The Dimensions of God’s Life

by Ted Peters

Ted Peters was professor of systematic theology at Pacific Lutheran Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in 1993 when this article was written. He is the author of God—The World’s Future (Fortress).

This article appeared in The Christian Century January, 6-13, 1993, pp. 24-25 Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


No longer can we speak of God in isolation. The divine life is also our life. As soon as we free ourselves from thinking of two levels of Trinity, one inner and the other outer, then we can see again that there is but one life of the triune God, and that life includes God’s relation to us

BOOK REVIEW: God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life, by Catherine Mowry LaCugna. Harper San Francisco, 434 pp., $25.00.


On the floor of theological debate in recent decades boisterous voices have been arguing about methodology, ecumenism, hope, liberation and the place of women or other marginalized groups in the conversation. Outside the arena of loud debate, however, there has been a whisper-level conversation of enormous significance for our understanding of God. I call it "Trinity talk." The quiet conversation began with Karl Barth’s first half volume of Church Dogmatics and continued in Claude Welch’s work of the 1950s, In This Name. With the formulation of Karl Rahner’s rule— the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity, and vice versa—Trinity talk has become a buzz in the works of Jürgen Moltmann, Eberhard Jüngel, Leonardo Boff, Robert Jenson and Wolfhart Pannenberg.

Catherine Mowry LaCugna has added a real jewel to the works of Trinity talk. With lapidary precision this University of Notre Dame theologian cuts through the roughly hewn doctrinal conversations of the centuries to polish the primary facets. "The doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a practical doctrine with radical consequences for Christian life," she says. The aim of the Christian life is "to participate in the life of God through Jesus Christ in the Spirit." This means that trinitarian theology is best described as par excellence a theology of relationship, which explores the mysteries of love, relationship, personhood and communion within the framework of God’s self-revelation in the person of Christ and the activity of the Spirit."

LaCugna starts with the question: Why has the doctrine of the Trinity been marginalized? Whether we dismiss the Trinity as irrelevant or consign its difficulties to sublime mystery, we proceed as if the Christian faith can get along without it. LaCugna traces this marginalization back to a split that occurred at Nicea between theologia and oikonomia, between the so-called immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity. The term oikonomia, which we identify with the economic Trinity, refers to the self-communication of God in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit’s activity in the history of salvation. Everything we know about God is a result of this activity. Theologia, or our knowledge of the eternal being of God, should in principle be coextensive with what we have learned from revelation in the divine economy. We have no access to the immanent life of God that goes beyond what has been revealed. So if we consign the trinitarian life to a realm beyond what has been revealed, we consign it to incomprehensible mystery

This is a mistake, contends LaCugna. Theologia and oikonomia should be one, as they were until the fourth century. But in the process of writing the Nicene Creed, soteriology became separated from the doctrine of God, so that theologia came to refer to the inner workings of the divine life apart from the work of salvation. The intradivine relations of the three persons lost their link to God’s activity in the world.

In response, LaCugna recommends that we reconceive the doctrine of the Trinity. She says that Rahner has described God as by nature self-communicating. The mysterious and incomprehensible God is God in the act of expressing and sharing the Godself. God’s actions reveal who God is. We can be confident that the God revealed in salvation history is in fact the real God, even if God’s mystery remains absolute. This banishes the possibility of a hidden God who lurks behind the revealed God.

The LaCugna corollary to Rahner’s rule reads: "Theology is inseparable from soteriology, and vice versa." Her corollary carries us beyond the problem and solution Rahner formulates, and beyond Jüngel’s correspondence view by which God’s inner life corresponds to what we have experienced with the economic life. Rahner’s rule presupposes that theologians need to get the immanent and the economic back together again. By revising the vocabulary slightly so that what we are identifying is theologia with oikonomia, LaCugna’s reconceptualization—"more accurately the return to the biblical and pre-Nicene pattern of thought"—dispenses with the distinction between God’s inner and outer aspects. There is but one trinitarian life of God, and it spans and incorporates the entire scope of temporal history.

LaCugna envisions a chiastic model of emanation and return. There is neither an economic nor an immanent Trinity; rather there is only the mystery of the theologia manifest in the concrete events of time, space, history and personality. God as Father begets Jesus Christ the Son. From this proceeds the Holy Spirit, then the world. The Holy Spirit consummates the world into the eschatological unity of Jesus Christ, who remits all to God the Father. It is a movement from God into creation, redemption, consummation and back to God. There is no reason to stop at any point along the path, she says. There is no reason to draw a sharp line between Christology and pneumatology. There is no reason to separate God’s immanent from God’s economic relations.

This position has drastic implications for our understanding of spirituality. With the collapsing of the distinction between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity, the inner life of God no longer belongs to God alone. No longer can we speak of God in isolation. The divine life is also our life. As soon as we free ourselves from thinking of two levels of Trinity, one inner and the other outer, then we can see again that there is but one life of the triune God, and that life includes God’s relation to us.

When LaCugna contends that the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and vice versa, or that God’s energies express the divine essence, she is saying that God’s way of being in relationship with us is God’s personhood. She is also saying that this is the perfect expression of God’s being as God. Furthermore, in God alone do we find the full correspondence between personhood and being. God for us is who God is as God.

Should we apply the term "person" to the one nature or to the three identities? This question marked a significant split between Moltmann, who posits a social Trinity in which the three persons constitute three distinct subjectivities, and his mentor, Barth, who held that God is a single subject manifested in three modalities. LaCugna does not take sides:

It does not so much matter whether we say God is one person in three modalities, or one nature in three persons, since these two assertions can be understood in approximately the same way. What matters is that we hold on to the assertion that God is personal, and that therefore the proper subject matter of the doctrine of the Trinity is the encounter between divine and human persons in the economy of redemption.

LaCugna also puts the divine mystery closer to where it belongs. Mystery does not belong to the doctrine of the Trinity as a doctrine. We ought not to use mystery as an excuse for our inability to explain difficult theological propositions. Nor does mystery refer to the inner trinitarian life of God apart from the creation, apart from what has been revealed in the economy of salvation. To apply the term "mystery" to an alleged transcendent reality that has not been revealed is to make theology indistinguishable from fantasy. LaCugna applies the term "mystery" to our inability to comprehend what we have experienced: the saving activity in the mission of Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. Despite our participation in it, we cannot fully understand it. It remains ineffable. This is the paradox that pervades theological knowledge in general. God freely and completely bestows the Godself in the encounter with humans, yet remains ineffable because we creatures are incapable of fully receiving or understanding the one who is imparted.

LaCugna’s insightful scholarship adds a new and welcome voice to the chorus singing a tune first hummed by Barth and then sung by Rahner. However, something is missing from this otherwise fine study, namely, God’s temporality. One would have expected the question of the relationship between eternity and temporality to have appeared on her agenda. The concept of person in relationship implies dynamism, change and growth. The concept of divinization sets our sights on eschatological fulfillment of our personhood. Her chiastic route requires that we look forward to the return to the Father. The movement from the Father to the Father is just that, a movement through time toward a still-outstanding future. If the internal relation of the divine life is as tied to the course of world history as LaCugna seems to believe, then one would expect her to investigate the possible temporal dimensions of God’s life.

As the Trinity talkers continue the conversation, I would like to hear them discuss this question: How can God, who is eternally Trinity, act in and be affected by a temporal world? Traditional Christian theologians have placed the immanent Trinity in eternity and then defined eternity in terms of timelessness. However, once we tie closely the immanent Trinity to the economy of salvation that takes place in the course of temporal history. then the course of temporal events becomes somehow constitutive of the divine life proper. Whatever eternity is, it cannot be divorced from time. The trinitarian history of God’s saving work affects eternal reality.

The keystone here, I think, is eschatology. Time is incorporated into eternity through the eschatological consummation of God’s creating and redeeming work, and this work itself constitutes the eternal perichoresis of the three persons making up the trinitarian life. The realm of creation receives the coming of God through the incarnate Son and the Holy Spirit, who by virtue of their internal relations to the Father bring the redeemed creation within the very life of the triune God proper.

By entering temporal history in the incarnation. God has experienced otherness, and through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, God and the world are experiencing an integrating wholeness. In the Father-Son relationship, the eternal and ineffable Father becomes intimately related to the incarnate Son, who takes up residence in the mundane world of time and space shared by the rest of creation. In the Son-Spirit relationship. Jesus Christ becomes freed from his finitude to become spiritually present in the faith of believers in all lands and times. In the Spirit-Father relationship, the whole of creation, redeemed in Christ, becomes eschatologically restored to an everlasting harmony within the divine life.