How the Doctrine of Inseparable Operations Unlocks the Gospel

Few doctrines are as perplexing as the inseparable operations of the Trinity, or as close to the heart of the gospel. The doctrine teaches that all three persons of the Holy Trinity are at work in every action outside of the Trinity’s life. Misunderstanding this doctrine leads to a distortion of Scripture and a caricature of God’s saving work.

This doctrine provides the primary biblical support for the doctrine of the Trinity. Without proper attention to it, our understanding of salvation degenerates into mythology.

Inseparable Operations in Scripture

The primary and fundamental argument for the divinity of Christ is that he undertakes divine activities. Jesus does only the kinds of things God does. He does precisely those activities by which the God identifies himself.

God identifies himself in relation to Israel. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God who rescued his people from Egypt, gave them his law, and provided for them in the wilderness. He is the God who will ultimately return to his temple.

Paul includes Christ in the Shema (1 Cor. 8:4; Deut. 6:4), a text that was central to the daily prayer life of Jews and to Israel’s relationship to God. He thus focused monotheism on Jesus Christ. The apostle understood that, in Christ, God has returned to Israel (2 Cor. 3–4; 5:18, 19).

Isaiah’s anticipation—that “every knee shall bow” (Isa. 45:23) before the returned YHWH (cf. Isa. 40–55)—is fulfilled in the exaltation of Christ (Phil. 2:10–11). Both Christ and the Spirit are described in language used for the expected return of YHWH. He is the divine Shekinah, returned to dwell among the people (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:18–20, 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:19–22; Rom. 8:9–11).

While the synoptic Gospels do not primarily identify Christ with the returned YHWH (except, perhaps Matthew 3:3, echoing Isaiah 40:3), they tend to ascribe to him specifically covenantal activities, such as forgiving sins (Matt. 9:5–6, Mark 2:1–12) and ruling over the Sabbath (Matt. 12). The naming of Christ as kyrios is significant, particularly in Mark and Luke. The New Testament, then, appears to ascribe to Christ precisely the covenantal type of activities that are understood as God’s, including the much-expected return of God to his people, Israel.

Further, Christ is ascribed with unique, divine acts of creation. Such an ascription is implied in Jesus’s miracles, such as the calming of the storm (Mark 4:35–41; Matt. 8:23–27; Luke 8:22–25), when witnesses begin to make connections to the God who stills the sea (Ps. 106:9).

The implications are inescapable: Christ is not another agent alongside the Father, which would imply the Gnostic idea that the Father himself is not Creator. Rather, Christ and the Father share the same agency, and thus the same operations.

The implications are inescapable: Christ is not another agent alongside the Father, which would imply the Gnostic idea that the Father himself is not Creator.

John articulates a particular order to these operations: they flow from the Father, through the Son, and then in the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ affirms that he can only do what he sees the Father doing. This occurs in a passage (John 5) in which his agency merges with the Father’s, while keeping the Father as its source (5:19). Christ receives all his works from the Father, who also is working (John 5:17; 14:10).

The heart of the gospel, then, is contained in the teaching about these inseparable operations. If Christ is not the same agent as the Father, then YHWH has not truly returned to Israel, the world is not reconciled to God, and the Father remains essentially uninvolved with creation and its ultimate negation. We can further unpack these statements by imagining what would have to change about the gospel if Christ and the Spirit did not act inseparably with the Father.

Separable Gospel

If Christ were an agent distinct from the Father, a Creator by delegation, then the Father himself would not be Creator. This was an important argument in the early Christological and Trinitarian controversies, deployed by Athanasius against the Arians, and by the Cappadocians against Eunomius and others. We can easily rule out the idea of creation by delegation.

Some may still wonder, Why couldn’t the three persons cooperate and thus collectively create? This suggestion is biblically awkward, going against the clear creational monotheism of Scripture. As far as we know, this idea never seriously crossed the mind of any significant theologian of the early church.

Such a suggestion raises additional complications. It implies a division of labor, in which each divine person is responsible for different parts of creation (like the ancient deities). Or it leads to overdetermination, in which each created effect is sufficiently explained by the operation of just one person.

Since each person is omnipotent, it is hard to understand just what it means for them to cooperate. We can easily imagine two people pushing a piano up the stairs. Neither person can fully account for the whole effect. But what might it mean for two omnipotent beings to push a piano up the stairs? In what might their cooperation consist, since they seem to make each other redundant?

Each of these alternatives—creation by delegation or by cooperation—sits ill with the Jewish and Christian idea of a Creator. This idea demarcates very clearly between reality and the single source of this reality.

Getting creation right is essential for the gospel. This is not simply because Jesus has to be divine—and thus Creator—in order to save. There is no leftover God, a Deus absconditus, the Father who is himself not invested in creation in the same manner the Son is. If such were the case, although there might be an affinity between the Son and creatures, the Father would forever seem to threaten creation as its ultimate negation.

What would the incarnation look like if Father, Son, and Spirit would not be the one Lord who acts inseparably? Quite simply, we would have a mythological picture of just one part of God becoming accessible to us, leaving the other two on the sidelines. In that scenario, Philip would after all be entitled to his request: show us the Father and it will be enough (John 14:8–10). Indeed, Jesus’s answer (“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”) would seem to have missed the point. Of course it matters, if Jesus is only another agent alongside the Father, that we would want access to the whole team.

It would not help if one responded, “But all the Trinitarian individuals are perichoretically indwelling each other,” since we only have access to the operations of the Son. If they do different things—especially if the one who keeps himself away, the Father, might seem to do higher things—all the more so would we want access to his operations. If Jesus is but a delegate—if his operations are exclusively his, and not those of the whole Trinity—then YHWH has not returned to his people after all. With Philip, we would wonder if we have to keep waiting.

If Jesus is but a delegate, if his operations are exclusively his, and not those of the whole Trinity, then YHWH has not returned to his people after all.

Of course, what exactly we mean by the claim that only the Son is incarnate, and not the Father or the Spirit, invites a longer discussion. But this much can be said, with the consensus of the universal church: the whole Trinity works in the incarnation. The whole Trinity works through Christ’s divine-human operations. And yet only the Son’s mode of existence is communicated to the human nature they all create and energize.

The activity of a magnet provides a helpful analogy: the whole magnet draws a needle to itself, but it becomes attached to just one of the poles. Similarly, while the whole Trinity is involved in the incarnation, the human nature, analogous to the needle, is attached specifically to the Son. It receives the Son’s mode of operation (as being from the Father).

Without inseparable operations, the cross would not be good news. It would truly look like its critics’ worst caricatures: a Father waiting on the sidelines for the Son to bear a punishment or, worse, venting his anger on a docile Son before he can act graciously toward the rest of us. It is hard to overestimate the damage caused by such sub-Trinitarian readings of the cross. If the Son and the Father share the same agency, then there is nothing the Father is doing without the Son.

It is hard to overestimate the damage caused by such sub-Trinitarian readings of the cross.

That doesn’t mean the Father dies, since dying is not a doing but a suffering, a passio. The inseparability rule only holds that the operations are the same, not the passions. The passion belongs to the Son alone, since only he has a human nature capable of suffering. But this means that if there is any punishment meted out, any chastisement, any crushing, they are enacted by all, because these are actions.

So, no, it is not the Father as a distinct agent, punishing the Son, as another distinct agent. There is no violence between Father and Son, and neither is there any rift in the Father-Son relation. The cry of dereliction does not indicate such a separation. It couldn’t, since the relation between the Father and the Son is not accidental to their persons, or to their divinity, but constitutive of both. Were such a rift to occur, per absurdum, there would be no more Son, and no more Father, and no more Spirit, and thus no one left to raise Christ from the dead.

Thus, the good news of inseparable operations is that Christ did not venture into the realm of the dead by “leaving the Trinity.” Even in death he continues to be begotten by the Father, to be Son and Creator and sustainer of everything, including death. Because this death could not overcome God, Hades could not hold him. All that sin, death, and the demonic could do was to be exposed, trampled, and despoiled—because this Jesus was none other than the mighty Creator.

Even in death [Jesus] continues to be begotten by the Father, to be Son and Creator and sustainer of everything, including death.

Because the three act inseparably, in the sequence of ascension-Pentecost we do not have the analogue of a substitution. The Spirit is not waiting in the wings for the Son to do his thing. The Son does not bow out and leave the field upon his ascension, high-fiving the Spirit on his way up. His promise to be with us forever (Matt. 28:20) is true and trustworthy, for his ascension does not entail his departure (Eph. 4:10) any more than his mission implies his arrival (John 1:10). This is the mythical image of three gods climbing up and down the ladder of heaven, which amounts to a mockery of our faith and hope.

No, Christ has ascended in order to fill everything with his presence. In the indwelling Spirit we do not have a second-best to the Son, just as in Christ we do not have second-best to the Father (as Philip wrongly implies). More specifically, the Spirit we have is precisely the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of the Son, the one who imprints on us the image of the Son, for he has first filled and transfigured Christ’s humanity. Precisely because he is the Spirit of Christ, he baptizes us into the one body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13) and imparts Christ’s sonship to us (Gal. 4:6).

Failure to mind the inseparability rule inevitably leads to these distortions, to such an alternative, sub-Trinitarian reading of redemption history. Without the rule, the gospel over-promises and under-delivers. It appears to leave a nagging aftertaste: why are we left with only the Spirit? Why must the Father have such a tough love for the Son? Why does he always seem to hold back?

Unlocking the Gospel

If the Trinity did not act inseparably, the Father would not be intimately involved in the act of creation. Jesus would be only the antechamber of the remote God. The Father whom we glimpse through the torn curtain would haunt us with his vengefulness. Finally, the Spirit would be a second-best replacement for Christ. Were the operation of the three separable, our salvation could not amount to the sharing in the triune life, to partaking in the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4), precisely at the position of the Son.

On the contrary, if the three act inseparably, the Spirit whose breath gives us life and sanctifies us is the same God who has redeemed and justified us, by making peace through the blood of the Son. The cross does not reveal a brutal, vengeful side of the Father—an inscrutable callousness, perhaps lodged into a superior aloofness. The sacrificial love shown by the Son is the love of the Father, and the same love the Spirit pours into our hearts (Rom. 5:5).

Without this doctrine, we too easily transform the gospel into an opaque transaction between divine beings who seem to do different things. But the gospel is the liberating news that in Jesus Christ we have been fully united with all that God is. There is nothing beyond this union—no leftover, no after-credits, no further good news we need to hear.