Interview w/Paul Molnar: The Giver and the Gift

Introduction: Welcome to this unique interview series  devoted to practical implications of Trinitarian Theology. Our guest today is  Dr. Paul Molnar.

Mike Feazell: Paul Molnar is a Catholic Theologian and Professor of Systematic Theology at St. John’s University in New York. He is author of Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian
of the Trinity, Incarnation and Resurrection,
and Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity. Dr. Molnar  is also editor of the Karl Barth Society of North America newsletter and president of the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship. Welcome back to our program. It’s always a pleasure to have you here with us.

Paul Molnar: And it’s really good to be here with you.

MF: 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 active God because God’s being and God’s act are one from what God
is actually doing in that particular history. If you were to do that, you would
then think of God’s grace, perhaps, 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. And 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 the living of the Christian
life in abstraction from the one who empowers you to live it. So it’s
enormously important not to separate the gifts that we receive in
Christ…living as part of the new creation – faith, love, 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. And we can actually 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 are
constantly to tempt to turn back on ourselves, even using Christian concepts in
order to validate such a turn. He is dead against that. And he’s rightly dead
against that. So I think 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.

And there are actually theologians today – I suspect you may
be aware of some of them – who 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 feets…it’s
hearts, hands, and feet, sorry…you know, to make the world a better place.
Well, 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 at all on, you know, us trying to make a better world and
therefore reconstructing an ocean of salvation by saying we need more saviors.
Then that’s the ultimate proof, that sort of thinking, that we’re attempting to
save ourselves, then we’ve missed grace, we’ve bypassed it.

MF: 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: Yes. Torrance was big on, and so was Barth, right,
stressing that God’s being and acts are one. So 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 certainly did not make him a
modalist as some have suggested.

MF: He’s using mode in a different method.

PM: Right, correct. 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. That’s exactly right. But in any case, he
would say that God is eternally one being in his act as Father, Son, and Holy
Spirit. So the significance of that is this. 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 actually 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. So Barth would then want
to argue or does 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.” So the act
of God in Jesus Christ in the incarnation is God coming to us, approaching us,
empowering us to know him. So you could never say, as some theologians have
said, that Jesus is our historical choice, is our foundational figure for our
Christian faith, 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

In a similar way, both theologians would want to say that
God’s act is the Holy Spirit empowering us to believe in Jesus Christ. So
Torrance and Barth both cite 1 Corinthians 12, I think it is, where it says,
“No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” And they really mean
that seriously. So Barth will say…he will make statements such as this,
“Knowledge of God is an event enclosed in the mystery of the divine Trinity.”
And what he means is that God himself in the Holy Spirit, uniting us to Christ
and thus to the Father begins, upholds, and completes our knowledge of God. But
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 meaning, but none of that
is under our control and all that is really a miracle because it goes against
the grain or our natural attempts to sort of create God in our own image.

So I think both theologians take the problem of sin, the
problem of our human limitations seriously. Speaking…Barth was speaking about
God’s hiddenness, even in revelation. And what he means by that is nothing in
history in and of itself can disclose God to us. We really need God to act. And
God does act in his Holy Spirit and in his word, and 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. So the fact that God’s
being and act are one are actually crucial. For Barth they annihilated the
whole need for Natural Theology.

MF: And Natural Theology…what is…

PM: A more or less traditional definition of Natural Theology,
I think, could be made by saying that Natural Theology is the attempt to know
God by relying on nature, reason, or conscious, or history. It’s the attempt to
reason to God’s existence without actually relying on God’s act of revelation
as attested in Scripture. It’s the attempt to know God without Biblical faith.
Torrance would say something to this effect – that one of us doesn’t have
sudden knowledge of God or some natural goodness in us. The presumption is that
we do have some knowledge of God, but when we know God in Jesus Christ, we know
that we can’t rely on any of that – we are to know God with certainty. All of
that is called into question, comes under judgment. And we must give up any
attempt to rely on our natural goodness or on our natural knowledge and take up
our cross and follow him, Torrance would argue. And I think he’s right. So it’s
not that…Barth will say natural knowledge is…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 an arch of God on themselves. And so he has a long, long
section in Volume 2-1 where he talks about Natural Theology, and he doesn’t
want to disprove it or argue, because in the act of disproving it he would be
engaging in Natural Theology in a certain sense. 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, in fact, be constructing an image of God that’s in
variance with who God actually is. And that’s the problem of sin and the problem
of Natural Theology. When we really know God, God will say it’s by the miracle
of grace and not at all 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…you have Hilary of Poitiers who
said that…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.” And Barth said, “Anybody who does not accept that axiom as
their working axiom as a theologian is no theologian and never will be.” And
Torrance adopted that axiom himself and was very supportive of his repertoire
without a doubt. So, so Natural Theology really 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 really 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 actually comes from the Holy Spirit; it’s not something that we
invented. It’s grounded in God.

MF: 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: Good question. 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, both of
them, in the sense that they roll themselves up by trying to obey the law and
thus not having to obey God – God of legalism and moralism you might say.
Torrance says 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 – Christ’s love
and God’s grace. Nobody ever quite lives that or has lived that except Christ
himself. And that’s why we received 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. And what that
means is in Christ we can 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 to try to save ourselves, and we can use both to hind behind them
making it seem as though we’re really good and really law-abiding when all the
while we’re not actually honestly relying on God at all. So there’s sort of a
sustention Torrance talks about. And Barth will talk about the fact that, you
know, 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. And we will, of course, 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 actually be loving God and loving our neighbor
and doing those things that would signify that. Does that make sense?

MF: It’s like Paul said in, what was it, Romans, whatever it
is…I happen to have it marked right here… “Let my debt remain outstanding
except the continuing debt to love one another for whoever loves others has
fulfilled the law.” Jump from Verse 8 and then Verse, what is it, 10, “Love
does no harm to its neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
It’s…the law gets taken care of when you’re walking in the gospel.

PM: Right. And I think that’s exactly what Barth meant when
he said, and Torrance, when Torrance…when Barth said that you won’t be
worrying about the law and its fulfillment when you love God, because you’ll
been loved by God first and empowered to love God, you will spontaneously love
your neighbor.

MF: I’ve known people who were…

PM: …fulfill the law, in effect.

MF: I’ve known people who were so focused on the law…

PM: Yes.

MF: …that they, 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 their focus on the grace of God in Christ.

PM: Yes. Dealing with those sorts of people is difficult.

MF: It is. And, you know, 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. So trying to fulfill that law of love can become a legalistic
activity as well.

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

PM: It means that…I’m thinking of a quote by Barth where
he quotes from the Bible, of course, I think it’s 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.” So the love of God is identical with
the sending of Jesus Christ to love us while we were enemies of God. So I think
the gist of that statement is captured in that response by Barth. It’s a
crucial statement, I think.

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

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

MF: I think it comes home for people, if they could embrace
it, the most when they find themselves – I’m talking about believers or
Christians who are, find themselves embroiled in sin. In other words they’ve
failed in some habitual sin or they have done something that it outrageous, and
their first response is typically, “How can God still love me after this?” And
there’s a depression that sets in and a sense of being, a feeling of being cut
off from God and so on. And it’s so renewing and helpful…and it’s not easy to
do, of course, because it seems so unreal at the time…but to remember that
Christ died for you while you’re still a sinner and while you were still
enemies he did what he did. And so he doesn’t feel any differently about you
right now, 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.

MF: But we have to keep…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: And we shouldn’t really want to, of course.

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

PM: I was just thinking of the parable of the prodigal son
as you were saying what you were saying. It’s without conditions. I mean, if
somebody took the inheritance and I was the father, would I really welcome that
person back without conditions or would I say, “Well, you can come back, but
I’m controlling all the money from here on out.”

MF: I would have all sorts of conditions.

PM: I would have all sorts of conditions. But God has none.
And the fact that he loves us in Christ actually gives a permission, a freedom,
for us to live that new life so we can really trust in God’s forgiving grace
and truly do so. Torrance himself was absolutely, and Barth, of course,
too…Torrance is very cipherous (ph) in speaking against, you know, any idea
of conditional salvation. You know, and the whole notion of conditional
salvation destroys the unconditionally of God’s love because if salvation is
conditional on anything we do, then we’re actually thrown back upon ourselves
to try to make good something that we can’t possibly make good because God
loved us while we were still sinners. So it turns into a viscous circle at that

MF: 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 then
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

PM: I was thinking as we spoke about that a moment ago of
C.S. Lewis once again where he talks about repentance and 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
obviously recognizing that is not under our control either. But if you try to
say that you’re going to turn back to God and you’re not submitting to God and
therefore repenting, you really haven’t returned to God; you’ve just returned
to an idea of God and you’re once more just trying to save yourself
conditionally, you might say.

MF: Don’t you think that sometimes we turn repentance into
some kind of a work or some kind of a chore or duty? In other words, instead of
freely trusting that we can simply return to God who loves us, we kind of
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. In other words, we think that repentance
needs to be tooth-grinding and fist-clenching and begging and sack cloth and

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

MF: In the prodigal son, again, this son’s repentance was
not a very…you wouldn’t call it a great repentance at all because he really

PM: He realized that he was feeding pigs.

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

PM: That’s right.

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

PM: And so there’s a moral in that in a sense right? You
know, 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.

MF: Yeah.

PM: Even in our repentance, we’re totally dependent on the
heavenly father taking us back.

MF: 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: And that is the nature of God’s unconditional love. It

MF: Well, thought of that way, then repentance and trust or
faith are the same thing.

PM: I think so, yeah, I would say so.

MF: 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.
So 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.

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

PM: The working title is Pneumatology
and the Trinity
. So I’m going to focus, in this book…in that book I
focused on the need to recognize and acknowledge God’s freedom in his self 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’m going to actually work at…I’m going to focus on Barth and
Torrance once again, but I’m going to look at the way the Holy Spirit works in
connection with reconciliation and redemption as much as I can and then talk
about how God works in the economy empowering us and enabling us to know him
and to participate in life without blurring the distinction between creator and
creature but actually affirming the two and therefore engendering human
freedom. So 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

MF: There hasn’t been a lot of work specifically on the Holy
Spirit in regard to Trinitarian Theology as I…

PM: No, I would say there hasn’t. So that’s the direction I
would like to move at this point. So for all of those people who might have
thought that I was maintaining the divine freedom in terms of the doctrine of
the immanent trinitywho…some
people have read my book and interpreted it to mean that I was separating God
from his actions…but of course 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 history is fee 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 really
are genuine human actions of those who are reconciled but that 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.

MF: The same Christian.

PM: Correct. That’s right. So I would certainly argue
against those who say that you can judge the truth of Christology by the
ethical fruits of those who live the Christian life. Of course 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. I think it’s going to be…it’s been a while since I’ve looked at the
chapters as I’ve sort of fleshed them out. And, of course, you know there
are…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. And so it should…hopefully
it will be interesting. So I’ll deal with questions that are raised, you know,
about my first book and then I’ll focus on God’s acting within history but 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. And so hopefully
that will…

MF: Is there a tentative publication date yet?

PM: I think the theoretical publication date is 2012.
So…and I might be able to do that. But I teach full time at the moment and I
don’t have any research leaves coming up so I mainly working during the summers
and during the year as well. And 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.

MF: Well we’ll look forward to seeing it.

PM: Thank you.

MF: We’ve been talking with Paul Molnar, Professor of
Systematic Theology at St. John’s University in New York. I’m Mike Feazell for You’re Included.


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