One of the most common ways of talking of the Trinity is to speak of the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity. The former refers to how God is in himself apart from his works in history. The immanent Trinity describes the relationship that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have with each other. The latter term refers to how the Trinity works in history. So the Father sends the Son into the world to save the world.
The idea is sound. We can think of God in eternity and of God in history. But I fear using the phrases “immanent Trinity” and “economic Trinity” fails to helpfully describe the Trinity for a number of reasons.
In Fred Sanders’ excellent book (see the review), The Triune God, he details the origin of this distinction (which is very recent!) and some of the problems with these terms. I’d love to recount my summary of his argument here because, to my mind, the way we talk about God is a big deal. We don’t want describe God in ways that are not true; and we want to know God in truth. Because when crisis comes, we need to turn to the true God, not the God that we have wrongly fashioned in our minds.
I propose that we should avoid the language of the immanent Trinity and Economic Trinity and, instead, use the language of God’s theologia (being) and oikonomia (work in history). The second term, oikonomia, is the word “economic” but it means something a pinch different than what the phrase the economic Trinity conveys. I’ll explain more at the end of the article.
So here are three reasons to ditch the language of the immanent Trinity and Economic Trinity.
First, the language arose in the eighteenth century by a theological innovator who denied that you can know God by his works in history!
A Lutheran named Johann August Urlsperger (1728-1806) distinguished between the Trinity of being and the Trinity of revelation. So God is a triad in both cases. But Urlsperger thought that the way God revealed himself in history (economic) was basically unconnected to how God is in eternity. In short, God was just three subjects until right before creation, and then he decided before creation to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It’s kinda weird. And Urlsperger was a unique fellow. He kept the threeness of God in God’s essence and in history. But he did so by separating the threeness of the God of eternity from the God of history; in the former, God is three subjects without relations; in the latter, God is three persons with relations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Sometime later, Karl Rahner declared that the immanent Trinity was the Economic Trinity. The way God is in history is the same way that God was in eternity. He closed the gap that Urlsperger had made. But in so doing, he too bucked off the traditional language used to describe the eternal relations among the Godhead and the way that God works in history (theologia and oikonomia).
Second, the language is confusing and doesn’t match how the Bible talks about God.
The language of the economic Trinity and immanent Trinity is also weird. Just to make the distinction like I did in the previous sentence is really to posit two Trinities. Sanders calls this verbally doubling the Trinity (145). You have to say: “(1) the economic Trinity and (2) the immanent Trinity.” It’s just a bit weird to talk about the one God and two Trinities.
It also doesn’t, to my mind, match any sort of language in the Bible. the Bible does of course distinguish between the divinity and the humanity of Jesus. The Word was God, and the Word became Flesh.
But there is not one Word of the economy, and one Word of the immanence. It’s the one Word who fully shares in divinity and humanity. It’s the one word who is both eternally divine and sent by the Father in time. According to his divinity, he has the power of an incorruptible life; according to his humanity, he can suffer for our sins. Impassible according to his theologia, passable according to his humanity as part of God’s oikonomia (plan). But there is one Son, whose works in the oikonomia reveal who he is in his theologia.
Third, the traditional way to talk about God better matches how the Bible talks about God.
The Bible talks about God as an eternal divine being who acts in history to accomplish a plan. In John 1, we learn that the Word was God. The word is God according to his theologia. But according to God’s oikonomia, the Word became flesh and was from God (ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ; John 8:42).
Maybe the easier way to say it this: God was always God in eternity until God the Son took on human flesh to fulfill the plan of God. God did not stop being God when God the Son became man. He remained fully divine and added to his divinity, humanity.
There is no God the Son of the immanent Trinity and God the Son of the economic Trinity. They are both the same. The eternal Son of God became man according to the plan of God. But it really makes no sense to talk of the Son of God as immanent and the Son of God as economic; they are the same.
While it is okay to use the language of the immanent Trinity and the Economic Trinity, it has an odd origin, doesn’t match how the Bible talks about God, and there are better options out there. I’m happy with the distinction of God’s divinity (theologia) and his plan in history (oikonomia). We have one eternal God who enters into history according to his great plan of salvation.