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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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.


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.

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