Opera Ad Extra: The Inseparable Works of the Triune God

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Book description

The Inseparable Operations of the Trinity: An Exposition and Defense of a Dogmatic Rule

Forthcoming, Eerdmans, 2019ish.

Book Synopsis

If you have been reading up on the doctrine of the Trinity, chances are you have encountered the so-called “axiom” omnia opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa. In English, all the works of the Trinity outside of Godself are indivisible. In the literature this is sometimes referred to as the doctrine of inseparable operations (DIO). The axiom was regarded to be analytic to the doctrine of the divine unity. It is both implied by the unity of divine essence, and it implies it.

But how should the rule be understood? Is it intelligible; conceptually defensible; does it cohere with other doctrinal claims? While a variety of articles tackle various aspects of DIO, there is no book-length treatment of this important rule. Hence this project. Below is a brief synopsis and rationale for it.

I am distinguishing between (a) hard inseparability, which holds that every action token (concrete, indexed action) attributed to one of the triune persons needs to be attributed to the other two persons as well; and (b) soft inseparability, which only requires that trinitarian persons share action types (not action tokens), their concrete actions being individuated. Hard inseparability, I am suggesting, was the all but unanimous consensus of the patristic tradition. Soft inseparability is a modern innovation, most at home in social trinitarianism. I will argue against the soft version, and in favor of hard inseparability. With many significant theologians, from Athanasius, to Basil the Great, to Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Maximus, and Hilary of Poitiers, I will argue that we must resist views of trinitarian agency which imagine the three cooperating through their individual actions. Rather, the triune persons act as a single agent in creation, redemption, glorification, yet every such inseparable operation exhibits a threefold modality: from the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Such a modality coheres with the manner in which the divine persons share in the divine substance.

The hard version of DIO is not without its challenges. The first obstacle is the apparent differentiation between the actions of the triune persons, as they are narrated in Scripture. It will be shown, however, that Scripture is rather clear not only about the distinction between the persons, but on the inseparability of their actions. A second challenge is of the dogmatic order: if every action token must be assigned to each person, should one not assign the incarnation to the Father and the Holy Spirit also, with the absurd result that the Father too was incarnate? Or the crucifixion, with the problematic implication that the Father died on the cross? What about the cry of dereliction? Doesn’t Scripture require us to admit a separation between the Father and the Son, at least on the cross? A further differentiation between the respective agencies of the Son and Spirit is apparent in the ascension/Pentecost “exchange:” the Son must ascend, before the Spirit can come. Finally, how are we to understand the indwelling of the Holy Spirit from the perspective of DIO?

It is quite clear that a thorough defense of DIO requires addressing each of these tough questions. But the project is one that leads to deeper contemplation of God. It eventually will yield an account of trinitarian agency that is heavily informed by a doctrine of the missions of the Son and Spirit, which preserves divine transcendence, yet affirm his intimacy to creation. It will further need to incorporate a biblical hermeneutics of trinitarian agency; an account of divine action that is informed by both contemporary philosophy of action, as well as trinitarian metaphysics. A provisional outline of the book’s chapters will follow in a separate post.

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Here’s a wide-ranging interview I did with fellow Eastern European, a scholar of ancient and medieval history and culture, Adrian Guiu. Among the topics we covered: my personal story growing up in Romania, faith during communism, apologetics, doubt, the church’s obsession with relevance, and, of course, theology.

Encounters with Wisdom

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“Introduction” to The Divine Missions

This is the draft of my introduction to my forthcoming little book on The Divine Missions, with Wipf and Stock.


Christians confess that at the incarnation the Son of God didn’t just come into the world, but he was sent by his Father. Likewise, at Pentecost, the Spirit was sent into the world by the Father and the Son. These sendings, or missions as they have been more commonly called, represent a theologically significant category that is easily misunderstood. The task of the present work is to provide a constructive introduction to this very important concept in trinitarian theology.

Observations of the common usage of this category among lay Christians, and not a few professional theologians, have revealed that missions are easily confused with tasks, or operations. Thus, the mission of the Son is typically understood to be that of inaugurating the Kingdom, of providing atonement for sins, of seeking the lost sheep of Israel, etc. The mission of the Spirit is also understood in largely functional terms, viz. of being an instrument in sanctification, of providing supernatural gifts, etc. Without a doubt, the missions of the Son and the Spirit cannot be understood apart from considering their various operations. But when these operations are allowed to dominate the semantics of mission, something essential is all too easily lost from view. The assumption is often made that what it means for a divine person to act in the world comports no special problem. We fail to problematize what it might mean for the triune God to act in the world. But theology cannot simply help itself to the category of divine operations without some important qualifications.

The first thing that needs to be mentioned is that God is not any kind of finite agent. To say that God acts in the world has historically raised many questions and prompted important qualifications. Secondly, as Three-in-One, God’s operations in the world are always indivisible. That is, the persons do not each have their distinct operations, since they indivisibly share the divine nature on the basis of which they act. Even though God is three “persons”, these are not three beings. The persons represent distinctions within the unity of a single being. Consequently, their operations are also the operations of a single being. There is a long and complicated story about this, and we have sought to address it elsewhere.[1] But the point is that it is always the whole Trinity that acts in the world, and yet not without personal distinction.

For these reasons, the idea that the Son and the Spirit accomplish a number of tasks always needs to be coordinated with both their divine transcendence, and their indivisible unity. This is exactly what the category of mission is intended to convey! It indicates that behind the various effects that are brought about, the sundry tasks that are accomplished, there is something more. 

One way of putting this is to say that the category of mission shifts the conversation from the what to the who. It is not as if the variety of effects (indicated by operations) are not important, but they cannot be separated from the agent. The doctrine of the missions signals that beyond just simple effects and operations lies a divine self-communication. This is not a simple divine presence, for the divine omnipresence can be taken for granted, or a special divine operation, for such operations have taken place from the beginning of time. What is special about a mission is that a self-communication of a divine person has taken place, involving actions and operations, to be sure, but much more than these.

One reason it is important to consider the who question is to prevent a certain mythological understanding of the missions. This confusion can happen if we focus on the effects but we forget to consider the agency, which in this case is transcendent and trinitarian. While the effects of the operation are in our world, their source – agency – is not. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is in the temple and explains their lack of comprehension to them: “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.” (John 8:23) This pertains to the very heart of the Gospel, which is, God with us – Emmanuel. While God has always acted in the past, in the fullness of time he has given us the Son, and then the Spirit. The heart of the Gospel is the return of YHWH to dwell with his people, it is the very presence, and not just the operations of God among the people.

The category of mission articulates theologically this new presence of God. It does so by discerning a pattern of God’s restored presence. YHWH comes in the sending of the Son, and then the sending of the Spirit, both of these sendings mediating the sending Father. While the operations pertaining to the sendings are common to the three, the missions are distinct and proper to the individual person. That is, each mission exhibits a relational pattern, an ordered flow of the eternal triune life. The mission of the Son manifests his coming forth from the Father; the mission of the Spirit manifests his spiration by the Father and the Son. Their various operations are ultimately meant to include us into this trinitarian flow of life.

We must press on to the missions, beyond just squinting at the operations because the agent of these operations transcends them. The present book reflects more systematically upon the nature of the missions and then shows the difference this category makes. It is meant to be a guide to a conversation many are not accustomed with, but which has significant repercussions for theology in general. We shall proceed in the following manner. The first chapter analyzes the notion of a mission theologically. We start by distinguishing between progressive manifestations of the divine presence, culminating in the missions. We then introduce the two most foundational theologians of the divine missions, Saints Augustine and Aquinas. In conversation with their work a rich definition of the missions emerges, according to which a mission extends the procession of the triune persons into the world. We end the first chapter with a clarification of the distinction between missions and operations.

Having established the definition of the missions in the first chapter, we proceed to a constructive theology of the so-called visible and invisible missions. Chapter Two discusses the visible missions of the Son and the Spirit, focusing on the hypostatic union, Christ’s theandric (divine-human) life, and finally the sending of the Spirit upon Christ’s ascension. The focus of Chapter Three is the invisible missions of the Son and the Spirit, that is, the interior indwelling of the two persons, but also of the Father himself. We tackle several pressure points that have emerged historically in the church’s reflection on these matters. The first is the question of the formality of the invisible missions, which is the question of what it might mean for a divine person to be indwelling a believer. We discuss the historic choice to consider a created grace as the formality of these missions. The formal priority of created grace has been relentlessly challenged by the work of Karl Rahner, whose contribution to this conversation will preoccupy us at some length. His main charge is that the formal priority of created grace obscures the distinct enjoyment of the three persons in the invisible missions. If the form of the persons’ presence is only some created grace, which is the common effect of the whole trinity, how can we be said to be distinctly related to the indwelling persons? This leads into a discussion of the finality of the invisible missions, where we argue that created grace does after all dispose us to enjoy the persons distinctly, but this enjoyment may amount to something surprising.

Throughout the book we will allude to the expected eschatological banquet where we will enjoy the unmediated presence of God in the so-called beatific vision. It is our argument that there is an intrinsic connection between the life of grace, where we are led by the divine missions into the life of the trinity, and the life of glory, where our hope will be consummated in the beatific vision. The fourth and final chapter is addressing this issue. It demonstrates how the invisible missions are disposing us for the enjoyment of God. Finally, it argues that pride of place in the beatific vision will be the enjoyment of the incarnate Lord, in all his splendor. Thus, the missions will be shown to continue into eternity, as our enjoyment of God continues to be in some sense accompanied by our delight in the glorified Christ.            

These are the main contours of the book’s argument. Additional dogmatic connections will be made as we proceed. As the reader will surely note, much additional trinitarian theology is presupposed by a book of this length. To help the reader less well-versed in the intricacies and technical vocabulary of trinitarian theology, a glossary has been provided. The intention is to offer an introduction to the conceptuality of the divine missions, an argument for its importance and centrality for all theology, an overview of the historical discussions and of the important contributions to the debate, plus a constructive outline of how a number of theological loci (atonement, world religions, sanctification, ecclesiology) appear from the perspective of the missions.

[1] Adonis Vidu, The Same God Who Works All Things: Inseparable Operations in Trinitarian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021)

Cascade Companion to the Divine Missions

Here is a preview of the table of contents for my forthcoming book on the Divine Missions. It is intended as an introductory textbook to the doctrine of the divine missions. The reader will be introduced to the conversation, the main concepts will be clarified, and some critical questions will be raised and answered. It was a fun book to write, and I will be looking to test drive the manuscript with some folks over the summer/fall. The hope is that the doctrine of the divine missions will be at or near the top of the list of doctrines to be retrieved.


Cascade Companion to the Divine Missions


Adonis Vidu

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary




1 – The Nature of the Divine Missions

Progressive Manifestations

Augustine’s Account of the Missions

Ontology of the Divine Missions in Aquinas

Missions as the Fruition of Operations


2 – The Visible Missions of the Son and Spirit

Hypostatic Union

Theandric Life

Ascension and Pentecost


3 – The Invisible Missions

Reality of the Invisible Missions

Formality of the Invisible Missions

Finality of the Invisible Missions

Order of the Missions and Missio Dei


4 – The End of the Missions: The Vision of God

On the Possibility of the Vision

The Vision as the Terminus of Missions

The Place of Christ in the Beatific Vision



Powers, Principalities, and the Spirit

Upon the encouragement of some friends, here are some thoughts on Esther Acolatse’s Powers, Principalities, and the Spirit: Biblical Realism in Africa and the West. 

9780802864055First, a quick rendering of the book’s thesis. Arising from concerns about pastoral practice in African churches, Acolatse aims to present a framework in which personal spiritual powers are properly understood. Western culture and theology, however, have naturalized and depersonalized the powers. Deprived of their supernatural character and of their personality, the powers have been transformed by Western scholarship either into systems of oppression and systemic evil, or in symbols for the influences upon the spiritual life of the individual. They have lost either their personal force, being diffused as vague social forces, or their power to act on bodies and matter, being confined to their spiritual realm.

Largely responsible for this domesticated view of the powers is Rudolf Bultmann’s program of demythologization, which in Acolatse’ opinion still reverberates in the halls of Western biblical studies, including the approach of many Evangelical biblical scholars and theologians.

From the perspective of African pastoral practice, however, the supernatural and personal reality of the powers cannot be glossed over. African culture is open to the reality of the supernatural and brings to the text of scripture a realism about the powers that is similar to the Hebraic mindset.

But how does one take the powers seriously? Acolatse’s prescription involves the recovery of the category of myth. Myth is a human way of speaking about the supernatural. We need, she argues, a conception of myth that avoids the binaries of fable/fact, primitive/advanced. To put it rather crudely, myth is the human way of articulating the interference between the phenomenal world of the senses and the nuomenal world of the supernatural. Myth is the unavoidable form of the human response to revelation. Drawing on the work of Richard H. Bell (Deliver Us From Evil: Interpreting the Redemption from the Power of Satan in New Testament Theology, Mohr Siebeck, 2007), she writes,

the world can be apprehended in both nuomenal and phenomenal terms: one can read the biblical narratives both mythically and mythologically without, in my view, doing harm to its significance. […] To portray a concept/encounter through mythopoeic form is not to make the concept itself a myth – as in a tale. The revelation remains true despite the medium, and while the medium must be intelligible, it need not be so only noetically, since human perception and apperception involves sensing; bodily ways of knowing are essential to existence and survival. In revealing indirectly, God invites humans to partner in the revelatory performance, a seeing and being seen, and like the movements in a waltz – stepping forward and towards and moving apart and away – a movement that continues back and forth guided by the eternal music of God’s existence and God’s acts. (122-3)

The encounter with God is self-involving, and it entails the human religious categories in which we make sense of the natural and supernatural. In saying this, Acolatse has to push back against the modern Western theologian that she appears to appreciate the most, namely Karl Barth. She finds in Barth a fairly robust doctrine of the powers, articulated in relation to nonthingness. The ‘lordless lords’ exist, but they have no reality. In Barth she finds an interesting dialectic between the ultimate subordination of the powers to God, and the fact that “these creatures operate outside God’s providential parameters” (144). At the same time, Barth’s hostility towards ‘religion’ is preventing him to see the potential in human forms for anticipating and responding to the divine. She refuses to “concede wholeheartedly to the lack of continuity between African primal religious sensibilities and the gospel.” (150) These traditional African sensibilities already have an intuitive grasp of the nuomenal world and the powers therein.

The question of the ontology of the powers is of fundamental importance here. Acolatse does not tackle it head on, but mostly indirectly and especially in conversations with others, like Walter Wink and Barth. She knows that dualism and Manicheism must be avoided; as must be Pelagianism, where the origin of evil is placed in the human creature entirely.

But then just what are the powers? How, if they are associated with nothingness, a la Barth, are they under God’s control, since nothingness, as Barth puts it, “is an element to which God denies the benefit of his preservation, concurrence and rule, of His fatherly lordship, and which is itself opposed to being preserved, accompanied and ruled in any sense, fatherly or otherwise?” (quote, p. 143)

It strikes me that the problem can be put in the following terms: how can the powers be acknowledged without being lionized? Acolatse’s response is excellent:

The valorization of the powers as personal demonic forces who inhabit and direct humans is too narrowly simplistic. it also undercuts other aspects of theological self-understanding: the issue of human volition and of God the Creator and the one who ultimately guides all things. (96)

In my estimation Acolatse makes a number of very helpful moves in the right direction, but it has left me looking for a more comprehensive ontology/theology of the powers, including angels, the role of the indwelling Spirit, the defanging of the powers by the cross of Christ, etc. The reader must, however, understand that this book is mostly a prolegomena to a theology of the powers, clarifying the hermeneutical assumptions, the worldview presuppositions and the theology of scripture involved. It is in and of itself an incomplete theology of the powers, but an excellent prolegomena to one. One will find plenty to question about the hermeneutics, theology of scripture, theological epistemology, the role of science, in this project. I hope to make some comments of a more critical nature in a future post.

Contents: The Same God Who Works All Things: An Exposition and Defense of the Doctrine of Inseparable Operations


Introduction…………………………………………………………………………………………………… 4

Chapter 1: A Biblical Theology of Inseparable Operations…………………………………….. 11

The Nature of Jewish Monotheism……………………………………………………………………………….. 11

Jesus and the Spirit identified with the God of Israel……………………………………………………….. 22

Jesus Identified with the Creator…………………………………………………………………………………… 33

Inseparability of Christ and Spirit…………………………………………………………………………………. 42

The Works of the Trinity in the Gospel of John………………………………………………………………. 47

Conclusion to Chapter 1………………………………………………………………………………………………… 61

Chapter 2: The Rise and Decline of Inseparable Operations…………………………… 64

The Patristic Emergence of the Doctrine………………………………………………………………………… 65

Continue reading “Contents: The Same God Who Works All Things: An Exposition and Defense of the Doctrine of Inseparable Operations”

Draft of an Introduction

[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.

Exitus/Reditus: from Creation to Salvation

Reconciliation must not be separated from creation. The incarnate Son who redeems is the Creator God. At the same time, a proper conceptual distance must be observed between the two concepts. Creation is the production of the being of creatures; their coming forth from God – not through emanation, but through God’s free decree. It is their establishment as existing, as having being by participation. As such it is the activity of God by his essence, and thus the common and inseparable operation of the whole Trinity (Aquinas, ST I, q. 45, a. 6). For this reason, we cannot work our way back to the doctrine of the Trinity by natural reason.

The divine missions, on the other hand, extend the processions towards and into creation, so as to draw creation into union with God and into participation in the Triune life. The divine missions communicate to us the life and personal character of the divine persons. Thus in salvation we are not simply returned to an original state of creation, but are perfected by and united specifically with the divine persons (John 14:23), through knowledge and love.

It is thus inadequate to simply speak of redemption as re-creation, or as new creation. It is that too, but so much more… it is a supernatural perfecting of created nature, by a transforming fellowship with the triune persons.

Our return (reditus) to God, then, is along the two ‘vectors’ (Emery) which are the missions of the Son and the Spirit. Through the missions we have distinct relations to the divine persons in a way that we do not have in creation. So is the Trinity revealed, not in the production of the creature, but in its return to God through the Son and the Spirit.

Bringing the Trinity to Mind and in Language

Meditating on the Trinity quickly exposes the limitations of the human mind and language. We seek to grasp in one thought the mystery of the unity in trinity, of the trinity in unity. But, much like the duck-rabbit optical illusion, where we cannot simultaneously grasp the duck and the rabbit in the same act, but instead the two images alternate before our eyes, so divine three-ness cannot be thought together with the unity in the same act. Augustine puts this down to our finitude. There are no created realities that resemble the trinity and could therefore teach and guide us towards comprehension. Nor, Augustine adds, do we have created analogues for the inseparable operation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We cannot think both the unity of their action, as well as the distinction between their modes of operation (Aquinas, Webster), or kinds of operation (Gunton), in the same thought.

Our contemplation, this side of eternity, will constantly flicker between the unity and the trinity. And so it should. This should not result in a complete ban on images for the Trinity: root-stem-fruit, clover leaf, lover-loved-love, Rublev’s icon, etc. But these all ultimately fail. They do instruct. But they can also mislead, insofar as images often arrest thought.

The best trinitarian theology is one keenly aware of its linguistic and conceptual handicap. It will not discard language. It will, however, have to adjust the pictorial ballast every human language carries. The ballast cannot be altogether thrown out – this would result in utter equivocation. It will have to teach language new tricks. Take the imagery of Father-Son. Taken as it stands, the language immediately evokes a picture, one that involves gender and sexuality, for example – created realities. To be of service, this language must be decoupled from some of its associations. It will have to learn new tricks, much like in metaphorical use old words learn new tricks (N. Goodman). But unlike metaphorical usage, it cannot be guided by another picture.

Scripture supplies us with language about God: Father, Son, Spirit, divine nature. Thus language guides us in our contemplation of the Trinity. But it cannot and should not lead to final images. An idol is precisely an image that arrests thought. Scriptural language will inevitably evoke images – as all language does – but these must quickly fade. They must never replace the Word. He alone is the perfect Image.


Inseparable Operations Doctrine: Practical Implications

Theologians often need to be begged to demonstrate the practical relevance of the fine points of doctrine they love to debate. It is important to always think from the perspective of a doctrine’s practical application. However, I do not think that the value of a doctrine consists exclusively in its practical utility. That would be sheer pragmatism of the worst kind. A reduction of truth to utility. Sometimes the implications of a fine point of doctrine are not so much practical, but yet other fine points of doctrine. If one thinks of theology as a web of beliefs, some of these beliefs are clearly ripe with ministry, or Christian life implications, others get to their ultimate practical implications only through a torturous route via other beliefs. This often requires patience on the part of the pragmatically inclined student of theology.

In the following I will sketch out the more direct practical implications of the inseparable operations doctrine (DIO). These do not exhaust the value of the doctrine. They do not by themselves make the doctrine true; they follow from it.

Ok, then, is there anything here that preaches?

  1. The inseparable unity of the divine persons ultimately grounds the unity of creation. The Father doesn’t create this thing, the Son this other thing, the Holy Spirit the rest. Neither does the Father stay at a distance, not “getting his hands dirty” with matter, but entrusting this to the Son, through whom he creates. This would give the impression that (a) the Son is inferior to the Father; (b) the spirit is that which really matters, not matter. Finally, the eschatological Spirit’s perfecting of creation is not a departure from the creational blueprint, but the actualization of the nature that God himself made (eschatology remains united with creation).
  2. The God of the Old Testament is the same as the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The avenging Lord of Israel is the same as the Lord of grace and peace, Jesus Christ. The acts demonstrating divine justice wrath in Israel’s history are equally the acts of the Son, as they are the acts of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s presence and activity in the OT is not restricted to so-called Christophanies.
  3. The actions of Jesus are precisely the acts of the Father (Jn 14:10). God the Father does not sit it out, letting the Son duke it out with the powers and with sin, but God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. (2 Cor 5:19). [Yes, I am aware of different possibilities of translation] It also follows that the Father does not punish the Son. Or at least the language of the Son being ‘bruised’ by God needs to be very carefully and not literally understood.
  4. Precisely because of the indivisible unity of the Godhead, the Son’s taking on in his human nature the suffering and death due to humanity cannot be final. The Trinity is not “broken” in the God-forsakenness of the cross (Mt 27:46). Its unity necessarily overcomes death’s separation. The death and the passion are suffered by God in the human nature of the Son (only the Son has a human nature). This passible and mortal human nature, however, is united to the immortal and impassible divine nature, without confusion, in the person of the Son. In his divine nature the Son does not suffer or die. He remains in perfect communion and fellowship with the Father. If he didn’t, if the Son had died as God, there would be no more Father and Holy Spirit either. Who’d be left to resurrect the flesh of Christ?
  5. Because the Son and the Spirit also act inseparably, the transition between Ascension and Pentecost is not like a substitution in a ball game (Father is coach, Son is substituted player, Spirit is substitute). The dynamic of absence and presence needs to be correlated with the attribute of omnipresence and transcendence. Christ ascends in order to fill everything (Eph 4:10). He has promised to be with us forever. His presence is given in and with the more obvious and manifest presence of the Spirit, who testifies about Christ. The Spirit himself, then, is not just a sidekick of Christ, some agent who fills in for him. As Christ has promised, the whole Trinity has come to dwell (to makes its home – Jn 14:23) in those who love and obey God.


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