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Why is Inseparable Operations Such a Hard Sell?

The new issue of Credo Magazine focuses on the trinity. The following is an excerpt from one of the issue’s featured articles by Adonis Vidu. Vidu is professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is also the author of Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural Contexts; Theology after Neo- Pragmatism; Postliberal Theological Method: A Critical Study; and The Same God Who Works All Things: Inseparable Operations in Trinitarian Theology.

For both teachers and pastors, the doctrine of the Trinity has been one of the most demanding topics, often resulting in glazed-over student eyes, or in yawning parishioners thinking ahead to Sunday lunch or football. Needless to say, neglect of such a foundational doctrine, which has been called a “distributed doctrine” because of how broadly its tentacles spread throughout the system of doctrine, will have cascading consequences.

In recent years we have observed the retrieval of important aspects of trinitarian orthodoxy, including the doctrine of eternal generation, the ontological (and functional) equality of the divine persons, in some quarters the doctrine of the filioque, and an additional aspect which forms the focus of this article: inseparable operations

Inseparable Operations and Contemporary Confusion

There is a functional tritheism in our churches, sometimes generated by a social Trinity. As if the divine persons do their own thing, each having their own role. Click To Tweet Simply defined, the doctrine of inseparable operations affirms that the triune persons act as a single agent externally, while internally their operations are divided. Easy to say, harder to understand, even harder to teach and preach! Having taught this doctrine to graduate students, with particular emphasis during the last ten years, it is one of the most counter-intuitive doctrines they will have encountered in seminary. This is evidence for the domination of a functional tritheism in our churches, sometimes generated by a social understanding of the Trinity.

By a functional tritheism I mean the belief that the different divine persons do their own thing, each having their own role, and each being responsible for certain effects. Most crudely, the Father alone is often thought to create, while only the Son redeems and only the Spirit sanctifies or perfects. Or, in what is one of the most damaging caricatures of all, the stern Father awaits in heaven for the Son to complete his mission, upon which he acts, restoring fellowship with sinners and sending the Holy Spirit. It gets worse when we begin to reflect on the cross itself: either the Father turns his eyes away from the Son, or the Father unilaterally acts to punish the Son, or the Father breaks relations with the Son, etc. These images populate our sermons, they have penetrated our hymnody, and they shape our collective consciousness.

And yet the Christian tradition has been consistently resisting such an understanding of the external operations of the triune persons. The distribution of such actions and roles among the persons indicates that they have separate substances, that is, that they are separate beings. No matter how closely such actions are coordinated, how symphonically they weave together, they remain the actions of distinct beings. Some have tried to jazz this up by speaking of a perichoretic dance of the persons, one that is not scripted, but which ultimately resolves into a greater and mysterious unity.

Yet, even in the most intimate dance there are two dancers, two beings. The unity they make up is a composed unity, that is, a unity which presupposes the existence of the various parts. Not even the most raging heretics in the hey-day of heresy could entertain such a thought, all too common today. Why not? Because anything which is composed cannot be perfect. A composed being depends on its parts, which are prior to it. Moreover, since nothing puts itself together, a composed being requires an assembler, a creator, and thus cannot be the ultimate being.

Despite this, the persistence with which we talk about the various roles (another euphemism for parts) of the divine persons in the external operations of God indicates that we are bewitched to that picture of three agents cooperating and coordinating. There is a very good two-fold explanation why we cling to this picture, however. First, as a people of the book and of revelation, we apparently cannot make sense of these operations except on the model of three distinct divine agents. Secondly, and related to this, certain non-negotiable dogmas seem to be incompatible with the idea that God acts externally as a single agent: the doctrine of the incarnation of the Son alone being the most obvious one.

Let’s combine these in a set of questions: doesn’t the Bible itself portray separate agents, particularly in how they relate to one another? Doesn’t the Father speak to the Son? (Jn 17) Doesn’t the Son have to ascend first, before the Spirit comes? (Jn 7:39; 16:7) Isn’t it just the Son that has become incarnate, suffered, and died? These are exactly the kinds of objections students of theology formulate against the doctrine of inseparable operations. So deeply entrenched is this picture of the Trinity, and its coordinated operations, that the classic doctrine that God acts inseparably as a single agent has become incredible and counterintuitive.

In what follows, I would like to suggest two pictures which suggest a different imagination. Together these two images can help us understand why the objections to the inseparability doctrine arise; and they provide an alternative angle from which the objections are defused.


**Read the remainder of Adonis Vidu’s article in the latest issue of Credo Magazine.

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