It is an honor to respond to Harrison Perkins’ careful engagement with my latest book, The Divine Missions: An Introduction. His critique explores the compatibility of my work with confessional Reformed theology, concluding that there are a number of adjustments that may need to be made. I am grateful to the editors of The Heidelblog for the opportunity to respond to Perkins in this space.
Some background information may be pertinent at this point. The Divine Missions was written relatively quickly, at least for my standards, during the 2020 lockdown. While it does require some theological knowledge, it is not written as a proper monograph, with a fully supportive technical apparatus. In my opinion, there is still a great need for an advanced Protestant or Reformed exploration of the doctrine of the divine missions. In particular need of excavation, in my view, is the apparent eclipse of the conceptuality of the divine missions in Protestant dogmatics. Whether this is real or apparent should be settled by a better scholar than myself. If this impression does not betray me, however, the reasons for it may have to do with a theme that recurs in Perkins’ critique of my book: the relationship between the ontological and the judicial dimensions of salvation. Could it be that the eclipse of the divine missions doctrine, or at least of the centrality of the category of divine missions for the economy of salvation is related to its potential to unsettle the hegemony of the judicial in Protestant soteriology? Some of the questions that Perkins asks are just the right questions to further retrieve this important doctrine. The following brief remarks, I hope, will advance this conversation.
The first point of contention is whether my account of the missions is not overly historical in that I am denying the presence of a mission of the Spirit in the Old Covenant. Perkins worries that my account of the “sequentiality” of the missions, with the Spirit’s mission necessarily following the Son’s, overlooks the application of effects of the missions to Old Testament believers. Perkins thinks that the missions do not begin in history, but in the eternal decree. Attention to this fact makes it easier for us to understand how their “effects” stretch back in time to cover OT believers.
Certainly, the missions do not “begin” in history, but at the same time we have to ask in what sense they could begin with the eternal decree? If, as Perkins and I appear to agree, a mission combines two dimensions: an eternal procession and a temporal, created effect, in what sense could a mission begin in eternity? If regarded from the standpoint of the procession, a mission certainly has its foundation in the divine decrees. When, however, considered from the standpoint of its created effect, a mission begins to exist at a particular point in time. Thus, speaking in terms of the history of redemption, there is a time before the mission of the Son and a time after its commencement. The incarnation is a watershed moment in history, which indicates something utterly new that has taken place, not for God, to be sure, but for humanity. This new ontological reality is something that only Christians participate directly in, in contrast to the OT saints, who are certainly saved in a forensic sense, but who only experienced this supernatural reality in a heavenly fashion, and not in their historical existence, so to speak. My account, then, in no way denies that OT saints are saved, but at the same time elevates the least of those in the Kingdom of Christ above them (Matt 11:11). The OT saints lived in anticipation of a reality that was not yet, for the Spirit had not yet been given (John 7:39). They were saved on account of their faith in the promises of God—and yet they did not live to see their fulfillment.
It is true that in a certain sense the effects of the divine missions proleptically envelop these believers. But in this sense, “effect” is not what constitutes the mission (as the created effect), but rather it is an outcome of the mission. It seems to me essential to preserving the historical particularity of Jesus Christ, as well as the Pentecostal Spirit, to retain both the sequentiality of the two missions, as well as the new ontological regime they inaugurate.
Central to Reformed theology is the idea of the eternal covenant of redemption, a “compact” between the divine persons which grounds their temporal missions. In light of the recent resurgence of interest in classical trinitarian notions such as simplicity and inseparable operations, there is an ongoing conversation within Reformed circles about the compatibility between the pactum and these classical notions. A certain dilemma emerges: since the covenant appears to entail different actions of the divine persons, it is either an opus dei ad intra (internal work of God), thus risking to make salvation and election part of the very nature of God, or an opus ad extra (external work), in which case the doctrine of inseparable operations no longer seems to hold. Although I have not argued this anywhere in print, I believe there is a way to reconcile the notion of a covenant of redemption with the idea of classical trinitarianism. Ironically, perhaps, the answer lies with Aquinas’ explanation of the title Word implies. We may distinguish in the idea of Word between a relation to the Father, which is necessary, and a relation to creatures, which is contingent. Thus, in the pure act of God, He perfectly knows himself necessarily, and he perfectly knows everything else contingently. Thus, we can fold into the very procession of the Word, which is identical with God’s pure act, everything that pertains to God’s knowledge of his creatures, including a covenantal will to save them. My own intuition is thus to fold the pactum into the processions, as a contingent aspect of a necessary act. To return to the point under discussion, the historical sequentiality of the missions takes nothing away from their eternal foundation. If, under the aspect of the procession, the missions are eternal and can be said to be grounded in the pactum, under the aspect of the created effects, the missions are both novel and sequential, since they bring about a new reality.2
Speaking of ontology, it is now readily acknowledged that Reformed thought embraces a certain ontological understanding of salvation, but on the whole it remains suspicious of deification, preferring to speak instead of a covenantal union. This keeps matters thoroughly circumscribed within a forensic framework, which inevitably dominates. Perkins correctly senses my hesitation about the primacy of the judicial. I am less suspicious about the notion of deification, but Perkins is wrong to suppose I embrace the Palamite essence-energies distinction. As I argued elsewhere,1 I find the notion of uncreated energies problematic precisely because it tends to obscure the distinct missions. Roughly put, a Palamite account ascribes deification to the uncreated energies of the whole Trinity, which are inseparable, and thus is less concerned with the missions of the divine persons, which are separable. In my view, recovering the divine missions is essential in balancing out a soteriology that recognizes the inseparable operations of the Trinity.
But I digress. In the missions, which are proper to the persons of the Son and the Spirit, we receive created participations in the life of the Trinity. Far from focusing “almost entirely upon how salvation is construed as if the Trinity alone is the limiting factor in explaining soteriology,” my account stresses that this deifying union with the Trinity is vectored by the two missions specifically. Perkins is right to question a generic deification, whereby salvation is simply union with the Trinity. I have tried to do precisely that, in a critical appropriation of the notion of deification. Specifically, deifying union with the Trinity takes place through marriage to Christ, both ecclesial and personal, resulting in our adoption (judicially) as sons and our becoming bearers of the Spirit (ontologically). These ideas are developed at more length in my recent work, The Same God Who Works All Things, and in a forthcoming work on the Christian Life.
The completed work of Christ is essential to this account. We are not “simply to be joined to a divine procession” but specifically to the humanity inaugurated and condensed in Christ, our head. The covenantal and judicial are here the fruit of the ontological union, not their condition. Marriage to Christ yields an ontological transformation entirely mediated by the Spirit. Deification can be thus understood as the pneumatic fruition of our union with Christ, an idea not foreign to the modern Eastern theology, but not requiring its Palamism. Dumitru Stăniloae, for example, speaks of deification as a spiritualization of the human being, a language that I find far more compelling than any notions of “Christian Platonism.” Perkins is spot on to think that “the theme of the Son acting as the second Adam is the necessary supplement to round out the explanation of the Son’s mission and even how it relates to the Spirit’s.”
This idea is much more thoroughly developed in my larger work on inseparable operations. Out of that reflection on divine action and upon the theology of divine missions emerged a particular ordering of the judicial to the ontological. I have thus suggested that the work of Christ presupposes a “logic of transfiguration,” as opposed to a “logic of exchange.” I will take this opportunity to briefly clarify my rationale, which I take to be required by classical Trinitarianism. Per divine aseity and immutability, God’s action is entirely free and not dependent upon any condition extrinsic to it. For example, the human nature of Christ is not an antecedent, but a consequent condition of the Son’s mission. Combined with the Chalcedonian logic of Christology, the human activity of Christ (eg. his active and passive obedience) are not conditions for any divine activity, such as forgiveness of sins, since they do not have a source other than the same divine power and will. Whatever Christ does as man is accomplished in the hypostatic unity, which supposes a unity of operation with the Father and the Spirit. Furthermore, the dyoenergetic and dyothelite theology of Maximus the Confessor shows how the natural human action of Christ is transfigured in its assumption by the Logos. This is the reason for my suspicion of a category such as reward, for it seems to imply a Nestorian activity, external to God and worthy of recompense. On the contrary, it is God and God alone who acts in and through the human activity of Christ. It makes more sense to speak of Christ meriting the Spirit in the same sense in which running merits health, that is, as an organic fruition. Admittedly, this logic of transfiguration requires more reflection and development on my part.3
Perkins has very acutely sensed this as one of the pressure points in my argument. His perceptive critique has identified a number of other areas needing further discernment. I will remain in his debt if anything in this ongoing labor gives glory to God and edifies his Church.
© Adonis Vidu. All Rights Reserved.
Harrison Perkin’s Review of The Divine Missions:
1. Adonis Vidu, “Triune Agency, East and West: Uncreated Energies or Created Effects?”, Perichoresis 18/1 (2020), 57-75.
2. Editor’s Note: portions of this essay were revised after publication.
3. I heartily recommend Aaron Riches’ Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ (Eerdmans, 2016).
- How To Subscribe To Heidelmedia
- The Heidelblog Resource Page
- Heidelmedia Resources
- The Ecumenical Creeds
- The Reformed Confessions
- The Heidelberg Catechism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008)
- Why I Am A Christian
- Support Heidelmedia: use the donate button
- Review of Fred Sanders, Fountain of Salvation: Trinity and Soteriology
- Muller On Reformed Orthodoxy On Double Procession And The Filioque
- Gregory Of Nazianzus On The Deity Of The Holy Spirit And Against Analogies For The Trinity
- Scott Swain On Warfield’s Revision Of The Doctrine Of The Trinity
- Heidelcast 128: I Am That I Am (6)—The Trinity And The Covenant Of Redemption
- Heidelcast Series: I Am That I Am
- Reviews And Notices