Book Review: Faith, Freedom, and the Spirit by Paul Molnar
Author: Paul Molnar
Publisher: IVP Academic
Reading Level: High
“There is no knowledge without experience of God. But when God is known through God, we immediately know that the guarantee of that knowledge is and remains God and not our experience” (93).
With a name like Faith, Freedom, and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (henceforth FFS) a dense look at Trinitarianism and Christology is expected. It is nearly impossible to speak of such doctrines without paying attention to the great works of Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance. Yet, a divide exists among modern scholarship on these topics and in particular the proper way to read Barth’s theology on these doctrines. In FSS, Paul Molnar, professor of systematic theology at St. John’s University, adds clarification to previous works in this nuanced field. FFS presents a comprehensive look at Divine freedom in revelation, Christology/Trinitarianism, election, and vocation in the Spirit.
The nature of FFS demands a deeply theological book. Molnar is an excellent writer despite his tendency for repetition. Nevertheless, the theological matter prevents FFS from being accessible to readers without a background in Barth, Torrance, or modern discussion of the Trinity (McCormack, Hunsinger, Jenson, etc.). Those seeking to use FSS to dive into the discussion should start in the distilled conclusion before bogging down in the detailed analysis (419-429).
Molnar starts FFS with a recapitulation of man’s knowledge of God. Relying heavily on explanatory quotes from Barth and Torrance, Molnar puts forth a consistent epistemology that stresses knowledge of God as a gracious miracle bound only to God’s freedom to reveal Himself through His Spirit. Hence, “While faith is indeed a human action, as just noted, most attempts at apologetic theology inevitably try to establish the divinity of Christ in a way that bypasses the Holy Spirit as the one who alone enables true faith…Hence, in Christology, Torrance insisted that we must begin with the ‘fact of Christ’” [emphasis mine] (29). Therefore for Molnar, one can only know the true God as the Triune God revealed in history by Jesus Christ and understood through the work of the Holy Spirit. For illustration of this perspective’s importance to God’s freedom, Molnar contrasts it with the knowledge paradigms of Bultmann, Tillich, and Rahner (66-81).
In the chapters 3-7 Molnar looks to the freedom of God in His Triunity and Christology. This makes up the bulk of FFS and digs deeply into God’s freedom in His election to be “God for us.” Essential to this is the idea that “we in our Christology avoid any idea that the Word was not fully the Word prior to and apart from the incarnation” (137). God is God without creation. He has also chosen to be God for creation. And He has elected the Son to be part of creation in the person of Jesus Christ. Molnar is critical of Bruce McCormack’s logical reversal of God’s Trinitarian nature and election to be God for creation in Christ Jesus. McCormack bases God’s Triunity on his Election to be Creator. Both God’s Trinitarian nature and the Son’s incarnation are the superseded, or dictated, by creation. Evidence of this is found in McCormack’s rejection of Barth’s statement that “Jesus Christ has a beginning, but God has no beginning” (CD II/2; FFS 162). This concept of “before” and “after” for God is explicated through Torrance’s understanding of eternity and time (chapter 4) that “in the heart of Eternity there is motion. Eternity is not static” (207). Molnar echoes Torrance that both creation and incarnation are “new even for God.” There was a time when God was not creator. There was a time when the eternal logos was not incarnate. “God’s time,” as Molnar and Torrance call it, cannot be understood as similar to time experienced by creation. And yet, this concept of “before” and “after,” for God, must be affirmed to protect the freedom of God in creation and redemption. It is only in this freedom that “becoming man is itself an act of reconciliation” for both Torrance and Barth (214). Having explained this Molnar takes aim at the “historicized Christology” of Robert Jenson and Bruce McCormack (chapter 5). Molnar (and PTS Professor George Hunsinger) takes issue with the approach of Jenson and McCormack as collapsing the ontological and economical trinity through the person of Jesus Christ. Both ground the eternal existence and personhood of the second person of the Trinity in Jesus Christ. It is best summarized by Molnar that both “clearly confuses epistemology and ontology. It is certainly true that we cannot know the second person of the Trinity correctly in the absence of his humanity. But that hardly means that it is his humanity that makes him to be the eternal Son” (244). Molnar’s work is persuasive. The theology of Jenson and McCormack is not Chalcedonian nor ecumenical.
In the sixth chapter of FFS Molnar looks at whether Jenson or McCormack have correctly understood Karl Barth as to have adopted a “historicized Christology” in the later portion of his Church Domgatics (henceforth CD). In terms of strictly evaluating orthodox Christianity this chapter is less beneficial than others. But with respect to protecting the integrity of Barth’s orthodoxy and ecumenical spirit Molnar presents a reading of CD IV that is in agreement with Barth’s earlier CD I. It is perhaps in this chapter that the spirit of party lines shows itself the most. Molnar aligns with Hunsinger to present an ecumenical Barth that is more attractive to Roman Catholic engagement. So after many quotes from Barth’s CD IV (which do stress Molnar’s correct interpretation), Molnar summarizes Barth’s later theology by stating “that sounds awfully Chalcedonian to me” (304). This chapter’s defense of Barth is also important as it sets the stage for Molnar’s disagreement with Barth’s expression of Christ’s obedience (chapter 7). Molnar proceeds to points out that Barth went a step too far in reading the obedience of the Incarnate Word into the Eternal Word. Barth collapses God’s action in history with His historical being. Hence, for Molnar, Barth too is guilty of reading the economical trinity back into the ontological trinity. Because Barth does this with the Son in obedience to the Father, he inadvertently introduces a subordination theology. Barth was correct to see that the Divine nature, and not just the human nature, was a source of obedience within the hypostatic union. This was a position he likely stressed because of Anselm (a point Molnar does not explore directly) but overemphasized by reading it back into the ontological trinity. If obedience is required within the eternal relationship between the Father and Son then the atonement ceases to make sense as a meritorious action. Barth makes the very mistake he sought to dismiss early in Church Dogmatics. Molnar’s explanation of this is excellent and his presentation of Torrance’s healthier view establishes a valuable defense of the freedom of God in light of the Son’s obedience.
In his concluding chapter, Molnar takes the freedom of God and transports it to mankind. Through the reconciliation founded in Jesus Christ mankind is freed to obedience through the work of the Holy Spirit. This grounds vocation in the grace of Jesus Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Molnar states in practical conclusion, “any implication that our vocation is to become Christ immediately obscures the all-important fact that vocation is the life each of us live in relation to the specific call of the true witness and the enabling but miraculous power of the Holy Spirit” (394).
In conclusion, “to those who sincerely believe that some apologetic approach to theology built on general human experience, history, psychology, sociology or philosophy is required before engaging in a strictly dogmatic theology, this book will certainly offer a challenge” (419). Paul Molnar provides a substantial and ecumenically sustainable defense to the freedom of God. He also presents himself to be a faithful reader of Karl Barth. Those still investigating the disagreements between George Hunsinger and Bruce McCormack will benefit from this perspective. Evangelicals who have not dwelt heavily on God’s freedom alongside His election to be “God for us” will find themselves wrapped in a deep theological debate. Faith, Freedom and the Spirit remains a valuable read for those seeking to understand God’s ontological freedom in relation to creation.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.