The Same God Who Works All Things: Inseparable Operations in Trinitarian Theology
By Adonis Vidu
368 pages (hardback), $50.00
Adonis Vidu endeavors to offer a fully orbed definition and defense of the inseparable operations of the Triune God. The doctrine of inseparable operations has been a steadfast rule in Trinitarian theology since the patristic period with the rejection of Arianism, most famously expressed in Augustine’s dictum that opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa: all external works of the Trinity are indivisible. The center of this doctrine is a commitment to the unity and oneness of God in his tri-unity. However, the idea of inseparable operations has been challenged and revised in twentieth-century academic theology, especially with the position known as Social Trinitarianism, which, stated simply, posits each divine person as an independent center of will and consciousness. Vidu’s work calls the church to avoid the errors of tritheism and modalism and preserve the catholic confession that we “worship the Trinity in unity and unity in Trinity.”
Vidu is not content with a partial presentation or defense of inseparable operations, but he seeks to demonstrate the multiple aspects of the doctrine across theological disciplines. He begins with biblical, historical, and philosophic theological explorations of the formulation of the doctrine before engaging in a thorough dogmatic theology of how the understanding of the inseparability of the Triune operations illuminates the doctrines of creation, the incarnation, the atonement, and the Holy Spirit’s indwelling believers.
This work is a masterful model for Trinitarian dogmatics that blends exegetical sensitivity, interactions with Christian theologians from across the millennia, and a rigorous argumentation that, nevertheless, never relinquishes the proper humility, reverence, and awe due to God. Given Vidu’s depth and breadth of treatment, however, this work will only be of real profit to those already well-versed in the theology of the Trinity; it is not an introduction but an advanced and technical study. That being said, The Same God who Works all Things offers several points that will benefit every believer to help us understand God’s work in the world: the biblical basis for the unified acts of God, the incarnation in Trinitarian perspective, and the atonement as a Triune work. Let us begin by defining what is meant by inseparable operations more thoroughly.
The doctrine of inseparable operations is fundamentally a grammatical rule for our speech about God. As such, it aids to speak rightly about his actions, doing justice to both his substantial unity and tri-personality. The Father, Son, and Spirit are eternally three, distinguished only by the Trinitarian eternal processions—the un-begotten Father begets the Son, and the Father and the Son spirate the Holy Spirit—yet, the three persons are one in substance as God with one shared will, power, glory, majesty, and so on. Because of this divine unity of substance, the Triune persons do not act singularly toward the creation but act by “one will, one power, one energy” (52), which Vidu offers as shorthand for the inseparable operations. He clarifies,
The only attributes that are properly to be attributed to the persons are relational attributes, such as being unbegotten, begotten, inspirated. This rule must be strictly observed if one wishes to retain the unity of the divine substance. (68)
The danger in not observing this rule is that it gives the impression that the external works of God may be divvied up among the persons—e.g., the Father creates, the Son saves, and the Spirit perfects—as if the persons may be separated. On the other hand, observing this rule does not mean that the definite external acts of God cannot be attributed to individual persons of the Trinity. That the Father creates or the Son saves are true, for example, but are true according to what theologians call “appropriation,” which Vidu helpfully defines as “even though the created effect is commonly caused by the whole Trinity, it nevertheless refers back in particular to a single person” (282–83). Ultimately, to speak of the singular work of the one God that at the same time illuminates the tri-unity of God is a confession of the mystery and transcendence of God.
Basic Trinitarian concepts cannot be directly explained and fully defined. The darkness of ignorance necessarily envelops them. In this case theological progress takes the form of gradual purification of our speech about God, by stipulating grammatical rules rather than shining the light of comprehension on transcendent realities. (95)
Vidu establishes the biblical basis for inseparable operations by engaging with contemporary studies in New Testament Christology. The key is to show that the New Testament ascribes the same acts to the Father, Son, and Spirit to identify each as YHWH, the Creator of the heavens and the earth and the covenant God of Israel. The most significant and telling act to identify God is creation itself, since “the action of creation firmly establishes the ontological distinction between God and everything else: Only God creates, without any help” (50). In short, there are only two types of beings: God who is eternal, uncreated, and infinite; and that which he creates, which is temporal, contingent, and finite. The New Testament attributes to Christ the act of creation throughout. Since Jesus is the creator, Jesus is God. The inseparability of the identity of Jesus and YHWH thus reveals the inseparability of the Father and the Son as YHWH. Likewise, the inseparability of work of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son must be established. Vidu traces the connection of the Spirit from Jesus’ birth, his ministry, his death, and resurrection, and then focuses on the continued relationship of the Spirit as the Spirit of the Ascended Christ. Christ both works through the Spirit and, after the ascension, the Spirit as sent works together with and through Christ. Thus the New Testament witness shows us the true revelation of God’s self through the mission of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, while avoiding any division in God or subordination.
The doctrine of the inseparability of divine action—all actions of God toward creation are the work of the Triune God rather than any one person—raises an immediate and pressing theological objection: How does such a picture account for the incarnation of the Son alone? This is a perennial question in the history of Christian Trinitarian reflection. Building on the work of Augustine and Aquinas, Vidu observes a distinction between an act and a state. An act is an intentional event that produces change in the world, while a state is an arrangement of properties and relations in the world. Vidu provides the helpful analogy of dressing (action) and being clothed (state) (160–61). Thus, from this perspective, we can understand the assuming of the human nature of Christ as both an act of the Triune God’s single will and power, while acknowledging that it was the Son alone who took the state of being incarnate. As Vidu summarizes:
From an action perspective the agency in the case of the incarnation-assumption belongs to the Trinity as a whole. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are together causing the assumption. . . . However, from a state perspective it is said that the action terminates in the Son, namely that the action results in a state that characterizes the Son alone. (162)
What is the significance of framing the incarnation according to inseparable operations? First, and most obviously, this allows us a way of speaking about the actions of God in Christ that account for God’s tri-unity. Statements of Jesus such as John 5:19 become intelligible, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” Additionally, as Vidu notes at several places, speaking of the Son’s incarnation according to the inseparably operations of the Triune God helps us to avoid any sense of mythologizing or subordinationism in the incarnation. Jesus is no one less than the transcendent God in flesh. There is no dispute, debate, conflict, tension, and so on between the Father and the Son in the incarnation, nor was the Son ordered to come as some sort of inferior. Rather, the assuming of our flesh was according to the one will and power of the Father, Son, and Spirit in the perfect unity of the divine nature. This is particularly helpful as we think of Christ’s atonement on the cross. The whole Triune God wills and accomplishes our salvation through the humanity of the Son. And importantly, the wrath that is borne is not the Father’s alone but that of the Father, Son, and Spirit. In suffering on the cross, Christ is not swaying a reluctant father, but accomplishing the work of redemption according to the unified will and power of the Triune God.
The doctrine of the Trinity is about nothing less than the identity of the God whom we worship and who saves us and draws us to himself. The Christian church comes to the confession of the Triune God not in the spirit of pride and needless speculation but in humble reception of who God has revealed himself to be through the missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit to the glory of the Father. As Vidu reminds us, “Humanity is created for union with the Trinity precisely in the person of the Son, whom the Father loves in the Spirit” (157).
K. J. Drake (PhD, Saint Louis University) is Sessional Assistant Professor of History at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ontario. He is the author of The Flesh of the Word: The Extra Calvinisticum from Zwingli to Early Orthodoxy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).