Essay / The Third Person of the Trinity

Filioque and Divine Missions

Adonis Vidu is Professor of Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He contributed chapter two to the new collection of essays on pneumatology that Oliver Crisp and I edited, The Third Person of the Trinity: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics.

I knew that Adonis’ chapter, “Filioque and the Order of the Divine Missions,” tracked closely with recent work he’s been doing, so I asked him to connect a few dots for us in this blog interview. He doesn’t mention it here, but let me tell you that you will definitely want to watch for his book on the inseparable operations of the Trinity, coming in March 2021 from Eerdmans. Required reading early next year!

1. What’s your chapter in The Third Person of the Trinity about?

I write about the relationship between the procession of the Spirit filioque (and from the Son) and the order of the two divine missions. Specifically, I defend the traditional ordering of the Spirit’s mission after the Son’s. This assumes disentangling the notion of a mission from that of operation. An operation is a production of effects; a mission, on the other hand, is a union between a divine person and some created reality – a hypostatic union in the case of the Son, and a permanent indwelling in the case of the Holy Spirit. A common error is to think a mission is simply an operation. But this downplays the uniqueness of both the incarnation, and of the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit. Once all of these things are granted, it becomes intelligible why the Spirit’s mission should be ordered to the Son’s.

I deal with three objections against the priority of the Son’s mission. The distinction I make between operation and mission helps me respond to all of them. The objections are as follows: the Son’s mission is not the first, since (a) there is a presence of the Holy Spirit in Old Testament saints; (b) the Spirit works outside of the bounds of Christianity, inclusively through other religious traditions; (c) the Spirit is the agent in Christ’s virginal conception. For all these reasons, it is argued, the Spirit comes first.

However, the distinction between mission and operation helps me argue the following: (a) the Spirit’s presence in Old Testament saints is in the order of operation, and not of an abiding presence, still expected; (b) the Spirit is present outside the boundaries of a confession of Christ, but again in terms of effects he brings about (common grace, etc.), and not in terms of an indwelling. I would argue that the Spirit may work through other religions, philosophy, science, etc., but the category of indwelling is reserved for those confessing Christ; finally (c) I argue that the Spirit’s work in the conception of Christ may not be understood as a mission, since (given enhypostasia) there is no created substance to which he could be united. What actuates the human nature of Christ, so to speak, is the union with the Son, and thus the Son’s mission. Once there is a human nature hypostatically united to the Son, the Spirit can and does indwell it. 

2. How does this chapter fit into your teaching or your writing?

I have been writing a short introductory book on the doctrine of the divine missions (The Divine Missions: An Introduction,Cascade/Wipf & Stock, forthcoming). Protestants, I discovered, have unfortunately tended to de-emphasize this tradition of thinking of the trinity in terms of processions-missions. Much recent trinitarian theology in the Evangelical or Protestant tradition more generally has been trying to remedy this neglect. I would hope this short introduction would stimulate even more conversation about the divine missions. In terms of my teaching theology, I have organized much of my theology around the category of missions. We have two systematic theology courses in our sequence at Gordon-Conwell. I have arranged the first one around the idea of exitus – God and the procession of creatures from God. This stretches from the doctrine of God, through creation, providence, anthropology and ends with the fall. I have organized the second around the notion of reditus, the return of creatures to God, through the divine missions. Christology, pneumatology, soteriology, ecclesiology are all about the missions. Most rewarding, however, is to think of eschatology in terms of the fruition of the missions.   

3. Where did the idea for this particular essay come from?

It was the natural thing to write about, given the theme of the conference, and given the kinds of theological problems I have been wrestling with. I think I am also responding to two contemporary pressures that I find problematic: a Spirit Christology inattentive to trinitarian missions, and the idea of an independent mission of the Spirit in other religions.

4. What’s the next thing you’re working on, or looking forward to working on?

My next book-length project is a book on the trinity and experience. It flows directly out of reflecting on the invisible missions. I’d like to develop the insight that, since knowledge of the trinity is only possible through the sending of the Son and Spirit, and these missions are inward and invisible, that this knowledge is ultimately not (exclusively?) of a discursive, objectifying kind, but rather “self-involving”, the kind of knowledge where the dualism of subject-object is in the process of mending. I would like to show how the knowledge of the Trinity is related to affective and moral change, particularly in faith, hope and love. My conversation partners are primarily mystics and spiritual theologians. In many ways this project has been inspired by your The Deep Things of God, where you tease out the implicit trinitarianism of popular Evangelical confession and you make the trinity accessible. I am trying to reflect on a way of knowing the trinity that takes place primarily through prayer and contemplation and to show how the doctrine is not just a theoretical construct, but eminently an experiential doctrine! 

5. A bonus question not related to this book chapter: What’s the most stimulating thing you’ve read lately in theology?

Inevitably, Sonderegger, but that is sort of taken for granted. Simeon Zahl’s book on The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience has been extremely rewarding and eye-opening. Sarah Coakley’s God, Sexuality, and the Self is also extremely stimulating. 

For more sneak-peeks of The Third Person of the Trinity, check out our other interviews. You can pick up a copy of the book here.

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