Divine Operations, Appropriations, and the Health of the Church

Much ink has been spilled over the last 10 years on the topic of the Trinity, and in particular, on issues of submission and authority among the persons of the Godhead. The Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) and social Trinity debate is no doubt partially responsible for the increase of Trinitarian publications, and the nuances of the EFS position have provided insight for evangelical theologians as to what needs to be addressed and, when necessary, corrected. My concern is that these corrections have potentially created an unintended pendulum swing. I’ll explain.

Pro-Nicene Trinitarianism embraces several doctrines. Examples include the eternal generation of the Son, the homoousion, divine simplicity, and inseparable operations, all of which are essential teachings for Nicene orthodoxy. But from my little office in the metropolis of Graefenburg, KY, it is the doctrine of inseparable operations that currently seems to be most passionately defended and prioritized.

Some quick definitions are in order:

Inseparable Operations – God’s “external operations” or works “ad extra” are actions taken by God that are outside of himself and directed toward his creation. Examples include the creation and sustaining of all things, issues related to salvation and sanctification, the last days and restoration, and so forth. The doctrine of inseparable operations conveys that each person of the Trinity – since they are one God – is working and active in all of God’s external operations. In other words, the work that God accomplishes in his creation is not divided among the persons of the Trinity. Rather, the Triune persons act as a single agent.

Divine Appropriations/Missions – After reading the above description of inseparable operations, one might understandably ask the question, “If that is true, why does the Bible explicitly say that election is according to the foreknowledge of the Father?” (1 Peter 1:2). Or, “why does the Bible explicitly say that the Son was sent into the world?” (John 3:16). Or, “why does the Bible explicitly say that the Spirit seals and guarantees our inheritance?” (Ephesians 1:13-14).

The doctrine of divine appropriations helps answer those questions. This doctrine asserts that God’s works in creation may terminate on a distinct divine person, not because God’s works are divided between the persons, but because God’s works are best represented by the personal characteristics of a distinct divine person. Dr. Keith L. Johnson of Reformed Theological Seminary explains that “actions performed by all three persons may be rightly attributed (or “appropriated”) to one divine person in order to reveal that person more fully.”

So, let’s summarize what this means: There is one God who exists in three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who act as a single agent in all of God’s works. The actions of God are not divided among the persons, nor do the persons simply affirm or cooperate with one another. They act as one. And yet, the actions of God may be uniquely attributed to one distinct divine person through the doctrine of divine appropriations.

Confused? Perhaps the Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine, can help. Professor Kyle Claunch has helpfully demonstrated two key principles in Augustine’s “On The Trinity” that govern the relationship between unity and distinction.
1) The unity of the one God within himself entails the inseparable operations of the three persons ad extra (external operations).
2) The distinction between the three persons within himself entails a noticeable distinction between the works of the three persons ad extra.

These two positions follow rather nicely our understanding of God’s Trinitarian nature:
He is one God. He is three persons.
His actions are one. His actions are distinct.

Now, I’ve said all of that to finally explain my concern with our current Trinitarian discourse. In our correct and noble desire to ensure the unity of God and his divine action, and in our zeal to avoid the potential dangers of a social Trinity construct, we are unnecessarily pitting the truthfulness of inseparable operations against the truthfulness of divine appropriations. To be certain, it is my belief that most congregations flirt with a form of tritheism, and the doctrine of inseparable operations is a key component to avoid such a heresy. But we must not suppress Trinitarian truth in order to highlight Trinitarian truth.

Perhaps a concrete example will help explain my concern. There have been many interactions on social media – especially Twitter – where a tweet describing the work of God has been scrutinized, at times using impatient and even ugly language, because the content of the tweet seemed to deny inseparable operations.

Just the other day, a Twitter user who I generally do not agree with posted a tweet describing Jesus as “crushed under the wrath of the Father in order to fulfill holy justice.” Immediately, this tweet began receiving replies such as “This is really terrible theology” and “Incredibly bad.” Using the two definitions I provided above, can you guess why this tweet was denigrated?

It’s because the author of the tweet said the Son was crushed under the “Father’s” wrath, but failed to say it was the Triune God’s wrath. In other words, the tweet did not adequately satisfy the doctrine of inseparable operations.

Let’s consider the content of the tweet. Is it true that God’s wrath is equally shared among all three persons of the Trinity so that it is the Triune God’s wrath that is poured out on the Son at the cross? Yes.

But is it also true that the wrath of the Father was poured out on the Son at the cross? Yes.

As a parallel, it is true that the Triune God sent the Son into the world to die for the sins of humanity. But it also true that the Father sent the Son into the world to die for the sins of humanity. Saying the latter does not deny the former.

Consider this. If we are going to attack this Twitter user, then we also are going to attack…

The great John Stott who said the wrath of God was “‘given’ by the Father (John 18:11) and voluntarily ‘taken’ by the Son.” Why didn’t he say “given by the Triune God and voluntarily taken by the Triune God?

Or the great D.A. Carson who said “this darkness can signal, somehow, only the absence of God, the Father’s judicial frown – even though this entire sacrifice is the Father’s indescribably wonderful plan.” Why didn’t he say the “Triune God’s judicial frown” and the “Triune God’s indescribably wonderful plan?”

Or the great Donald Macleod who said, “Public though the cry was, it expressed the intensely private anguish of a tension between the sin-bearing Son and his heavenly Father.” We could go on. You get my point.

Why am I concerned about this? I have two reasons:

First, I’m concerned for the sake of the church.
I’m a pastor and I tend to process interactions like this recent Twitter exchange through the lens of the local congregation. Although we want to encourage our churches to critically think about our faith and the things of God, we also do not want to create needless confusion on the most important issues. Nuancing, and even denying, the biblical truth that the Father crushed the Son is reckless for the health of the church. We will unintentionally create an environment where even the most dedicated follower of Jesus will feel inadequate and unsure of the most precious and beautiful doctrines of our faith. Oh what love! The Father sending the Son in order to crush the Son! Let’s not tongue-tie the mouths or minds of our congregations.

Second, I’m concerned about the existence of charity.
Although I have witnessed this kind of social media interaction many times over the last year or two, it is possible that some of these interactions are instigated by a distrust, or perhaps even dislike, of a fellow believer. We must guard our hearts against using the most glorious truths of God to enact revenge, or our own sense of justice, against another person.

Tomorrow night I am teaching a class on the Great Schism of 1054. I couldn’t help but be reminded how the West emphasized the unity of the Godhead while the East emphasized the distinctions of persons. That didn’t end so well. May the grace of God lead us forward for the cause of the risen Christ!