A Primer on Missional Theology §3.2: Trinity and Election

3.2. The immanent and economic Trinity: God elects to be a missionary God from all eternity

We have already waded into the deep waters of the doctrine of the Trinity. If God is missionary, then this means that we have already established an identification of the immanent and economic Trinity. What God does ad extra is definitive for who God is ad intra. This is a kind of dogmatic starting-point for any missional theology, because unless we are able to say from the start that God is a missionary God, we are not doing missional theology.

The more complex issue for theology today is the nature of the relation between immanent and economic. In current Barthian circles, there is a debate raging over Bruce McCormack’s essay, “Grace and Being” (Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, 92-110), in which he argued that in Barth’s mature theology of reconciliation, the doctrine of election logically precedes the doctrine of the Trinity. Opponents of McCormack argue that this compromises the freedom of God, because it implies that God is dependent upon humanity for God’s own triune being. Proponents of McCormack’s position respond that divine freedom is the freedom to become human, the freedom to reconcile the world in the history of Jesus. Furthermore, humanity is itself posited by God in eternity in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the subject and object of election, according to Barth. For this reason, Barth rejects the notion of an abstract logos asarkos in favor of a logos incarnandus, the Logos who is to become incarnate. The eternal Son exists from all eternity for the sake of the history of reconciliation actualized in the life of Jesus. Barth makes this point rather clear in his famous essay, “The Humanity of God,” in which he says that God’s divinity includes humanity. True humanity is the “humanity of God.” Opponents will still maintain that we must have a logical priority of the Trinity in order to ensure that God could still be God without us. And so the debate rages on.

While I do not wish to enter into the full complexity of this debate, I will suggest here that missional theology offers a way to get beyond this impasse. If God is by nature missionary, then this means that God’s very being is oriented toward the act of sending and being sent in the history of Jesus Christ. If, with Barth, we then ground the missionary being of God in the divine decision of election, we see that missional theology leads us in large part to affirm McCormack’s position, but with the advantage of integrating McCormack’s insight into a larger theological framework that connects the doctrine of God with the doctrine of the church. And so we can say that in the decision of election, God determines Godself to be God for us in Jesus Christ. God determines to be the God who goes into the far country, who sends and is sent. God protologically determines Godself for mission. Because the subject of this decision is Jesus Christ, the God-human, and because this decision is God’s self-determination, we can affirm as a consequence that God’s eternal being is determined by the divine mission of Jesus Christ, by the primal decision of election accomplished in him. Mission is constitutive of God’s being, because God has determined that this should be the case. In the election of Jesus Christ, therefore, God elects to be Deus pro nobis (God for us) and Deus pro missionibus (God for mission).

Another way of putting this debate is in terms of the relation between being and act. The traditional position which denies that God is missionary in the eternal being of God depends upon a priority of being over act. God’s being is primary and prior, and God’s act is secondary and derivative. Against this, Barth argued that God’s being is in act, meaning that God’s being is not some substance which then results in acts, but that God’s act is God’s being and vice versa. As Barth puts it, God’s being is “actualized” in the history of God in Jesus Christ; or as Eberhard Jüngel puts it, explicating Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity, God’s being is in becoming. By positing mission at the heart of God’s being, missional theology takes its bearings from this actualized doctrine of God. There is no room for a gap between God’s being ad intra and God’s mission ad extra in a missional conception of God. As John Flett puts it in his 2007 dissertation:

The distinction between God’s act of redemption and God’s being in himself . . . is demonstrated to be false at the outset. . . . The Father’s sending of the Son in the power of the Spirit is not a remedial work for a fallen world. It is God’s self-declaration of who he is in himself from eternity. . . . God is a missionary God; in his self-determination, the apostolic mission belongs properly to the eternal life of God. (God is a Missionary God: Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Doctrine of the Trinity, 327-28)

At the heart of missional theology is the rejection of a split between being and act in dogmatic theology, beginning with the doctrine of God but continuing throughout the other loci as well. While I will explore some of the implications of this move for other doctrines below, here it should suffice to point out that missional theology proffers a way of overcoming the present impasse regarding the being of the triune God in Barthian theology. Such debates have focused on the doctrines of election and the Trinity without understanding both in the context of the eternal missio Dei, a mission grounded in God’s eternal election of Jesus Christ. In that primal decision, God determined to be God for us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: the Father who sends and commands, the Son who is sent and obeys, and the Spirit who empowers and unites both. God’s missional decision to go into the far country is therefore one that is constitutive, primarily, of what it means to be God, and, secondarily, of what it means to be human. In other words, God protologically determines to be a missionary God, while God determines humanity eschatologically to be the missionary people of God. Both are actualized in the missional history of Jesus Christ as the God who is with us and for us from all eternity.

[Series introduction and outline]


Anonymous said…
"...missional theology proffers a way of overcoming the present impasse regarding the being of the triune God in Barthian theology."

Say more about this. I do not yet see how missional theology overcomes the impasse. It seems we are still stuck. One side would say that God's eternal being is a being in mission. The other side would say that mission is a free act of the eternal God who would be God even without mission.

That's a good question, and while I would like to say as little about that debate on here as possible, here's what I'll suggest. If mission is indeed the first thing that we can and must say about God, then there cannot be any "gap" between God in and for Godself and God for us. God is determined, even constituted, by the decision for mission. The debate thus far has focused on a very abstract argument about the logical priority of triunity or election. But I'm suggesting that the first thing to be said about is neither triunity or election but mission. Or, rather, triunity and election because of mission. Or, again, in closer proximity to McCormack, election as mission, and thus triunity.

Does this make any sense? I can spell it out in more detail if you wish.
Anonymous said…
Yes, this makes sense to me. It seems, though, that your position is simply a filling out and deepening of McCormack's framework--making more concrete what has been somewhat abstract. It doesn't seem to get beyond the impasse, though. Nothing you have said addresses the concerns of the other side of this debate.

If you have more details on how mission does this, I'd like to hear them.

You're right, but that's because I don't think the "other side" could possibly conform to a missional framework. McCormack's position lacks ecclesiological concreteness, but it is a position which lends itself to a theology of mission. The opposing retracts into a speculation, speaking about a God who would still be God without mission -- but that is a theological impossibility on the grounds missional theology has already established, viz., that our starting-point for thinking about God is the mission of reconciliation in Jesus Christ.

So missional theology gets beyond the impasse by once and for all rejecting the position that there is a God behind the God for us, the God for mission.
Anonymous said…
Ok, I see more what you mean now. Thanks, David.