Jürgen Moltmann’s Trinitarian theology (part 2 of 2)

Jürgen Moltmann

Personalism and Social Trinity

Another potential difficulty in Moltmann’s theology is his concept of person. He approvingly cites the philosophical personalism of Hölderlin, Feuerbach, Buber, Ebner, Rosenstock and others who argue that the “I” can only be understood in the light of the “Thou,” i.e., it is a concept of relation. As he states, “without the social relation there can be no personality.”[1]

This is intended as a needful criticism and guard against understanding the persons of the Trinity as independent, individual centers of activity. This is also part of his criticism of Rahner, who, in Moltmann’s view, is liable to the same dead end as Barth,[2] viz., idealistic modalism.[3]

However, the concept of personality as something that does not exist apart from relationships is open to question. However corrective this may be to an overtly individualistic modern culture, and however true it may be in practice that ordinarily people develop into who they become according to the various personal influences they receive throughout their lives, it is far from universally established that the concept of person cannot be thought of except in reference to relation.

Moreover, it could be argued that from the moment one accepts a Trinitarian theology in which there is some conception of one essence and three persons (as Moltmann favorably quotes Tertullian as formulating), there is introduced a unique category that does not necessarily require a one-to-one correspondence to human persons, relations, and essences. In a Trinitarian theological framework, no person in this world (except Christ) exists in one essence with (or in) other persons, however the concepts of persons and essences are defined.

An interesting illustration of the difficulty is that Moltmann quotes from the Genesis account to substantiate his argument that one is only God’s image in fellowship with other people: “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). What is curious about this is that, given that Moltmann wants to cite the Genesis account, it is that very book which presents Adam as created first (as explained after the summary account of creation he cites, cf. Gen. 2:15-18). Presumably, in the book of Genesis, Adam was a person in the image of God before Eve ever appeared on the scene.

Moltmann’s understanding of personality being defined in terms of relationships is paramount to his construal of a social Trinity that provides a theological framework for socio-political structures. This is the main reason for Moltmann’s criticism of a monarchic understanding of the Trinity, since this monarchy is also reflected in society and politics, which, in his view, generates injustice. As a solution, a Trinitarian framework where there is equality of persons and personal relationships is posited. But there is also a theological danger here. It could be argued that in Moltmann’s social Trinity, “God” then refers to a composite of persons and relationships just as society is a composite of its constituents and their relationships, and that as persons in society coexist, define each other, and must be finite, so with each person of the Trinity.[4]

Doxological Trinity

As seen above, Moltmann’s concept of creation in relation to the Father loving and seeking responsive love of the Other (which must be a love that goes beyond the responsive love of the Son, who is not the Other), makes the distinction between immanent and economic Trinity necessary. However, Moltmann explicitly subscribes to Rahner’s dictum, “The immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity, and the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity.”

He argues that the distinction between the two would be necessary if, in the concept of God, there were really only the alternative between liberty and necessity; but, as he argued, God is love, which combines liberty and necessity in which none could be asserted without the other. For Moltmann the notion of an immanent Trinity in which God is simply by himself, without the love which communicates salvation, brings an arbitrary element into the concept of God which means a breakup of the Christian concept.[5]

It introduces a contradiction, because the God who loves the world (economic) does not correspond to the God who suffices for himself (immanent). Clearly, Moltmann gives preference and emphasis to the economic Trinity. But despite his effort to minimize the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity, this distinction cannot be done away with completely even within his theology. Therefore, Moltmann has to ground such distinction somewhere, and his answer to this problem is to ground the immanent Trinity as a Doxological Trinity.

Moltmann argues that there can be no real theology without the expression of praise, thanksgiving and adoration. In theology, we know only insofar as we love.[6] Therefore, in the early church, doxological knowledge of God is called theologia in the real sense, being distinguished from the doctrine of salvation, the oeconomia Dei. As such, the economic Trinity is the object of proclamation (kerygma), whereas the immanent Trinity is the content of doxological theology. This is reinforced by the idea that we do not merely give thanks to the giver for the gifts he has given; we actually worship him for what he is, for he himself is good.[7]

Therefore, we worship the Trinity as it is in itself (God in se) because what it has done in history (God pros nobis) but there is only one, single Trinity, and only one single divine history of salvation; thus, the triune God can only appear in history as he is in himself and in no other way. One cannot think of God in the abstract, he argues, for if we know God and worship him based on his historical acts, God is from eternity to eternity the “crucified God.”[8] For Moltmann, then, the cross stands not only in the economic Trinity (i.e., in the history of salvation), but also in the immanent Trinity.[9]

By affirming a fundamental identity of the immanent and the economic Trinity, Moltmann, paradoxically, does not mean to erase all distinctions between them, but, as he argues, to bring out the interaction between substance an revelation, the “inwardness” and the “outwardness” of the triune God. In fact, the surrender of the Son on the cross has a retroactive effect on the Father and causes infinite pain; therefore, the economic Trinity has a retroactive effect on the immanent Trinity.[10] The pain of the cross determines the inner life of the triune God from eternity to eternity.

This account clearly requires that the immanent Trinity, worshipped in praise and thanksgiving, is revealed by the economic Trinity which acts in the world and elicits the responsive love expressed in doxology. The danger here, however, is that Moltmann’s concept of human relationships as determining the concept of person, without proper caveats in regards to the uniqueness of the Trinity, coupled with the idea of an economic Trinity as a mirror of the immanent Trinity,[11] might eliminate altogether any trace of mystery in the Trinity. This is precisely James P. Mackey’s criticism of Moltmann. Mackey argues that Moltmann’s theology is

a refusal to accept classic Trinitarian theology . . . a rejection of the very move that finally made it orthodox, namely the move . . . that prevented us from taking our story of God’s encounter with us in history, from taking our myth, literally, as an analysis and description in its key terms of God’s own inner being.”[12]

This, Mackey states, was what the Arians did; they extrapolated from biblical statements of the subordination of the Son to the Father to an inner life of God in which there is a difference in divine status. Mackey approvingly quotes Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, in saying that the creed of Nicaea is the first step in the critical demythologizing of Christian discourse.

Mackey argues that we know no more than the fact that there is some self-differentiation in the inner being of the God who is present and active in creation, in the historical Jesus and in the Spirit, but that gives us no knowledge of the being of God.[13] This is an important criticism, for if indeed the mystery of the Triune God is at least compromised, if not made reducible to analogous human relationships of love and thankfulness, then the very doxological theology for which Moltmann argues will be seriously undermined. Worship, praise and thanksgiving become no longer qualitatively different, but only quantitatively different, that that offered to any other human benefactor.

A possible rejoinder is that Mackey might be advocating such a sharp distinction between God in himself and God revealed, so as to almost import a Kantian separation between the two, where a “noumenal” Trinity is utterly unknowable. This seems to be go beyond Calvin’s argument (which Mackey approvingly cites) that the point of contact between the economic and immanent Trinity lies in the accommodation God makes in revealing himself to us, finite and sinful beings. That is to say, the economic Trinity is neither a clear mirror of the immanent Trinity, nor an arbitrary revelation of something that is absolutely unknown.

Another difficulty inherent in Moltmann’s grounding of the immanent Trinity in the doxological Trinity is the implication that what we worship is not really the Trinity, but merely our reflection upon the Trinity. That is to say, if doxological theology is not worshipping the economic Trinity, it is worshipping a merely conceptual, artificial, and arbitrary construal of the Trinity in itself. This is Ted Peters’ criticism of Moltmann. Peters complains,

“I think that for Moltmann there finally can be only one Trinity, the economic Trinity . . . the immanent Trinity is the product of pious imagination, and abstraction from the concrete economy of the divine life which is actualized in history.”[14]

Also as Randall Otto argues, the immanent Trinity in Moltmann’s theology seems to be robbed of reality, becoming a passive product of an historical process, and the result is a Trinity so open as to be threatened with loss of transcendence by being dependent upon the contingencies of history.[15] Moreover, the desire to posit an immanent Trinity in a doxological Trinity implies that God is more than his actions in the world; but this seems to prove too much for Moltmann. In other words, if the triune God is not merely the sum total of his activities in salvation history, in what way does the immanent Trinity transcend the economic Trinity?


Moltmann has made many important contributions to theology, and to the doctrine of the Trinity in particular. His emphasis on the necessity of a robust Trinitarian theology is a needful corrective to often unclear theological systems and statements. His social trinitarianism is also a fertile field for a vital theological contribution to society, politics, and interpersonal relationships. Moltmann certainly is not a tritheist, as some imply, and he brings to the fore important aspects of God’s love in relation to creation. However, there are difficulties in his concepts of personality, in his formulations of the immanent Trinity, and in his development of the doxological Trinity that need to be corrected and fine-tuned for a more consistent systematic program.


Click here for Part 1


[1] Moltmann, 145.

[2] Although Moltmann argues that Rahner and Barth get there through different routes.

[3] Moltmann, 148.

[4] Ted Peters. “Moltmann and the way of the Trinity.” Dialog 31 (1992): 278

[5] Moltmann, 151.

[6] Ibid., 152.

[7] Ibid., 153.

[8] Ibid., 159.

[9] Ibid., 160.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Moltmann states that “Statements about the immanent Trinity must not contradict statements about the economic Trinity. Statements about the economic Trinity must correspond to doxological statement about the immanent Trinity.” Cf. Moltmann, 154.

[12] James P. Mackey. “The Preacher, The Theologian, and The Trinity.” Theology Today, 54.3 (1997): 359-360.

[13] Ibid., 362.

[14] Peters, 277.

[15] Otto, 221-222.


3 comments on “Jürgen Moltmann’s Trinitarian theology (part 2 of 2)

  1. Gus Nathan says:

    Excellent. Can you let me know from which text No (1) Ref. p.145 is sourced from?
    Gus Nathan

    • Glad it was helpful Gus.

      The post is part 2 of an originally single article. So the footnotes of this part 2 are following the part 1 (the link is at the end). In this case, it is p. 145 of Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

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