The Grammar of the Trinity and the East/West Divide

In Christian theology, there are two fundamental perspectives from which one can analyse the trinity: the immanent (or ontological) trinity and the economic trinity. The immanent trinity is concerned with the essence of God as he is in himself, apart from creation, whereas the economic trinity is all about describing the trinity as it relates to creation. Catholic theologian Karl Rahner codified what has come to be called “Rahner’s Rule”, namely, “The immanent trinity is the economic trinity”. We don’t have two distinct trinities here: they are simply different perspectives on the same divine reality.

When approaching the trinity in Christian theology, there are also – broadly speaking – two broad perspectives that appear to contradict each other. The eastern church holds to one while the western church holds to the other. The eastern perspective tends more towards monarchism of the father and subordinationism of the son and spirit, whereas the western perspective is saturated with commitment to a strict divine simplicity which dissolves almost all distinctions between the divine persons.

This post aims to argue that both positions are true, and the key to understanding how they are compatible is to take the eastern view as a description of the economic trinity and the western view as a description of the immanent trinity.

The Western/Immanent Trinity

The immanent trinity is a transcendent and abstract thing to think about, and it is best described using the rules of grammar and linguistics. Our starting point is the statement in the first epistle of John that “God is love”.

Love is a verb – a transitive one – and as such it stands in need of a subject and an object. How is it possible that God can be love? Is he the person doing the loving? Is he the one being loved? Is he the love itself?

The mysterious answer is actually “all three”. If God is love, then God must be simultaneously Subject, Verb and Object. However, in order for this love to truly be love, the Subject and the Object must be distinct from each other, otherwise it would not really be love, and would instead reduce to masturbatory narcissism.

So we have three hypostases: The lover (who is the subject), The one being loved (who is the object), and the love itself (who is the verb). We can use all of this to go ahead and lay down a Trinitarian formula:

  1. The Lover is Divine
  2. The Loved is Divine
  3. The Love is Divine
  4. The Divine Lover is not the Divine Loved
  5. The Divine Loved is not the Divine Love
  6. The Divine Love is not the Divine Lover
  7. There is only one Divinity

However, these three hypostases sound quite different from to the “Father”, “Son” and “Spirit” of traditional Christian theology. What is the relationship? The answer is that “Father”, “Son” and “Spirit” are the three persons of God, whereas “Lover”, “Loved”, and “Love” are the three hypostases of God. There is a difference between a hypostases and a persona, and if this difference has not been explicitly recognised by the tradition up to now, it is definitely implicit in the writings of the fathers.

The most fitting way to map the above formula onto the traditional scriptural and theological terminology is to assign the Father to the Lover, the Son to the Loved, and the Spirit to the Love. However with respect to the immanent trinity, due to divine simplicity and perichoresis the three hypostases are completely interchangeable. So it becomes possible, for example, to assign the Father to the Love, the Son to the Lover, and the Spirit to the Loved. In other words it doesn’t particularly matter which particular divine person occupies the role of which particular divine hypostasis: due to simplicity and perichoresis all of the divine persons can and do occupy all of the divine hypostases simultaneously.

There is some nuance however: When we speak of the person of the Son occupying the “Lover” hypostasis and the person of the Spirit occupying the “Loved” hypostasis, it necessarily follows that we must speak of the person of the Father occupying the “Love” hypostasis. This is necessary because while it is true that, for example, the person of the Father is simultaneously all three of the Lover, the Love, and the Loved hypostases; whenever we speak of him occupying one hypostasis it can only be in relationship to the other two. In this way, when speaking of the person of the Father as the Lover hypostasis, we must necessarily speak of the person of the Son as either the Loved hypostasis or the Love hypostasis. We must follow this grammatical rule when speaking about any of the divine persons.

A Higher Abstraction

It is possible to go deeper. The trinity when analysed in terms of hypostases is – in it’s most pure and abstract sense – fundamentally and simply a pure “Subject, Object, Verb” relationship. The verb need not necessarily be “love”, for we do not only speak of God as a lover, but also as a creator, a redeemer, a sanctifier, and so on. The trinity is – to borrow terms beloved by computer scientists – polymorphic and generic. With this in mind, the Trinitarian formula can be abstracted to the following:

  1. The Subject is Divine
  2. The Object is Divine
  3. The Verb is Divine
  4. The Divine Subject is not the Divine Object
  5. The Divine Object is not the Divine Verb
  6. The Divine Verb is not the Divine Subject
  7. There is only one Divinity

We need only supply one of many relevant divine verbs, and we will have a formula which provides a deep insight into the immanent trinity. For example, God is a creator, a lover, a saviour, a sanctifier, a judge and so on. In such a way, all of the following ways of understanding the trinity are valid:

  1. The Uncreated (Subject or Father), Begets/Creates (Verb or Spirit) the Word/λογος (Object or Son).
  2. The Essence (Subject or Father), Emanates (Verb or Spirit) the Energies (Object or Son).
  3. The Saviour (Subject or Father), Saves (Verb or Spirit), the Lost (Object or Son)

There is rich theology in these formulas: For example according to this analysis the Son is the damned reprobate who suffers death, Hell and the full punishment for sin, and the Father is the one who saves him from Hell, death and damnation.

Furthermore, an implication of divine simplicity is that all of these different verbs and ways of understanding God are in actual fact univocally equivalent. In this way, God’s act of creation just is his act of love and both of these just are his act of salvation. When God begets the son, he simultaneously judges him, saves him, loves him, sanctifies him and so on.

The general rule is that the Father is the Subject, the Son is the Object, and the Spirit is the Verb, but this rule only becomes strictly enforced when we move to the economic trinity, as we will see shortly. When speaking of the immanent trinity, it makes just as much sense to call the Spirit the Saviour of the Father and the Son the act of Salvation itself. As mentioned, any of the divine persons can occupy any of the divine hypostases when it comes to the immanent trinity. The relationship between person and hypostasis only becomes locked down when we move to the economic trinity.

The Eastern/Economic Trinity

In the East, the theologians are adamant that the Father enjoys a monarchy which the son and spirit simply do not share. This is encapsulated in their firm rejection of the western Filioque clause added to the creed of the Latin church. According to this view of the trinity, the three divine persons cannot just bounce back and forth between the three divine hypostases willy nilly: instead they each have their rightful place and position in relationship to each other.

This is all quite intuitive. For example consider the following: Would it make sense for the Son – who is begotten – to beget the father – who is uncreated? Things start to sound contradictory and silly very quickly at this point.

In the western analysis, It makes sense that the spirit proceeds from both the father and the son because any of the divine persons can occupy any of the divine hypostases. There is 1. the one who sends, 2. the act of procession, and 3. the one who proceeds. The father could be any of those three hypostases, the son could be any of those three hypostases, and the spirit could be any of those three hypostases. According to the divine simplicity and perichoresis of the immanent trinity, it would be just as true to claim that the father proceeds from the spirit, or the son proceeds from the father. Any of the persons could proceed from any of the other persons, as the three persons are interchangeable in the immanent trinity.

But this is not so in the eastern analysis. Once we start pondering the economic trinity, perichoresis and simplicity no longer apply with the same force. When it comes to the economic trinity, the trinity is still a Subject, Verb, Object relationship, however in the eastern analysis the Father is always the Subject, the Spirit is always the Verb, and the Son is always the Object. In the economic trinity, there isn’t any distinction between a divine hypostasis and a divine person.

The reason this is important is because the economic trinity is the point where the creation comes into play, and if these strict distinctions are not observed, the Trinitarian grammar devolves to the point where one encounters crazy and triggering statements such as “The creation created the creator”.

Christ and Creation

Now, in order to proceed further and demonstrate how the economic trinity links up with the immanent trinity we need to introduce a little Christology.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; 16 for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

According to Paul, there is an intimate relationship between Christ and Creation. Christ is not merely one man, Jesus of Nazareth, but seems to have much more cosmic significance. In fact, Christ seems to be the summary of the entire cosmos. There appears to be some sort of equivalence between Christ and the creation. In this post I don’t aim to tease out all of the nuances of this passage, but for the sake of continuing the argument lets assume a very strict correspondence between the second person of the trinity and the creation.

In this way, saying that the Father begets the Son is basically the same as saying that God created the cosmos, and so the cosmos becomes one way of thinking about or referring to the second person of the trinity.

It is a fundamental principle that there is a distinction between creator and creation, so if all this is true, then it makes sense that the Father alone should be referred to as God, and not the Son or the Spirit. If you examine the early creeds, the writings of the earliest church fathers, and the letters of Paul; you will see this theology reflected in the way that they never straight up refer to Jesus as “God”. Instead, they always say “One God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ”.

The surprising (and contentious) conclusion here is that only the Father is God in the economic trinity, and not the Son and the Spirit. It is helpful to deploy some metaphysical categories to tease out exactly what is going on here. Many of the church fathers speak of “the three persons/hypostases and the one being/essence”. One detail of the discussion that tends to be forgotten these days is that the first hypostasis just is the being and essence of God. The Father is the being of God, while the Spirit is the nature of God – where a nature is simply a summary of the attributes and associated actions of a being – and the Son is the effect of God. Now, in the immanent trinity, obviously both the Father and the Son are divine, because the effect of God (the Word) shares in the being of God (the Father) by divine simplicity and perichoresis. However in the economic trinity, the being of God (the Father) is completely distinct from the effect of God which in this case is the creation (cosmos).

We end up with a situation where the Father is the one God, and the son is the creation, and there is a strict distinction between them. The Spirit is the nature of God, and a summary of all the attributes of the Father. The actions of God are mediated through this nature and the effect is the cosmos and everything in it. There is a pious Islamic theological opinion that God has infinite attributes: this makes sense under the preceding analysis, because every observable effect in the creation must correspond to a unique attribute-with-action in the nature of God (the Spirit). Infinite effects implies infinite actions implies infinite attributes.

So in the economic trinity, you have one God (the Father) and his nature (the Spirit) and the creation (the Son). The persons are not free to roam from hypostasis to hypostasis in the economic trinity. Furthermore the grammar requires us to speak of the Father alone as God, and refrain from attributing that label to the creation (the Son) or the divine attributes and actions (the Spirit).


And yet Rahner’s Rule states that the economic trinity and the immanent trinity are the same trinity. The implication is that the perichoresis and simplicity of the immanent trinity “bleed in” to the economic trinity, and that the entire creation is therefore  permeated with the divinity of God, at which point “theology of creation”
becomes Christology, and we have to analyse the relationship between λογος and κοσμος in the same way that theologians analyse the relationship between God and Jesus of Nazareth. The cosmos is simultaneously created and divine, and this needs to be construed in the theological language of dyophysis and miaphysis, just as in the Christological debates of centuries past.

I will hazard a stab at a formula to summarise the situation in closing: The creation is the λογος in complexity, and the λογος is the creation in it’s simplicity, and both of them may be referred to as the Son of God, or the second person of the trinity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *