Essay / Theology

The Economic Trinity Communicates the Immanent Trinity

When Kevin Vanhoozer intervenes in the recent discussion of the doctrine of God, he does so by making several strategic moves. But the move behind them all is his insistence that we’ve got to get the doctrine of the Trinity right. And “getting it right” means describing the relationship between the economic and immanent Trinity properly. How does the eternal triunity of God relate to his triunity among us in the history of salvation?

Vanhoozer makes use of his key category, communication, and announces that “The economic Trinity is, or rather communicates, the immanent Trinity.” (p. 294). A move like that is of course dear to my heart, because it agrees almost perfectly with decisions I made in my first academic book.

But Vanhoozer doesn’t just announce the right answer and then move along. He also understands the kind of descriptive dogmatic work necessary to continue upholding the priority of the immanent Trinity. In one of the richest sections of the book, he dares to describe the inner life of God, on the basis of the revelation in the economy. “We begin, then, with a brief description of the inner life of the triune God –the eternal doings of Father, Son, and Spirit –to the extent that it can be discerned from the communicative patterns that comprise the economy.” (p. 243) He goes on to say that we

come closest to understanding God’s inner life by attending to the intra-Trinitarian communicative action in the economy, particularly the dialogical interaction between the Father and Son that is on conspicuous display in the Fourth Gospel. There are three main topics in these Father-Son dialogues: mutual glorification; the giving of life; the sharing of love.

A series of sections on the divine light, life, and love are an exploration of how the life of God is a rich and full thing, an inner plenitude which far outstrips our experience. And this is where Vanhoozer makes it clear that his project (“remythologizing theology”) aims at understanding the story of Scripture as a real revelation of who God is:

Because the way God is in the economy of corresponds to the way God is in himself, we may conclude that the Father, Son, and Spirit are merely continuing in history a communicative activity that characterizes their perfect life together…Hence this triune dialogue in history fully corresponds to the conversation God is in himself. (p. 251)

Vanhoozer goes on, describing the Trinity even more fully in terms of his root metaphor, communication: “God is the communicator, communication, and communicatedness. The triune God is the agent, act, and effect of his own self-communication.” (p. 261)

In other words, as the book works out its logic, we no longer have simply a voice from heaven to account for, but a voice in heaven; an eternal communication about life, love, and light, which breaks through and makes itself heard on the mount of transfiguration in a moment of revealed life, light, and love.

If Bishop John A.T. Robinson was worried about mythology in modern theology, things are far worse than he imagined, because as far as biblical commitments go, everything is much better than we imagined. And Vanhoozer fights mostly not with Robinson, but with the far more formidable Feuerbach. And on Feuerbach he turns the tables: “Projection is first and foremost a divine communicative activity. Jesus Christ is the God-projected word and image of God into the created order.” (p. 271)

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