Results tagged “Economic Trinity” from Reformation21 Blog

Understanding Theology Proper


With the first verse in the Bible, we are confronted with the necessity of the interpretive priority of theology proper (i.e., answering that and what God is) to account for the economy (i.e., answering that and what God does): "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1). How are we to understand the meaning of "God" in this verse? Does the plural form of God in the Hebrew text (i.e., Elohim) and the singular verb (i.e., "created") hint at a plurality of persons in the Godhead or not? How are we to understand the meaning of the word "created"? Similar questions arise when we consider the second verse of the Bible: "And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters" (Gen. 1:2; emphasis added). Who or what is this "Spirit of God" and how are we to understand the meaning of "hovering"? The same goes for the third verse in which we read, "Then God said..." (Gen. 1:3). God speaks? Does He speak Hebrew or some sort of divine language? In order to answer these and related questions properly, we have to understand that divine ontology precedes divine economy and conditions our interpretation of it.

When divine ontology does not properly inform the divine economy in our interpretive process, we have a theological train-wreck in the making--a wreck heading to the junk-yard of heresy. How would one explain "Then God said" without more information about the One who spoke and said, "Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3)? Without more information about the speaker, one might conclude that God (whatever 'He' or 'it' may be) must have vocal chords, a larynx, or voice box, and that He takes in air and it flows over throat organs which end up producing audible sounds that come forth from a mouth producing detectible and understandable words. Consider verse 26 as well: "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness" (Gen. 1:26; emphasis added). One might conclude from these words a plurality of creators without more information, or some sort of pre-cosmological, heavenly sanhedrin inclusive of God and others.1 What's the point? We cannot properly interpret the divine economy, God's external works, the opera Dei ad extra, unless we have theology proper (God, Trinity, and decree) firmly in place. Without this, we run the risk of falling into the error of neo-Socinians. John Webster is correct when he says, "We do not understand the economy unless we take time to consider God who is, though creatures might not have been."2

Maybe asking and answering an important question at this juncture will help illustrate what is being argued. Where do we learn of God as Trinity, for example? In the economy. This means, as Giles Emery asserts, "[t]he doctrine of the Trinity and the history of salvation are intimately connected; they mutually illuminate each other."3 It is through the economy that the Trinity is revealed to us and it is the Trinity throughout the economy which illuminates it for us. The acts of God (i.e., oikonomia) reveal the divine to us, but the theologia (i.e., the mystery of God as Trinity), as revealed in Scripture, illuminates all the acts of God.4 The Trinity constitutes the economy, not the other way around. Though the economy reveals the Trinity, it does not make or re-make the Trinity. Emery's comments may be helpful:

"God reveals Trinity, because he is in himself Trinity and he acts as he is; however, the reception of the revelation of the economy does not exhaust the mystery of the Trinity in itself."5

In order to account properly for God's acts in the economy, we must learn who God is from the economy. Our interpretation of the economy must be conditioned by who God is apart from it, though revealed to us in it. And, as Emery says, God "is in himself Trinity and he acts as he is." Knowledge of who God is, then, must condition and shape our explanation of what God does. While this is so, we must always remember that "the economy does not exhaust the mystery of the Trinity in itself," as Emery asserts. Though God reveals Himself through various revelatory modalities, the various revelatory divine acts do not exhaust who and what God is. As Webster says:

"The divine agent of revelatory acts is not fully understood if the phenomenality of those acts is treated as something primordial, a wholly sufficient presentation of the agent. God's outer works bear a surplus within themselves; they refer back to the divine agent who exceeds them."6

Though it is God who reveals Himself in the economy, the revelation of God--while true--is not comprehensive of who and what He is. As well, the acts of God are not "a wholly sufficient presentation of the agent," as Webster asserts. The acts reveal God but do not exhaust His identity, nor do they constitute Him as God. God is not God by virtue of what He does. Without the interpretive priority of theologia to oikonomia, we run the risk of reading the economy back into the divine ontology. This is the error of all forms of process theism and that of the older Socinians.

1. The idea of a "heavenly sanhedrin" comes from John Owen, The Works of John Owen, 23 vols., ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991 edition), 17:222. He argues that God is clearly the exclusive creator (ref. to Gen. 1:26), not a heavenly court inclusive of angels, "as if God had a sanhedrim in heaven . . ." The spelling of sanhedrim is original in Owen.

2. John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume I, God and the Works of God (London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2016), 86.

3. Gilles Emery, The Trinity: An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 173.

4. For a helpful discussion on the history and meaning of the terms theologia and oikonomia see Lewis Ayres, "[Common Places] Pro-Nicene Theology: Theologia and Oikonomia," Accessed 6 September 2017. For a good discussion on the more recent and common terminology (i.e., economic Trinity and immanent Trinity) see Fred Sanders, The Triune God, New Studies in Dogmatics, Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, gen. eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 144-53. Sanders provides resistance to the newer terminology.

5. Emery, Trinity, 177.

6. Webster, God without Measure, 1:8.


Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ and The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis

In the previous post in this series, I made some remarks upon the meaning of the term κεφαλή, especially in the context of 1 Corinthians 11:3. Challenging the supposed meaning of this term among certain advocates of the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) position is important. Not only does it unsettle the frameworks within which authority is conceived of more generally, it also checks a tendency in the direction of univocally applying terms to God and humanity. However, there remains more to be said.

In particular, granting, purely for the sake of argument, that κεφαλή means 'one in authority (over),' we still haven't determined over whom the Father would be in authority. The assumption that the term 'Christ' is interchangeable with 'Son' in the dogmatic sense of that term is unjustified, as the first term relates to the Son in his human nature, while the second (in the context of dogmatic theology) more typically relates to the Son in his divine nature.

This distinction is not a trivial one, as orthodox theology has readily confessed a submission and obedience proper to Christ in his human nature, a submission which is not appropriate to his divine nature. Calvin writes:

"God, then, occupies the first place: Christ holds the second place. How so? Inasmuch as he has in our flesh made himself subject to the Father, for, apart from this, being of one essence with the Father, he is his equal. Let us, therefore, bear it in mind, that this is spoken of Christ as mediator. He is, I say, inferior to the Father, inasmuch as he assumed our nature, that he might be the first-born among many brethren."1

The question of whether a relation of authority and submission obtains between Father and Son in the eternal life of the Trinity is an important one, as our answer to it will frame our understanding of the work of the Son in the divine economy. Such an emphasis upon the oneness and unity of the divine will and authority protects us from the danger of slipping into conceiving of Christ principally as an obedient functionary of the divine will and authority, both of which are associated primarily with the Father. As a man, Christ stands on the human side of the Creator-creature relation, obedient to the will and subject to the authority of God. However, as divine, the will and authority of God is Christ's will and authority. In Jesus of Nazareth, we meet the authoritative God who wills to save. A robust doctrine of the Trinity allows us to retain the strength of this crucial emphasis.

This does not mean no economic differentiation between the persons can be spoken of here. As John Webster writes:

"Indivisibility does not disqualify personal differentiation or restrict it simply to the opera internae. It indicates that economic differentiation is modal, not real, and reinforces the importance of prepositional rather than substantive differentiation ('from' the Father, 'through' the Son, 'in' the Spirit). Modal differentiation does not deny personal agency, however; it simply specifies how the divine persons act. '[T]he several persons', Owen notes, 'are undivided in their operations, acting all by the same will, the same wisdom, the same power. Every person, therefore, is the author of every work of God, because each person is God, and the divine nature is the same undivided principle of all divine operations; and this ariseth from the unity of the person in the same essence.'"

Relating this to divine authority, we could speak of the Father as the source of authority and the authorizing One--authority comes from him. The Son is the entirely authorized One and the One through whom God's authority is exhaustively effected. The Spirit is the One in whom authority is given, enjoyed, and perfected. Authority thus understood is singular, eminently assigned to the Father, yet the inseparable possession and work of the undivided Godhead.

This in turn can serve to clarify our understanding of the incarnate Christ's mission. Rather than understanding the Son's relation to the Father in terms of a framework of authority and submission, this suggests that we should think in terms of different modes of a single, undivided divine authority. It is through the divine Son that the one authority of God is effected.

The manner in which the Son brings about the authority of God in history is through the path of human obedience. As a man with a human nature and will Christ submits to and is obedient to the will of God. However, this obedience can only truly be perceived for what it is when it is seen against the background of the fact that he is the authoritative divine Son. He is the one who can forgive sins. He is the one who can command the elements, cast out demons, and heal the sick, exercising the authority of God as his own. He is the one who receives the Spirit without measure and the radiant and glorious theophanic revelation of God on the Mount of Transfiguration. We are left in no doubt of the divine authority of Christ. The obedience and humiliation of Christ is the (paradoxically) authoritative work by which he overcomes human rebellion, reconciles humanity to God, and defeats Satan.

As we recognize this, it is possible to appreciate the work of Christ as revelatory of and congruent with the eternal relation between the Father and Son, without collapsing the necessary distinctions between the two and reading back Christ's human obedience and submission into the being of God. This obedience and submission exists on account of the revelation of the Father-Son relation within the framework of the Creator-creature divide. However, when we look closer, what is seen is not just the Son's self-rendering in obedience to the Father, but also the Father's exhaustive donation of authority to his Son.

This undoes any simplistic authority-submission polarity. God cannot be alienated from his authority nor give his glory to another. Yet God's authority and glory are found precisely in Christ, the Son who bears the divine name (cf. John 8:58; Philippians 2:9). The Father and the Son are mutually defining (as the names 'Father' and 'Son' suggest). The Father is glorified as the authority of his Son is confessed, as the Father is who he is only in relation to his Son (Philippians 2:11). The Son is the one through whom the Father's authority is effected; the Father is the one from whom the Son's authority comes: the authority of Father and Son is the one indivisible divine authority.

A further important passage for the ESS position is found in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, which speaks of the Son delivering up the kingdom to the Father in the end, and being subject to him. Once again, it is important to bear in mind that this reveals Triune relations in terms of the Creator-creature framework. This passage refers, not to the eternal relation between Father and Son, but to the culminating moment in the great drama of redemption, the moment when the submission of the Son arrives at its perfect completion. The submission of the Son in these verses is not a reference to the eternal unbroken relation between Father and Son in the Godhead, but to the climax of the work of the incarnate Son, when his mission arrives at its final telos, the reality of his authoritative obedience has been utterly fulfilled, and the complete divine authority he has effected is exhaustively related back to the Father as its source.

A closer look at this passage reveals the mutually defining relation between Father and Son. All divine authority in the world is effected through the Son and without him no divine authority is effected--all things are put under him. Indeed, the Son's effecting of the divine authority is the precondition for the Father's being all in all. On the other hand, it is the Father who exhaustively authorizes the Son. The Father places all things under his Son; the Son renders all things up to the Father. Once again, the differentiation between the persons is, as Webster observed above, a modal or prepositional differentiation of a single divine property--the one divine authority and will.

Getting these points correct is very important, not simply for orthodox conformity to Trinitarian creeds, but for a clear understanding of the shape of the biblical narrative, and of the authoritative Saviour that we have in Jesus Christ. The creeds exist to serve and advance this clarity. Within my next post, I will offer some concluding reflections that we can take forward from these debates.

1. An excerpt of Calvin's commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:3.