Monday, 16 March 2015

Salvation & the Trinity (3): Problems with the proposals of Moltmann and Pannenberg

The proposals of Moltmann and Pannenberg to reconceive the Trinity in "social" or "relational" terms have been influential, and they seem promising for our quest for a systematic-theological framework for the charismatic renewal of New Wine. But their proposals have met with profound criticism too - at which points are their proposals problematic for a New Wine theology? A concise overview in five clusters.

[Part 14 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]

Problems with a "Social" Trinity

However important the trinitarian proposals of Moltmann and Pannenberg have been to reconceive a doctrine of God that indeed often had grown too static and too closed, their proposals met with profound criticism, too. [1] In the case of Moltmann, Richard Bauckham notes that not all of his critics gave him a proper reading in order to understand his intention and entire theological enterprise. [2] The same, obviously, could be said of Pannenberg – whose writings are often much harder to grasp. Nonetheless, precisely because of their intention and entire theological enterprise, some serious questions impose themselves.
As we saw previously, much of their assertions on the trinitarian life and love, the perichoresis, and the pneumatological nature of salvation that flows from it, can be given a sympathetic reading from the perspective of Reformed and Evangelical theology. But we also saw that some aspects are problematic for Reformed and Evangelical theology, especially when understood from their philosophical frames of reference.
Apart from this alleged “Hegelian” thrust, other objections have been raised specifically against their social understanding of the Trinity.

My inquiry in this paragraph will be threefold:
    How justified are these objections in the case of Moltmann?
    Are these objections also valid in the case of Pannenberg (who often might be perceived as corrective to Moltmann)?
    Which problems remain from the perspective of Reformed and Evangelical theology?

I will focus on five clusters of critical observations that seem to cut right to the core of the matter.

Cluster 1. Tritheism?

Some critics find it hard to distinguish Moltmann’s social trinitarianism from tritheism. Of course, Moltmann explicitly rejects tritheism, as I noted above.[3] Bauckham states that a proper reading of Moltmann’s later work fails to support this charge.[4] However, not all critics are convinced, as Grenz aptly notices.[5]
In the previous paragraph I noted that also Pannenberg offered certain reservations about Moltmann’s proposal at this point. With reference to Moltmann, Pannenberg warns that taking the starting point in the Trinity should not degenerate in tritheism, as if the three Persons ontologically exist apart from each other.[6] Moltmann doesn’t seem to be meaning this and explicitly states that the three persons exist-in-one-another. [7] Yet throughout his “Contributions to Systematic Theology” Moltmann speaks of the three divine persons as distinct centres of activity in ways that suggest too much the existence of three subjects that do exist apart from each other.
Pannenberg is more precise in his elaborations on the three Persons and their perichoretic unity, invalidating these charges of tritheism. At the same time, his proposal is not less “social” or “perichoretic”.[8]

Cluster 2. How about the transcendent Spirit?

Other critics have noted that Moltmann, though aiming at a trinitarian doctrine of God, still wrestles to make it truly tri-nitarian.[9] Although Moltmann emphasizes that the Spirit not merely is a “divine energy” but truly a third subject, being the glorifying and the unifying God[10], it somehow remains difficult to figure out how exactly the Spirit is a distinct and active divine Person within the Trinity.
In his later pneumatology, Moltmann’s perception of the Spirit of God seems to be tending less towards “person” and more towards being “the Spirit of life immanent in creation”.[11]
Pannenberg has a similar problem, taking his point of departure for understanding the intratrinitarian relations in the Father-Son relation too, and then seeking implications for the relations of the Spirit to the Father and the Son.[12] Obviously, “Pannenberg’s Principle” (his construct around the key concepts of self-distinction and the Kingdom of God) provides him with a far more solid argument for the personhood of the Spirit, in a fully perichoretic way. This enables Pannenberg to ascribe to the Spirit an active and distinct role within both the immanent and the economic Trinity.
However,  in the outworking of this, Pannenberg’s account of the Spirit remains rather bleak. For a systematic theologian who is so consistently trinitarian at the outset of his dogmatics, this is rather disappointing.
On second thought, Pannenberg’s use of the scientific concept of force field to describe the Spirit of God may not be that fortunate.[13] It seems that Pannenberg is using this concept not merely analogically but actually perceives the Spirit as a field, thus inducing an understanding of the Spirit that is too impersonal, as Pentecostal theologian Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen has suggested.[14] The personhood of the Spirit may somehow be different from the personhood of the Father and the Son (as the biblical phrasings suggest and is acknowledged in the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed), but a concept of personhood at least implies some sense of a “self” as a “who” (not a “what”), who is a self-conscious agent , able to enter into relations with others.[15] Pannenberg may be affirming this, but his usage of the field concept may be hard to reconcile with it.

Cluster 3. How about the unique salvation of the Son?

A third kind of criticism on Moltmann doesn’t see the Spirit underexposed, but rather the Son. More precisely, the objection is that social trinitarianism uses the doctrine of the Trinity to answer questions that traditionally – also by the Fathers of the Early Church, that it claims to refer to – were answered by Christology. Questions of “ontology, creation, mediation, soteriology - and ethics, including political and social theory” are to be seen “fundamentally as Christological questions” and should not be viewed as trinitarian questions, these critics claim.[16] In particular the exclusivity of the salvific work of Christ is at stake, they assert.
Even though from a Reformed perspective much can be said in favour of a trinitarian approach to those questions (also when it comes to the mediation of salvation)[17], Moltmann does seem to weaken the distinctiveness of the role of the Son as sole author of salvation, and most certainly the link between salvation and the conscious profession of faith in Jesus Christ.
The latter cannot be said of Pannenberg. Though he convincingly advocates a consistent trinitarian approach to all theological questions, this is not at the expense of Christology or the unique salvific role of Christ. Pannenberg also explicitly links the receiving of the Spirit of sonship to accepting the message of Jesus Christ. Pannenberg does shift away from the christocentricity that is characteristic of much of the theology in the post-Barthian era, making the doctrine of God the centre of his theology instead.[18] And by doing this he does emphasize the distinct role of the Spirit in the history of salvation (both in the life of Jesus and in the life of the believers), but this does not challenge the traditional assertion that Christ is both the unique source of eternal salvation for all who are obedient to him, and - through his death and resurrection - the archetype and author of the new humanity.

Cluster 4. How about the monarchy of the Father and the sovereignty of God?

A fourth kind of criticism is formed by a cluster of objections relating to the “openness” of God. Some critics have suggested that by rejecting the traditional doctrines of divine aseity and impassibility, Moltmann compromises the freedom and sovereignty of God. As we saw in the previous paragraph, the extent to which Moltmann speaks of the “vulnerability”, “suffering” and “dependence” of God, is problematic for Reformed and Evangelical theology indeed. His imagery of the “passion” of God is loaded with a notion of the “self-realization” of God that draws heavily from Hegelianism, and that is at odds with the traditional notion of the monarchy and lordship of a transcendent God.
In addition to this, Moltmann interprets the trinitarian perichoresis in terms of relationships of equal importance and equal value, rejecting  any notion of subordination within the Trinity, including the monarchy of the Father. [19] Likewise, he emphatically refutes any inclination to “theological patriarchalism” that depicts God as “the great universal monarch in heaven”.[20] Moltmann’s interpretation of the perichoresis thus inclines towards an internal egalitarianism and an external “vulnerability” and “dependency”, losing traditional notions of the Father’s monarchy and lordship.[21]

Obviously, this is one of the issues where Pannenberg and Moltmann part ways. Whereas Moltmann rejects the monarchy of the Father, Pannenberg makes it into a core concept.[22] He agrees with Moltmann that traditional theology mistakenly used the monarchy of the Father to warrant the unity of God (either dissolving the three persons in one Godhead, or subordinating the second and the third person to the first), but instead of rejecting the concept, Pannenberg re-thinks it in a consistently trinitarian way. We have seen how Pannenberg does so by using the concepts of self-differentiation and the Kingdom of God - the Father’s monarchy is his reign over the world, and this reign is validated in creation through the work of the Son and is completed through the work of the Spirit. In contrast to traditional theology, we saw, Pannenberg states that the monarchy of the Father is not the presupposition but the result of the mutual activity of the three persons in their eternal communion as well as in history.[23]
Nonetheless, the latter raises questions too. In the previous paragraph I already mentioned that Pannenberg’s assertion  implies a sense of “becoming”, or “realizing in history”, of the Father’s monarchy (and even deity), even when Pannenberg claims otherwise. The monarchy of the Father in the intratrinitarian relations remains unclear. It would seem that a corrective to Pannenberg is needed here, at least from the viewpoint of Reformed and Evangelical theology.

Cluster 5. What does “participation in the divine trinitarian life” mean?

Both Moltmann and Pannenberg argue that salvation is to be understood as being welcomed into the trinitarian perichoresis, the “divine embrace of love”, through the indwelling of the Spirit. This assertion may very well be right, but within their accounts of it at least two problems arise.

Firstly, the notion of “participation in the divine trinitarian life” seems to imply that we somehow become divine. The unreserved way in which Moltmann speaks of “the unhindered participation in the eternal life of the triune God himself” suggests an ontological divinization, participating in the divine nature of God, in which the finite becomes infinite (most certainly when understood from his Hegelian frame of reference). Pannenberg may emphasize the eternal distinction between Creator and creation, refuting any suggestion of a fusion of natures, but also in his case it is not clear how to avoid the implications of his philosophical structure: the “finite” (human beings) becoming “infinite” (God, divine).

Secondly, it remains unclear what this “participation in the divine trinitarian life” means in the life of the believer. How is it experienced? How does it surface in faith practices? Moltmann may assert that the indwelling of the Spirit is “always a physical experience.” But what does this practically entail?

In short

In short, Pannenberg may be corrective to Moltmann at several important points, but even in his account some aspects remain problematic for Reformed and Evangelical theology. If their proposal to understand the substance of salvation from the intratrinitarian perichoresis is to be adopted in a soteriological framework for vindicating the charismatic renewal of New Wine, a refinement of their proposal is sorely needed.


[1] For instance Karen Kilby, ‘Perichoresis and Projection: Problems with Social Doctrines of the Trinity’, New Blackfriars, 81 (2000), 432-445; Stephen R. Holmes, ‘Three Versus One? Some Problems of Social Trinitarianism’,  Journal of Reformed Theology, 3 (2009), 77-89.
[2] Richard Bauckham, ‘Jürgen Moltmann’, in: Ford and Muers (eds.), Modern Theologians, 147-162.
[3] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 175.
[4] Bauckham, ‘Jürgen Moltmann’, 160.
[5] Stanley J. Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self, 46.
[6] Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self, 50.
[7] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 172, 174-175.
[8] Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self, 46-50; Mostert, The Future of God, 225.
[9] Moltmann’s concept of a social Trinity traces back to his The Crucified God, in which he interpreted the cross as a trinitarian event (and rejecting the traditional distinction between the economic and the immanent Trinity). But though this clearly shows how deeply rooted in his theology the concept is, it might also reveal a crucial shortcoming, for this cross-event largely remains a matter of the Father and the Son, with no clear role for the Spirit. Significantly, the third volume in his early trilogy, Church in the Power of the Spirit (1975) isn’t a real pneumatology but an “Messianic ecclesiology” instead. It is not before The Trinity and the Kingdom that Moltmann develops a fully trinitarian doctrine, trying to establish a distinct role for the Spirit as well. Notably, Pannenberg is much more positive on the systematic achievement of Moltmann’s early contributions to the doctrine of the Trinity than many of Moltmann’s critics. Moltmann is often charged with being not profound enough, but Pannenberg credits Moltmann at this point. “Moltmann drew attention as early as 1972 to the historical implications of this eschatological aspect of the history of Jesus for the doctrine of the Trinity, and he worked out these implications in 1980 by including pneumatology as well. He showed convincingly that the glorifying of the Son and the Father by the Spirit is the personal act which most decisively expresses the subjectivity of the Spirit over against the other two persons, and above all that we must regard this doxological activity of the Spirit as an intratrinitarian relation because it is not directed outward but to the Son and the Father” (Pannenberg, ST I, 330).
[10] For instance Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 125-126, 168-170.
[11] In later years (after The Trinity and the Kingdom), Moltmann’s theology becomes more and more pneumatological, Bauckham concludes, triggered by his overall trinitarian framework. However, “his attention for pneumatology corresponds to his growing stress on the immanence of God in creation” (Bauckham, 159). In his pneumatological contribution, The Spirit of Life. A Universal Affirmation, Moltmann presents the Spirit most and for all as “divine Energy”, “source of life”, “God present in creation”, and reserves the issue of personhood for the last chapter, elaborating on the several biblical “metaphors” for the Spirit.
[12] Pannenberg, ST I, 259-268, 308-319, 319-327.
[13] See Pannenberg, ST II, 79-84; Grenz, Reason for Hope, 114-115.
[14] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, ‘The Working of the Spirit of God in Creation and in the People of God’, in: Pneuma, 26:1 (2004).
[15] Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self, 9-14.
[16] Explicitly so: Stephan R. Holmes, ‘Three Versus One?’, 77-89.
[17] See for instance the trinitarian approach of these loci in Van den Brink and Van der Kooi, Christelijke dogmatiek (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 2012).
[18] Grenz, Reason for Hope, 180.
[19] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 129-132, 162-166 (“monotheism and monarchianism are only the names for two sides of the same thing”, 130, “strict monotheism obliges us to think of God without Christ”, 131, “monotheism is the religion of patriarchy”, 165, the so-called “monarchy of the Father” does not define “the world monarchy of a universal Father”, 165, even in terms of origin the phrase is rather “inappropriate”, 166).
[20] Müller-Fahrenholz, The Kingdom and the Power, 148.
[21] Moltmann also translates this to ecclesial and political structures. Christian “monotheism”, emphasizing the monarchy of the Father, has led to hierarchical and oppressive power structures, Moltmann holds (The Trinity and the Kingdom, 191-202). A trinitarian way of thinking, i.e. a thinking in terms of relationships of equal importance and equal value, entails participatory, communal and thus democratic structures, in which “authority and obedience are replaced by dialogue, consensus and harmony” (202). See also Leene, Triniteit, Antropologie en Ecclesiologie, esp. 88-96.
[22] Pannenberg’s account counters Kilby’s objection against social trinitarianism at this point, I would say, as she accuses “social theorists” to project their own agenda of “combating patriarchy and oppressive forms of political and ecclesiastical organization” to the concepts of perichoresis and personhood. Pannenberg’s proposal proves otherwise (Kilby, ‘Perichoresis and Projection’, 438).
[23] See Grenz, Reason for Hope, 68.

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