pannenberg, ST I, 299; Christian Schwöbel, ‘Wolfhart Pannenberg’, 136.
[33] Pannenberg, ST I, 259; Grenz, Reason for Hope, 61.
[34] Pannenberg, ST I, 262.
[35] Pannenberg, ST I, 264.
[36] Pannenberg, ST I, 268.
[37] Pannenberg, ST I, 266.
[38] Pannenberg, ST I, 317-318.
[39] Christian Schwöbel, ‘Wolfhart Pannenberg’, 138.
[40] Pannenberg, ST I, 308-311; Grenz, Reason for Hope, 66-67.
[41] Stanley J. Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self. A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 50.
[42] Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self, 48; Grenz, Reason for Hope, 64; Roger Olson, ‘Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Doctrine of the Trinity’, Scottish Journal of Theology 43 (1990), 175-206, 199. Apart from ST I and II, see Pannenberg, Jesus - God and Man (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968, 1977), 181-183, 340.
[43] Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self, 48.
[44] In his understanding of personhood, Pannenberg draws from Hegel’s thesis that “person” is a correlative term - the essence of personhood lies in the act of giving oneself to one’s counterpart and thereby gaining one’s identity from the other. Dependence thus is bound up with self-differentiation. “Pannenberg finds this thesis in the entire Western tradition of the doctrine of the Trinity prior to Hegel”, Stanley Grenz summarizes Pannenberg’s discussion on this, “beginning with Augustine and including Richard of St. Victor and Duns Scotus (...) Yet for the substantial basis of this idea, Pannenberg looks to his analysis of the relationship of Jesus to the Father” (Grenz, Reason for Hope, 64). See Pannenberg, ST I, 300-327 (esp. 308-314); ST II, 20-35.
[45] Pannenberg, ST I, 308.
[46]  Pannenberg, ST II, 32.
[47] Schwöbel, ‘Wolfhart Pannenberg’, 136.
[48] Schwöbel, ‘Wolfhart Pannenberg’, 137.
[49] Schwöbel, ‘Wolfhart Pannenberg’, 137.
[50] Grenz, Reason for Hope, 70.
[51] Schwöbel, ‘Wolfhart Pannenberg’, 139;  Pannenberg, ST II, 32.
[52] See the concluding words of Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology (ST III, 646).
[53] Pannenberg, ST II, 192-197.
[54] See Leonard F. Wheat, Hegel’s Undiscovered Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis Dialectics: What Only Marx and Tillich Understood (Amherst: Prometheus, 2012), 69, 105-106, 158-160, 291, 338; see G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).
[55] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), 55-56.
[56] Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self, 48-49.
[57] Pannenberg does not reject the doctrine of perichoresis, but he points out (against  Moltmann’s use of the term) that is was never intended to account for the unity of the divine essence (the use to which Moltmann puts it) but presupposes that unity on the basis of the origin of the Son and the Spirit in the Father. Pannenberg rejects the traditional focus on God as one divine subject (and its modalism), from Augustine to Barth, because this leads to an immutable God, unaffected by history. Likewise, Grenz points out, “Pannenberg rejects the traditional tendency to gain the divine unity by reducing the trinitarian persons to relations of origin in the one Godhead, as is reflected in the traditional terms of generation and procession and often accompanies appeals to the idea of perichoresis” (Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self, 49).
[58] Pannenberg, ST I, 313-314, 327-336; Grenz, Reason for Hope, 98.
[59] Pannenberg, ST I, 313; also Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self, 50.
[60] Pannenberg, ST I, 327, 330, 334; Grenz, Reason for Hope, 101.
[61] Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self, 50.
[62] Pannenberg, ST I, 332; Grenz, Reason for Hope, 68. Instead of rendering God “vulnerable” in his “suffering”, dependent on creation’s free response (as with Moltmann), Pannenberg emphasizes the triune God as “the reality that determines everything” and as “the power of the future”. God is to be thought of as fulfilled through the relationship to the world but not restricted by it (see Grenz, Reason for Hope, 94, 100) – though this, too, can be understood in Hegelian terms of the Spirit’s self-realization.
[63] Pannenberg, ST II, 271-272.
[64] See Mostert, God and the Future, 157-161.
[65] Pannenberg, ‘A Response to my American Friends’, in Carl E. Braaten and Philip Clayton (eds.), The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), 323, quoted in Mostert, God and the Future, 158.
[66] Mostert, God and the Future, 161.
[67] Mostert, God and the Future, 158

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