The Economic Trinity, the Missio Dei, and the Church
How can we know the Triune God as he is in himself? There are, of course, many avenues for revelation. There is general revelation: “the way of an eagle in the sky” (Proverbs 30:18) or the rain that falls “on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). These things tell us something of who God is, but do they reveal the Triune God as he is in himself?
There is also special revelation: the written Word and the Incarnate Word. The incarnation of the second person of the Trinity tells us that the written Word was not the final revelation. So, what of the Incarnate Word? Jesus, the last and best revelation of the Father, is a prime candidate. But there is an issue: Can the incarnate Son be the image of the Logos? This seems unlikely.
Some offer the church as the image of the Triune God. Can something that is temporal and subordinate image God as he is in himself? This also seems unlikely.
Our understanding of church is grounded in a proper understanding of the economic Trinity and the missio Dei. The economic Trinity is the image of the immanent Trinity and this image is most clearly seen as the Son and Spirit work in the missio Dei. Similarly, the new humanity is being conformed to the image of the Son and this conformity to the image is most clearly seen as the new humanity partners with God in the missio Dei.
The Economic Trinity as the image of the Immanent Trinity
The economic Trinity images the immanent Trinity (Sanders 2005: 172). Warfield and Warfield agree when they write that the incarnation of the Son and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are the proof of the Trinity (Warfield and Warfield 1929: 146). In his book, It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian, Bolsinger also points in this direction when he says that the mutual participation of the three Trinitarian persons in the work of salvation reveals the unity and communal nature of the Trinity (Bolsinger 2004: 62-63). Finally, Rahner himself says that the economic Trinity is known through our experience of salvation history and is most clearly understood in the context of Christology and the doctrine of grace (Rahner 1974: 82). The economic Trinity, not the church and not Christ, is the image of the immanent Trinity.
Jesus as the Image of the Father
In his gospel, John presents Jesus’ imaging of the Father as declaring the Father’s glory (Grenz 2001: 207). A short theology of “glory” in John’s Gospel provides ample evidence for Jesus as the image of the Father. Jesus images the glory of his Father as an only Son (1:14). This is a glory that comes from God (5:41-44), the One who sent Jesus (7:18). The Father himself glorifies the Son (8:54) and the Son lives to glorify the Father (8:49-50).
During his earthly, Jesus manifested the Father’s glory through signs. After the first such sign, turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana, his disciples responded to the display of glory by believing him (2:11). The resurrection of Lazarus (11:4, 38-44), also declared God’s glory and resulted in belief (11:45). The death of Jesus was by far the most powerful manifestation of the glory of the Father (12:23; 12:27-28; 13:31, 32; 17:1).
As powerful as the signs were, Jesus’ glory would only be complete after the resurrection. (7:39; 12:16). At that time, the Son would be glorified in the works of the disciples (17:10). In fact, the Son’s glory with Father would be shared with disciples after the resurrection (17:22).
As Jesus works to glorify the Father, so the disciples will work to glorify. The glory Jesus manifested during his earthly ministry and beyond was not for himself, but for the Father. The Father was glorified in the works of the Son (14:13; 17:4, 5) and those who follow Jesus share the honor (15:8). After the resurrection and ascension, Jesus sent the Spirit who glorifies the Son (16:14).
In the work of salvation, the Son declares (or brings glory to) the Father and the Spirit declares (or brings glory to) the Son. Thus, the Father acts in the salvation work of the Son and Spirit. Therefore, the economic Trinity is active in salvation history, imaging the immanent Trinity.
Two additional passages also teach that Jesus is the image of the Father. The author of Hebrews begins his letter by declaring that the Father has revealed himself most clearly in the Son.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs (Hebrews 1:1-4).
This clear revelation of the Father is placed squarely in the Son’s work of Salvation by the phrase “after making purification for sins.” In Colossians, Paul says that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, Creator, head of the church, and the reconciler of all things (Colossians 1:15-20).
The Church as Conforming to the Image of the Son
Biblical evidence (and, indeed, mere observation) tells us that the image in humanity-in-Adam has been corrupted by sin. Since the choice to sin in Genesis 3, all humanity exists in a state of corruption (Psalm 14; 53). Left on its own in this corrupt state, humanity further corrupts itself by serving its corrupt desires (Galatians 6:8; Ephesians 4:22; 2 Peter 1:4). Law and instruction are not able to solve the problem (Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16). Humanity needed a new humanity, and what humanity needed, the Son’s work of salvation provides.
The New Humanity-In-Christ
The church is the new humanity-in-Christ. The New Testament teaches that Jesus creates one new humanity in himself (Freedman 1992: 6: 750). He has created the one new humanity out of Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:14-16; Colossians 1:21-22). In fact, in this new humanity, all divisions are removed (Galatians 3:28). Those who follow Jesus cooperate by putting off the old humanity and putting on the new humanity, which has been created in the image of God (Ephesians 4:22-24; Colossians 3:9-11). The church partners with the Spirit to bring this new humanity to maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:13-16).
Conforming to the Image of the Son
The church images the Son who is the image of the Father. The incarnate, glorified Son of God has created and will complete a new humanity that perfectly bears the image of God. Therefore, conformity to Christ, not affection, is the basis of ecclesial unity (Smail 2006: 289). True humanity images God by reflecting the inter-relationality (Smail 2006: 153) and works of the Triune persons (Smail 2006: 157-158). The church is not the image of the Trinity. Rather, the church is being conformed to the Son who is the exact image of the Father within the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity. What then is the relationship of the church to the Trinity?
Participation in the Missio Dei
The historically-situated, earthly gatherings of the new humanity (local churches) are a part of the missio Dei, and the various missions of the local churches flesh out the church’s identity as the mission of God. Understanding the church as the image of the Trinity and the sender of missionaries, tempts the church to think of itself more highly than it ought to think (Newbigin 1989: 117). Such temptations often end in the church functioning under the impression that it is the sender of missionaries; that it is the bringer of salvation. But the mission is and remains the mission of God. The church is privileged to participate in the missio Dei. The missio Dei precedes and determines the church and missions. The church is sent on mission by God (Bosch 1991: 370).
The economic Trinity is the image of the immanent Trinity in the missio Dei. The church participates in the missio Dei through the work of God. The Father sends the revelation of his love, mercy, and justice. The Son embodies that revelation, veiled in the incarnation. The church participates in the veiled revelation of the Son as God the Spirit works to bring about the eschatological kingdom of God. Spirit’s work takes place in the church (Newbigin 1989: 118-119).
The missions of the local churches, whether local or global, are temporal and temporary instances of the missio Dei. These missions are the working out of who we are in Christ. As Christ glorified his Father, so the Spirit, who works in the church, glorifies Christ.
Fred Sanders makes a compelling case for an eikonic interpretation of Rahner’s Rule. Understanding the economic Trinity as the image of the immanent Trinity returns the focus of ecclesiology to the person of Christ and the work of the missio Dei. As the new humanity, being conformed to the image of the Son, the church is composed of historically and geographically located instances of the missio Dei. As such, our understanding of church changes from the church being the image of God and the purveyor of salvation, to being the proclamation and embodiment of the missio Dei. The structure and functions of the local church can then be shaped to live out that identity in the context a particular faith community in a particular location at a particular time. The local church is given a theological framework that better allows for flex and contextualization, and God is better served.
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