Opera Ad Extra: The Inseparable Works of the Triune God

Blogging through a writing project

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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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.


Questioning the Inseparable Operations Doctrine

Assuming that the doctrine of inseparable operations (DIO) holds that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one internally differentiated agent, the following questions need critical responses. I am happy to entertain other questions/puzzles/refutations etc….

1. If everything the Son does, the Father and the Spirit also do, why do we say that only the Son became incarnate? Or, why do we say that only the Son died and not the Father, or the Spirit?

2. Given DIO, in what way are we to understand that the world was created through Christ? (1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:15-20; John 1)

3. Given DIO, how could Christ have been ‘forsaken’ at the cross? (MT 27:46)

4. Given DIO, is the Trinity talking to itself when Scripture describes Jesus’ interaction with the Father, or the Spirit?

5. Given DIO, why does Christ say that he must first ascend before he can send the Holy Spirit? (Jn 16:7)

6. Given DIO, who is the subject of the Christ’s actions? Is it the eternal Son, the whole Trinity, or even the Holy Spirit?

A Biblical Theology of Inseparable Operations

The first question I am tackling in my forthcoming book on the Inseparable Operations of the Trinity concerns the biblical foundations of the doctrine (Chapter I). Here I lay out, for those interested in the topic, the manner in which I approach the problem and some of my conclusions. The reader will understand that this is a teaser, but I do welcome suggestions and questions.

I am framing the problem in terms of a question about reference to God. Since God is a transcendent being, i.e. does not exist as an empirical object, referring to him, identifying him, picking him out constitutes a particularly vexing problem. It is fundamentally in terms of the problem of reference to God that historical flirting with idolatry is to be understood. Israel, for instance, was convinced that the golden calf really did represent God, through whatever mistaken process of reasoning. They did not actually think this ‘made at Sinai’ idol actually brought them out of Egypt.

Given this difficulty of referring to God, claims about the divinity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are complicated.

The first question is, how many possible objects of reference does the word ‘God’, or ‘divinity’ have? This is the very exciting discussion about the nature of Jewish and particularly second temple monotheism. I am interacting with a variety of recent writers in addition to the work of Bauckham and Hurtado, in particular my former colleague in Romania, James McGrath, Crispin Fletcher-Louis, Christopher Rowland, J. Fossum, Alan Segal, etc. Ultimately I side with Bauckham et. comp., although I recognize the contribution of these various studies to our understanding of divine agency in second-temple Judaism.

Given that we admit only one possible uncreated (and thus divine – in my view, anyway) being, how can one identify and refer to this being? Although several criteria could be formulated, I select two fundamental patterns of identifying God: (a) through his covenantal actions in relation to the people of Israel (exodus, promised return, worship etc.); (b) by crediting God with the action of bringing the cosmos into being.

I treat both of these patterns of identifying God in some detail. In terms of the first pattern, we see scripture attribute to Christ precisely the same type of actions that are attributed exclusively to the God of Israel: forgiving sins, eschatological judgment, authority over the Sabbath, etc. I found the proposals of N. T. Wright (Jesus is acting just as YHWH would have been expected to act upon his promised return to the people) and Chris Tilling (Paul presents the relationship between Christ and the community of believers as the mirror of the relationship between God and Israel) to be particularly helpful. In general I find Wright to be the most supportive of the doctrine of inseparable operations (DIO), since he basically identifies Jesus with YHWH, while ultimately in my view Tilling’s position only yields something like a functional equivalence between the two.

While most of my attention goes to Paul (1 Cor 8-10; Col 1:15-20; Phil 2:6-11; 1 Cor 15; 2 Cor 3-4; Ephesians, etc.), I do draw on Joel Marcus, C. Kavin Rowe and others for the synoptics. Particularly strong for my purposes is the intentional ambiguity in the reference of kyrios: both to YHWH and to Jesus Christ.

If the first pattern of identifying God was in terms of his covenant sustaining actions as the God of Israel, a second pattern is in terms of his singular act of primal creation. The NT ascribes precisely this primal act to Jesus himself (1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:16f.; Heb 2:10; John 1, etc.). The ascription to Jesus of an action which by definition belongs to God alone, besides postulating the inclusion of Jesus in YHWH’s identity, also implies that Jesus and YHWH share the same act (at least in this case). This provides, I submit, the strongest support for DIO, since in this particular case the Father and the Son share the same action token, not simply the same action types (an important distinction). Of course, the question remains as to whether, perhaps, other actions are not inseparably acted – and this will indeed be taken up in due course.

The NT does not simply ascribe creation to Christ, but rather it insists that God created through Christ. I argue, however, that the ‘through’ is not exclusively reserved for Christ, as though the Father is the efficient cause and the Son the instrumental cause. For this, see Romans 11:36, where Paul uses ‘through whom’ language of the Father as well! Still, while this prevents us (I argue) from seeing Christ’s participation in creation along the lines of a cooperation between a principal agent and his instrument, the language of ‘through whom’ is still meaningful and revealing of something peculiar to the Son.

This brings us to the last element in my discussion of inseparable operations in Scripture. The distinctions between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit must be preserved just as much as their inseparability. I engage with that question by mainly focusing on John’s theology of inseparability, both in terms of the Father-Son relation, but also in terms of the inseparability between Jesus and the Spirit. I also go back to Paul, who is particularly instructive here (see his glossing of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ).

All of this biblical material has inexorably led not only to the Christological and Pneumatological debates of the first four centuries, but also to the quasi-universal affirmation by the church of this ancient dogmatic rule, that the opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa. I hope to have shown that the rule is not a metaphysical inference from any particular doctrine of the trinity, but precisely the manner in which the latter doctrine came to be affirmed in the first place.


Triune Agency East and West: Uncreated Energies or Created Effects?

It is not always appreciated that there are important differences between Eastern (Orthodox) and Western theologies (considered as a whole) on the question of how God acts in the world, in addition to their differing perspectives on the Trinity. As I am working on a paper that compares these two approaches, the following imaginary dialogue might be helpful to distill some of the differences.

Western theologian (W): We have learned from Augustine and Aquinas to refer to God’s action in the world as the production of certain ‘created effects.’

Eastern theologian (E): Respectfully, that seems to introduce a buffer between God and the world. If all we have are created effects, then how do we have communion with God himself?

W: Well, we talk of ‘created effects’ to preserve divine transcendence. Surely you would appreciate that.

E: Indeed we do. For us transcendence is also important; so is divine incomprehensibility. But this is only one side of the coin. The other side is the reality of deification. If divine actions are mere created effects, how is humanity and creation in general deified?

W: So what is your solution, then?

E: Our tradition makes a ‘real distinction’ between God’s essence, his persons and his energies. His essence and persons are un-participable and incommunicable, but his uncreated energies are communicable and participable.

W. I see, so you want both to affirm that God is transcendent, and to insist that he is truly present through his activity in creation.

E: Exactly. You see, the uncreated energies are like the rays of the sun. They are truly emanations of the sun himself; they are around the sun, and natural to the sun, but not the sun itself. You can participate in the energies much like you can sunbathe. The transcendence of God is safeguarded in that you are not participating in the essence of God…

W: Sure, that would make you God!

E: Yup; and we don’t want that. But at the same time, we are required to speak of participating in the divine nature. We do that precisely through the energies. If the name sounds strange, you might as well call them works, or operations.

W: Sounds interesting. But there is a problem in your solution. I get the motivation for it, but it seems to introduce a distinction within God himself, between his essence and persons on the one hand, and his energies on the other. That seems to imply that God is composed and no longer a simple being. I thought you also affirmed divine simplicity.

E: But we do! Only for us simplicity means something slightly different. You understand God as pure act. We think that is a problem. We prefer to think of God transcending his own actions, rather than being identical with them.

W: What’s wrong with our conception of simplicity?

E: Well, for one, it seems to imply that creation is both necessary and eternal. Also, and everyone knows that, it has a hard time conceiving of a personal relation between God and the world.

W: ?!?

E: Yeah, I mean, if God is pure act, how can God relate and respond to the world?

W: Do you mean that God changes?

E: Aha! He doesn’t! But his operations change! He is above his energies, or operations, he remains transcendent.

W: OK, but now you seem to be distinguishing his immanence so strongly from his economic presence that I have a hard time understanding in what sense the energies are still divine and uncreated.

E: Well, the energies deify, but that doesn’t mean that they lead to an understanding of God in positive terms. I know the West likes the kataphatic (positive), but we cannot accept that reduction of God to his activity.

W: Why not?

E: Because any person is more than just the sum of his actions. A person must act. Unless she acts, she does not exist concretely. Yet she always will transcend these actions…

W: So let me get this straight: God transcends his actions.

E: Yes, he even transcends his attributes. Some would say he is super-essential. He transcends his own essence. This is what we mean by divine simplicity.

W: This is starting to make sense now. For us simplicity is identity between being and existence; between being and attributes. For you, simplicity is the priority of God over being, and indeed over existence itself.

E: Yes, for us God is fundamentally personal, not Aquinas’ ipsum esse. He is beyond being itself.

W: Much good does that do you, since in his energies the persons are virtually indistinguishable.

E: How do you mean?

W: Well, since the energies are common to all of the persons, yet distinct from one another, they are not much use in revealing to us the distinct persons.

E: There is a good reason for that. It is precisely because we see them sharing the same energies or works that we know the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be equally divine.

W: I think we agree on this issue. We call this the doctrine of inseparable operations. There is a guy, Vidu or something, who is writing a book on this.

E: Never heard of him…

W: Anyway, I was saying that your conception of divine agency seems to obscure the distinctiveness of the persons. Some have suggested Western theology has the same problem.

E: Yes, quite a number of your theologians have contrary opinions. This does not happen in Orthodoxy.

W: [scoffs] Seriously? And how about Zizioulas or Bulgakov? Not entirely uncontroversial are they?

E: That’s a sensitive one. Can we get back to the topic? How do you think your model of divine agency, despite our shared doctrine of inseparable operations, is better suited to the revelation of the distinct triune persons?

W: They key lies precisely in the notion of ‘created effect’. Augustine understood this very early on: the created effects are inseparably produced by the three persons, yet they are especially revealing of just one of them. Some call this ‘appropriation’.

E: So how does this work specifically? Can you supply an example or two?

W: Augustine was never short on these examples in fact. He writes, for instance, about the baptism of Jesus. He said, the voice from heaven, the dove, and the human nature of Jesus Christ are common productions of all three divine persons, yet they especially reveal just one of them in particular.

E: But if they merely reveal the person, that is not quite the same as actually being the person! We seem back to square one: you seem to buffer personal relationships and the presence of God by these ‘created symbols.’ We are stuck with the symbols, and do not have the persons.

W: On the contrary, we already have God by virtue of his omnipresence. He does not need to ‘enter our world’, or ‘come down’, or something like those Evangelicals like to preach.

E: I want to hear more about this…

W: Well, when one thinks about God’s acting in the world, one has to realize that God is already present in the world. So to speak about ‘created effects’ is not to reduce God’s presence to these. Rather, it is to speak about an intensification of his presence. One may speak about a presence by intensity, as opposed to a presence by immensity (his omnipresence).

E: So then God’s action in the world assumes that he is already in the world.

W: Exactly: the biblical prophets and poets knew this well. John also writes about the Word who was already in the world, although the world did not know Him.

E: So then what is the role of ‘created effects’?

W: There are two kinds of created effects. A created effect may indicate one of two things. Either it is a simple divine operation, as a special divine action, for instance, or a theophany. Think burning bush. Or, it may indicate a divine mission, that is, an extension of a divine hypostasis into the world. In a simple operation, the created effect is simply produced; such an operation is common to the three, yet appropriated to just one of them. A divine mission, on the other hand, is not merely appropriated to one of the persons, but proper to them.

E: How so?

W: In a divine mission, the created effect is united to the divine person. So, the human nature of Jesus Christ is united to the person of the Son, and thus becomes the Son.

E: We would say that Christ’s human nature is assumed by the Son, and it is deified by the uncreated energies.

[To be continued…]

Recovering the Doctrine of Divine Missions for Evangelical Theology

One of the biggest surprises of my research into the doctrine of inseparable operations (DIO) was the discovery of the doctrine of divine missions (DDM). Augustine is the first theologian (I may be wrong here) that unpacks the metaphysics of DDM. After him, DDM becomes replete in the West. It still remains an important locus of Catholic theology.

What makes DDM special? While other traditions also talk about the missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit, in the West DDM has become almost an integrating motif. It is carefully correlated with a theistic metaphysics. That means that it interprets the scriptural language of the sending of the Son and the Holy Spirit by bringing to bear the theology of divine attributes (simplicity, immutability, omnipresence, divine unity, etc.). DDM has thus come to dogmatically anchor reflection on Christology, pneumatology, soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology.

The following are the essential elements of DDM:

a. A divine person that is sent never leaves! The Son and the Spirit never stop proceeding from the Father, in the unity of the divine essence, when they come to live with us and in us. Nothing is more important for soteriology than this claim that God is the reconciler, not someone else. In a person that is sent the whole Trinity resides, since the relation of procession is not broken. Here’s a quick consequence of this: it is absurd to speak of a rift (abandonment, etc.) between Father and Son in the work of redemption.

b. A divine person that is sent never arrives in a place he didn’t already inhabit. We must resist thinking of the divine persons as climbing up and down the ‘ontological ladder’. That’s an Olympian view of God. A divine mission is not simply a divine person’s coming to be with us, but rather our being drawn to union with the divine persons. The Son came into the world, but he was already in it (and the world did not know him!); the Holy Spirit was sent into the world which he is already animating and whose life he is already sustaining.

But why would this have been surprising? For the simple reason that in Protestant, and consequently in Evangelical theology, DDM faded from our collective memory. Let me explain that: it’s not as if our theologians are ignorant of the missions of the two divine persons. Rather, DDM is no longer (a) the integrative motif it once was; (b) articulated with close attention to the metaphysics of divine attributes. Not even in Protestant scholasticism does DDM make a comeback. (I have yet to look at Protestant Thomists like Zanchi and Vermigli, but I ain’t holding my breath).

One may speculate about the reasons why the DDM slipped into oblivion in Protestant circles. My best guess is that it has to do with the anti-metaphysical penchant of some early Protestant theology. But there are other possibilities.

In my own work, DDM became the key that unlocks what I think is a more biblical understanding of divine action. I will briefly sketch out some reasons why I think DDM should be recovered:

  1. DDM is the fundamental locus for thinking through the diversity and distinction between the divine persons. The diversity of the triune persons is manifested not in the production of creatures (exitus), but in the return of creatures (reditus) to God. This is the key to understanding the truth of DIO and the diversity of the persons.
  2. It properly anchors soteriology, this all important Evangelical locus, in the being and action of God. Some evangelicals are already doing some fantastic work here. I’ll single out Adam Johnson’s work, with much inspiration from Barth (and others).
  3. It provides the dogmatically proper framework for reflection on the sacraments, in particular the Eucharist. DDM is about the salvific presence of the trinitarian persons; the Eucharist is about the continued presence of the Son.
  4. It helps move theology beyond the dichotomy between the immanent and economic trinity. The work of Bruce Marshall of SMU is of signal importance here. The distortions to which this conceptuality of immanent/economic has led to are legion.
  5. Evangelical theology needs more metaphysics, not less. DDM, with its metaphysically careful distinctions, provides a much needed corrective to common interpretations of divine action in history.
  6. We need DDM to critically dialogue with with the energetic missiological work on Missio Dei. With its emphasis on the inseparability of the missions of the Son and the Spirit, DDM can provide much needed balance for missiology in a pluralistic context.


Some Evangelical theologians are already beginning to recover DDM. Here are just some of the authors I came across, roughly in the order in which I encountered them.

  1. Keith Johnson’s Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment. Keith stays fairly close to Augustine’s work on the divine missions, but the critical engagement with the likes of Dupuis, D’Costa and others is illuminating.
  2. Chris R J Holmes’ The Holy Spirit, of Zondervan’s New Studies in Dogmatics series, is also exciting. He explicitly approaches the doctrine of the Holy Spirit through DDM.
  3. Fred Sanders’ The Triune God, of the same Zondervan series, has chapters on the divine missions. His approach is largely, though not exclusively, focused on the knowledge of the Trinity, and revelation. DDM works charms here since the mission of the Son is precisely to make the Father known!
  4. These are the ones that come to mind; there might be others and I’d be grateful if you would point them out to me.

Ascension and Pentecost

Why must the Son ascend before the Spirit may come? This question poses a special problem for the doctrine of inseparable operations (DIO). If the triune persons always act together, what explains the appearance of a substitution? It appears as if one divine player must leave the field/court to allow a substitute to come in. What’s going on here? Couldn’t Christ have sent the Spirit before his departure?

I’d like to suggest that a solution to this problem must be sought through the framework of the doctrine of the divine missions. Indeed, this apparent substitution bears directly on the doctrine of the missions, since it appears as if the mission of the Son ends with the ascension, while the Spirit’s mission commences at Pentecost.

I will only briefly indicate where I will be probing for an answer, leaving a fuller account for publication.

Taking Augustine and Aquinas as our guides, a mission of a divine person may be understood as the extension of a procession to include a created effect. And now in English: the coming forth of the Son/Spirit from the Father (procession) is extended towards the creature. The Son and the Spirit, who come out of the Father, pour out, so to speak, from the tranquil Trinity into the world. This may be expressed differently: bits of the world are drawn into the relations which exist within the life of the Trinity. The mission of the Trinity is to draw the world and to make it participate in the triune life (in various ways).

How does this understanding of the missions help us with our question? One implication of the doctrine of the divine missions is that a mission is the expression and extension of a procession. Thus, Jesus of Nazareth is the human expression of the Son’s eternal procession. Put differently, the created human nature of Jesus Christ has been hypostatically united to the eternal Son. The eternal procession of the Son is now expanded to include Christ’s human nature; the eternal Speaking by the Father of the Divine Logos now has an economic, created echo.

We’re close to an answer now; bear with me. The question seeks to correlate Ascension with Pentecost.

If the Son’s mission is an echo of his eternal procession, the Spirit’s mission will likewise be an echo of his own eternal procession.

But the Spirit’s procession is from the Son and the Father (according to Western Filioque). The Spirit proceeds from the love which the Son returns to the Father. The Spirit is the common gift between the Father and Son, a gift which in a certain way originates with the Father.

We are now in a position to give our answer. Just as in the immanent Trinity, the Spirit proceeds from the Son’s reciprocating the Father’s love, so economically, the mission of the Spirit presupposes the Son’s return to the Father in full submission (as human). Only this time, the Son’s returning the love of the Father happens in and through the Son’s created humanity. This is the obedience, love, and sacrifice of the second Adam.

For that reason, the mission of the Spirit is the completion of the overflow of Trinitarian life into creation. The mission of the Spirit is mediated through the humanity of Jesus Christ, which reciprocates in full obedience the love of the Father, being filled to overflow with the Spirit. For that reason Christ, the second Adam, became a life-giving Spirit (1 Cor 15:45).

There is no real substitution here. Christ has never left. He remains true to his promise to be ‘with us forever’. The humanity which the eternal Son in-dwelt, being fully submitted and sacrificed to God, now became itself a spring of living water (Jn 19:34). Christ in his very humanity became a re-spirator of the Spirit.

[Note: A fuller version of this argument will be published at some point in the near future. This is only a sketch of an argument.]

Where may the Trinity be found?

I continue to blog through the writing process of a book on the inseparable operations of the Trinity. This short post will enunciate a simple thesis, which flows from the basic premise, opera ad extra indivisa sunt. I have first presented this thesis at the Dabar 2017 conference (@ TEDS). It may be formulated as follows:

The diversity of Trinitarian persons is manifested in their self-differentiation not so much in creation’s exitus (or production), as in its reditus (or return).

The thesis derives naturally from the doctrine of inseparable operations (DIO). If God acts as a single efficient cause, it follows that the persons may not be manifested in their self-differentiation in the production of creatures, or in the divine action.

The vestiges of the Trinity, identified by Christian theologians throughout the centuries must not be confused with particular effects of the particular divine persons (such as the Father might be producing this, the Son or Spirit, that other thing). Vestiges are understood as vestiges only once the individuation of the divine persons has been made.

But, crucially, the individuation of a divine person (in distinction from the others) is not accomplished from their efficient causality (which is single).

This is the reason why the persons of the Trinity may only be identified from their union with creatures. Or, to use Augustine’s and Aquinas’s terminology, from their missions (which consist of the processions, to which a created effect is added).

This is my explanation why Scriptural revelation starts with divine monotheism and only subsequently discloses the diversity of the three persons. We start with the one God because creation is produced by the single divine efficient cause. However, creation was meant for union with God, in the person of his Son. Only insofar as creation is united to the Son, or another divine person, will the Son be individuated as distinct from the Father, and the Holy Spirit. DIO does not encourage us to expect separate actions of separate agents from above. That sounds like an Olympian view of the Gods. The Christian God is the One Holy God, who acts mightily as one in the world he has created.

But then how did we come to individuate the Son and the Holy Spirit as distinct from the Father – if they always act as one, that is? The answer is: from the fact that by faith we confess certain created realities to be united, or to manifest specifically one of these persons (even if these created realities are produced by the whole Trinity). Take Jesus Christ: in Christ, a created reality (Jesus’ human nature) is united to (and ‘actuated’ by) the eternal Son of God. This is the hypostatic union. The New Testament writers confess this to be the first fruits of the renewed creation. Or, to change examples: take the dove that descended at Jesus’ baptism: it manifests the Spirit exclusively, not because it is hypostatically united to the Spirit, but because it has been designated for that purpose. There is only a semiotic union here, not a hypostatic union.

Augustine explains the logic of these distinctions in his interpretation of Jesus’ baptism in Sermon 52. He writes that the human nature of Jesus and the dove were created by the whole Trinity (exitus); nonetheless, they specifically manifest, or are united with (in the case of Jesus) with just one of the persons (reditus).

And thus the revelation of the Holy Trinity takes place not through mere divine action, but through Trinitarian union with the creatures, hence through creation’s return to God.

Let me try an analogy here: take the operation of a magnet upon a metallic pin. The whole magnet attracts the pin, or it acts as a single efficient cause upon the pin. Nonetheless, the pin becomes attached to just one of the poles of the magnet. In being attached to one of the poles, it receives the charge of the opposite pole (I am tempted to make something trinitarian of this aspect of the example, but I must resist at this time). Similarly, the human nature of Jesus is attracted into union with God by the whole Trinity, yet it becomes attached to the Son alone. Just like we come to learn of the distinction between North and South in magnets precisely because of how metallic objects are attached to particular poles, so we come to learn the distinction between the triune persons by watching the assumption of the human nature of Jesus into union with the Son; and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit by the dove, or by tongues of fire, etc.

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