Thursday, February 13, 2014

Ontological vs. Economic Trinity: What's the Difference

Understanding the Trinity is hard enough. Because it is so easy to fall into a variety of heresies (modalism, tritheism, Arianism, etc.), one must be careful with the language they use. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Dr. RC Sproul clarifies what we mean when we speak of the Ontological Trinity and the Economic Trinity. The good folks at Ligonier have posted it at their website. Here is an excerpt.

The Ontological Trinity:

Sproul writes:
Ontology is the study of being. When we talk about the ontological Trinity, we are referring to the fact that God is three in one. There are three persons in the Godhead—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—who together are one being. The ontological structure of the Trinity is a unity. 
 This is basic Trinitarian theology. The Godhead is a unified diversity. Unified in the sense we believe in one, and only one, God. It is diverse in the sense we believe that though God is one, He (note the singular) exists in three Persons. Each person - the Father, Son, and Spirit - is God distinct from the other persons. The Father is not the Son, the Son is the not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father.

The Economic Trinity

Sproul writes:
When we speak of the economic Trinity, we are dealing with roles. We distinguish among the three persons of the Godhead in terms of what we call the economy of God. It is the Father who sends the Son into the world for our redemption. It is the Son who acquires our redemption for us. It is the Spirit who applies that redemption to us. We do not have three gods. We have one God in three persons, and the three persons are distinguished in terms of what They do.

In orthodox Christianity, we say that the Son is equal to the Father in power, in glory, and in being. This discussion rests heavily on John 1:1, where we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This verse indicates that the Father and the Word (the Son) are different and are one. In one sense, the Son and the Father are identical. In another sense, They are distinguished. From all eternity the Father sends the Son, and the Son is subordinate to the Father. The Son doesn’t send the Father; the Father sends the Son. So even though the Father and the Son are equal in power, glory, and being, nevertheless there is an economic subordination of the Son to the Father.
 This is really helpful. The Ontological Trinity emphasizes the unified diversity nature of the Godhead. The Economic Trinity emphasizes the equal distinctions of the Godhead. Though each Person is equal - the Father is not greater than the Son, the Son is not greater than the Spirit, and the Spirit is not greater than the Father - that does not mean each being is not distinct. Equality does not automatically mean sameness.

To illustrate this point, Sproul helpfully argues that the Father sends the Son but the Son does not send the Father. Perhaps we could summarize the roles of the Trinity as it relates to salvation this way: the Father initiates, the Son propitiates, and the Spirit regenerates.

Though distinct, equal.

Why Does this Matter for the Church?

Often when I teach on the Trinity this question is inevitably asked. Of course it is nice to know what one's faith actually teaches, many struggle in applying the doctrine of the Trinity to their lives. One key area (and there are many) where the Trinity is easily applicable is the local church
 Regardless of your musical taste I am sure you have experienced the same phenomena when listening to your favorite band or composition of music. The beauty of music is you can appreciate the "togetherness" of the instruments playing in sync, yet at the same time you can appreciate the unique sound of each instrument. Just try it next time. It would be inaccurate to say the trombone is greater than flute because it has a solo. The importance of each, and all the instruments, is the same. If one instrument was out of tune or off key, the entire composition would be off.

Or consider your favorite sport. Often a team promotes its leader who is given much of the credit for the team's success or failures. The truth is, however, the team is a unified diversity. They stand and fall together based on how each member performs as an individual and as a group.

The same is true for the church. Every member, under the gospel, is equal as redeemed sinners saved by grace. Yet at the same time, the church is made up of a diverse group of people with different backgrounds, stories, testimonies, and experiences. God has united the church with various spiritual gifts. It would be false to say that the one with the gift of teaching is greater than the one with the gift of administration. The church, then, is a unified diversity - men and women, young and old are all one in Christ.

Furthermore, the church, resembling the Trinity, is an equal distinction. Each person, though equal, plays a distinct role in the Kingdom of God. Some are called to preach. Some are called to teach. Some are called to give. Some are called to serve. Some are deacons. Some are elders. All equal. Yet distinct.


This Trinitarian model could be applied to other areas as well including the home, gender roles, society, etc. Both the Ontological and the Economic Trinity is important for our understand as orthodox Christians and for understanding what it means to live as Christians. All theology is practical.

Ligonier - What's the Difference Between the Ontological and Economic Trinity?

For more:
Ware on the Trinity & Relationships
"For the Doctrine of the Trinity" by RC Sproul
DeYoung on the Trinity
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