[Common Places] Pro-Nicene Theology: Inseparable Operations
Note: The author of today’s column, Scott Swain (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), will be giving a plenary address at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society on the doctrine of the Trinity.
Our current Common Places 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.
The living God
The triune God is a living God and, as such, he is intrinsically active. The Trinity is active in knowledge, love, and beatitude. The Trinity is active in the production of creatures. And the Trinity is active in a care that extends, beyond bringing us into existence, to include our daily preservation, redemption, sanctification, and, ultimately, our perfection in his presence.
In speaking of the lively nature of the triune God, Christian theology speaks of God’s “operations” or “works,” and that in two senses. God’s “internal operations” are those eternal actions that remain inside of God and that, quite simply, are God in the perfection of his wholly actualized life. God’s internal operations include the Father’s eternal begetting of the Son and the Father and the Son’s eternal breathing forth of the Spirit. They also include the immanent acts of knowledge and love in which God’s perfect happiness eternally consists, the high and holy place that he eternally, actively inhabits.
God’s “external operations” are those actions that, rooted in God’s eternal purpose, realize themselves in the production of temporal, creaturely effects outside of God. Moved by divine goodness and directed by divine wisdom, God acts by divine power to bring his purposes for creatures into effect. God’s external operations include the creation and preservation of all things, the redemption and sanctification of God’s elect through the missions of the Son and the Spirit, and the consummation of creation so that it too may become the happy habitation of the high and holy God.
Indivisible, internally ordered external operations of the Trinity
According to common Christian confession, the external operations of the Trinity are “indivisible” or “inseparable.” This follows from the principle that who God is in himself (ad intra) determines the shape of God’s free actions outside of himself (ad extra). Because the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are one simple God (see here and here), their actions outside of themselves are indivisible operations. The three persons do not merely “cooperate” in their external works, as if each person contributed his distinctive part to a larger operational whole. All of God’s external works—from creation to consummation—are works of the three divine persons enacting one divine power, ordered by one divine wisdom, expressing one divine goodness, and manifesting one divine glory.
While the actions of the three persons outside of themselves are indivisible actions of the one God, the persons are not indistinguishable in their external operations. Again this follows from the principle that who God is in himself (ad intra) determines how God acts outside of himself (ad extra). Because the distinctions between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are real personal distinctions within the one God, they relate to one another within their undivided external operations according to the character of their personal distinctions. Because the Father eternally begets the Son and eternally breathes forth the Spirit ad intra, the Father works through the Son and the Spirit ad extra. Because the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and because he eternally breathes forth the Spirit ad intra, the Son works from the Father and through the Spirit ad extra. Because the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son ad intra, he works from the Father and the Son ad extra, bringing the undivided external works of the Trinity to full flower. In sum, the external operations of the Trinity are undivided and internally ordered according to the Trinity’s personal relations, proceeding from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit.
Such a conception of God’s indivisible, internally ordered triune agency informs Basil of Caesarea’s response to Eunomius’s (blasphemous) claim that the Spirit belongs to a lower rank or nature than that of God. Basil demonstrates “the singular nature” that the Spirit possesses with the Father and the Son by identifying examples of how the Spirit brings the singular divine acts of creation, adoption, and sanctification to their fruition. In each instance, he draws his theological conclusions about the Holy Spirit’s being and operation from his exegesis of biblical texts. Commenting on Psalm 33:6 (“by the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host”), Basil observes: “as God the Word is the creator of the heavens, so too the Holy Spirit bestows firmness and steadfastness upon the heavenly powers.” Commenting on 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 (“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone”), he asks: “Do you see how here too the activity of the Holy Spirit is ranked with the activity of the Father and the Son?” And, commenting on 1 Corinthians 12:11 (“All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills”), Basil concludes: “This testifies that he [the Holy Spirit] has nothing other than the authoritative and sovereign power.”
Christian theology confesses the inseparable operations of the triune God because it confesses the living God. The life that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit live in themselves is an indivisible life of knowledge, love, and happiness. By God’s grace, the three persons extend their life of knowledge, love, and happiness to us through their indivisible external works of making, preserving, reconciling, and perfecting creatures. This is eternal life: that by the Spirit we may know the only true God through Jesus Christ whom he has sent (John 17:3).
Scott Swain (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Professor of Systematic Theology and Academic Dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL. Author of several books and essays, he will be giving a plenary address at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society on the doctrine of the Trinity. He is presently writing a volume on the divine names for 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
 Basil of Caesarea, Against Eunomius, The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 22, trans. Mark Delcogliano and Andrew Radde-Gallwitz (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 3.4-6 (pp. 189-96).