Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

What God Hath Done Together: Defending the Historic Doctrine of the Inseparable Operations of the Trinity

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

What God Hath Done Together: Defending the Historic Doctrine of the Inseparable Operations of the Trinity

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

The anti-Arian polemics of the fourth century eventually gave rise to a consensus Trinitarian grammar, often referred to as pro-Nicene theology,1 by which the unity of God is understood in terms of one divine essence common to all three persons. Understood as a consequence of this account of divine unity, the doctrine of the inseparable operations of the Trinity ad extra contends that all of the works of the Triune God with respect to the creation are works of all three persons of the Godhead.2 This doctrine, often expressed by the Latin axiom, opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa3 has been a staple of orthodox Trinitarian theology for centuries. Statements and defense of the doctrine can be found among the Church fathers of the East (e.g. Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa) and the West (e.g. Hilary of Poitiers and Augustine) as they engaged in anti-Arian polemical discourse. The doctrine is later expressed and defended by the medieval giant Thomas Aquinas and is fully embraced by the seventeenth-century Reformed Orthodox in their polemical engagement with the Socinians. The nineteenth-century heirs and defenders of Reformed Orthodoxy (e.g. Herman Bavinck and Charles Hodge) also held to this doctrine without wavering.

In recent years, however, Trinitarian theological discourse has taken a socalled "relational turn,"4 and the pro-Nicene account of divine unity has come under attack. As a consequence, the historic doctrine of inseparable operations has fallen out of vogue in theological discourse. At times, the doctrine has been challenged directly.5 More often, it is simply ignored, being summarily dismissed as a component part of the unfortunate Trinitarian theology of Augustine and the West, with its emphasis on divine unity, which is considered deleterious to a healthy understanding of divine threeness and relationality.

1. Toward a thesis. The doctrine of the inseparable operations of the Trinity ad extra is a difficult one indeed. While the doctrine comports easily with the conviction that God is one, it raises difficult questions concerning the equally significant conviction that God is simultaneously three. Is it theologically coherent to distinctly appropriate divine works to one person of the Trinity if all the works of the Trinity are the inseparable acts of the one Godhead? Or is this simply doublespeak that fails to avoid the charge of modalism? Furthermore, the doctrine raises important questions about divine revelation in Scripture with respect to Trinitarian issues. Given the scriptural propensity for speaking of the persons of the Godhead as distinct agents, is it biblically faithful to affirm the old maxim, opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa? These are questions that any Christian theologian wishing to uphold the doctrine of inseparable operations must address.6 Answers to these critical questions will be attempted here. Specifically, this essay will argue that the historic orthodox doctrine of inseparable operations, with its concurrent affirmation of distinct personal appropriations, is both theologically coherent and biblically faithful.7 If indeed this is the case, then, given its staunch historical pedigree, it should continue to be embraced as a staple element in contemporary proposals of Trinitarian theology.

2. Method. This essay will be divided into two major sections: (1) historicaltheological context and (2) constructive theological analysis. Beginning with historical-theological considerations is important because the debate about inseparable operations is only one part of a much larger debate about how best to understand Augustine's account of divine unity. This larger debate is complicated by an historical-theological paradigm, which presents the early development of Trinitarian theology as an ideological struggle between the divergent theologies of East and West. Therefore, this East vs. West paradigm will be surveyed, along with some recent cogent challenges to its legitimacy, in order to help the reader locate the specific issue of the doctrine of inseparable operations within this larger debate. …

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