The Ontological and Economic Trinity
The Trinity is the Christian teaching that God consists of three simultaneous, eternal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each of the three persons are equal in their attributes and nature, but differ in how they relate to the world and to each other. When we say they are equal in nature and attributes, we are speaking of what is called the Ontological Trinity (ontology - study of being and essence). Each of the three persons in the Godhead are divine, have equal attributes (omniscience, omnipresence, holiness, etc.).
When we speak of how they relate to each other and the world, we are speaking of the Economic Trinity (economic - from the Greek oikonomikos which means relating to arrangement of a activities). To be overly simplistic, we could say that the Ontological Trinity deals with what God is and the Economic Trinity deals with what God does.
Within Christianity there is no debate on the Ontological Trinity. It is universally accepted as true that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each divine, holy, unchanging, etc.
The Economic Trinity
As stated above, the Economic Trinity deals with how the three persons in the Godhead relate to each other and the world. Each has different roles within the Godhead and each has different roles in relationship to the world (some roles overlap). The Father-and-Son is an inter-trinitarian relationship since it is eternal (more on this below). The Father sent the Son (1 John 4:10), the Son came down from heaven not to do his own will but the will of the Father (John 6:38). For a single verse that shows differences in roles, see 1 Pet. 1:2, "According to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood," You can see that the Father foreknows. The Son became man and sacrificed himself. The Holy Spirit sanctifies the church. That is simple enough, but before we discuss this further, let's look at some of the verses that support the difference of roles among the three persons of the Trinity.
- The Father sent the Son. The Son did not send the Father. (John 6:44; 8:18; 10:36; 1 John 4:14)
- John 5:37, “And the Father who sent Me, He has borne witness of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form."
- Jesus came down from heaven, not to do his own will, but the will of the Father.
- John 6:38, "For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me."
- Jesus performed the redemptive work. The Father did not.
- 2 Cor. 5:21, "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."
- 1 Pet. 2:24, "and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed."
- Jesus is the only begotten. The Father is not.
- John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life."
- The Father gave the Son. The Son did not give the Father or the Holy Spirit.
- John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life."
- The Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not send the Father and the Son.
- John 14:26, "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things..."
- John 15:26, "When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father..."
- The Father has given the elect to the Son. Scripture does not say that the Father gave the elect to the Holy Spirit.
- John 6:39, “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day."
- The Father chose us before the foundation of the world. No indication that the Son or the Holy Spirit chose us.
- Eph. 1:4, "just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him..."
- The Father predestined us to adoption according to the intention of his will. This is not said of the Son or the Holy Spirit.
- Eph. 1:5, "He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will."
- We have redemption through Jesus' blood, not the blood of the Father or the Holy Spirit.
- Eph. 1:7, "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace."
Let's summarize. We can see that the Father sent the Son (John 6:44; 8:18). The Son came down from heaven not to do his own will (John 6:38). The Father gave the Son (John 3:16), who is the only begotten (John 3:16), to perform the redemptive work (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24). The Father and Son sent the Holy Spirit. The Father, who chose us before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), predestined us (Eph. 1:5; Rom. 8:29), and gave the elect to the Son (John 6:39).
It was not the Son who sent the Father. The Father was not sent to do the will of the Son. The Son did not give the Father, nor was the Father called the only begotten. The Father did not perform the redemptive work. The Holy Spirit did not send the Father and Son. It is not said that the Son or the Holy Spirit chose us, predestined us, and gave us to the Father.
Furthermore, the Father calls Jesus the Son (John 9:35), not the other way around. Jesus is called the Son of Man (Matt. 24:27); the Father is not. Jesus is called the Son of God (Mark 1:1; Luke 1:35); the Father is not called the Son of God. Jesus will sit on the right hand of God (Mark 14:62; Acts 7:56); the Father does not sit on the right hand of the Son. The Father appointed the Son as heir of all things (Heb. 1:1), not the other way around. The Father has fixed the time of the restoring of the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:7), the Son didn't. The Holy Spirit gives gifts to the Church (1 Cor. 12:8-11) and produces fruit (Gal. 5:22-23). These are not said of the Father and Son.
So, clearly we see differences in function and roles. The Father sends, directs, and predestines. The Son does the will of the Father, becomes flesh, and accomplishes redemption. The Holy Spirit indwells and sanctifies the Church.
Without these distinctions there can't be any distinctions between the persons of the Trinity and if there are no distinctions, there is no Trinity.
God does not change
God says, "For I, the Lord, do not change," (Mal. 3:6). This means that the nature of God is the same from all eternity. Since God is a Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), then God has been a Trinity forever. The Father has always been the Father. The Son has always been the Son. The Holy Spirit has always been the Holy Spirit. This means that the roles expressed by the Father, but not the Son, have always been roles of the Father and not the Son. Likewise, the roles of the Son have always belonged to him and not the Father. And, of course, the roles of the Holy Spirit are not the same roles of the Father or the Son. Remember, we are speaking of roles and function (Economic Trinity), not nature and attributes (Ontological Trinity). Since they have different roles, then the way they relate to each other is also eternal and unchangeable.
Again, without a distinction in rolls in persons within the Trinity, there would be no Trinity.
Definitions are incredibly important when discussing theology. This is no exception. Throughout the Christian church there has been an error called subordinationism and, unfortunately, some have confused it with the Economic Trinity. Subordinationism is a heresy concerning the Father and Son, though sometimes the Holy Spirit is included in the discussion. The error has different forms, but it is primarily the teaching that the Son is not eternal and divine (Arian Subordinationism), and is, therefore, not equal to the Father in being and attributes. This is, of course, wrong and it is in contrast to the Economic Trinity which does not deny the equality of nature and attributes.
The misunderstanding often arises from failing to realize that having different roles does not mean a difference in nature. A husband and a wife have different roles in the family (she bears children, he does not, she is the mother, he is the father, etc.), but the fact that they have different roles does not mean they are different in nature. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have different roles, but are all equal in nature and attributes.
Since we see different roles within the Trinity, does this signify a subordination among the three persons? The clear answer seems to be yes. But remember, affirming this is not the same as advocating the heresy of subordinationism. We can say that there is a subordination of the Son to the Father in role (as a father-son relationship would naturally have), but we also say that subordinationism (difference in nature) is wrong. Again, John 6:38, "For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me." From this verse we can conclude, at least, that the Son voluntarily subjected himself to the will of the Father and is doing the Father's will.
Still, some do not like the idea of any type of subjection among the persons in the Trinity. But, as is said above, if there is no difference in roles among them, there can be no distinction between them. It is only by recognizing and accepting the difference of roles that we can acknowledge the Trinity at all.
Jesus is subjected to the Father.
"For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, 'All things are put in subjection,' it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. 28 And when all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, that God may be all in all," (1 Cor. 15:27-28).
The word for "subjection" and "subjected" in these two verses comes from the Greek hupotasso which occurs 43 times in the New Testament and is rendered as put (5 times), subject (16 times), subjected (7) times, subjecting (1 time), subjection (9 times), submissive (3 times), and submit (2 times).1 For a complete list of each occurrence of the word 'hupotasso' so you can see the different senses in which it is used, see All New Testament Verses Listed using the word "Hupotasso", "subject".
So, we see that 1 Cor. 15:27 speaks of creation being in subjection to Jesus and then in verse 28, Jesus will be subjected to the Father. The Greek word-form for "will be subjected" is 'hupotagasetai' which is the future, passive, indicative. This means that it is a future event where Jesus will be subjected to the Father.
"When this is finally accomplished, Christ will bow the knee to God the Father so that God may be all in all. In so short a passage Paul has traced paradise lost and regained, and the recovery of the submission of all things to God as in the beginning of creation. And it is Christ’s resurrection that guarantees this."2
"Son … himself … subject—not as the creatures are, but as a Son voluntarily subordinate to, though co-equal with, the Father. In the mediatorial kingdom, the Son had been, in a manner, distinct from the Father. Now, His kingdom shall merge in the Father’s, with whom He is one; not that there is thus any derogation from His honor; for the Father Himself wills “that all should honor the Son, as they honor the Father” (Jn 5:22, 23; Heb 1:6). God … all in all—as Christ is all in all (Col 3:11; compare Zec 14:9). Then, and not till then, “all things,” without the least infringement of the divine prerogative, shall be subject to the Son, and the Son subordinate to the Father, while co-equally sharing His glory."3
"In an article in the Westminster Theological Journal, Michael Bauman discusses the different kinds of subordinationism during the Arian controversy. 13 He draws a distinction between what he calls emphatic and economic subordination. The Arian heresy taught emphatic subordination which entails inequality of nature and being. Arians asserted that "a natural inequality existed between the Persons of the Trinity by virtue of their essential differentiation and the temporal derivative character of the Second and Third." This is heretical because it is a subordination of essence or nature. Economic subordination, adopted by the Council of Nicea, means that while all three divine Persons are identical in essence, the Son is economically subordinate to the Father with respect to his eternal mission and function. The Son is no less than the Father, but has voluntarily submitted himself to the will of the Father."4
- There is only one will with God. If the Father sent the Son and the Son did not come to do his own will, then is the Son subordinate in that role to the Father? If so, isn't this a resurrection of the heresy of subordinationism?
- This objection fails to recognize the difference between the heresy of subordinationism which teaches a difference in nature among the persons of the Trinity and and subordination which teaches a subordination or roles within the Trinity.
- Doesn't the difference of role mean that the Father commands and the Son obeys? But if this is so, how can the Trinity be of one will?
- By definition, each person of the Trinity must have his own will, otherwise, they are not persons. The question would then be how does each will relate to the other within the Trinity? The Scriptures don't tell us that the Son obeyed the Father. We are told that Jesus came down from heaven not to do his own will, but the will of the Father who sent him (John 6:38). It would seem that we could conclude that the Father and the Son either did not have the same will, and/or that the Son voluntarily subjected himself to accomplish the will of the Father. Either way, the members of the Trinity work in perfect harmony in spite of there being three persons.
- If the Trinity is of one will, how can there be a distinction of wills between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- The question may not be valid. God is a Trinity of three persons and by necessity, each person must have his own will. The Bible does not explain how this inter-Trinitarian relationship of three persons works in order to accomplish the will of the single God. But we see no logical necessity that says the distinction of wills means that the Trinity cannot act with one will.
- If the Son came down to do the Father's will and not his own (John 6:38), then does that not imply there are different wills? But, how can that be since God can only have one will?
- It would seem that John 6:38 does imply that the father and the son had different wills. We would expect this to be so since the father is not the same person as the son and each person, by definition must have his own will.
- Since God is a Trinity of persons, where does it say in Scripture that God (implying a single person), can only have one will?
1. New American Standard Bible : 1995 update. 1995 (1 Co 15:28-31). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation. Taken from search results.
2. Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (1 Co 15:20). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.
3. Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., Fausset, A. R., Brown, D., & Brown, D. (1997). A commentary, critical and explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments. On spine: Critical and explanatory commentary. (1 Co 15:28). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
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