This post is a part of my ongoing (slow and steady) blog series on The Crucified God by Jürgen Moltmann (CG). You can view the other posts in this series here.
“The place of the doctrine of the Trinity is not the ‘thinking of thought’, but the cross of Jesus.” (Moltmann, CG, 240)
(As a sidebar: I recently posted a review of the new collection of Moltmann’s works [Jürgen Moltmann: Collected Readings]that was released released last year by Fortress Press. It is worth noting that this pivotal section of The Crucified God is included in the reader. So to dive a bit more into Moltmann’s “Trinitarian Theology of the Cross”, you don’t need to wade through all of CG…. Check out the reader!)
The Trinity is best seen at the cross of Jesus, not in doctrinal formulations
The doctrine of the Trinity, as I learned it, goes something like this: God is one, the Father is God, Jesus is God, the Spirit is God. The three are distinct, but there is only one God. This seems to leave the Trinity in the category of abstract doctrine, but (practically speaking – at least for me!) it doesn’t seem to affect the way we think about God, and many of us continue to relate to God in an undifferentiated way (almost as though we were talking to one person who goes by three different names).
But does the Doctrine of the Trinity belong in the category of pure doctrine? Just a logical stringing together of paradoxical biblical descriptions of God?
As we saw in a previous post, Moltmann argues earlier in the book that “Anyone who really talks of the Trinity talks of the cross of Jesus, and does not speculate in heavenly riddles.” Theology must always resist the tendency to live in the realm of abstraction. And so, for Moltmann, the Trinity is most vividly seen in the event of the cross:
If the cross of Jesus is understood as a divine event, i.e., as an event between Jesus and his God and Father, it is necessary to speak in trinitarian terms of the Son and the Father and the Spirit. In that case the doctrine of the Trinity is no longer an exorbitant and impractical speculation about God, but is nothing other than a shorter version of the passion narrative of Christ in its significance for the eschatological freedom of faith and the life of oppressed nature. It protects faith from both monotheism and atheism because it keeps believers at the cross. The content of the doctrine of the Trinity is the real cross of Christ himself. The form of the crucified Christ is the Trinity. In that case, what is salvation? Only if all disaster, forsakenness by God, absolute death, the infinite curse of damnation, and sinking into nothingness is in God himself, is community with this God eternal salvation, infinite joy, indestructible election, and divine life.
All human history, however much it may be determined by guilt and death, is taken up into this ‘history of God’, i.e. into the Trinity, and integrated into the future of the ‘history of God’. There is no suffering which in this history of God is not God’s suffering; no death which has not been God’s death in the history of Golgotha. Therefore there is no life, no fortune and no joy which have not been integrated by his history into eternal life, the eternal joy of God.
Trinitarian theology of the cross opens up hope for the future and a new way of prayer
Moltmann is fond of saying that we should never speak “of” God in a way that we cannot speak “to” God. Far from being speculative, the doctrine of the Trinity gets to the core of how what happened on the cross revolutionizes the way that we relate to God. God is not one person with three components; there are three persons in God. We’ve seen before how Moltmann’s understanding of the Trinity affects how we pray: we don’t pray to a distant God “up there” somewhere; we pray from “inside the Trinity.” If Christian theology cannot speak of God in an undifferentiated way, neither should Christian prayer.
Anyone who speaks of God in Christian terms must tell of the history of Jesus as a history between the Son and the Father. In that case, “God” is not another nature or a heavenly person or a moral authority, but in fact an “event.” However, it is not the event of co-humanity, but the event of Golgotha, the event of the love of the Son and the grief of the Father from which the Spirit who opens up the future and creates life in fact derives. In that case, is there no “personal God”? If “God” is an event, can one pray to him? One cannot pray to an “event.”
In that case there is in fact no “personal God” as a person projected in heaven. But there are persons in God: the Son, the Father, and the Spirit. In that case one does not simply pray to God as a heavenly Thou, but prays in God. One does not pray to an event but in this event. One prays through the Son to the Father in the Spirit. In the brotherhood of Jesus, the person who prays has access to the Fatherhood of the Father and to the Spirit of hope. Only in this way does the character of Christian prayer become clear. The New Testament made a very neat distinction in Christian prayer between the Son and the Father. We ought to take that up, and ought not to speak of “God” in such an undifferentiated way, thus opening up the way to atheism.
As an event in the Trinity, the cross means liberation for all who are outside of God and far from God
We’ve seen already how the cross removes all distinctions among people. Here Moltmann amplifies this: God allows himself to be rejected and cast out in Jesus. Jesus, The Crucified God, goes “outside the gate” in solidarity with all who have been cast out; he experiences our rejection, our suffering, our alienation, and is executed. His rejection is our liberation! Because God himself is cast out, he is present with everyone “on the outside” – without any distinction! Through the suffering of Jesus, all are brought in to the very life of the Trinity:
God allows himself to be forced out. God suffers, God allows himself to be crucified and is crucified, and in this consummates his unconditional love that is so full of hope. But that means that in the cross he becomes himself the condition of this love. The loving Father has a parallel in the loving Son and in the Spirit creates similar patterns of love in man in revolt. The fact of this love can be contradicted. It can be crucified, but in crucifixion it finds its fulfillment and becomes love of the enemy. Thus its suffering proves to be stronger than hate. Its might is powerful in weakness and gains power over its enemies in grief, because it gives life even to its enemies and opens up the future to change. If in the freedom given through experience of it the believer understands the crucifixion as an event of the love of the Son and the grief of the Father, that is, as an event between God and God, as an event within the Trinity, he perceives the liberating word of love which creates new life. By the death of the Son he is taken up into the grief of the Father and experiences a liberation which is a new element in this de-divinized and legalistic world, which is itself even a new element over against the original creation of the word. He is in fact taken up into the inner life of God, if in the cross of Christ he experiences the love of God for the godless, the enemies, insofar as the history of Christ is the inner life of God himself. In that case, if he lives in this love, he lives in God and God in him. If he lives in this freedom, he lives in God and God in him. If one conceives of the Trinity as an event of love in the suffering and the death of Jesus—and that is something which faith must do—then the Trinity is no self-contained group in heaven, but an eschatological process open for men on earth, which stems from the cross of Christ. By the secular cross on Golgotha, understood as open vulnerability and as the love of God for loveless and unloved, dehumanized men, God’s being and God’s life is open to true man. There is no “outside the gate” with God (Borchert), if God himself is the one who died outside the gate on Golgotha for those who are outside…