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What Is the Economic and Immanent Trinity?

Categories Theology

If you’re interested in the doctrine of the Trinity, then you’ve probably heard the terms economic Trinity and immanent Trinity from a lot of modern theologians. But what exactly do those terms mean? And more importantly, do they help us understand the Trinity better?

In The Triune God, Dr. Fred Sanders explains the terms and their origins, and suggests how they might actually create more confusion than clarity.

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What do the terms economic and immanent Trinity mean?

Modern theologians have created a distinction between the “economic Trinity” and the “immanent Trinity.”

“Economic” has to do with the history of salvation, and discusses the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the sending and mission of salvation. In this case, “immanent” means “the action remaining within an agent.” The immanent Trinity would be a discussion of of the eternal, essential, and ontological aspects of the Trinity.

Any in-depth look at the Trinity requires a look at the vast distinction between God’s actions in the world and his eternal being. It could be described as connecting the Trinity we experience in salvation history (the sending Father, the incarnate Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit of Pentecost) with the Trinity of God’s own eternal being (the Father who has not yet sent and will only do so by grace, the Son who has not yet become incarnate and will only do so by condescension, and the Holy Spirit who is not yet poured out and will only be so on the basis of the finished work of Christ).

Learn more in Fred Sanders' doctrine of the Trinity online course.

How helpful is economic and immanent terminology?

We could describe the entire project in other words as negotiating the relationship between the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity. This is the conventional terminology of modern trinitarianism, widely used and thoroughly discussed. I’d like to register a warning about the disadvantages of investing much in that terminology.

Oikonomia and theologia in Athanasius

At first glance, discourse about the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity seems like simply a modernized translation of the patristic distinction between oikonomia and theologia. Just as Athanasius spoke of the incarnation of the Logos as “that which is kata oikonomia,” meaning something like “by way of dispensation” or “in carrying out the plan of God,” he spoke of the eternal deity of the Son as “that which is kata theologia,” or as referring to divinity proper.

Such a distinction was crucial in resisting Arians, whose denial of the Son’s deity was expressed as seeing the Son’s incarnate mission (his oikonomia) as revelatory of his essential being (his theologia, or in their view, his lack of it). While the language of economic Trinity and immanent Trinity can be used to make that sort of distinction, on its own it tends in another direction, as can be seen by the peculiarity of its construction and by its hazy origins.

Parsing the economic and immanent Trinity

What is peculiar about this language is that it verbally doubles the Trinity. While nobody thinks there are two actual trinities, the reduplicative phrasing puts two trinities into any sentence framed by the terms economic and immanent.

If this modern way of talking simply translates the ancient way of talking, it is strange that some of the things the Greek patristic writers wanted to affirm cannot be put into the modern idiom.

Would Athanasius insist that the economic Son of God is the immanent Son of God? Or would he say that sonship is both economic and immanent? Or that there is an economic sonship and an immanent sonship? None of the combinations can quite capture his claim that the eternal Son took on human nature and came to us. The categories themselves do not quite invite such formulation.

One reason is that the trope of Trinity-doubling serves to construct two referential planes, each with its own network of relations. It is a schema in which many true things can be glimpsed and expressed, but it invites the mind to assume such a high level of abstraction that fundamental errors about concrete matters can go unnoticed.

Abstraction leads to theological gaffes

Seminary professors can attest to the sort of theological blunders this particular abstraction underwrites (and no doubt partly blame themselves for retailing categories that make such mistakes easier for students to make but harder to detect).

Perhaps separating the two conceptual trinities has the advantage of making room for a greater amount of data—an entire Trinity’s worth of economic data in distinction from an entire Trinity’s worth of immanent data, all within a comprehensive conceptual field that demands an argument about how the two are correlated. This comprehensiveness is the most evident advantage of talking about the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity.

There’s something vaguely Kantian in the transcendental perspective assumed by the distinction, as if the real point of any inquiry carried out in these terms were to relate the phenomenal Trinity to the noumenal Trinity and vice versa. But that brings us to its hazy origin.

The origin of this theological distinction

Karl Rahner, articulating what later theologians have sometimes called Rahner’s Rule, wrote that “we are starting out from the proposition that the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and vice versa,” and then remarked, “I do not know exactly when and by whom this theological axiom was formulated for the first time.”

While even Rahner does not know the source of the sentence called Rahner’s Rule, there is some consensus on the origin of the words that are used in it.

Johann Urlsperger’s missteps

Earlier writers may have compared God’s eternal being with God’s revealed triunity, but it was the Lutheran theologian Johann August Urlsperger (1728–1806) who put the terminology into circulation. Urlsperger was an idiosyncratic thinker rather marginal to established academic circles, but the polemical thrust of his arguments about the Trinity drew responses that helped his way of talking become established in general usage even as he himself receded into obscurity.

In Urslperger’s Trinitarian writings, he distinguished between a Trinity of being on the one hand and a Trinity of revelation on the other. He did this as a way of insisting that God was triune at both levels, in contrast to trendy rationalist modalisms that admitted, on a biblical basis, a certain revelatory threeness, but envisioned a merely unipersonal God behind those manifestations.

Urslperger championed an actual threeness in the eternal being of God. But he agreed with the antitrinitarians that the whole tangle of relations made manifest in the economy of salvation (sending and being sent, fatherhood and sonship, etc.) were in fact inadmissible to the level of God’s actual being. There was absolutely nothing about those relations that would remain after they had been purified of every hint of subordination, in Urlsperger’s view, so they had to be restricted to the level of the economy.

Urlsperger weighs in

Determined to maintain real threeness within God, but steadfastly refusing to follow the traditional route of tracing temporal missions back to eternal processions, Urlsperger instead posited an eternal Trinity consisting of three subjects whose relations were not the revealed relations:

“For in the essence of God there is no Father, Son, and Spirit; each subsistence in this essence is equally eternal, equally necessary, indeed grounded in each other but not dependent on one another through subordination. In short: one essence, no first, no second, no third, no greater, no lesser. All alike equal, all alike necessary, all alike supremely realized.”

For us and our salvation, these three enter a mutual compact to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is not just that one sends the others, but that at some point before the foundation of the world, they enter into genetic, processional relations that constitute them as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In a kind of economy before the economy but in preparation for the economy, they become whatever it is necessary for them to be in order to assume the functions they will manifest in the history of salvation. On this account, the economic Trinity predates creation itself, but is not identical to the essential Trinity in which “there is no Father, Son, and Spirit.”

Learn more in Fred Sanders' doctrine of the Trinity online course.

Clashing trinitarian frameworks

I’ve probably already offered too much space to elaborating Urslperger’s curious concoction of theosophy, Eunomian Arianism, and covenant theology. Nobody else in the history of Christian thought has ever believed quite what Urlsperger believed. But through his new set of technical terms, he turned the course of modern discussion of the Trinity.

What is especially striking is that he devised the categories of economic and immanent Trinity not simply to distinguish the two levels, nor simply to insist that God was triune on both levels, but precisely to deny that missions reveal processions. His goal was to find a way to confess an actual threeness of the eternal God, while treating all the known relations among the three as matters of the economic revelation.

What, then, shall we say Karl Rahner is accomplishing when he joins the discussion on these terms and proposes that the economic Trinity simply is the immanent Trinity, and vice versa?

No doubt he is repairing a breach that Urlsperger opened, and closing a gap that needed to be closed. But once we grasp that Urlsperger’s project was designed to block the inference from missions to processions, we see that Rahner’s intervention into the discussion ought to be evaluated on whether it succeeds in restoring that inference. That, it seems to me, is an open question, since Rahner has become the symbolic figurehead for modern use of the terms economic Trinity and immanent Trinity.

Any baleful influence transmitted by the continued use of terms themselves can likely be tracked to Rahner’s Rule as the chief carrier. If the conceptual construct itself exerts a distracting or distorting effect on trinitarian thought, Rahner’s attempt to collapse the distinction may be bootless. The chief thing to attend to is whether this approach restores the missions to their central place in the doctrine of the Trinity, as revelatory of processions.

Schoonenberg’s Trinity: The Consummated Covenant

One particularly telling case study suggests not. Six years after Rahner’s influential Trinity essay appeared, the Dutch Jesuit theologian Piet J.A.M. Schoonenberg published a controversial article called “Trinity: The Consummated Covenant: Theses on the Doctrine of the Triune God.”

Schoonenberg argued that if Rahner is correct about the identity of the economic and immanent Trinity, then the question of whether God is triune, apart from the economy of salvation, is “unanswered and unanswerable. It is thereby eliminated from theology as a meaningless question.”

Rahner’s Rule is usually taken to be a radically, if not revolutionarily, trinitarian watchword. Schoonenberg reached his conclusion simply by taking up trinitarianism’s standard terminology and reworking it as a set of corollaries to the axiom of Rahner:

"The salvation-economy fatherhood of God is the inner-divine fatherhood, and vice versa.
The salvation-economy filiation is the inner-divine filiation, and vice versa.
The Spirit of God at work in salvation history is the inner-divine Spirit, and vice versa.
The missions are the processions, and vice versa.
The salvation-economy relations are the inner-divine ones, and vice versa."

Addressing the Schoonenberg proposition

There are many problems with these corollaries. We cannot spare time to give them all the swatting they deserve, but a few problems that stand out include the following. If economic filiation is immanent filiation, then God becomes Father of the Son in time rather than eternity.

The entire Trinity seems to be constituted for the first time by the relations among Father, Son, and Spirit that take place in salvation history. In general, there is an economizing of God and a deflationary historicizing of triunity.

Schoonenberg claims that “Trinity” is no longer a statement about God, but is instead “a term that describes the morphology of the divine-human covenant rather than the reality of God.” This is a severe dislocation of the doctrine of the Trinity from theology proper to soteriology. It is also a long journey to undertake, burdened by a heavy load of jargon, in order to arrive after all at plain modalism.

Protecting the missions/processions link

Perhaps the most insidious problem with Schoonenberg’s radicalization of Rahner’s (that is, Urlsperger’s) terminology is the damage it inflicts on the link between missions and processions. “The missions are the processions, and vice versa” turns the entire development of trinitarian theology into nonsense. It makes our chief question—“What do the missions reveal about God?”—collide with its own answer in a tautological disaster.

Blunders like this are not inevitable, nor can the blame for them simply be laid on the doorstep of a conceptual schema. There are many opportunities to turn aside from the path Schoonenberg’s argument follows.

Can the economic-immanent distinction be helpful?

We’ve already acknowledged that the conventional terminology of economic Trinity and immanent Trinity has certain advantages, including its comprehensiveness and its abstractness. If theologians show restraint in reaching for it, and only do so when they positively desire abstraction and remoteness, economic-immanent language might serve well.

Some theologians of a traditionalist temperament have treated the economic-immanent idiom as simply another way of talking about the same thing that has long been talked about in the mission-procession idiom. Gilles Emery, for instance, says that “the reflection connected to this theological elaboration indisputably possesses a real value. And the axiom formulated by Rahner has made a notable contribution to the renewal of trinitarian theology.”

Gilles Emery’s friendly warning

Nevertheless, he worries that “when the doctrine of the Trinity is posed in these terms, it leads at times to presenting trinitarian faith in a dialectical and even wooden manner. The theological tradition shows that there are other ways of accounting for the truth of the trinitarian revelation and of manifesting the gift that the Trinity makes of itself in the economy. One enlightening way consists, undoubtedly, in the doctrine of the ‘missions’ of the divine persons.”

This is a fairly friendly turning from one set of categories to another, with some allowance that either set of conceptual tools can be used to work toward the shared goals of trinitarian theology (accounting for the truth of revelation and recognizing God’s self-gift in the economy).

Emery gives the impression that Thomas Aquinas and recent trinitarian theology are doing much the same thing, except that Thomas, of course, did it better. Others have given a more stern warning about the limits and dangers of the economic-immanent framework.

Bruce Marshall’s sterner warning

Bruce Marshall first of all laments the prominence and novelty of the terminology: “The language of ‘immanent’ and ‘economic’ has become so pervasive in Catholic trinitarian theology that to question it might seem tantamount to questioning faith in the Trinity itself. But that cannot really be right, since trinitarian doctrine and theology got along quite well for most of their history without thinking in these terms, still less in terms of two trinities, one ‘immanent’ and the other ‘economic.’ ”

Marshall then expresses skepticism that the problems posed by the distinction, and the answers offered to those problems, are worth working on: “There is reason to think the standard strategies for showing the ‘immanent’ and the ‘economic’ Trinity to be identical are by turns self-contradictory, much ado about the obvious, or purchased at fearsome theological cost.

One of the costs Marshall has in mind is the neglect of the topic of divine unity, and its replacement by what is essentially a reflection on the God-world relationship. Marshall argues that “the fundamental question about God’s unity” is “the question whether there can be processions in the one God.”

Learn more in Fred Sanders' doctrine of the Trinity online course.

Modern treatises on divine unity

Indeed, treatises on divine unity are all but absent from modern doctrines of God, and Marshall believes this absence “stems from the widespread eclipse, in nineteenth- and twentieth-century trinitarian theology, of the carefully worked-out distinction between procession and mission by the much more malleable and imprecise distinction between the immanent and the economic Trinity.”

These are striking criticisms, and trinitarian theologians who continue to deploy the economic-immanent framework—judiciously, and with an awareness of its advantages and disadvantages—would do well to be alert to them. Emery’s friendlier view suggests that the economic-immanent framework can be treated as a supplementary way of dealing with some of the same issues as those addressed by the mission-procession framework.

Marshall’s more oppositional view suggests that the economic-immanent framework competes with the mission-procession framework, posing an alternative conceptual schema. Marshall’s reading gains credibility from the historical fact that Urlsperger designed the framework explicitly to avoid drawing the mission-procession conclusion. That is why even Rahner’s apparently radical attempt to identify economic Trinity and immanent Trinity is insufficiently radical. It does not get to the root of the problem. Rahner’s way of putting things may be a sharp turn on the road marked out by Urlsperger, but if it is possible to go back and divert traffic from the road altogether, that would be preferable.

Ludwig Spittler’s criticism of Urlsperger

When Johann Urlsperger crafted the distinction between the Trinity of Being and the Trinity of Revelation, he presented it to the world with a flourish. Not everyone was impressed.

One contemporary reviewer wrote a response, which at this distance seems remarkably prescient. Ludwig Spittler made several substantive points about Urlsperger’s trinitarian theology before turning his attention to the fact that:

“Mr. Urlsperger has seen fit to coin some new technical terms in order to express himself briefly.

I believe I am called to speak on behalf of the feelings of every reader regarding the whole idea of these technical terms: Hereby, nothing is gained in clarity, but rather an opportunity is given for endless misunderstandings.

The fate of these technical terms will go just as it has with all such. Our busily collecting theologians will gather them, either polemically or thetically, into a compendium.

The first user still understands the term, because he has actually read Urlsperger’s text. The next, having merely heard it from his teacher in college, no longer receives it quite so loudly. A third, not even having heard it from a teacher, takes counsel from etymology. And the odds are ninety-nine to one that from now on these technical terms will be used with the significance assigned by this last fellow.

This is the most natural way for heretics to be made in all subsequent centuries. No connoisseur of church history will demand examples as evidence.”

It is a good warning for trinitarian theologians in any age. In the case of Urlsperger (and Rahner by extension), it is striking how well Spittler’s prediction has played out.

In service of clarifying the plausibility structure of trinitarian theology as a biblical doctrine, we will occasionally generate a few new ways of talking. But we should attempt to be modest in introducing new technical terms and to use the economic-immanent framework in a more limited way than has been customary in recent theology.


This post is adapted from material found in Fred Sanders' online course, The Triune God. To learn more about the doctrine of the Trinity, sign up for the course today.

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