Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Economic Trinity

From the November 2010 E-Block.

In the final 2009 issue of the Christian Research Journal, a re-evaluation was offered of the teachings of the “Local Church” (LC) in which it was determined that CRI had been in error in previously denouncing this group as a cult. One particular issue on which corrections were offered was an evaluation of the LC’s doctrine of the Trinity. The LC had been accused of the heresy of modalism in the past, but CRI determined that rather than being expressions of modalism, various statements by the LC were rather expressions of a completely orthodox notion termed the “economic Trinity” – having to do with the unity of the members of the Trinity in function, as opposed to identity.

One example of these statements is:

The Son is the Father, and the Son is also the Spirit…

The reader will find more such statements in the story, in the issue found here.

It will not be the purpose of this article to address CRI’s evaluation of the LC, which I see no reason to dispute – so that neither CRI nor LC will be referenced again in this article. Rather, we will ask the question, not of whether this concept of an “economic Trinity” is orthodox (for it certainly is), but whether it offers the best explanation for certain NT passages from which the concept is derived. Based on my prior studies in pre-Christian Jewish Wisdom theology, and the anthropology of the social world of the NT, I do not perceive the “economic Trinity” to be a particularly useful way to explain certain NT passages under consideration. (Of course, some of the same passages have also been used by modalists, so our evaluation serves to correct that idea as well.)
Let us now look at some of those passages and how they might otherwise be interpreted.

Isaiah 9:6

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

It isn’t hard to see what the argument here would be: Since this is seen as a prophecy of Jesus, it is assumed that there is some equation of identity with the “everlasting Father.”

But there are several problems with this reading, whether it is used in an orthodox sense for an “economic Trinity” or in the heretical modalist sense. The main problem is that “father” was not a title for Yahweh in Isaiah’s time. Since there is no biological component involved, readers of Isaiah’s day would have understood this terminology in terms of group identity, as in this verse: Gen. 4:21 And his brother's name [was] Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ.

We are not justified in reading NT-era usage of the word “father” into Isaiah’s text. The notion of group identity is, however, quite pertinent, in terms of Jesus Christ as the “father” of the Body of Christ and would suit the passage much better.

John 14:8-9

Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us. Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou [then], Shew us the Father?

Under the rubric of Wisdom theology, this passage is provided a much less contrived explanation than the concept of the economic Trinity. Wisdom (Jesus) is referred to in Hebrews 1:3 as the brightness of the Father’s glory – analogically, the “light” to the Father’s “bulb”. This context fully establishes how, in Jesus, the Father is “seen”, without resorting to the expedient of saying (in whatever sense) that Father and Son are identical.

2 Corinthians 3:17

Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord [is], there [is] liberty.

Simply put, it is said that the “Spirit” here must be the Holy Spirit; this in spite of the fact that the word “Holy” is not used. Similar logic is used of 1 Cor. 15:45.

However, as I have said in Defending the Resurrection regarding that latter verse:

Put another way, "spirit" should be read here in terms of a "spirit of fear" or a "spirit of peace" -- referring to a functional influence, not a ghost. Jesus’ description as a life-giving spirit “relates directly to the raising of the bodies of deceased Christians.” One can see in this a contrast between Adam, who needed God’s breath (pneuma) to be made alive, and Jesus the last Adam, who is also to give life as an influence (pneuma).

2 Cor. 3:17 should be read in the same way. There is no need to resort to the “economic Trinity” to explain it.

And that is all I can find for now. I must conclude that there is thus far no reason to resort to the “economic Trinity” as an explanation for these passages. The view may be orthodox, but it is not in any way warranted by exegesis.

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