In my past few posts, I have attempted to show how the doctrine of the trinity is one that is based on the Bible and is not a man-made notion. I have also attempted to take these huge theological concepts and make them more accessible for the average Christian.
In this final post within this series, I want to look at a doctrine called “Inseparable Operation.” This theological position has had a significant amount of debate and even Augustine talks about and wrestles with this belief. It is far beyond my ability within this post to write extensively on this theology, but I believe it is an important one because it solidifies the fact that God is one. One of the problems that theologians have is this doctrine makes the three persons of the trinity difficult to distinguish at times and may move some towards modalism, something I fully reject.
What is Inseparable Operations?
In a 2013 article written for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Kyle Claunch writes:
The doctrine of the inseparable operations of the Trinity ad extra contends that all of the works of the Triune God with respect to the creation are works of all three persons of the Godhead.
In other words, any time we see God working within the creation it is all three persons of the trinity at work. This gets back to our discussion in my last post on the term “person” and the notion that we should not attempt to make God into three separate beings. Rather, God is One. Augustine attempts to give an example of how we might understand the trinity and how the three persons cannot be separated by comparing the nature of God to our own mind, love of mind, and knowledge of the mind.
“The Three are One, and Also Equal, Viz. The Mind Itself, and the Love, and the Knowledge of It. That the Same Three Exist Substantially, and are Predicated Relatively. That the Same Three are Inseparable. That the Same Three are Not Joined and Commingled Like Parts, But that They are of One Essence, and are Relatives.” [note]Schaff, Philip, ed., St. Augustin: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, & Moral Treatises. NPNF III. Accordance electronic edition, version 2.8. 14 vols. New York: Christian Literature Publishing, 1886.[/note]
Augustine is saying that although our mind, knowledge of our mind, and love of one’s own mind are totally equal in nature, they are separate things, yet it is impossible to separate one from the other. Although any analogy we come up with in an attempt to describe God will fail, Augustine’s point is an interesting one.
Inseparable Operations of God
One need not search far to find Scripture to support the fact that God is one (Deut. 6:4, Zech. 14:9, Rom. 3:30, etc.). God reveals Himself throughout time and before Jesus comes in the form of a servant by giving up many of infinite attributes (Phil. 2:7) the distinction of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while still present, is more difficult to distinguish. For instance, when YHVH meets Abraham at his tent door in Gen. 18 are we seeing a pre-incarnate Jesus, the Father in the form of man, or the Holy Spirit? The answer is “yes.” We are seeing God at the tent door with Abraham.
This becomes a bit trickier when we get into some New Testament texts. The doctrine of inseparable operations does not say that there is no distinctness within the persons of the trinity. Certainly, there is, but the doctrine claims that all of God is active within each action. For instance, we cannot say the Father was baptized in the Jordan River. This was performed by Jesus, however, all three persons of the trinity are active within the baptism. Jesus is baptized by John, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and the Father speaks proclaiming Jesus to be His Son (Matt. 3:16ff, Mark 1:10ff, Luke 3:22ff, John 1:32ff).
It is incorrect to say that the Father died on the cross. Yet, all three persons of the trinity were active within this work. The Son was crucified on the cross, the Father poured out His wrath on the Son, and the Spirit was the love between Father and Son. The obedience and love of the Son to the Father and the joy of the Father for the Son is due to the working of the Holy Spirit who is love, and is the love between Father and Son.[note]Jonathan Edwards wrote a wonderful 10 page essay on the work of the Spirit in the Trinity which you can find by Clicking Here [/note]
Inseparable Operations and Salvation
One of the reasons I have come to believe so strongly in the doctrine of the Trinity is because of the way God saves us. The one God is infinitely holy and, therefore, cannot dwell with anything that is unholy. Sin is what makes us unholy. God is also love, and the infinite love He has for us is shown by the fact that He was willing to lower Himself to come as “one of the creatures from the dirt” (as R.C. Sproul used to say) and be put through horrific, unjust punishment so that we could dwell with Him.
But sin still infects our minds. We are unwilling and unable to turn to the Almighty God unless He first changes our hearts. This is done by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. R.C. Sproul famously said, “we are saved from God, by God, through God.” The doctrine of the trinity is necessary so that we are able to come to saving faith that will bring us back into communion with our Lord.
Certainly, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work in distinct roles to accomplish different things. This, however, should not be understood to mean that God is three separate entities. Every single work that is done by God is done by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in some way.
I once said to my father, “we see the Holy Spirit show up in the burning bush…” my father stopped me and said, “no, you cannot separate God like that. In the burning bush, we see God! Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This is the doctrine of inseparable operations and affirms there is only one God.
I hope this series has helped you better understand what the Bible says about who God is and how He works in our lives and how He has saved His elect.
Cover Photo by @life-of-pix