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 himself...as Trinity, because he is in himself Trinity and he acts as he is; however, the reception of the revelation of God...in 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," https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/common-places-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