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

When we try to separate the gift from the giver, grace separated from God, we make salvation about ourselves.

Edited transcript

JMF: You’ve written about grace being identical with its giver. What is the significance of that?

PM: It’s extremely significant. Jesus Christ is God’s grace, present among us. That means that in Jesus Christ, God actively loves us, binds us to himself, reveals himself to us, and that means therefore that you cannot detach that act of God (because God’s being and God’s act are one) from what God is doing in that particular history.

If you did that, you might then think of God’s grace as a detachable quality that adheres in human nature, and you might come up with such ideas as creative grace and different types of grace. Your focus then would be off the reality of grace, which is identical with Christ himself and, more importantly, your focus would be on the gifts of the Christian life and living the Christian life in abstraction from the one who empowers you to live it.

It’s enormously important not to separate the gifts that we receive in Christ, living as part of the new creation — faith, love of God, love of neighbor. It’s enormously important that we do not detach those from the giver, because if we do, then we no longer need Christ, and to the extent that we don’t need Christ, we become self-reliant once again. We can become self-reliant under the guise of speaking about grace.

Torrance is great in pointing out the subtle dangers of Pelagianism in the human heart – our constant attempt to turn back on ourselves, even using Christian concepts in order to validate such a turn. He is dead against that, rightly so. It’s a disaster to separate the gift from the giver. If you separate the gift of atonement from the giver, then the atonement becomes something we do.

Some theologians today (you may be aware of some of them) argue that if we reconceived salvation today as us trying to create a better world, then we have to realize that we need more than one savior of the world — we need many hearts, hands, and feet to make the world a better place.

Yes, we need many people working for a better world, that’s true. But you can’t equate salvation with people working for a better world. That’s what happens, though, if you detach grace, the gift, from the giver. Where there is grace, where there is the freedom of love, to love God and to love neighbor by working for a better world, there we are bound to Christ and totally dependent on Christ and not on us trying to make a better world and therefore reconstructing a notion of salvation by saying we need more saviors. That sort of thinking is the ultimate proof that we’re attempting to save ourselves, then we’ve missed grace, we’ve bypassed it.

God’s actions and being

JMF: It seems to tie in with the concept of separating God’s being from his acts. What does that mean, and how does that relate?

PM: Torrance and Barth were big on stressing that God’s being and acts are one. When dealing with the Trinity, Barth used to say that God is one being in three modes of existence — he preferred “modes of existence” to “person” — it did not make him a modalist, as some have suggested.

JMF: He’s using “mode” in a different way.

PM: Right. He’s allowing God — the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit — to dictate his meaning of “mode,” so he’s not trying to conform the Trinity to a prior idea of “mode.” He would say that God is eternally one being in his act as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When God decides to and then acts as creator — the Father through his word and in the Spirit, and then again as reconciler and redeemer — we need God in Jesus Christ. Jesus is God’s act, but you can’t separate that act from the being of God, so that as God’s act in Jesus Christ, we’re actually meeting Jesus Christ.

Barth would then argue that if in your thinking you ignore Jesus Christ or don’t begin thinking about God with Jesus Christ, then, in effect, you bypass the one possibility for a knowledge of God that comes to us from God. We can’t bypass God and then attempt to know God, because that’s a recipe for idolatry. Torrance makes statements such as, “We must think from the center in God and not from a center in ourselves, because God’s being and act are one.”

The act of God in Jesus Christ in the incarnation is God coming to us, approaching us, empowering us to know him. You could never say, as some have, that “Jesus is our historical choice, is our foundational figure for our Christian religion,” because who he is is utterly dependent upon God’s act and thus upon God, because you can’t separate God’s act from his being.

Both Barth and Torrance would say that God’s act is the Holy Spirit empowering us to believe in Jesus Christ. They both cite 1 Corin­thians 12:3, which says, “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” They take that seriously. Barth will make statements such as this, “Knowledge of God is an event enclosed in the mystery of the divine Trinity.” He means that God himself in the Holy Spirit, uniting us to Christ and thus to the Father, begins, upholds, and completes our knowledge of God.

Such knowledge can never be traced back to anything in our thinking or anything within our experience. Our thinking and experience would be real enough, and they would be real knowledge of God and they would really describe God, because they would be faithful descriptions of God’s act and being, but none of that is under our control, and all that is a miracle, because it goes against the grain of our natural attempts to create God in our own image.

Both theologians take the problem of sin, the problem of our human limitations seriously. Barth was speaking about God’s hiddenness, even in revelation. That is, that nothing in history in and of itself can disclose God to us. We need God to act, and God does act in his Holy Spirit and in his word. When we hear his word by the power of the Holy Spirit through God’s acting, we’re already united to God’s being, because you can’t separate being and act. The fact that God’s being and act are one is crucial. For Barth, they annihilated the whole need for natural theology.

JMF: What is natural theology?

PM: It’s the attempt to know God by relying on nature, reason, con­science, or history. It’s the attempt to reason to God’s existence without relying on God’s revelation as attested in Scripture. It’s the attempt to know God without biblical faith. What one of us doesn’t have some knowledge of God or some natural goodness in us? The presumption is that we have some knowledge of God, but when we know God in Jesus Christ, we can’t rely on any of that — to know God with certainty. All of that is called into ques­tion and comes under judgment. We must give up any attempt to rely on our natural goodness or our natural knowledge, and take up our cross and follow him, Torrance would argue (and I think he’s right). We don’t want to take that away from people, because that’s the last hope of the person who refuses to hear the word of God in Jesus Christ — that’s all they have to cling to, is their attempts to build a knowledge of God on themselves.

Barth has a long section in Dogmatics volume 2.1 where he talks about natural theology. He doesn’t want to disprove it or argue, because in the act of disproving it, he would be engaging in natural theology. He simply wants to say that because of the Fall and because God has approached us in Jesus Christ and made himself known as the reconciler and redeemer, if we bypass those particular activities of God, then we will be constructing an image of God that’s in variance with who God actually is. That’s the problem of sin and the problem of natural theology. When we really know God, it’s by the miracle of grace and not by anything we did. Even when we know God, it’s not by means of any twist or turn in our usage of concepts. It’s only when our concepts are commandeered, so to speak, by God, that we actually know him.

In both Barth and Torrance, following Hilary of Poitiers (Barth put it more forcefully than Torrance, although Torrance could be pretty forceful), Barth said that “words are subject to realities, not realities to words.” He said, “Anybody who does not accept that axiom as their working axiom as a theologian is no theologian and never will be.” Torrance adopted that axiom himself and used it as part of his repertoire.

So, natural theology is an attempt to make the reality of God acting in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit subject to our words, our ideas of God, rather than allowing God to define who God is to us. In the one instance, it’s understanding seeking faith, which can’t lead anywhere, theologically speaking. In the other instance, it’s faith in the word of God being led by the Holy Spirit seeking understanding. But again, faith itself comes from the Holy Spirit; it’s not something that we invented. It’s grounded in God.

Law, sin, and repentance

JMF: What is the relationship between a believer and what the Bible calls the law of God? How does the believer relate to the law of God in the sense of both the Old Testament and New Testament?

PM: Torrance says something to the effect that our entire lives have to be recreated ethically, morally, and legally speaking, because people can use morality and the law to hide behind them, in the sense that they wall themselves up by trying to obey the law and thus not having to obey God — legalism and moralism, you might say. When we hear the word of God in Jesus Christ, all of that changes. When we really hear the word of God, God frees us to live in harmony with his will for us. We will then be living according to his law, because the point of the law is to direct us to our total reliance on God — God’s love and God’s grace.

Nobody ever quite lives that or has lived that, except Christ himself. That’s why we were saved outside of and apart from the law. Christ didn’t come to destroy the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them. He gave them their true meaning, put them on a true footing, so to speak. In Christ we see that the law is not an end in itself, and neither is morality an end in itself, because we can use both to try to justify ourselves and save ourselves, and we can use both to hide behind them, making it seem as though we’re really good and law-abiding when all the while we’re not honestly relying on God. So there’s sort of a suspension Torrance talks about.

Barth talks about the fact that when we really know God through revelation, the law won’t make any difference, it won’t matter, because we will simply be trusting in God and doing God’s will. We will be obeying the law, but not because we are trying to obey the law, but simply because it’s not even a question for us. Trusting in God, we’ll really be loving God and loving our neighbor and doing those things that would signify that.

JMF: It’s like Paul said in Romans 13: “Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” Jump from verse 8 to verse 10: “Love does no harm to its neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” The law gets taken care of when you’re walking in the gospel.

PM: Right. That’s what Barth meant when he said that you won’t be worrying about the law and its fulfillment when you love God, because you’ve been loved by God first and empowered to love God. You will spontaneously love your neighbor …fulfill the law, in effect.

JMF: I’ve known people who were so focused on the law that they are the opposite. If you think of loving your neighbor, you wouldn’t think of them, because they’re so austere and they’re so judgmental, both against themselves and everybody else, because of their focus on the law (as an end in itself, practically) — they think it’s the stepping stone to God, as opposed to a focus on the grace of God in Christ.

PM: Dealing with those sorts of people is difficult.

JMF: It is. God pity the poor group, nation, church, or whoever might be under the authority of such a person.

PM: I agree. I think of C.S. Lewis saying you can tell the people who are behaving in such ways by the haunted look of those whom they are trying to love. Trying to fulfill that law of love can become a legalistic activity.

JMF: You talk about the love of God being “unconditional.” What does that mean?

PM: Barth quotes from John, where it says that “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son that those who should believe in him would have eternal life.” The love of God is identical with the sending of Jesus Christ to love us while we were enemies of God. The gist of that statement is captured in Barth’s response. It’s a crucial statement.

JMF: As Paul says in Romans, “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and he demonstrates his love for us in that.”

PM: I think that’s crucial. It demonstrates to us that any attempt to love God, without recognizing God’s love of us first, is a replication of the pre­dic­a­ment of self-will and sin, isolating ourselves more and more from God. That isolation can take place even under the guise of Christian categories, which makes the situation more difficult. That’s an important point.

JMF: It comes home for people, if they could embrace it, the most when they find themselves — I’m talking about believers or Christians who find themselves embroiled in sin. They’ve failed in some habitual sin or they have done something that is outrageous, and their first response is typically, “How can God still love me after this?” There’s a depression that sets in and a sense of being cut off from God. It’s renewing and helpful (and it’s not easy to do, because it seems so unreal at the time) to remember that Christ died for you while you’re still a sinner, while you were still enemies. He doesn’t feel any differently about you today than he did yesterday, before you did that, or than he will tomorrow, after you have gotten through your emotional grieving and repentance process.

PM: That’s a great point.

JMF: But we have to remember always that this love of God is not something that’s going to go away, and it’s not something that’s going to change, and it’s not something we can move beyond its limits.

PM: We shouldn’t really want to.

JMF: Not that we want to, but we can’t. Whatever state we find ourselves in, we can go back to the arms of the prodigal father.

PM: I was also thinking of the parable of the prodigal son. It’s without conditions. If somebody took the inheritance and I was the father, would I really welcome that person back without conditions or would I say, “You can come back, but I’m controlling all the money from here on out”?

JMF: I would have all sorts of conditions.

PM: I would have all sorts of conditions, but God has none. The fact that he loves us in Christ gives a permission, a freedom, for us to live that new life, so we can trust in God’s forgiving grace. Torrance (and Barth, too) was vociferous in speaking against any idea of conditional salvation. The notion of conditional salvation destroys the unconditionally of God’s love, because if salvation is conditional on anything we do, then we’re thrown back upon ourselves to try to make good something that we can’t make good. We can’t possibly make good, because God loved us while we were still sinners. It turns into a vicious circle at that point.

JMF: I can hardly think of the parable of the prodigal son without thinking of Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, where he takes Rembrandt’s painting and analyzes each part of it in connection with the story of the parable. It’s such a moving and reassuring rehearsal of the unconditional love that God has for us.

PM: I was thinking a moment ago of C.S. Lewis, where he says, “Repentance is not something that God demands of you before he takes you back – it’s simply a description of what going back to God is like.” We can’t go back to God without it, but it’s not a condition of God’s loving us, it’s rather the thing you do when you recognize what God has done on the cross and in the resurrection (and recognizing that is not under our control either). But if you say that you’re going to turn back to God and you’re not submitting to God and therefore repenting, you haven’t returned to God; you’ve just returned to an idea of God and you’re once more trying to save yourself conditionally, you might say.

JMF: Don’t we sometimes turn repentance into some kind of a work or some kind of a chore or duty? Instead of freely trusting that we can simply return to God who loves us, we project ourselves onto God as being somebody who is going to require a certain amount of penance or a certain number of deeds (or whatever we have in our head) before he’s going to accept us back. We think that repentance needs to be tooth-grinding and fist-clenching and begging and sackcloth and ashes.

PM: And hair shirts, and so on. I think that’s disastrous. That would not be living by grace. Living by grace means that we can trust in Christ and turn to him, as you said.

JMF: In the prodigal son, this son’s repentance was not a great repentance at all, because he really was…

PM: He realized that he was feeding pigs.

JMF: …and he just wanted a decent meal among the servants who he knew were living better than he was. He didn’t expect the kind of reception that he got.

PM: That’s right.

JMF: All he knew was, that’s where I need to go to stay alive. And so he went back.

PM: There’s a moral in that, right? Those who are searching for the perfect form of repentance before they repent are going to have a problem, because even our repentance is the repentance of unprofitable servants, you might say. Even in our repentance, we’re dependent on the heavenly Father taking us back.

JMF: In one sense we could forget about our repentance and simply trust God to love us and go back to him trusting that he will accept us, love us, help us.

PM: That is the nature of God’s unconditional love.

JMF: Thought of that way, repentance and trust or faith are the same thing.

PM: I think so.

JMF: What’s your next book?

PM: I’m working on a sequel to my book Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity, and it’s going to come out with InterVarsity Press. I’m working with Gary Deddo on that. I’m going to put some real time into that this summer. I haven’t put as much time into it as I should have.

JMF: Is there a potential title or a working title?

PM: The title is Faith, Freedom, and the Spirit. In the first book I focused on the need to acknowledge God’s freedom in himself so as to recognize the way God was acting within history — it was really God and not just our using theological language to describe ourselves in place of God. So in this book I focus on Barth and Torrance again, but I’m going to look at the way the Holy Spirit works in connection with reconciliation and redemption, and then talk about how God works in the economy empowering us and enabling us to know him and participate in life, without blurring the distinction between creator and creature, but actually affirming the two and therefore engendering human freedom. I’m going to focus on the work of the Holy Spirit and knowing God through the Holy Spirit and reconciliation and the work of the Holy Spirit in redemption.

JMF: There hasn’t been a lot of work specifically on the Holy Spirit in regard to Trinitarian theology…

PM: No, there hasn’t. So that’s the direction I would like to move. For all who might have thought that I was maintaining the divine freedom in terms of the doctrine of the immanent Trinity… (Some people have interpreted my book to mean that I was separating God from his actions, but I wasn’t, because I wouldn’t have written the book if God was separate from us. The only reason I wrote the book was to say that God who is active in history is free and acts free in love within history.)

So I would like to clear up some of those misunderstandings by focusing on the Holy Spirit and showing how, when the Spirit unites us to Christ, there are genuine human actions of those who are reconciled, but you can’t read off reconciliation from those who are acting, any more than you can read off what it means to be a Christian by looking at what a Christian does, because sometimes there are Christians who behave well and sometimes there Christians who behave badly.

JMF: The same Christian.

PM: That’s right. I would argue against those who say that you can judge the truth of Christology by the ethical fruits of those who live the Christian life. You can’t. The truth of Christology is judged by who Jesus is as God’s action among us, actively reconciling us to himself even now. And the only way to know that is through the Holy Spirit.

So that’s where I’m hoping to proceed with my next work. It’s been a while since I’ve looked at the chapters as I’ve fleshed them out, and I might have to make revisions as I go and as I learn different things. But I think it’s going to be about nine chapters. Hopefully it will be interesting. I’ll deal with questions that are raised about my first book, and then I’ll focus on God’s acting within history, all the while making sure that I’m speaking about God acting within history and then human beings being freed by God to know and love him.

JMF: Is there a tentative publication date yet?

PM: [The book was published in 2015.] I teach full time at the moment, and I don’t have any research leaves coming up, so I am mainly working during the summers and during the year as well. Next year I’m going to be preparing some lectures to give as well, so hopefully those lectures will work out as chapters within that new book.

JMF: We’ll look forward to seeing it.

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Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2021, 6:36 PM