Jürgen Moltmann’s Trinitarian theology (part 1)

Necessity and Freedom: God’s Love

Jürgen Moltmann

Moltmann’s project in The Trinity and the Kingdom involves answering the question of whether creation is a product of God’s nature or a product of his will. This, of course, involves answering the question of whether creation is a product of necessity or of freedom, respectively. Moltmann’s solution is to ground creation as an expression of God’s love – and it is precisely that love that combines necessity and freedom in a perfect balance, so that neither can be affirmed without the other.

On the one hand, it is impossible to conceive of a God who is not a creative God, because he is love, and love seeks responsiveness. On the other hand, love acts according to its nature, and that is freedom. Thus, God creates according to his nature, i.e.,  he creates necessarily and freely.

Necessity and freedom coincide in the nature of God, since for God to love is axiomatic, self-evident: he cannot deny himself. For God it is axiomatic to love freely, for he is God.[1] His love is his liberty and his liberty is his love, and he is not compelled to love by any outward or inward necessity, for love is self-evident for God.[2] This love, which God is and which brings about the creative act, is the same love with which God the Father loves the Son, but it is a love that seek responsiveness in creation – and the Son is not creation.

Therefore, the love with which God creates in order to be glorified in the response of his creation is intimately related to, and yet not identical in all respects, to the love with which he loves his uncreated Son.

This distinction in God’s love of self and love of the Other will be one of the main reasons for Moltmann’s upholding the distinction between the economic and the immanent Trinity. From eternity God has desired not only himself, but the world too, for he did no merely want to communicate himself to himself; he wanted to communicate himself to the one who is other than himself. This extrapolation of God’s love not only in himself but to another requires that a distinction be made between the immanent and economic love, and therefore, between the immanent and economic Trinity.

Another important consequence of his distinction in God’s love is that changes of tritheism are refuted from the outset: for a tritheistic God would have had this want of communication of love “to the one who is other than himself” already fulfilled in the other persons of the Trinity

This is reinforced by Moltmann’s concept of the Trinity in relation to the act (or rather, passion) of creation. Moltmann normally prefers to speak of God taking the Trinity as a starting point, as it has been revealed in history, to only then arrive at the God who is one essence.[3] He starts with the Persons not the essence – in an attempt to reverse what has been perceived as the Western approach since Augustine. Moltmann’s preference in starting with the Trinity to arrive at God generates an important difficulty: unless we first have some clarity on what we mean by “God,” we have no way of knowing that our Trinitarian experience is in fact related to what is properly called God.[4]

But here, he affirms that creation, as a self-limitation of God, is actually the work of the Father, which is then ascribed to the Trinity.[5] The Father creates the one who is his Other by virtue of his love of the Son, and he creates through the Son. Moltmann’s distinction between the “Other,” which is created, and the Son, who is God himself and is begotten, should make evident that charges of borderline tritheism in Moltmann’s theology are not justified.

Another of Moltmann’s concepts that makes the distinction between immanent and economic Trinity necessary is the differentiation between the responsive love of the Son as the Logos (immanent) and as his image (economic). Through the incarnation of his Son, the Father acquires a twofold response for his love: his Son’s (which is self-evident, a matter of course) and the free response of his image, in which are included the free responses of the Son’s brothers and sisters.[6] This differentiation is impossible without making some distinction between the Son as the Logos, which refers to a relationship of God in himself, and the Son as the incarnate image of God, uniting humanity to himself and responding freely as his image in creation.

Monotheism and Monarchianism

Moltmann’s theology of creation, however, generates some tensions with other aspects of his Trinitarian theology that are difficult to resolve. For example, Moltmann rejects strict monotheism because it makes proper Christology impossible (i.e., it leads to either Arianism or Sabellianism).[7] But Moltmann also states that monotheism and monarchianism are only the names for two sides of the same thing.[8] What becomes problematic is that Moltmann sees monarchianism as intrinsically related to the rule of one over the many.[9] This of course is not problematic in and of itself, but it becomes difficult to reconcile with his idea of the Father as the one who, strictly speaking, creates, and the Son who responds. There seems to be an element of precedence, if not superiority, in the Father, loving and willing to limit himself as he may be.

This is also what Randall Otto complains about when he states that Moltmann’s adherence to the traditional concept of the Father as the “fount” or “source” of divinity within the Trinity necessitates a dubious distinction between the “constitution” and the “inner life” of the Trinity.[10] The result is that the monarchy of the Father can be affirmed in his constitution, even if not in his inner life, and that will undermine Moltmann’s project of social trinitarianism in which equality of persons and relationships is paramount.

This distinction between the constitution of the Trinity and the inner life of the Trinity emphasizes the idea that God as Father of the Son has a status different from the Son and the Spirit, and thus despite the equality of the three persons in the divine life, there is still a monarchy of the Father at the level of constitution.[11] Moltmann states that while the Son and the Spirit proceed eternally from the Father, the Father proceeds from no other divine person, and so he is the one without origin or beginning, while being himself the origin of the divine persons of the Son and the Spirit.[12] The Church Fathers would have approved of this formulation, but it is hard to see how that can contribute to Moltmann’s own social trinitarianism. His Trinitarian-based theology is meant not to support the rulers of the political establishment – as he thinks traditional theism does in legitimizing the powerful – but rather to show God’s identification with the oppressed, weak, and lowly ones.[13]


Click here for Part 2


[1] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 107.

[2] Ibid., 151.

[3] I.e., Moltmann rejects the opposite approach, viz., to start with the conceptual one-essence God to then try and arrive at the Trinity.

[4] Richard John Neuhaus. “Moltmann vs. monotheism.” Dialog 20 (1981): 240.

[5] He rejects what he calls the Augustinian tradition (in this matter), according to which creation is actually the work of the Trinity, which is then appropriated to the Father. Moltmann takes the opposite route.

[6] Moltmann, 121.

[7] In most places, Moltmann will be careful to attach the word “strict” to monotheism, i.e., he is not rejecting the idea that God is one essence, but a strictly monotheistic, unbalanced theology that undermines a robust understanding of the Trinity.

[8] Moltmann, 130.

[9] Ibid. 131.

[10] Randall E. Otto. “The use and abuse of perichoresis in recent theology.” Scottish Journal of Theology 54 no 3 (2001): 225-226.

[11] Warren McWilliams. “Trinitarian Doxology: Jürgen Moltmann on the Relation of the Economic and Immanent Trinity.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 23 (1996): 31-32.

[12] Moltmann, 165.

[13] Willis, W. Waite. Theism, atheism, and the doctrine of the Trinity: the trinitarian theologies of Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann in response to protest atheism (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1987), 178-179.


One comment on “Jürgen Moltmann’s Trinitarian theology (part 1)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s