Some reflections on the church and the inseparable operations of the Trinity

I recall a period growing up in church during my teenage years. At that time, there was a lot of buzz over the phenomenon of speaking in tongues and the rise of charismatic churches. Even in school, I would hear of people talking about various charismatic experiences. Such experiences not only piqued the interest of other students, myself included, but also shaped the way we spoke about churches. Before we knew it, churches became characterized into two major groups – Word led and Spirit led.

Word led referred to churches that placed a heavy emphasis on expository preaching and bible study whereas a Spirit led church was one that exercised the fullness of God’s gifts including speaking in tongues and having a healing service amongst other things. Incidentally, the Word led churches also tended to take on a more traditional approach to worship whereas the Spirit led churches took on a more charismatic and seeker sensitive approach to worship. The polarity was obvious and before we knew it, we found ourselves taking the side of one camp and developing a sort of allergic reaction to the other camp. Of course, on hindsight many of us now recognise the false dichotomy. In fact, it seems common in present times to urge churches to be both Word and Spirit led. We realize the importance of having both and hence strive for a balance between the two.  However, in this article I want to suggest that perhaps we ought to rethink even our language of making the church Word and Spirit led. The uneasiness of such language stems from a concern that being Word or Spirit led is something the church decides to do rather than what the church actually is. The other concern is the underlying assumption inherent in such language, namely that the Word and Spirit can actually work apart from one another. In my limited experience in pastoral ministry, such ‘loose’ language often results from a deficient understanding of the Trinity as somehow acting independently of one another rather than inseparably. In so doing, it neglects the significance of the doctrine of inseparable operations.

The Inseparable Operations of the Trinity

What is the doctrine of inseparable operations? The doctrine of inseparable operations is a doctrine that has been held to by the church throughout history. Essentially the doctrine states that because there is only one divine will, there is therefore no separation of external works between the persons of the Trinity (opera Trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt). The external works of God would refer to all the actions in which the entire Godhead (Father, Son and Spirit) wills as part of the created order. What this means is that the works of the Trinity cannot be conceived as three individual persons each doing their own task independently of one another, but rather all three persons being involved in the same work of creation and redemption since they all share the same divine will.

This does not mean that there is no differentiation in the work of each person. For instance, we see in Ephesians 1 that to God the Father is attributed the role of adopting us as children. This is accomplished through the Son who takes on flesh and sheds his blood and the Holy Spirit who seals the promises of God in us through Jesus (Eph 1:3-14). So the doctrine of inseparable operations does not deny differentiation.

But what it does mean is that God’s work of redemption cannot not be spoken off in terms of individual isolated ‘projects’ that somehow came together to accomplish redemption. Or perhaps to put it differently, there can be no conception of God where only one person of the Trinity acts while the others sit idly by. As an early church Father by the name of Irenaeus reminds us, God the Father works with his two hands, the Son and Holy Spirit.

Applied to the church, we can confess that the formation and creation of the church is a Trinitarian event in so far as all three persons of the Trinity are involved. One such confession can be found in the Apostles’ Creed. In the Apostles’ Creed, one of the statements confessed is that “We believe in the holy catholic church.” This confession is seen in the third paragraph proceeding from the church’s belief in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The order of the church in such a position affirms our belief not just in the Trinity but also in the inseparability of God’s work of redemption through all three persons of the Trinity which eventually gives rise to the church.

While this doctrine may seem somewhat abstract, it does however carry with it practical implications for the way we think of church.

Practical Implications for the Church

Retrieving this important aspect of trinitarian theology sheds light on our modern problem of trying to make the church Word and Spirit led. In the first place, the doctrine of inseparable operations reminds us that the church is the result of God’s redemptive work. And since God’s redemptive work involves all three persons of the Trinity, the church cannot be anything less than Word and Spirit. As a church, we do not decide to become more Word or more Spirit led by running more bible classes or having more healing services. Rather by virtue of how the church is formed by the inseparable work of the Trinity, the church is always word and spirit. As God’s chosen people we are gathered by the Spirit as we encounter God’s Word to the praise of God the Father. The church is therefore always Spirit led because Christian gathering is never a movement derived purely from human decision and will but rather that of the Spirit who moves in us, bringing us together as we are reconciled through Christ to the praise and glory of the Father. At the same time, the church is also always Word led because without the redemption of Christ on the cross, there is no basis for gathering. The redemption procured by the Word brings reconciliation not just to God the Father and us, but also to our horizontal relationships. Just as Christ brings together the zealot and tax collector (Matt 10:4), so does he bring us together through his Spirit. Maintaining such a view of the church does not suggest that we can therefore make do without bible studies or even platforms to respond to the Spirit’s prompting. But what it means is that none of these activities are actually what makes the church Word and Spirit led. If anything, how the church is structured should be seen as an expression of what the church already is rather than a making of the church.

The second practical implication of the inseparable operations of the Trinity is that it dissolves any bifurcation that may exists between Word and Spirit. It is wrong to talk about the church as being either Word or Spirit led simply because neither Word nor Spirit operates independently from one another. There is no church that is Spirit led without it at the same time being Word led because the Spirit does not act in isolation from the Word. The same thing could be said of the Word. There is no church that is Word led without it at the same time being Spirit led because the Word does not act in isolation from the Spirit. We see this most clearly in John 16:13. The Spirit is the one who leads us to the truth which is Jesus himself. But at the same time, the study of the truth requires the Spirit to guide us.

Finally, the doctrine of inseparable operations reminds us that first and foremost the church worships a Trinitarian God. At times, when debates about Word led and Spirit led churches erupt, it can become easy to forget the Trinitarian nature of our faith. Yet, the Trinity has always remained a central distinctive of our Christian faith. Without it there is no salvation. As a church staff, there are times when I am concerned that in being so caught up with these contemporary debates, our Trinitarian faith takes a back seat. We profess it in theory but at times it seems to make little difference to the way we understand our faith, the church and the Christian life. Just as the liberal movement in the late 18th century saw a major revamping of Christian beliefs due to the irrelevance of certain Christian doctrines to the human mind, so too are we in danger of revamping our faith should we fail to see the relevance of the doctrine of the Trinity. As a church, we need to be all the more mindful about over emphasizing one person of the Trinity to the neglect of the other persons. While debates like the one mentioned in this post may come from a good place, we need to remember that more important than being a Word and Spirit church is for us to be a Trinitarian church.

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