The Immanent and Economic Trinity: Thinking Responsibly about God
There is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to use the doctrine of the trinity in support of complementarianism. I use “scare quotes” because, in the end, I will argue that there is really no right way to use trinitarian doctrine for this end, but there is nevertheless a better way to make the case. The bad argument is, unfortunately, all too widespread and hard to avoid without a certain level of theological sophistication. It is, to put it simply, the ancient heresy of subordinationism—perhaps not put so baldly, but at least strongly implied. Kevin Giles and Philip Cary, among others, have criticized this tendency within evangelicalism at length. For the sake of argument, I take it for granted that no one at Imago ascribes to subordinationism. However, in order to clarify the distinction between subordination and subordinationism, we need to briefly define our terms.
Subordinationism is the position (consistently rejected by the ancient church) that the Son and/or Spirit are ontologically subordinate to the Father. The Council of Nicaea rejected this position with respect to the Son by employing terms like “homoousias” (“of one being”) and “begotten not made.” The former refers to the shared “substance” of divinity between Father and Son, the fact that both are equally eternal and thus equal in glory and power. The latter refers to the fact that, while the Father is indeed the source of the Son’s generation, the Father does not “create” the Son. Only finite beings are created; the Son is generated, and the Spirit proceeds or is spirated. These terms are utterly unique with respect to the being of God.
At this point, it’s worth digressing for a moment to reflect on the East-West divide within the church. The Western church’s reflections on the trinity have their starting-point in the unity of the ousia or essence of God. In the West, the first thing to say about God is the “one being” that is in some sense logically prior to the “three persons.” This begins in the work of Augustine and is systematized by Thomas Aquinas, who develops a significant amount of his doctrine of God based entirely on the simple unity of God’s being before ever treating the three persons. In the East, by contrast, the point of departure is located in the three “hypostases” or “persons” (later Greek theologians would speak of the “persons” as tropos huparxeos, “modes of existence”). The unity of God’s being is a unity of persons in their eternal triunity. While the West presupposes a “pre-personal divinitas,” the East presupposes a tri-personal ousia.1 Whereas the West had to explain how God could be three, the East had to explain how God could be one (hence, e.g., Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise, “On Not Three Gods”).
Both of these tendencies or preferences have problems. The Western problem was its potential for ontological subordinationism, and this due to its distinction between a prior essence of divinity that stands “behind” or “above” the tri-hypostatic identity of Father, Son, and Spirit. As Bulgakov helpfully puts it, the relationally distinct persons “appear in the capacity of accidents, although substantial ones”—i.e., to be “Father” is to have the ontic accident of fatherhood added to the essence of divinitas. In this accidental differentiation between the persons, there is a distinct potential for “ontological subordinationism,” since the origination of the hypostases involves a “decreasing progression of Divinity: the Father = the fullness of the nature, Deitas; the Son = Deitas minus the power to generate; the Holy Spirit = Deitas minus the power to generate and the power to originate by procession.”2 The Eastern model of the trinity emphasized the intrinsically communal and triune character as fundamentally basic to God’s being, but it did so in a rather speculative fashion. That is to say, the trinitarian relations of God were posited and analyzed apart from the economy of grace wherein those trinitarian relations are actually made manifest. The Western model does not entirely avoid this problem either, however. Both East and West failed to adequately make the self-revelation of God in the economy the point of departure for trinitarian reflection. More specifically, they failed to make Jesus Christ as the very image and incarnation of God determinative for what we can and should say regarding the being of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The point of this digression is not to say whether East or West is more correct. It is simply to point out that the appeal to the doctrine of the trinity is not an appeal to a self-evidently straightforward teaching about God. Complementarians are generally part of the Western tradition, but that does not mean the Greek theologians of the East can be ignored or dismissed. Moreover, as I will show later, the complementarian use of trinitarian doctrine actually depends upon a very recent development in Western theology that is highly problematic.It is probably safe to assume that no evangelical advocates of complementarianism intend their use of the trinity to mean ontological subordinationism. What they mean instead is a functional subordination (note the lack of the “ism” to indicate that it is non-ontological). Father and Son are differentiated in terms of command and obedience, even if their being is ontologically equal. Before I present the best form of such an argument—one in which the dogmatic point is at least sound but its application to gender is not—let me first evaluate the complementarian use of a functional subordination in God. What we have to clarify first is whether the functional subordination within God is being properly articulated, that is, whether it is located in its proper dogmatic context. To do this, we need to remember the two key “rules” of trinitarian theology: (1) the doctrine of appropriations and (2) the Augustinian axiom against tritheism.
The doctrine of appropriations identifies certain attributes or actions as pertaining in a unique way to one particular trinitarian “person” or “mode of being” (Seinsweise, which is Karl Barth’s term to replace person, about which I’ll have more to say later). So we often speak of the Father as Creator, the Son as Reconciler, and the Spirit as Redeemer. We appropriate suffering and death to the Son, the giving of life to the Spirit. These appropriations are generally rooted in the biblical witness, and they pertain to the economy of God’s works ad extra (i.e., in relation to the world). This is clearly the side stressed by the complementarian focus on trinitarian functions. For example, it is the “function” of the Son to be obedient to the Father’s will unto death, which means that obedience is “appropriated” to the Son.
If we only articulate the appropriations or functions within the trinitarian life of God, we can quickly land ourselves in “heretical hot water,” so to speak. A doctrine of appropriations on its own quite easily leads to tritheism, in which there are three gods at work rather than one. Against this, we must take heed of the Augustinian axiom against tritheism: opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa, “the external acts of the trinity are indivisible.” This rule of trinitarian theology means that what each trinitarian person or mode of being does ad extra is inseparable from the other two persons. In other words, the actions of the Son in the world are also the actions of the Father and the Spirit; the same applies to the other trinitarian persons. This Augustinian rule is related to the ancient doctrine of divine perichoresis or inter-penetration within God’s being. According to this doctrine, each person or mode of being participates in the other two persons or modes. The axiom of Augustine derives from this ontological point the functional or economic claim that every action of God is an act of all three together. To appropriate one action to one person never means that the other two are not equally involved in its execution. If there were indeed an act belonging to only one person, the result would be tritheism, or at least ditheism.3
The question has to be asked: have the complementarian advocates of functional subordination rightly articulated the indivisibility of God’s triune agency? Have they emphasized the tri-personal functions without attending equally to the singular activity of God ad extra? Is the complementarian use of trinitarian doctrine limited to the doctrine of appropriations without its Augustinian counterbalance? This is a line of questioning that I think has been largely ignored altogether in this conversation. It is one to which I will return towards the end when I put forward the decisive theological critique of this position.
For the moment, let’s bracket the question of the Augustinian axiom and God’s singular agency ad extra. The question that really concerns us here is whether functional subordination is theologically sound. In order to address this question, we have to examine our theological methodology: how is it that we can say this or that about God, and are we actually speaking about God? In trinitarian terms, this means we have to examine the relation between “immanent” (or eternal, ad intra) trinity and the “economic” (or historical, ad extra) trinity. Put differently, what is the relation between “God in relation to Godself in eternity” and “God in relation to the world in history”?
The question of the immanent and economic trinity is crucial here, because if functional subordination can only be located in the economic trinity—it’s only how God acts in relation to us—then it has no real ground in who God truly is. It turns functional subordination into a merely phenomenal appearance but does not describe the actual being of God. This, of course, places us in a tricky position. On the one hand, we don’t want to ontologize subordination and thus land ourselves in the heresy of subordinationism. On the other hand, if functional subordination only appears in the economy of God within history, then we end up positing a split between God’s immanent being-in-itself and God’s economic being-for-us. Such a split undermines theology’s claim to speak truthfully of God. The result is that we can have no confidence that what God reveals in history, which we encounter in Jesus Christ as attested in Scripture, is actually descriptive of who God is for all eternity. Put simply, the divide between immanent and economic undercuts the very heart of the gospel and places a deep uncertainty at the center of our faith. If the complementarians wish to make trinitarian claims about God, then they will have to locate God’s functional subordination not only in time but in eternity, not only in the economic but in the immanent trinity. The only theologian who has successfully accomplished this is Karl Barth, and it is to his account of the trinity that I turn in the next post.
1 Sergius Bulgakov, The Comforter, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 123.
2 Ibid., 124.
3 There are certainly dangers in using the Augustinian axiom. Eberhard Jüngel warns against the separation between the immanent and economic trinity, between God ad intra and God ad extra, implied by the Augustinian rule. The effect of Augustine’s axiom, combined with the patristic assumptions regarding divine immutability and impassibility, was that the actions of Father, Son, and Spirit were viewed as “mere appropriations.” In other words, “we can perceive only a single action of God, whereas what is truly trinitarian was restricted to the immanent life of the Godhead, which led to a practical unitarianism and reduced trinitarian thought to a more or less obsolete scholastic formula.” That is to say, if the economic actions of God are accomplished by the trinity as a unified agent, it can imply that the differentiation between Father, Son, and Spirit is only “real” in the immanent and eternal being of God. This is what Jüngel means by a “scholastic formula,” something having to do with God’s inner being alone, and thus disconnected from the concrete action of God in the world (i.e., disconnected from Jesus). Jüngel avoids these problems by establishing a new axiom as the “theoretical foundation” for his doctrine of the trinity: “The Trinity is a mystery of salvation.” With this thesis, he explicates the actions of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit on the basis of God’s work of reconciliation in the salvation event of Jesus Christ, such that the work of each mode of being in the mystery of salvation is not a mere appropriation but definitive for God’s eternal existence. Something along these lines is the position I would myself advocate as the proper basis for a doctrine of the trinity. See Eberhard Jüngel, “The Relationship between ‘Economic’ and ‘Immanent’ Trinity,” Theology Digest 24 (1976): 181.