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What Is the Immanent Trinity? A Clarification for the Eternal Subordination Debate

June 16, 2016

I’ve continued to watch with some interest as the online conversation unfolds around the issue of the so-called “Eternal Functional Subordination” of God the Son (EFS), which some of its advocates also call the Trinity’s “Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission” (ERAS).  (For those just catching up: Bring the Books has a good index of important posts, and Think Theology runs down 10 of the driving theological questions at issue.)

In my own entry from last week I offered a number of critiques about the EFS project — not so much to attack and deride it as heretical as to expose the structural flaws and historical naivete and to suggest further recourse for its proponents to improve their case (for example, giving up on the idea that EFS is not a novum but self-evidently Nicene).

As I’ve read some responses to that post and other entries into the conversation this week, it seems to me that the discussion could benefit from further clarity at a number of points.  Here I’d like to focus on the difference between what theologians call the “immanent Trinity” (God in God’s own inner life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and the “economic Trinity” (God with respect to creation, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit acting toward the world).  Note that these are not “two Trinities,” but rather a conceptual distinction that regards our reflecting upon the nature of God.  Some disputants continue either to ignore this distinction, or to refer to it obliquely and incorrectly.  This lack of clarity hinders the discussion from producing much fruit, because the immanent/economic distinction in fact is absolutely crucial to the debate, both on the side of EFS advocates and as the grounds for those who oppose them.

~ ~ ~

Let me take a stab at a typology here.  There are three ways in which one might argue that God the Son has a relation of subordination or submission to the Father:

(Type A) The incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, submits to his Father.  The New Testament is filled with statements that bear out this relation.  Jesus says that he did not come to do his own work but that of the Father who sent him (John 4:34, 6:38).  He prays in the garden “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  The NT authors praise Jesus for his obedience and lift up his humility as a virtue to be emulated.  Ad infinitum.

In fact the vast majority of the Bible’s statements regarding the Son’s relationship to the Father fall under this heading.  But we are not talking here about the immanent Trinity.  This is the sphere of the “economy” of grace, i.e. God’s outward activity in movement toward creatures, in fellowship with them, and for their benefit.

And so none of this is pertinent to the EFS / ERAS debate.  All Christians acknowledge the plain sense of Scripture that the Son submits to the Father in the economy.  The Christian tradition has generally invoked the language of reduplication — the Son submits “according to his humanity” — in order to be precise about how it is that this economic obedience has no bearing on the Son’s essential co-equality with the Father (Nicaea’s consubstantiality).

(Type B) Even before and apart from the incarnation, the Son submits to the Father in the secret fellowship of the divine counsel.  We might think of this as how Father and Son relate to one another in heavenly places, as the triune God witnesses sin and the Fall and the Son submits to the Father’s command to go into the world and make atonement.  The language of “eternity past” and “eternity future” has been invoked here (e.g. by Ware) — language which I think is unhelpful, betraying a muddled and overly linear idea of eternity with respect to created time. But here, too, the Bible appears replete with supporting statements.  Mark and Luke state that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God (Mark 16:19; Luke 22:69; Acts 7:55), and Paul says that at the end of all things even the Son Himself will be subjected to God (1 Cor. 15:28).  And we would grant that the divine counsel of election (which includes the pactum salutis in Reformed circles) is indeed an eternal event, in that election occurs before creation as the first of God’s works ad extra.

Once again, however — and this is key — we are not yet talking about the immanent Trinity.  If we are talking about God’s activity ad extra, even God’s decision-making with respect to creation, the Father’s sending and the Son’s being sent, we have once again planted ourselves in the sphere of the economy.

(Type C) In and from all eternity the Son has a relation of subordination to the Father, it is suggested, because He is “from” the Father.  This alone is the controverted point.

Needless to say, when theology speaks about the inner life of God the discipline has reached its most speculative.  It is exceedingly difficult to apply the revelation of Scripture to the doctrine of God here in a calm and unclouded way, since the authors of Scripture are usually so preoccupied with the economy of grace.  (Owen Strachan illustrates this difficulty by suggesting that 1 Cor. 11:3 attaches “no temporal limit” to Paul’s statement that God is the “head” of Christ, implying that it is an eternal relation. T. L. Arsenal picks this apart nicely.)  John’s prologue (“the Word was with God, and the Word was God”) and Jesus’ statement “the Father and I are one” (John 10:30) are examples of those exceedingly rare statements which seem to pertain immanently to the divine life.

Here, and only here, are we actually dealing with the immanent Trinity — God in God’s inward self-existence as Father, Son, and Spirit, God’s life ad intra, considered without respect to creation.  This is the sphere of the divine processions, the Father’s begetting the Son and, with the Son, spirating the Holy Spirit.  This is the realm of their perichoretic unity.  With respect to the debate over the Son’s subordination and submission, then, this is the only type that matters.  This is where the Father-Son relation is its most basic and unqualified.  All else pertains to the divine missions and the economy.

~ ~ ~

Types A and B refer to the economic Trinity; only Type C refers to the immanent (or “ontological” Trinity), and so it is here that EFS / ERAS supporters run afoul of compromising the integrity and simplicity of God.

As I stated last week, the use of the adjective “eternal” by EFS / ERAS supporters tends to locate their claims in Type C — although it may also be that they have Type B in mind instead.  One can speak of certain of God’s economic activities as taking place in eternity (notably the event of election, cf. Eph. 1:4-5).  The problem, however, is that supporters do not distinguish between Types B and C … nor do they seem to want to do so.  Can the EFS / ERAS position sustain this distinction between God’s eternal being (immanent) and God’s eternal activity with respect to creation (economic)?  Would they allow for an ontological equality which in fact excludes submission or subordination in the inner life of God, even while permitting this in an economic sense from all eternity?

Adhering to these clear distinctions between immanent and economic might allow them to have their cake and eat it, too — to affirm the Son’s willing submission to the Father before the incarnation, during the incarnation, and still now in His heavenly session, but without pressing this relation back into the inner life of God (which, it seems to me, finally cannot escape the charge of Subordinationism).

One final word on the immanent/economic distinction in traditional systematic theology: Karl Rahner’s famous “rule” states that the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity, and vice versa.  This was proposed in order to cut off a number of unsavory ideas, including the notion that God as God truly is remains hidden from us.  No, when we see God acting in the world we really do know God as God is!  The economy, and particularly the Christ event, provide a true revelation.

That said, the tradition has wisely maintained that it is reckless to read aspects of the economy backward into the immanent divine life willy-nilly. To observe something in human history (e.g. Jesus submitting to his Father) and then rush to apply that to the Trinity (e.g. the Son has an eternal relation of submission to the Father) is at best out of order, and at worst idolatry.  This would lead to my previous critique on EFS methodology as embracing a thinly-veiled natural theology.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. benjamin9000 permalink
    June 16, 2016 1:10 pm

    Thank you very much for writing on this topic. If I could ask you (CC’d to others) a question, speaking as a not-very-theologically-minded layman: what books or articles should an ordinary person read on the subject of the Trinity, to get a clearer understanding of how all this might relate to the day-to-day life of the faithful church member?

    • June 16, 2016 3:13 pm

      Great question, Benjamin. I would begin with these books, which are written by thoughtful and careful theologians but meant to be more approachable by lay people:

      Fred has also written a new book called The Triune God, in Zondervan’s New Studies in Dogmatics series, which is due out at the end of the year.

      (Any other recommendations from readers out there?)

    • benjamin9000 permalink
      June 17, 2016 9:26 am

      Darren, thank you so much. I appreciate it. Alastair Roberts also suggested Sanders when I asked him this same question – that makes two. Based on reading Sanders’s blog, I am enthusiastic. I added Reeves to the list.

      Up to this point, most of what I had picked up was from listening to Tim Keller sermons: “The Glory of the Triune God” (John 17), “Who is the Spirit?” (John 14), and “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (Mark 1). Keller (I think there and elsewhere) frequently cites Jonathan Edwards’ “The End for Which God Created the World.” In “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” Keller also cites Cornelius Plantinga and the “Dance.” This is maybe surprising, considering the various “camps” that I detect in the current debate. In “Glory of the Triune God” (and elsewhere) Keller cites Edwards, “A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World” which I see is also a favorite of J.I. Packer and John Piper. The main thing I got out of that was: the God already had (interpersonal) love within the Trinity, so God didn’t need to create the world in order to love and be loved.

      I found this article helpful in reviewing some of the “takes” on Edwards. Tried to skim Strobel on Google Books and Richard M. Weber in JETS but only briefly.
      Ralph Cunnington –

  2. June 16, 2016 3:58 pm

    Sanders essay in Advancing Trinitarian theology is very good as well – the whole volume is worth getting as well.

  3. June 16, 2016 4:03 pm

    Bah, I said ‘as well’ twice.

  4. PluniaZ permalink
    June 16, 2016 5:00 pm

    What is the first recorded usage of the phrase “economic Trinity”? Not the word “economy” used in a discussion of the Trinity, but the actual phrase “economic Trinity”. I can find no trace of it Aquinas or any of his predecessors. The Greek fathers used the word “economy” but not “economic Trinity”. This is an important distinction because all the 1st Millennium Doctors of the Church are unanimous that God has one will and one operation. There is no functional separation (or “subordination”) in any action of God toward creation – the only differences between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are that the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (through the Son). Other than that last parenthetical, this is the unanimous testimony of the 1st Millennium Church, and everyone would be advised to leave the doctrine of the Trinity there and drop modern innovations.

  5. June 17, 2016 3:07 am

    “To observe something in human history (e.g. Jesus submitting to his Father) and then rush to apply that to the Trinity (e.g. the Son has an eternal relation of submission to the Father) is at best out of order, and at worst idolatry.”

    Could you unpack this a little? It seems to suggest that revelation is not really revelation at all, but a kind of masquerade. If we don’t learn about the Trinity from the historical (I know that’s a contested word) life of Christ as witnessed to in the Gospels and as perceived in faith, then from where do we learn about it?

    For the record, I have absolutely no interest in upholding a complementarian view of gender relations

    • June 17, 2016 12:12 pm

      Thank you for posting, Declan. You’ve put your finger on a crucial matter: we want to be able to say that the economy really does reveal who God is, but predication from the economy to the divine life requires a great deal of care and caution. And for this task we have holy Scripture as our guide.

      We would, for example, state that in love Jesus saves us from our sins — and so God loves us and is for us, and is love in Himself (1 John 4:8).

      We would not, on the other hand, state that Jesus is male — and therefore God (or at least God the Son) is eternally male in Himself. The example may be ridiculous, but it illustrates the point.

      The great task of theological interpretation lies with all that lies in between these two. Where does God’s revelation in the covenant with Israel, in Christ, and in the witness of Scripture warrant and even demand that we know God as x? and where are we guilty of misreading and projection? This is a bigger topic than I can do justice to here, but I appreciate John Webster’s suggestion that, as we approach the task in faith, God sanctifies our meager efforts to testify faithfully to Him. “He who has ears, let him hear.”

  6. June 17, 2016 3:43 am

    Ps – just read your essay on Barth’s trinitarian theology. Very helpful.

    Quick question: does Barth ever connect his concept of male-female relations with his doctrine of the Trinity?

    • June 17, 2016 12:20 pm

      I think that the answer is no, but I would have to do a bit of reading to be certain. Certainly not in the way that EFS / ERAS advocates do.

      What Barth does do when he invokes the language of “male and female” from Gen. 1:27 is to specify that (a) humans in relation as male and female is reflective of the fellowship enjoyed by the persons of the Trinity; (b) that this is only an analogy (similarity in dissimilarity), so we shouldn’t make too much of it; and (c) that it is an “analogy of relation” (analogia relationalis) and NOT and analogy of being (analogia entis). (See CD III/1, 196; III/2, 324.)

      So while we can affirm that human persons are made to be in relation as God is in relation, Barth doesn’t think we can fill that out with much more specificity (e.g. submission). And we certainly mustn’t reason backwards from the creature to the Creator.

  7. October 1, 2016 8:54 am

    I’m not sure i understand the terms well. Perhaps Peter in Act 2:34-36 when describing the LORD and the Lord’s Annointed stating that Jesus was made both LORD and the Lord’s Annointed makes he issue of submission self-explanatory. For the Father has Tabernacled Himself in Jesus Christ.
    Where Jesus came out from the bosom of the Father. and Jesus expressed the very heart of God, Now the Father has dwelt Himself in Jesus Christ.

  8. Godfrey Jidiga permalink
    November 8, 2017 6:40 am

    what is immanent trinity of God.what is it all about?

  9. Max Aplin permalink
    July 10, 2020 3:19 am

    I find part of your argument very unconvincing.

    If we go back to the time when the universe was created, i.e., before the incarnation, the Bible teaches that God the Father did this through the agency of God the Son. The clear impression is given that the Son was under the authority of the Father at this time.

    I’m not a big fan of the terms ‘economic trinity’ and ‘immanent trinity’, but I’ll stick with these terms here. When we see the economic trinity acting in a certain way BEFORE THE INCARNATION, we should assume that this reveals the immanent trinity. Otherwise, the Bible would be misleading in its portrayal of God, and we would expect it not to be misleading.

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