[Common Places] Pro-Nicene Theology: Exegesis and Inseparable Operations of the Trinity

Fred Sanders on October 20th, 2016. Tagged under .

Fred Sanders

Fred Sanders is Professor of Theology at Biola University's Torrey Honors Institute. He has an MDiv from Asbury Theological Seminary and PhD from Graduate Theological Union. He is the co-editor of Christology, Ancient and Modern and Advancing Trinitarian Theology, and author of The Triune God. His new online course on the doctrine of the Trinity is also now available.

Our current series, Pro-Nicene Theology, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key tenets of basic Trinitarian orthodoxy as developed in the early centuries of the church. For introduction to the series, see this first post.


Baptism of Christ, Augustin Hirschvogel, 1547.

A Tale of Three Agents?

There’s a kind of conventional Christian wisdom about the New Testament that goes like this: the Gospels tell the story of three distinct characters who co-operate beautifully to save us. The Father so loves the world he created that he sends the Son to it; the Son takes on human nature and atones for the sins of the world; the Holy Spirit applies that purchased redemption and indwells the redeemed. When you add up the three parts, as you simply must, you get the complete work of salvation. And that complete work of salvation corresponds precisely to the complete Trinity: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit collaborate on the single, unified project of the gospel.

In its main outlines, and considered as a quick, big-picture summary of the New Testament, this account succeeds in connecting salvation and the Christian God. I bet I’ve told the story in these terms myself before, and I bet I’ll speak in roughly these terms again sometime soon when explaining that we cannot account for the work of salvation without counting to three and naming the persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But in some quarters of modern Trinitarian theology, we have heard this story of salvation told with a particular distinguishing emphasis: Once upon a time, three distinct characters each did a set of distinct things which resulted in a successful collaborative outcome. Actually, let’s call these three distinct persons three distinct people, since the awkward word “persons” doesn’t seem necessary when we narrate the coordinated actions of these separate agents as they converge on a shared project. In this way of telling the story, Jesus does the hard, incarnate one-third of the project, while the Father does the sovereign-justice-and-mercy-from-above one-third of it, and the Holy Spirit does that one-third of it that is numinous, immanent, and ongoing. They stand over against each other and work out the things that make for our deliverance, adjusting their actions to each other responsively so that the result is coherent and complete.

You can feel something beginning to go wrong as the characters in this story are teased apart so fully, so insistently, so precisely. Does the problem arise as we think of separate centers of consciousness containing different thoughts? Or does it arise when we think of the separateness of the actions that they are carrying out? Or does it arise when we think of how those actions must emanate from separate agents, and that each agent must therefore be its own bundle of efficient causation among the many centers of created causation in the world? Could we say that in this kind of account, social Trinitarianism has become too much social and not enough Trinitarian?

Radically Trinitarian Interpretation

But advocates of this tripartition usually claim just the opposite: That only by taking these distinctions with ultimate seriousness can we rise to the level of being fully Trinitarian. To read the Gospels straightforwardly, they say, is to see three Divine Agents at work, and to fail to discern those three Agents is to fail to be radically Trinitarian. Wherever this style of argument begins to feel the courage of its convictions, it asserts that nothing could possibly keep an earnest reader of the New Testament from seeing three obviously separate Actors except perhaps some kind of Platonic bias, some prejudice in favor of abstract oneness, some pagan influence suppressing the New Testament’s radical Trinitarianism.

In a recent post in this series (http://zondervanacademic.com/blog/common-places-pro-nicene-theology-inseparable-operations/), Scott Swain pointed out a better way. He explored the classical doctrine of the inseparable operations of the Trinity, which affirms that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit act undividedly in every external action. And every action is external except that set of actions which are essentially Father-ing, Son-ing, and Holy Spirit-ing. Swain said it all more precisely and responsibly, and included a good deal of Biblical reasoning to support the classical Nicene doctrine. All I want to add to that exposition is this reminder of how this interpretive rule—opera ad extra sunt indivisa— helps us to read the story of Trinitarian salvation correctly.

So much is worth affirming in the tripartite view I reported above: the whole Trinity is involved in our salvation; only the Son is incarnate; what we know about the Trinity we know primarily from these central events of salvation history. But unless the rule of inseparable operations directs us, we are in danger of taking an impressionistic reading of the Gospels too far. What blocks us from discerning three separate agents at work in the New Testament is that we come to it with another book already in mind, and that book is not by Plato. That book is the Old Testament.

Two-Testament Trinity

Reading left to right through the canonical Scriptures, we arrive at the Gospels after having traversed the massive witness of the Old Testament to the oneness of God. With Deuteronomy and Isaiah ringing in our ears, we hear now of this anointed servant of the Lord on whom the Spirit of the LORD rests. We see him do the things that God does; we hear that he is responsible for creation and the final judgment. Knowing that God is working to save us, we see Jesus working to save us, and we have to inquire into this remarkable divine operation: Not a cooperation, but an operation.

What really blocks the three-agents reading of the New Testament is the Old Testament. Its canonical unity with the New Testament requires us to grasp how the one God saves. In doing so, we have to come to terms with the New Testaments ways of speaking about God, which are more complex than an undifferentiated single divine action, but also more complex than the coordinated actions of three agents. The New Testament sometimes speaks of the one God substantially, and sometimes relationally: The Word was with God (relationally), and was God (substantially). We praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: God of Jesus substantially, and Father of the Son relationally.

C. Kavin Rowe once remarked that “the doctrine of the Trinity would never have arisen on the basis of the Old or New Testaments in isolation,” because only “the two-testament canon read as one book pressures its interpreters to make ontological judgments about the Trinitarian nature of the one God ad intra on the basis of its narration of the act and identity of the biblical God ad extra.” It’s the metaphysical weight of the Old Testament’s monotheism that drives Nicene interpreters to see the actions of Christ and the Holy Spirit as having implications for the very being of God.[1] This question about God and the gospel, spanning the Old and New Testaments, is what drove the development of the classical doctrine of the Trinity overall. And in particular, it is what forged the interpretive rule that the external works of the Trinity are undivided. What we read in the Bible is the report of the saving work of the triune God.


Fred Sanders (PhD, Graduate Theological Union) is Professor of Theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University in La Mirada, California. Author of numerous books on Trinitarian theology, he has most recently written The Triune God in the New Studies in Dogmatics series.


Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.

Our current series, Pro-Nicene Theology, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key tenets of basic Trinitarian orthodoxy as developed in the early centuries of the church.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

[1] C. Kavin Rowe, “Biblical Pressure and Trinitarian Hermeneutics,” Pro Ecclesia 11:3 (Summer 2002).