On the Economic Trinity

This is prompted in part by a student paper from my mass of grading I’m slowly coming out from under…since I think my grades are due today…


If people complain that the Trinity isn’t in the Bible, they ought to complain even more about the Economic Trinity: “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.” The more I think about it, the more uncomfortable I am with it, especially in its current liturgical use. This formulation is—as far as I know—a construct of liberal protestant theology without particularly deep roots in Christian practice, especially in the ways it’s coming more and more into use. My reading of medieval sources in particular is often at odds with it in several key respects and highlights the dissonances within it for me.


Increasingly, the Economic Trinity is gaining favor as a liturgical substitute for the classical Trinitarian of “Father, Son, Holy Spirit”; functionally, people seem to map the terms with the various parts of the Godhead: Father=Creator, Redeemer=Son, Sanctifier=Holy Spirit. I don’t know if this was the original intent of the folks who constructed it or not but it’s certainly the way it’s playing out in our faith communities. And as strict equivalencies—they don’t work. Medieval catechetical documents lift up Christ as creator in ways at odds with this construction. And, when the dissonance is probed, the New Testament evidence—John, the Pauline group, the Petrines—comes down much more on the medieval side than the modern side. The same is true of disassociating the Father for the Redeemer;  who is it that leads out his people “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm”?


Professional theologians have the learning and leisure to sit around and discuss how Christ is functioning in the Exodus narrative or in Creation and how the economic terms neither precisely limit nor delineate the persons of the Godhead—but most other folks don’t. I suggest we think real hard about the theological problems of replacing one with the other before making it an unreflective liturgical change. It’s the unreflective changes that seem like a good idea at the time that can lead not only us but our fellow believers into trouble…

10 thoughts on “On the Economic Trinity

  1. Caelius

    I’ve been reading Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, and it surprised me where the ancient exegetes found Christ (I’m not sure I believe He was in the Burning Bush in particular). Most interesting was the description of Christ as both Logos kai Sophia, which I really should have picked up from the O Antiphons. But I’ve imbibed so deeply of Liberal Protestantism that I always thought of the Holy Spirit as Wisdom.

    As for your main point, I’m very surprised that you didn’t see the Economic Trinity as automatically a gender-inclusive transformation (the mathematical term…) of the Ecumenical Trinity. However, I believe its use in the Episcopal Church was boosted by the use of Economic Trinity as appositives in the BCP (particularly the influential Non-Juror Book of 1689), pre-dating Liberal Protestantism by about a century.

    The Economic Trinity does not confute the Persons in itself any more than is traditional in Christian liturgical practice (both the 300 Fathers and Cranmer would or did call God the Father creator of heaven and earth while simultaneously insisting that through Christ all things were made) but that the formula God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit is the most general and thus the shorthand that most avoids confusion of the Persons (and most indicates avoidance of confusion).

  2. *Christopher

    I was confused for a moment, as when I hear the term “Economic Trinity”, I think of Rahner and LaCagna, both of whom would identify the modes Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer with the work of all three persons and would reject this facile replacement of relationships with modes/roles, and I hadn’t thought to think that those terms only were descriptive of God’s economy, as there are many others that come to mind. The best I’ve heard it done is “One God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer”, but that is either 1) a Trinitarian Prayer only in the implied sense that the One God in Christian understanding is Trinitarian being “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, or 2) not Trinitarian at all, but rather unitarian. I would suggest we stick liturgically with “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, but we’ve been around that bend before. I think the greater issue is hitting direct on the tendency toward male essentializing of the Trinity that undergirds the reactions of not simply liberal Protestants but a fair number of moderate-to-progressive catholics, Roman, Anglican, and otherwise. To link “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” to male essence is heretical, as St. Nyssa would say Valentinian, but it has a long history and is undergirded by certain notions that only males can act in the person of Christ or that Christ’s nature or essence depending on the arguer is male, suggesting that maleness is of the essence of imaging God rather than those things, virtues, which show something of the character of God, and that all human flesh both male and female can image God. I think this is where a reconstruction is most fruitful, and LaCugna does a fine job to my mind, holding the traditional formula while suggesting that as a community, we are called to reflect the way the Trinity relates immanently.

    As for Wisdom, I think Elizabeth Johnson does a find work of locating this also within the Trinity as a whole: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all Wisdom. Again, this prevents a genderizing of one person of the Trinity as female or attempts by some to essentialize gender into the Godhead, blending Jesus’ human maleness (and never his Jewishness or any other aspect) with his divine nature in a non-Chalcedonian transfer that is not about communication of attributes–character/virtue, but really does look like making the male God when frankly, there is nothing about maleness per se that I can see that in and of itself anymore than femaleness (and on a real level we seem to be mixed in our attributes associated with each) that shows me something of how God is.

  3. m

    Amen to that!It really is those little changes we make to the liturgy without reflection that end up doing quite a bit of damage.

  4. Caelius

    Just to provide some context: here’s a few interesting usages in vogue in my neck of the woods:

    At the beginning of Holy Baptism:

    “…One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, One God and Creator of All”

    What passes for the Gloria Patri

    “Glory to God, creating, redeeming, and sanctifying, as it was in the beginning…”

    The latter strikes me as Sabellian.

  5. Derek the Ænglican

    I’m not disagreeing, Caelius, I do think a lot of clergy use it as a non-gendered way of talking about God. I realize why they think it’s helpful; I just worry that it raises as many problems as it solves.

    And to both you and *Christopher, you’re right that in the proper and appropriate theological circles of discourse the formula is sufficiently hedge to avoid hypostatic fouls. But not in the parish. I don’t worry about theologians falling into heresy–they charge into that just fine on their own… Rather, I’m concerned about how the un-nuanced liturgical appropriation of the formula causes problems for laity–and some of the seminarians I teach. We are forming them this way whether we thought about the implications or not–and that worries me.

    M, as usual, is right. ;-)

  6. Caelius

    It worries me, too. I just was pointing out why it may have sneaked in so easily on the parish level. And if used enough, it becomes part of the evangelical character of the congregation.

  7. *Christopher

    I would say that we need more education that is solid in thinking but written and presented in digestible ways to address such things. I can go into a deep spiel about gender or Godhead, etc., but really, on a very everyday level, delving into the meaning of a relational understanding of God found in “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is more likely to meet people when linked with everyday life in communal praxis. The Trinitarian understanding is relational in se and with us, and starting from this perspective automatically bites at the distant male sky-God baloney that even Christians have a history of presenting erroneously as what we believe.

    I remember in systematics, the prof. went on and on about how God wasn’t male, and then proceeded to show us pictures of the Father from the Medieval period in which the Father was an old man (this is technically heretical by the way from an iconographic pov, and I pointed that out that the illustrations he offered did not fit the theology he espoused.). When asked about the Holy Spirit, “he said the Holy Spirit is a dove, a fire, .” That’s It? This was at a sem in a tradition in which the Spirit does not figure large theologically…I’ll let you figure out which tradition. I found myself writing my systematics paper on the work of the Spirit, given my Pentecostal upbringing.

    This is to say, as I’ve said before, with regard to our Sunday practices, I wish we would leave them be BCP and begin to take up the importance of preserving what “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” says about God and God’s relationship to us needs to be happening when discussing both liturgical revision nationally and within the parish. To be honest, I’m troubled (but say nothing when used) by some of the new enriching openings in which the liturgy opens without the formula in some fashion, and prefer those found in the 79 BCP. This says nothing about offering alternatives or other prayers, though I really do wish I didn’t need to have to have something in my hands all the time because we keep changing our wrods and rites, so that my bones just learn something and we move on to something new and flashier or different. I don’t bother to memorize the Creeds, or Our Father, or anymore because so many versions are out there, and I’ve been caught reciting the wrong one in too many parishes across traditions.

    This all gets back to how we understand liturgy, and I think that culturally speaking, we seem to understand liturgy as always in needs of refreshing and something different and shiny and new, whereas, I tend to think of liturgy as repetative and relatively unchanging not because I don’t think it doesn’t change overtime and across cultures and as we think theologically or respond to pastoral need or because I think the words are operative in and of themselves, but because this is how it gets in our bones and becomes one with everyday life AND because a relatively unchanging and repeting liturgy says something about how God comes to us–that the Chief Action, THE LITURGY, God’s coming to us is unchanging and promised and ongoing.

    And “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” also connects me to the Scriptures in a way “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” does not probably from lifelong use and getting in the bones, but most other formulations leave me flat.

    Enough ranting.

  8. Marshall

    I appreciate the concern. I do think it can be addressed.

    Some years ago – perhaps now a generation ago – a book on growing churches indicated five characteristics chared by growing congregations from a variety of Christian traditions. Any church that showed three held its own, and grew, if slowly. Any congregation showing four or five was doing quite well, regardless of tradition. One of those characteristics was good adult Christian education. This is, of course, the way to address the concern.

    I appreciate that the words of our worship, both in liturgy and homily, have instructive value. At the same time, no one event can express all the words that might be significant in addressing the mystery of God. As a priest who has done a great deal of supply work in my career, I’ve been saddened to see many congregations that made no investment in such education, even to the extent of a book study group.

    Now, granted, no other educational experience in the congregation will reach as many as worship. At the same time, it can significantly affect what a significant portion of the congregation brings to the worship experience, and so the culture and context for all the worshippers.

    I find myself torn regularly, paying attention to our Trinitarian formula. Having spent my career listening to many stories of painful families, I am sensitive to those who hear the word “father” and experience in their gut the concept “beast.” As we need the education to deal with the limitations of our use of the “economic Trinity,” we need education to deal with limitations of our use of the “essential Trinity.” We won’t accomplish that in the life of the worshippers depending only on what happens in Eucharist.

  9. Annie

    I feel guilty! But I only pointed it out as a means of prooving continuing revelation by the Holy Spirit! Will you forgive me?

    The first mention of the eventual doctrine that has been found to date according to Advent is this:

    The word trias (of which the Latin trinitas is a translation) is first found in Theophilus of Antioch about A.D. 180. He speaks of “the Trinity of God [the Father], His Word and His Wisdom (“Ad. Autol.”, II, 15)

    I humbly have drawn the conclusion that anywhere in the OT where God speaks, it is attributed to his Word.

    I don’t challenge it. I see it in scripture in contemplating what is written in light of knowing the doctrine.

    Like you, I worry about the ramifications of changes. The least change can have tremendous effect on future believers. While observing protestant belief, I often wonder if the lengths they have taken some teachings, such as scripture alone, was ever envisioned by the reformers quite the way it is practiced now.


  10. JC

    The problem with “Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer” is that it smacks of creeping Arianism. If the first person of the Trinity is the Creator, by logic, the second and third persons are created by the first. Thus the economic formula is IMHO unfaithful to traditional Nicene orthodoxy.

    A better formula I like is Augustine “Lover, Beloved, and Love.”

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