The Same God Who Works All Things
Adonis Vidu, The Same God Who Works All Things: Inseparable Operations in Trinitarian Theology (Eerdmans, 2021). 368 pp. $50.00.
The doctrine of inseparable operations of the Trinity (opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa) arises from the text of Holy Scripture, informs the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and is a mainstay within classical Trinitarianism in both the Latin and Greek church, with advocates including Athanasius, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Martin Luther, Peter Martyr Vermigli, William Perkins, Thomas Goodwin, John Owen, Thomas Manton, Hermann Witsius, and Herman Bavinck, to name but a few. The doctrine states that the external works of the triune God are undivided. In other words, since God is one, simple being—one in essence, knowledge, will, and act—all his actions within the created world are not divided among the three divine persons such that they are viewed as distinct and separable agents. Again, no one person within the Godhead can act in the world alone, for the three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are the one God and act as efficient cause of all that comes into existence.
Such a view of God’s action in the world brings many questions into view, which can be broadly summarized as follows:
How is one to understand biblical texts that refer to one of the divine persons acting without mention of the other two?
If the concrete divine action cannot be properly indexed to one person alone, doesn’t this mean that God’s action in his world fails to give us any added light into the persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
Most significantly, if God acts in the world as a single agent, how are we to understand the incarnation of the Son, which gets to the heart of the Gospel?
It’s here that modern detractors step in—many of whom are social trinitarians—and maintain that the three persons act collectively or in cooperation with one another. Adonis Vidu describes this as a soft operation view. Such a view, however, negates a strong account of divine simplicity and causes numerous theological issues to arise.
Against this backdrop, Vidu aims to recover and defend a hard operation view, in which a unity of operation is maintained in all God’s dealings with creation. He sees the doctrine of inseparable operations as functioning as a “dogmatic rule”. This means that the grammatical function of inseparable operations “is primarily that of normalizing and qualifying other more basic descriptions” (xiv). In other words, when an operation is ascribed to one person in the Godhead within revelation, it is necessarily ascribed to the other two persons.
After setting forth the biblical basis for inseparable operations (chap. 1) and the church’s confession of this doctrine within history (chap. 2), Vidu’s third chapter (“Unity and Distinction in Divine Action”) follows Thomas Aquinas’s dictum that “the divine operations ad extra follow from, and are grounded in, the immanent processions”, these being generation and active spiration (95). Our knowledge of the immanent processions helps us understand the mode or proper manner in which the three persons subsist in/as the one, indivisible divine essence: “the same essence, which in the Father is paternity, in the Son is filiation” (ST I, q. 42, a. 4, ad 2). As subsisting relations, the three persons in God “possess a distinct mode of action within the unity of the same action” (p. 103). At this point, Vidu is careful to note the manner in which these distinct modes of personal subsistence help qualify God’s indivisible actions within the world: although the persons in God are distinguished by their relations, “operationally they are distinguished as modes of activity within the single yet undifferentiated work of God” (p.104)—the three modes of personal action in the world are the singular action of the triune God. Vidu helpfully frames the way in which the persons are distinctly revealed in creation by examining how the missions of the Son and Holy Spirit (visible and invisible) are an ‘extension’ of the interior processions in God (by way of a created effect). This leads to a consideration of essential attributes being appropriated to distinct persons within Scripture, which is shorthand for contemplating how what is common to the persons may be spoken of distinct persons in the economy (Christ is the wisdom of God; 1 Cor. 1:24). All this aids the believer in seeing “the modal trace of each person” within the unity of God’s singular operation in the world without dividing the essence of God (p.125))
After laying out his Augustinian-Thomistic treatment of inseparable operations and its implications in chapter 3, Vidu tests the “explanatory power” of this grammatical rule in the remaining chapters of the book by considering the primary dogmatic loci within the Christian confession with which it intersects and informs. This begins with God’s first operation ad extra, creation (chap. 4). Here Vidu is eager to show both the efficient causality of God in creation and the manner in which the triune persons may be viewed as “exemplars of creation” (p. 126). Next Vidu tackles the key objection to a hard version of inseparability: the incarnation of the Son, since, at first blush, the rule apparently necessitates that all three divine persons be incarnate, that is, if all ad extra operations are common. After considering the hypostatic union in chapter 5, chapter 6 asks whether it is correct to say that the works of Christ are proper to the Son alone. This study culminates in the atonement, chapter 7, with a particular sympathy for penal substitution. This chapter is more constructive and “corrective” than the others, with a critique of a few Thomistic models in the light of the full witness of salvation in Scripture. Since the end of the atonement is the mission of the Holy Spirit (p. 246), the author moves on to consider why the Son needed to ascend before the Spirit was given at Pentecost. In other words, why a particular sequencing of the missions was necessary, and how the rule addresses the Scriptural truth that in the giving of the Spirit, it was the Spirit of Christ who was poured out. To conclude, Vidu’s extensive testing throughout much of the book, chapter 9 investigates how the church may speak of the indwelling of the Spirit in the life of the believer, with the author supplementing Aquinas’s account of this doctrine.
Vidu’s work of retrieval is significant. Not only is the rule biblically informed and historically accounted for, it is tested against each of the major areas of apparent conflict, where naysayers had previously rendered its so-called demise. Vidu’s work of recovery is indispensable when considering the topic of inseparable operations. It ought to be engaged by both sympathizers of the rule and those who view it with misgivings. The book is a challenging read in its depth and scope; however, the study should prove fruitful in the end, including assisting pastors and teachers who have no desire to perpetuate an unintended functional tritheism within their ministries.
Deryck Barson (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is Senior Pastor at Bethel Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Wheaton, IL.
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