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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.