Paul Molnar is professor of systematic theology at St. John’s University in New York. He received his PhD from Fordham University in 1980.

Salvation is us as humans being drawn into Christ’s relationship with God the Father.

Edited transcript

Sin and salvation

JMF: There are a lot of ideas about salvation. I don’t know if everybody wants to be saved, maybe not everyone thinks about it or cares, but those who do care want to be saved. What is the Bible driving at when it speaks of “salvation” and “being saved”? Is it being saved from sin, is it being saved from death, and that’s it? Or what is salvation all about?

PM: It is being saved from sin and from death, because the conse­quences of sin and death are being cut off from God. I love the way C.S. Lewis puts it in his book Mere Christianity. He says, “The human machine was designed to run on God and there is no other possibility.” The problem of sin is that we try to run on our own steam.

JMF: We’re putting diesel in the gasoline engine.

PM: Exactly. Or sugar in the gas tank. So the human machine simply conks, and there’s no way to solve that situation on our own, because we’ve created the problem by relying on ourselves (being in-turned upon ourselves, you might say), by being self-reliant, self-willed. Lewis argues that salvation means that we have to learn to un-train ourselves in what we’ve trained ourselves into for thousands of years, self-will, because it’s self-will that cuts us off from our only source of happiness — God. Salvation is the overcoming of sin and death, but I agree with Torrance and Barth, who both argued that we don’t even know the true meaning of sin until we see God’s grace, until we see what he looks like in light of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.

Barth said that there is such a thing as an unprofitable focus on sin. It can lead you to be morose. But when you see that sin and death mean that we as individuals try to live independently of God, when God did design, as Lewis said, the human machine to run on himself…then it makes a whole lot of sense to realize that salvation is an act of God for us that we cannot accomplish ourselves, and therefore free grace. It’s also an act that includes us humanly because Jesus was fully human, and that act of God healed us humanly because the sinful human nature that was assumed in the Incarnation is now healed. Christ lived the life that is sinless. None of us can do that.

JMF: What’s the problem with sin? Why does sin…other than the fact that it’s destructive and hurts and ruins relationships… (I guess I’m answering the question myself). Isn’t ruined relationships what makes sin, sin?

PM: Not necessarily, because you can speak about ruined relationships with psychologists…

JMF: But doesn’t sin lie at the heart of that?

PM: No. Objectively, sin does lie at the heart of disrupted human relationships, but you can’t simply equate the fact of disrupted human relationships with sin, because the real essence of sin is humans being self-willed, exercising their choices without trusting in God himself.

JMF: Isn’t it being out of right relationship with God?

PM: Right.

JMF: And that results in bad human relationships.

PM: That’s right. But you can’t discover the meaning of sin by analyzing the human relationships, that’s what I’m trying to say.

JMF: Right.

PM: Let me put it another way… Barth and Torrance say that we don’t know the true meaning of sin except in and through Christ. The essence of sin was disclosed on the cross, in that even though we may claim that we want to live by grace, all of us are powerless to live by grace alone. Only God’s grace, the love of God that comes to us in Jesus Christ, empowers our lives insofar as they are lived by God’s gracious forgiveness of our sins in Christ. Therefore, seeing the true meaning of sin is not something that we can do for ourselves – it’s something that comes to us as a disclosure from God when we see the events of the cross and the resurrection.

JMF: The separation or the alienation that we experience from God… sin lies at the heart of that.

PM: That’s right.

JMF: You’re saying God has acted from his side to forgive and…

PM: And also from the human side in Jesus Christ.

JMF: …to a better way.

PM: Right. So that’s the possibility of our salvation and the reality of our salvation.

JMF: The result of salvation, though, the product of salvation…maybe we could even say what salvation is, is to be back into the right relationship with God…

PM: Yes.

JMF: Not that we’ve ever been in the right relationship with God, but it’s to become Christ’s own relationship God.

PM: Through Christ…right. So in Christ, we are in right relationship.

JMF: So salvation is being drawn into his relationship with the Father.

PM: Correct. I also like the chapter in C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, “The Perfect Penitent,” where he says that nothing in God’s nature corresponds to submission, suffering, and death. Because out of free love for us, Jesus here is perfect God; he also becomes the perfect penitent. He doesn’t need to repent to believe, because he’s already perfect, but out of love for us, he can repent perfectly because he’s God, and he does it for us humanly and therefore when we share in his perfect obedience, we live the life that is ours in him. We can only do it because he enables us to do it.

JMF: And he didn’t have to be baptized either, but he does it…

PM:…vicariously for us. Right. When he was baptized, it’s not because he sinned, but because he assumed our sin for humanity and so his baptism was the beginning of his living a human life of perfect obedience, which culminated on the cross where he said, “Not my will, but thine be done,” and then experienced God-forsakenness.

That raises a number of issues among contemporary theologians — can God suffer and die? C.S. Lewis said that nothing in God’s nature corresponds to suffering, submission, and death. We have to live our salvation by submitting to Christ. Christ living for us as the Savior submits to God. There’s nothing in God’s nature that’s like that, but he says by becoming incarnate, God can suffer, surrender, submit, and die, and he can do it as God and man. Unlike some of the fathers in the early church who would say that God cannot suffer and die because God is perfect, C.S. Lewis says that God can suffer, surrender, and die both as God and as human in the incarnation.

Torrance is very good on this, too. He insists that God in Christ atones for our sins, bringing about repentance from within the person of the mediator. He would say that God both does suffer in our suffering, and he’s not a God who moves from our suffering.

One of the great things that I like about Torrance is that he says that if Jesus was just a man dying on a cross, then Christianity would be immoral. When I first read that, I said, “What is he talking about?” When I went further, I realized that he was making sense, because if Jesus was just a man dying on a cross, then salvation would be the equivalent of human sacrifice or some human attempt at self-justification by placating God, and that would be an immoral…

JMF: Isn’t that how a lot of people look at it? That God was very angry at humanity and…

PM: Something had to be done…

JMF:…then Jesus comes along, and he’s the one who loves humanity, so he says, if you’re going to be that angry, then kill me and I’ll take it on myself, that kind of thing, that he stands in the gap.

PM: Yes. I think that is common. To use a more popular image, C.S. Lewis’s said, “I don’t like thinking of atonement in the police court sense” because he thought that concept was immoral before he became a Christian. (He had been an atheist.) He said, “Because that would imply that Christ did something wrong and needed to be punished in our stead.” He said, “I would rather think of the atonement as a kind friend helping us out of the hole that we’ve gotten ourselves into by doing something for us that we can’t do for ourselves.”

Torrance’s view comes much closer to that second view. Torrance argues, if you put God on the cross, then not only is it not immoral, but now you see the depth of the love of God — that God was willing to sacrifice his own Son out of love for us while we were incapable of helping ourselves. God is not only not remote from us (as he could be if Jesus was just an innocent man trying to placate the deity), but he’s actually the deity involved in the suffering of Jesus in an act that was geared to, and did in fact, overcome all suffering and death.

So you might ask, if he overcame all suffering and death, why is there still suffering and death? The answer is that our history is not automatically Christ’s history, that Christ gives us the freedom to respond and to live within that history of faith. He gives us that interval between his first coming and his second coming as the time of freedom in which we have that freedom, and we’re given that freedom to live that life by faith now.

JMF: There’s probably a lot more that could be said…

PM: Pages have been written on that, that’s for sure.

Immanent and immutable

JMF: Let’s talk about your book Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity. What is the fundamental point you’re getting across in this? (You alluded to this earlier.) You need to define “immanent Trinity” (it’s not spelled imminent, like “just about to happen,” but immanent, as “fully present”). [PM: Yes, with an A.] I want to read a comment on the back of the book that sets a tone. “Paul Molnar sets out a contemporary doctrine of the immanent Trinity and addresses the issue of how we can know God according to his true nature rather than create him in our own image.”

PM: That opens a door to a discussion that I use when I introduce the topic of the doctrine of the God in class at St. John’s. It’s a story told by Colin Gunton, who had just had a conversation with a professor about a book that that professor had read, entitled The God I Want. The professor said to Colin Gunton that “I can’t imagine a sillier enterprise than writing a book entitled “The God I Want,” because it’s not the God I want, but ‘the God you’re damn well going to get!’” I think that covers the point. In other words, God has his own existence in himself, and that is the doctrine of the immanent Trinity.

It’s a doctrine that recognizes that God is God for us, because we would have no knowledge of God’s eternal life, his immanent existence, his existence within himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, if it were not for God creating the world first, then revealing himself in history, reconciling us, and redeeming us, which is commonly referred to as the economic trinity — God’s actions outside of himself. The Greek word is oeconomia, which literally means household, but was used as a term in the early church to refer to God’s plan of salvation, and then his executing that plan within history as creator, reconciler, and redeemer.

I say in this book, that Barth says (and also Torrance, but Barth in this particular instance), that God is who he is – eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and that we know God through his revelation of himself in the economy, in history, but that we cannot reduce God to his revelation of himself in the economy. We have to make a clear distinction (but not separation, I argue in the book) between the immanent and the economic trinity. If we do not make that distinction, then we would end up in our thinking reducing God to what he does for us, so that then all we have is a God who is present in history, but no God existing in himself.

Unfortunately, a number of theologians have what is called the purely economic doctrine of the trinity, reducing God to what God does for us. Writing a book entitled The God I Want has done that to the nth degree, you might say, because such thinking supposes that we can invent images of God and really be talking about God. In this book I argue that God has his own life and retains his own life. Even though he is in close union with us in Christ and through the Holy Spirit, he retains his own life. We can’t confuse God’s life with our life.

We don’t want to say things like “God is not relational unless and until he relates with us.” Some theologians hold that position. We don’t want to say things that suggest that “God becomes the God he’s going to be precisely by relating with us within history and working out his being within history.” This is common in process theology. I’m not a big fan of process theology, because it misses the point of the doctrine of the immanent Trinity, which is that God has his life in himself, but that God is not a prisoner of his freedom. As one who loves, he loves us, but he remains God even as he loves us, so when he works outside of himself as our reconciler and redeemer, he doesn’t abandon his own eternal existence.

I will say things in the book, following Barth and the early church, that God is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and would be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit even if he never decided to create, to reconcile, and redeem the world. Barth says something like that in Volume 1, Part 2 of the Church Dogmatics. Barth never abandoned that thinking throughout the Church Dogmatics, not because he believed that God is locked up within himself and had no relations with us (otherwise he never would have written 1000 plus pages of the Church Dogmatics telling us about how God is involved with us in creation), but because unless God has his life in himself, it becomes superfluous for us to talk about his life with us, it becomes projection, it becomes us working up our own images of God, and that’s the huge difficulty that I address in that book.

JMF: The word immutable is often used in describing God, and we think of that as being unchangeable, which relates back to what you were talking about before — how some think of God as not doing anything in himself until such time as he creates the world and involves himself in the world. We have a couple passages in Scripture, “I change not” in Malachi, and “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” but particularly “I change not” in the Old Testament. What is meant by “immutable”? How is God unchangeable? In what way?

PM: The answer is that in all his changes, God remains the eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s the importance of the doctrine of the immanent Trinity. Let me explain. Torrance makes the statement that “God is always Father but not always creator. God was always Son but not always incarnate.” So in those two statements…

JMF: We already see that immutable does not mean absolutely no change whatsoever in God.

PM: Right.

JMF: So it means something else.

PM: Because if God was the absolute instance of changelessness, he would be a prisoner of his inability to change. He’d be a prisoner of his freedom. That’s not what Christians mean when they speak of divine freedom.

JMF: That’s not what Christians should mean when they speak of… (laughing).

PM: Well, I stand corrected (laughing). Right. Here Torrance and Barth are similar, because they’re both saying that God’s freedom has to be understood positively as his freedom to love according to his own will. So, not being a prisoner of his own freedom, God can choose to love us as creator. God can choose to become incarnate. Torrance says when God does choose to create us and to love us by becoming incarnate, these are new actions, and he says they’re new even for God. If you don’t say that, then you’ve got to embrace some notion of Origen’s idea (espoused very early in church history) that there’s no distinction between God’s internal relations and God’s external relations. In other words, you’re basically arguing that the world and God are co-eternal.

This was rejected in the early church, and Torrance is explicitly rejecting it. He says, and this is the import of the doctrine of the Trinity together with doctrines of Christology, that the Father-Son relation has priority over the creator-creature relationship. If we don’t see that, then we will end up collapsing the immanent into the economic Trinity, and one of the ways that that could show is with this rigid notion of unchangeability, because we’ll be projecting our ideas of immobility, of God as the unmoved mover, into God, but if God is unmoved and in that way he moves creation, then God doesn’t have any active, dynamic, relational freedom in himself. He’s, in a sense, a prisoner of being unmoved. That would prohibit God from coming into space and time and enabling him to relate with us from within space and time. So there’s a lot at stake in that question.

JMF: The passage in Malachi speaks to what it’s talking about, because it says, “I am the Lord, I change not, therefore you sons of Jacob are not destroyed.” His unchangeableness is specifically in reference to his covenant faithfulness to love them in spite of their rebellion.

PM: Exactly.

JMF: That’s where we can have total confidence. I’ve heard people say, “If you’re saying that God can change (after you explain how he became creator, that’s a change, he became incarnate, that’s a change), then how can I be sure that he will not change his mind about loving me and saving me?” That’s exactly where there is no changeableness in God, in that covenant faithfulness, his steadfast love.

PM: That’s because God is eternally the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the one God who loves in freedom. He’s both loving and free, not one or the other — one and the other. That’s crucial.

If God were not free in his loving… I think it was in volume 2:1 of the Church Dogmatics, Barth attacked this person named Angelus Silesius who said, in explaining the doctrine of creation, “I know that without me God cannot for an instant be.” Barth was really upset at that statement because it suggests just what we were talking about before — that God needs us in order to exist. Barth makes a few little remarks on the side saying, “When God creates us, it’s not as though he needed a playmate, it’s not as though he needed to satisfy some need of his. He creates us out of the free love that he is, but nothing compels him to do it. It’s his free will to do it.”

It’s a crucially important insight. We have theologians today (I mention them in the book) who argue that because in human love we need others to love, therefore it’s better to say that God needs us, because otherwise there wouldn’t be true love, if he didn’t need us. They missed the whole point of the Christian doctrine of God. God loves us with a divine love that’s sovereign and free, that overflows to us without any need, and therefore can effectively overcome our self-love in a way that nothing else would.

JMF: It makes sense to me. And we’re out of time. So if we need to expound on that, we’ll have to do it next time we get together.

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Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2021, 6:30 PM