[NOTE: this is only a draft of an introduction. Final published version may look drastically different.]
Classical trinitarianism confesses that opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa. This principle functions as a dogmatic rule in descriptions of divine action in the world. Despite some notable exceptions, most theologians today would affirm this principle. However, in actual use a number of obviously conflicting interpretations may be observed. Some understand the principle minimalistically to imply that there is no conflict between the economic works of the triune persons. Others understand indivisa to imply that they three work ‘in concert’, that they stand behind each other’s actions, that they act collectively, or otherwise that they cooperate. Still others insist that the indivisibility of divine triune action means that the persons do not undertake separate actions; not simply that they do not act without each others’ support (this much is trivial), but that one cannot even individuate distinct actions of the persons.
It goes without saying that achieving some clarity with regards to this principle is vital theological task. Still, despite a small number of articles and individual book chapters, no large scale exposition and discussion of this rule has so far been attempted. The task is not of marginal significance for the rest of Christian doctrine, since the proper distribution and elucidation of divine action is fundamental to understanding the claims of the faith. For that same reason, it is an undertaking that must be assumed with fear and trembling. At stake are doctrines at the heart of our faith. The repercussions of a wrong move at this most foundational level will affect large swaths of Christian teaching.
That God acts in the world is universally affirmed in Christian theology. Beyond this point there is much disagreement: does God act merely providentially, or are there special divine actions in the world? Much energy is currently expended on the question of special divine action, that is, on whether God intervenes in the space-time continuum, and if so, what form does this ‘intervention’ take? We will not wade into this important discussion, although we are not entirely indifferent to it; however, the paucity of consideration for the trinitarian dimension of divine action needs immediate correction. This study can be a first step in this direction in that it clarifies the theological question of what it means for the Trinitarian God to act! It must not be supposed that we are already familiar with the notion of divine action, much less trinitarian action. God is not an item in the world and therefore we must tread carefully here. Beyond the epistemic difficulties posed for God’s action by his transcendence, the trinitarian nature of God also qualifies divine action.
We are calling the doctrine of inseparable operations a dogmatic rule. Nodding toward Wittgenstein’s conception of ‘theology as grammar’, we admit that we are not aiming at an objective representation and explanation of triune agency. Just as language fails at describing God perfectly, so it cannot hope to capture the essence of divine action. Nevertheless, since we are called to witness to the reality of God’s dealings with us, we must take on the hard task of speaking about the unspeakable and describing the undescribable. When we are referring to the doctrine of inseparable operations as a grammatical rule, we mean that its function is primarily that of norming and qualifying other more basic descriptions. The primary meaning of these descriptions is retained, but qualified. Taken in this form, the doctrine of inseparable operations functions in a way similar to analogy. Whereas analogy qualifies univocal meaning, the inseparability principle qualifies actions descriptions and ascriptions. For example, when the action of salvation is ascribed to the Son (on a first order level of predication), under the rule of indivisibility it is also ascribed to the Father and the Spirit.
However, this continual chastening of language is not made with the hindsight of perfect vision. The fact remains that we do not have an insight into the essence of divine action. But then why? The primary reason why classical trinitarianism has insisted on the strict application of this rule has been fidelity to scriptural revelation! Contrary to what some might expect, the inseparability rule, in its classical, or what we call here ‘hard interpretation’, is grounded in Scripture, not in speculative deduction from the unity of divine essence. The conviction of the earliest exponents of the rule has been that Scripture ascribes the self-same actions to the Son as much as to the Father and the Holy Spirit. In fact, it was precisely under the influence of this observation that the doctrine of the Trinity has developed, including the notion of the irreducible distinctions between the persons. It is Scripture which calls for a kind of reading that does not divide the actions of the triune persons.
Such an indivisibility, however, is without equal in the finite world. For this reason, we cannot probe its depths, we cannot explain it; we can only attest to it in faith. It cannot stressed enough that the current volume must be understood as a modest exercise in theological grammar, rather than a impetuous explanation and representation. We do not claim to be able to ‘explain’ triune inseparable action, to show how it functions, to lay bare its logic, or to discover its essence. As a grammatical exercise, the most we can aim at is at adjusting the uses of our language. The conviction behind this is that there is a point to grammar because it aims to regulate language use, yet without the presumption of an exact mapping of language unto the divine reality.
Laws, and in particular laws of grammar, go out of use not because they are falsified by new discoveries, since laws do not so much make assertions, as they make assertions possible. They go out when they are no longer considered useful, when better ways of organizing and framing the material are invented. Many contemporary trinitarian theologians are of the opinion that the inseparability rule, in its hard version, is passé. The conditions of the language of theology have changed to such an extent that it is no longer necessary to enforce it. There are, it is being suggested, much better ways of making sense of the data of Scripture and of Christian practice. The enduring value of this rule, in their opinion, is the general idea of non-competitiveness and cooperation between the triune persons. Apart from this soft reading of inseparability, the rule is not only past its usefulness, but positively stifling of progress in God-talk. A critical mass of such objections has been reached, such that it is wise for the defender of the rule to accept the burden of proof. We intend to do precisely that. Distinguishing between hard and soft inseparability, the former meaning that every act token of any trinitarian person is also an act token of the other persons, the latter meaning only that the divine persons participate in shared and collective actions together, we will argue for the former against the latter.
We start our volume with a biblical theology of inseparable operations. Were it not for the fact that Scripture itself is ascribing specifically divine actions to Christ and the Spirit, they would not have been identified as divine. But is ‘God’ a singular being, or a trope? The question of the character of Jewish monotheism becomes in this context very pressing. If to Jesus are ascribed only a type of actions that other divine figures also undertake, hard inseparability fails to follow. There are two fundamental ways in which Jesus can be identified with ‘divinity’: either by ascribing to him covenantal actions, or covenant related activities, or by ascribing to Christ the very act of creation. Both of these kinds of ascriptions are made, but with varying implications for our thesis.
Scripture not only ascribed the self-same actions to the Father and the Son, but it also irreducibly distinguishes the persons. A theology of inseparable operations must take the unity and distinction between the persons as equally basic. We discuss this with special reference to the Gospel of John. We then conclude the first chapter with exegetical observations about the unity between the risen Christ and the Pentecostal Spirit.
Chapter 2 is a survey of the development and abrogation of the inseparability rule. We discover the fact that in the development towards trinitarian monotheism the biblical evidence for inseparable operations was the factor that convinced strict monotheists to allow for real distinctions between the persons within the unity of God. Far from being a mere deduction from a metaphysical concept of unity, the doctrine of inseparable operations was in fact the crutch on which the very distinction between the persons was established. Not only was this doctrine regarded as a biblical necessity, but in the Christological controversies up to the 7th century it became an issue of vital religious importance. The reason why the doctrine of inseparable operations has become so counter-intuitive today has not a little to do with its reception in modern theology, and in particular in much of the modern trinitarian resurgence. During the past century the rule has gone from being part of the very foundation of trinitarian dogma to being one of its greatest vulnerabilities. The story of this recent disenchantment with the rule helps us identify the signal grievances and difficulties, thus setting the agenda for the rest of the book.
Before addressing the various objections to the doctrine, we pause in chapter 3 to explain the metaphysical logic of the doctrine, primarily along two vectors. Ontologically, we explain what triune causality means and why the Trinity only operates inseparably in the economy. We then assess the implications of this triune causality for our knowledge of the divine persons. The doctrine of appropriation, the great corollary the rule of inseparability is discussed here. Finally, since we have suggested that the classical construal (East and West) of the relationship between persons and nature is interwoven with the doctrine of inseparable operations, an alternative social-trinitarian model must now be assessed. Taking Richard Swinburne as one possible social trinitarian construal of operative unity we assess the success of his proposal.
From the fourth chapter onwards we begin to test hard inseparability against various doctrines and the specific objections generated from therein. The common theme throughout the next chapters is whether hard inseparability possesses explanatory power in relation to the Christian confession, or is it falsified by it? To put it differently: does this grammatical rule still apply to the first order Christian statements? Is it still able to organize and norm them? These various discussions will also indicate the fecundity of the rule for a fresh look at the individual doctrines. Far from seeking to be innovative, however, the aim is to retrieve a classical trinitarian lexicon for these loci.
The first such discussion, quite naturally, is the doctrine of creation. Perhaps the most pivotal doctrine in the development of trinitarian theology, creation also sets up a challenge for hard inseparability: can it account for its biblical inflection according to which the Father creates through the Son and the Spirit? Is the logic of inseparability able to accommodate the ‘through Christ’ and the ‘by the Spirit’, and the ‘from the Father?’ Or will it inevitably see in these distinctions separations and therefore swipe them to the side? Much modern theology attacks the inseparability rule for forcing an approach to the doctrine of creation through the Son that effectively depersonalizes the mediation of creation. Much is at stake in this discussion of a first theological locus. The doctrine of creation establishes the unsurpassable ontological difference between God and everything else. It will begin to emerge here that the inseparability tradition fears that it is the very transcendence of God that is neglected by the ascription of divisible operations to the persons of the Trinity.
The second test for the rule is whether it is able to properly explain the doctrine of the incarnation of the Son alone (chapter 5). This is perhaps the most fundamental objection to the rule. If every act token of the Son is also the act token of the Father and the Spirit, shouldn’t it follow that the Father and the Spirit were also incarnate? This objection forces us to reckon with the metaphysics of acts and states. It will emerge that this test demonstrates not the weakness, but the inestimable religious significance of the inseparability rule. Another related objection will be discussed at this point: given the particular understanding of divine action (as the production of created effects), doesn’t this render the human nature of Christ extrinsic to the Son, with the consequence that it doesn’t truly reveal the Son in his personal distinction?
Chapter 6 continues the theme of Christology, this time attending to the works of the incarnate Son. Whereas the previous chapter discussed the hypostatic union, here we turn to the operations that follow from the union. Are the operations of Christ merely appropriated to the Son, or do they properly belong to him? It is not difficult to understand why some would be concerned by the thought of a ‘mere appropriation’, since it is precisely in the operations that the person is thought to be most manifest. Thus, if there are operations of Christ that do not belong exclusively to the Son, how can they reveal the Son in particular? Indeed, how can the Son be himself, without proper operations? We are clearly dealing with the same family of objections: no exclusive personal operation, therefore no revelation of the person itself. In addressing these worries we shall have to evaluate how actions pertain to persons and to natures, but also the particular arrangement of the divine and human natures in the incarnation, all within strict Chalcedonian limits. Again, we hope, it will emerge that the rule of hard inseparability does not inhibit true scriptural confession, but it mines its most profound depths.
The religious significance of this rule comes out perhaps most clearly in our discussion of the atonement (chapter 7). The approach is somewhat different here. Rather than taking a particular confessional statement and using it to test the sustainability of the rule, this time we are assuming the rule is healthy and are using it to test a particular doctrine. The aim of this chapter is fundamentally negative and critical, with only a hint of a positive construal. Building on the foregoing work, we are asking how the operations of the Father and those of the Son need to be related in the act of atonement. Can the Son, as man, do something (e.g., die) which enables the Father to do something else (e.g., forgive)? This yields a trinitarian correction of a particular account of penal substitution, a doctrine which otherwise we consider to be indispensable. An inseparable-trinitarian account of atonement must be very careful about the way in which the actions of the persons are coordinated, or rather about how the persons are related in the unity of their operation. More specifically, it must resist either separating the action tokens of the triune persons, or making the actions of one person depend upon the actions or another, or, making the actions of the divine nature depend on the actions of the human nature. The rule of inseparability, together with traditional theistic and trinitarian concerns have, we shall see, quite clear implications for these relations.
Atonement, we shall see, cannot simply be about the actions of the Father and the Son. Rather, if atonement is about the at-onement of God and humanity, the work of Christ must be intrinsically united to the pouring out of the indwelling Spirit. The Spirit cannot be left out of the at-onement, which would make the latter a farce. But the Spirit is often seen as merely an extrinsic reward for Christ’s obedience, received upon his ascension. So one must try to account for the presence and operation of all trinitarian persons in the atonement, but also for another fact: the conditioning of the arrival of the Spirit upon the departure of Christ (chapter 8), which raises another objection: if the persons act inseparably, why must one person leave before another can descend? Engaging with this complicated question takes us again into the territory of the logic of the divine missions, particularly to the manner in which the human nature of Christ is instrumentalized and transfigured by its being caught up in the life of the Trinity. A constructive conclusion follows from this discussion, which observes the inseparability rule, and also shows the proper place of the humanity of Christ in the sending of the Spirit.
This brings us to our final test case for the inseparability rule: how it accounts for the personal indwelling of the Spirit (chapter 9). The problem is posed in the following manner: how can the Spirit be said to indwell the believer in his proprium? Is there a similarity between the ‘incarnation of the Son alone’ and the ‘indwelling of the Spirit alone?’ Is the indwelt believer in possession of the divine person as himself, or only in possession of gifts appropriated to this divine person?
The cumulative effect of these various dogmatic engagements will hopefully be to exhibit the continued vitality of the rule of inseparable operations and to persuade the reader that the rule is properly biblical, that it is coherent and clear in its handling of objections and in what it affirms, and finally that it is fecund in terms of its constructive resources.