Paul Molnar, Keeping Christ at the Center
Paul Molnar is professor of systematic theology at St. John’s University in New York. He received his PhD from Fordham University in 1980.
In this interview, Dr. Molnar discusses the importance of keeping Christ at the center of our thoughts about God.
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J. Michael Feazell: We wanted to begin by talking about your book, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity. Tell us how you came to know Thomas Torrance and how you came to write the book.
PM: It started in the early 1980s when I read his book Reality and Evangelical Theology — that was my first exposure to Torrance’s writing, and I enjoyed it a lot. I was at a theological conference and someone asked who your favorite theologian was, and most people at the conference had Karl Rahner as their favorite theologian, so I said, “My favorite theologian is Thomas F. Torrance.” I had read that book, and then I had read a couple others besides, when I got that question. The person looked at me like I had three heads, because he had never heard of Thomas F. Torrance.
Subsequently I read most of his writings, and I was quite impressed. For good reason, Torrance is thought of as the most important British theologian of the 20th century. He taught for many years at the University of Edinburgh. He didn’t formally teach the doctrine of the Trinity for political reasons (because another professor was teaching that course), but he did work the doctrine into all of his lectures in Christology and so on. He didn’t write his books on the Trinity until after he retired — his two major works on the Trinity.
What impressed me the most about Torrance was his vast knowledge of patristic theology and his ability to not only demonstrate a clear understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity, but to show how the doctrine of the Trinity functions, enlightening us in our knowledge of Christ, the Incarnation, atonement, redemption, ascension, resurrection, the church, and the sacraments.
The reason I came to write this book was to show that side of Torrance which I was most interested in — his dogmatic theology. Torrance is famous for doing work in theology and science, which is also very important and very good, but my special emphasis in this book was looking at his dogmatic theology, showing how Trinitarian thinking shaped all of his doctrines. That’s where I went with this book.
JMF: And you’ve met him a couple of times.
PM: I invited him to St. John’s University in 1997 with the help of his son, Iain, who introduced me to him and enabled me to bring him to St. John’s. He came to St. John’s to speak on Einstein and God. He gave that same lecture at Princeton and Yale in 1997, and while he was there I had lots of time to get to know him. We had dinner together, we had lunch together, we had quiet time together — driving in the car together, we talked theology. It was a great experience for me because by that point, I had been reading him for 15, 16 years, so I held him in awe, to be honest with you, just to be able to speak with him.
One morning when I went to pick him up at the hotel he said, “Call me Tom,” so my tongue nearly froze in my mouth when he said that. I couldn’t call him Tom — he’s Professor Torrance, the great theologian. When I introduced him to the audience at St. John’s — he had sent me a thick C.V., and he said just introduce me, I’m just a minister of the gospel. That wasn’t going to fly for me. Having had a C.V. this thick, I was going to say something. So I went through a long explanation of how important he was and the work he had done and so on. I’m not sure how well that pleased him, but he was polite about the whole thing.
He was in his 80s, though at that time he was quite young and we had good exchanges during the lecture and the question and answer session, and we took him to dinner afterwards and he had good exchanges with members of the theology department and the philosophy department. But he did indicate that that would probably be his last trip to the United States and that if I wanted to see him again, I would have to see him in Scotland, which, as it happened, I got to do two years later.
When I was lecturing at St. Andrews and at Aberdeen, I visited him at his house on Braid Farm Road in Edinburgh, and in his study we sat and chatted for three or four hours. It was quite an experience. I learned a great deal from him. We had many exchanges of emails and letters, and he would send papers to me that he had written, and I would send papers to him and he would write back to me with comments on them. So I got to know him quite well and I learned a great deal from him.
He’s affected my thinking a great deal. One of the major premises of my book Divine Freedom was that to think accurately about God, we would have to think from a center in God and not from a center in ourselves. I learned that from Tom Torrance. In my book on Incarnation and Resurrection, I learned the main thesis of the book from him, which is that you need to hold the incarnation and the resurrection together if you’re going to have a clear understanding of the meaning of the resurrection. To him that meant: If you tried to think about Jesus’ resurrection in abstraction from the incarnation, you would have what he called a docetic view of the resurrection.
A docetic view of the resurrection in his mind meant that you would undermine the fact that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. It would just be an ideal description of something that may simply describe the disciples’ reactions to Jesus, or it may describe some person’s idea of life after death, but it wouldn’t be an idea dictated by the fact that the resurrection was really the completion of the incarnation, in that it was also the completion of our reconciliation with God, by the fact that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. So his thinking had affected my thinking a great deal.
JMF: Many people have a sense that the incarnation ended at the resurrection. In other words, Jesus does not continue to be fully human for us. Even at prayer they’re thinking of Jesus as being fully God, but no longer thinking of him as being fully human for us.
PM: Yes. Torrance spends a great deal in his life’s work undermining that idea. Why would it be important for Torrance to undermine that idea? It would be important because if Christ is not risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, and continually mediating between us and the Father in his full divinity and full humanity, in Torrance’s mind, we would then have no human connection with God. That’s one way of putting it. Another way of putting it that we’re not really saved humanly.
For Torrance, Jesus’ continuing high priestly mediation is of the utmost importance, because if he is not the continuing mediator between us and God, then something else or someone else would have to be inserted into his place and would become for us the supposed mediation between us and God. We would be cut off from God by even thinking of such another mediator, because there is no such thing — it would compromise God’s oneness and God’s three-ness.
God mediates himself to us, the Father through the Son in the Spirit, and to even suppose that there could be some intermediary other than Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate who continues to mediate humanly and divinely, would compromise both his divinity and his humanity and the meaning of our salvation. So there’s a lot at stake.
JMF: What are examples of other mediators that anyone has proposed?
PM: Some theologians tend to emphasize what they call a theocentric theology, so that they could have the world religions agree about God. In their theocentrism, they would want to avoid the Christocentrism that would see Christ as the exclusive revealer and exclusive Savior of the world. Such theologians might argue that Christians could believe in Jesus as their Savior, but not as the Savior for everyone else, because that would be a kind of exclusivism that imposed Christianity on other religions and would undermine a proper pluralism, in their estimation.
But for Torrance, you can’t be theocentric at all unless you’re Christocentric, because Christ is the one mediator who not only mediates God to us, but us to God, so that by sharing in his human knowledge of God, we have true knowledge of God. For Torrance, that’s not something you can have if you construct a theocentrism that bypasses Jesus Christ, because that’s essentially unitarian theology.
JMF: That would be the idea that all roads lead to the same God, and that as long as you have a belief in God, then that’s the main thing, as opposed to recognizing that Jesus is the revelation of the Father.
PM: Right. People who hold that sort of theocentrism as opposed to Christocentrism are basically thinking that Christocentrism is the product of the church’s response to Jesus.
JMF: Christocentrism meaning Christ at the center?
PM: Putting Christ at the center, seeing Christ as the exclusive Savior, for example, or as the exclusive revealer. They argue against the notion of exclusivism because they want to sound more open in a pluralistic society to other religions. But in my mind, they’ve given up the truth of the Christian faith, because what makes Christ unique and exclusively the revealer and Savior of the world is his eternal being as the only begotten Son of the Father. It’s not something that’s grounded in the reaction of the community — not the Christian community, not any community.
This is why Torrance rejected what he called Ebionite Christology and Docetic Christology. When he did his Christology, he stated that he didn’t want to begin from below, as in Ebionite Christology, or from above, as in Docetic Christology, and then he defined the terms. For him, Ebionite Christology would be any sort of Christology which saw Jesus as an ordinary human being who became the Son of God at some point in his life, or perhaps at the resurrection. Or it was a Christology that Jesus was an already existing human being into whom the Word descended.
For Torrance, the miracle of the virgin birth signifies that the eternally begotten Son mysteriously, miraculously became incarnate, took flesh from the Virgin Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s a miracle. It can’t be explained, it can only be acknowledged. Therefore, Torrance would say, as he does in his book on the incarnation, that we must begin thinking Christologically with the fact of Jesus Christ. For him, the fact of Jesus Christ cannot be established historically from below, because if you just start with history, all your results theologically or conceptually would be historical results.
We must start in faith, recognizing and acknowledging who Jesus actually is. Torrance opposed that sort of Ebionite Christology which suggested that it was the community’s response to Jesus, and that people thought of him as a God; that made him unique, as an extraordinary human figure who people thought of as divine, but he wouldn’t really be divine. In Torrance’s mind, it’s the deity of Christ that gives meaning to his human history because the hypostatic union, the second person or hypostasis of the Trinity becoming incarnate, is precisely the one who posits into existence his human history. There is no human history apart from his divine being. Docetic Christology is the idea that Jesus is just one particular historical embodiment of who God is, but not the embodiment of who God is. Torrance would reject both Christology from below and from above, arguing that we must begin by accepting history, humanity, and true divinity from the outset.
JMF: That raises a question… Jesus was perfect and obeyed his Father’s commands and so on, and yet, as Torrance argues, he took our fallen nature on himself, that which is not assumed is not redeemed. How can both be true? How can he be perfect and yet take our fallen nature on himself?
PM: Let me give you what may at first sound like a perplexing answer to that question. Torrance would say we can’t explain how that can be so, because if we could, we wouldn’t need to acknowledge it and begin thinking about the reality in faith. But he would say it can be so, because in becoming human and assuming our fallen human nature into union with his divine being, God healed our self-will and therefore our sin, beginning with his becoming incarnate and continuing throughout his whole life of obedience through to his death on the cross and completely in the resurrection and ascension.
He would say that God never surrendered his divinity in becoming incarnate (so he could forgive our sins, because he was God incarnate), but he could also, from the human side, live our reconciliation subjectively in his perfect life of obedience. Unless the Word actually assumed our fully human nature, he wouldn’t have come all the way to us within our human history. Redemption takes place within the personal being of the mediator, both so that when Jesus suffers God-forsakenness in obeying the Father, he lives out a human life in the midst of sin and temptation, in the midst of stresses and strains that would want to divide the unity that took place in the hypostatic union, but, in the end, did not do so.
JMF: Hypostatic union being …
PM: The hypostatic union is the unique union of the divine Word and the human nature of Jesus. We participate in Jesus’ humanity through faith in him. The hypostatic union is unique — there is no analogy for it in experience or in any form of knowing. Torrance would say that Jesus is an ultimate — no, Jesus is the ultimate. By ultimate, he means that in any science you have to work with certain ultimates, without which the science wouldn’t make any sense. Those ultimates cannot be proven or justified on any grounds other than the fact that they are what they are.
He would say that Jesus is who he is — the word of God incarnate. The hypostatic union is that unique event signifying that Jesus the Word was born of the Virgin Mary and that he was therefore truly divine and truly human throughout his entire life. Because Jesus is the ultimate, there is no ground for verifying who Jesus is outside of Jesus himself. That’s why it’s important to recognize that in the resurrection and ascension, Jesus continues to live and interact with us even now.
For Torrance to speak of the Holy Spirit is really to speak of the Holy Spirit uniting us to Christ. If you spoke of the Spirit and weren’t speaking of our union with Christ through that Spirit and therefore through faith, you weren’t speaking in, and by, and through, and about the Holy Spirit at all. That’s crucially important — the fact that Jesus is the ultimate.
What it means to Torrance is: the first [group of] theologians, who try to verify who Jesus is in his uniqueness by a study of history or try to verify who Jesus is by some sort of a priori Christology, or what Karl Rahner calls a searching Christology, one that suggests that we can construct an understanding of what humanity is and what humanity is searching for, and in that search discover the true meaning of Jesus. Torrance would reject that sort of thinking because if that’s the route we pursue, then it’s our search that becomes determinative of who Jesus is — we no longer are absolutely in need of and rely on Jesus himself, who at present is disclosing to us who he is. That would be seriously problematic.
If I could give one example: I have it in my book on divine freedom, in chapter 6, where I contrast Torrance and Rahner on their interpretations of the resurrection. Rahner says that he’s not going to begin with Jesus Christ, but with a transcendental experience. Rahner argues that wherever anyone hopes for some sort of life beyond death, that person already experiences the meaning of the resurrection, he says, perhaps anonymously, where Torrance would say you can’t have an experience in the resurrection anonymously, because to have an experience of the resurrection is to know that Jesus Christ himself was raised from the dead and as such is the mediator who empowers us to know God conceptually.
He would say to Rahner, “You’re holding what I would call a non-conceptual understanding of God.” Rahner holds such an understanding when he argues that we have un-thematic, anonymous knowledge of God. Torrance would say there is no such thing as anonymous knowledge of God. Either you know God because your concepts are tied to the events depicted in the gospel story — his incarnation, resurrection, preaching, and ascension. Either you know God conceptually, or you don’t know God at all — you’re describing your own experience, symbolically interpreted. Torrance was dead set against that sort of thing.
JMF: What is the right explanation for the idea of a person who doesn’t know Christ and yet experiences good things and lives out good things and so on? Since Christ is the only source of what is good, isn’t there a sense in which there’s a participation in that which one doesn’t know what he’s participating in yet?
PM: In one sense, everybody is in relation with Jesus Christ. But theologically, to understand what that means, one would first have to understand who Jesus Christ was and what he did. Otherwise, the danger in the statement that you made to me is that one could argue that, as long as one is a good person, one is already a Christian.
I don’t think we would want to equate the idea of being good with being a Christian because in being good, we could then rely on our own goodness with the idea that by being good, God somehow owes us our righteousness. However, Torrance argues that when Christ died for the sins of the world, he died not just for the bad part of us, but for the good part of us. He means that just by being good, we’re not necessarily thereby Christians.
JMF: Yes. We’re talking about two different things, in a sense. We’re talking about what is the nature of the unbeliever, or the non-believer, or the not-yet-believer (or however we want to say it) in terms of their union with Christ by virtue of his incarnation on behalf of humanity, that on one side, and the nature of the relationship of the believer on the other. Not that the unbeliever is a Christian, but nevertheless, the non-believer is taken up into Christ in his incarnation.
PM: That’s right. Objectively.
JMF: Right. And there is, to that degree, a participation in Christ whether he knows it or not.
JMF: But the believer enters into a relationship that is personal and is knowing and is a fellowship, friendship, walking with God, and worshipful personal relationship that transcends the other.
PM: Yeah. Let me clarify something that I said a few minutes ago when I was talking about Rahner’s statement to the effect that those who have an experience of hope have an experience of the resurrection whether they know it or not. What that tends to mean in his thought is that we can rely on our experiences of hope in order to explain the meaning of Christ’s resurrection. The problem that I was pointing out was that for Torrance, you can’t explain the resurrection by exploring people’s experiences of hope, because the resurrection is its own explanation. We need to rely on the risen Lord himself to make sense of it to us.
When Rahner argued that you could have an anonymous experience of the resurrection just by having hope for eternal life, Torrance would say that is a docetic explanation of the resurrection, because it’s equating the meaning of the resurrection with our hope for something beyond death. That’s the point I was trying to get at. Christ died for the sins of the world so that everyone somehow is already included in his resurrection. The difference between Christians and others is that Christians recognize the meaning of that statement.
Any attempt to neutralize that statement by equating an experience of a knowledge of the resurrection with our experiences of hope for life beyond death subverts the need to believe in Christ’s bodily resurrection and understand that as the meaning of eternal life. It could undermine the reality of eternal life, at least conceptually, because you would be equating it with something that’s a universal experience instead of recognizing that it’s something that can only be had and understood in faith by an actual union with the risen Lord — it loses specificity. Does that make better sense?
JMF: I think so. It would be the difference between recognizing that…to use an analogy, maybe not a very good one, but we all have a shadow if we’re standing out in the sun. If you look at the shadow and then try to explain from the shadow what it means to be a human being, you wouldn’t be able to get there from there. That doesn’t mean that the shadow is not related in a very real and positive sense with a human being who is casting the shadow.
PM: In that sense, Christ’s life to the resurrection casts a shadow over the entire human race, but only those who see the meaning of the events of his life understand the inner meaning.
JMF: It’s an entry point for evangelism, it would seem, though, to be able to point out to someone that those things that are good in their nature, their love for their children, for example, doesn’t come from nowhere — it’s a reflection of who Christ is in them and with them as a human being. It isn’t something that springs out of them, nor does it come from nowhere. It’s that Christ is already at work in you. Christ already is in you. Why not come, why not acknowledge what the source of this love is, and know that you are loved and accepted, and turn to him? Does that make sense?
PM: Well, yes, but the danger in that is that the focus would then be on people’s experiences of love and not on the one who empowers it.
JMF: What I mean is that to help a person who thinks, which many do, that I’m worthless, God doesn’t love me, how could he? If you knew me like I do, then you wouldn’t be telling me that God could actually love me, so I need to get good before we have this discussion. But instead, we’re able to say to them, God already loves you and accepts you. Where do you think this came from, or that came from? God has already done everything necessary for you. Why not acknowledge that and turn to him?
PM: That makes sense. I’d agree with that.
JMF: That’s at the heart of where many people have difficulty in trying to comprehend Trinitarian theology, because they assume “You’re saying that if Christ’s union with humanity through the incarnation has actually made a difference already and he had made himself one with humanity in such a way that he will not let it go, and will not be who he is without humanity, then you’re saying that everybody, even unbelievers, are saved.”
That isn’t the point. The point is that everyone is in union [with Christ], but not that everyone is a believer and is participating in the relationship in the way that a believer would, in the transformational way. But as an entry point for evangelism, you are able to say not that you have to do something in order to get God to like you, but that he already does. He’s already taken you up and done everything necessary for you.
PM: That’s right.
JMF: But the difficulty people have, again, is that they think, “You’re teaching universalism. You’re saying everyone is saved no matter what they do, because they’re in union with Christ.” But there’s a difference between “in union with Christ” as an unbeliever and being in communion with Christ in the way that believers are.
PM: Of course. Torrance says that universalism is a form of rationalism. He rejects both universalism and the idea of conditional salvation because he wants to say just what you said — that by uniting God and humanity in the history of Jesus Christ is, God has objectively unified us, overcome our self-will, our attempts to be independent of him, overcome our alienation, our suffering, and even death itself in the history of Jesus. That is taking place objectively, but also subjectively, in that Jesus was faithful to God in our place. That is the objective and subjective justification of the sinner, you might say.
As you said, we don’t have to do anything in order for God to love us, and the very idea that we could, would miss the fact that he loves us while we’re unlovable, because we’re his enemies. But as you say, and Torrance says at one point… (well, you didn’t quite say this, but it could be implied in what you say – help me if it’s not the right thing! [laughing]) that none of us can say who is saved and who is not saved, because that’s God’s alone to do. It would be rationalism in the direction of universalism to make that statement. But on the other hand, to say that salvation is contingent on our response to the gospel, we throw salvation back on us and miss the point, the objective point that you were trying to make.
PM: He doesn’t want to say either of those things, because he’s leaving room for the grace of God, for God to act. God does will the salvation of all, and it is (in Torrance’s mind) utterly inexplicable that people would reject the Savior, but it happened once on the cross, and even after his death and resurrection, it still can happen, because Christ does not force himself on people. Even though the goodness that people have comes from God through Christ, they may never acknowledge that. It’s a possibility. Even when they do acknowledge that, I think Torrance would also say, even that’s not under their control. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit empowering them to see and to live subjectively what is objectively already a reality in the life of Christ.
JMF: By grace from beginning to end.