THE PROCESSIO-MISSIO CONNECTION: A Starting Point in Missio Trinitatis or Overcoming the Immanent-Economic Divide in a Missio Trinitatis – Peter Bellini

THEPROCESSIO-MISSIO CONNECTION: A Starting Point in Missio Trinitatis or Overcoming the Immanent-Economic Divide in a Missio Trinitatis


In light of the resurgence of Trinitarian theological studies and the emergence of Missio Dei theology, there is a need for clear Trinitarian missional theology, a missio Trinitatis. A robust missio Trinitatis should address key issues and challenges within Trinitarian studies that impact missiology. One such challenge identified by John Flett in his Witness of God is that a viable connection has not been made between the being of God and the acts of God. Our theological attempts at locating mission in the being of the Trinity have failed, and the result has been a wedge driven between the immanent-economic aspects of the Trinity. The problem that will be addressed is twofold. First, how can we theologically locate mission in the imminent Trinity and keep its imminent and economic aspects undivided. Second, how shall we understand the relationship between the imminent and the economic dimensions of the Trinity?

In addressing the problem, I am proposing two solutions. First, a robust missio Trinitatis should necessarily locate the origin of the missional enterprise in the very nature of the tri-personal God. I will explore the work of Thomas Aquinas, Karl Rahner, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. These theologians have attempted to locate the missional enterprise in the processions or processio within the intra-divine relations of the immanent Trinity. Rahner’s Rule establishes the methodological congruence between the two aspects of the Trinity and joins the work of salvation to the doctrine of the Trinity. Von Balthasar, who draws from Aquinas’ work, locates the missio in the processio showing the latter to be definitive and causal to the former. Ultimately, the mission is located and connected with the persons of the Trinity.

Second, a Trinitarian mission theology should preserve the integrity of God’s transcendent or ontological nature, as opposed to allowing it to collapse into any construct of radical immanence, which in turn would permit the economic work to define the Trinity unilaterally and totally. It is then crucial to qualify Rahner’s Rule as methodological and not ontological or epistemological. If Rahner’s Rule is allowed to become a balanced and total equation, then there can be a tendency to collapse the immanent into the economic resulting in erasure of God’s transcendence and a totalization of the eternal Triune God into natural, temporal and human terms. It can be argued that Catherine Mowry La Cugna’s proposal, at times, seems to exemplify this problem. Thus, a qualifier is attached to Rahner’s Rule that allows for methodological equivalence but not ontological or epistemological equivalence. The Rule is given the status of congruence with a remainder or approximate equivalence.

Missio Dei and the Immanent-Economic Divide

The origin of the received missio Dei tradition is complicated and often debated.  Up until recently, the standard narrative has been to trace the idea of the Missio Dei back to Barth, and then through to Karl Hartenstein who would give the concept a name and a voice. Redactors claiming this genealogy would also claim that both Barth and Hartenstein framed their versions of Missio Dei within a Trinitarian theological framework. In his book The Witness of God, John Flett would counter that there is no documentary proof for any of the Missio Dei claims attributed to Barth (Flett 2010:12). In citing Bosch, Flett refutes that the Missio Dei seems to have received at least its original stimulus in part from Karl Barth, whose primary concern was to let God speak and act for God’s self, including missionally (Flett 2010:78-80).

Barth read a significant paper in 1932 at the Brandenburg Missionary Conference in which he repudiated the notion that mission or its conception was a human activity or a work of the church, but that God alone acts on God’s own behalf. Yet despite this admission, Flett argues that Barth never used Missio Dei language nor did he ground or develop a theology of mission in the Trinity, both which are erroneously attributed to him (Flett 2010:120-122). In 1934 Flett notes that it would be Karl Hartenstein, missiologist and friend of Barth, who would coin the phrase Missio Dei, and at the 1952 Willingen Conference of the IMC, the term was first promulgated (2010:123;152-157). By 1958 missiologist Georg Vicedom would popularize it, and in 1991 David Bosch would canonize it and specifically canonize it in Trinitarian garb.

John Flett’s thesis in The Witness of God is that from Karl Barth to current missiological studies unfounded claims are made that the Missio Dei has been solidly grounded in Trinitarian theology (Flett 2010:12). Flett holds that prescriptively this needs to be the case, but descriptively it hardly has been the case because it is not supported in the literature, especially in the Barthian corpus (Flett 2010:47). Locating mission in God was meant in part to be a corrective to a church-centered mission that at times allowed evangelization to advance on the coattail of colonization. As long as mission remained a product of the church, then any ecclesial agenda, theological, political or otherwise could be pawned off as the work of God.

Although such a correctivehas addressed the initial problem by reclaiming the missio as an enterprise that originates in God’s own being, Flett asserts that the Missio Dei may have created further problems for Trinitarian mission theology in that it drives a wedge between the immanent and economic aspects of the Trinity and between God’s mission and the church (Flett 2010:17-18). There is often a theological discontinuity or a wedge between God’s being in se and God’s action for the world that needs to be resolved. If mission is definitive of God, “God is a missionary God”, then mission cannot be grounded in God’s temporal actions in the world but must be founded in and not separated from the eternal nature of God’s being (2010:197). Flett poses the problem. Mission cannot be foreign to God’s nature or actions. Not only is mission to be indigenous to both God’s nature and actions, but it must be a function of both immanent and economic aspects of the Trinity, equally and undivided.

Rahner’s Rule: a Methodological Balance

Much of the discourse on the immanent-economic issue centers around some response to Karl Rahner’s axiom that the “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity” (Rahner 1967:22). This axiom has come to be known as “Rahner’s Rule,” as coined by Ted Peters and has become a watershed and standard in Trinitarian theology (Peters 1993:213 n.33). Rahner’s work seeks to establish congruence between immanent and economic aspects of the Trinity by removing any wedge between the two, and uniting intra-Trinitarian processions with missions.

One of Rahner’s concerns in uniting the two aspects is to ensure that the Trinity does not remain a mere doctrine or even a doctrinal mystery alienated from creation or our experience in salvation history (Rahner 1967:21-22). There can be no ontological or methodological divide between De Deo Uno and De Deo Trino, no possibility for two self-communications of the divine, or two trinities (1967: xiv). The one self-communication of the being of God is revealed through the Triune God in the economy of salvation, a three-fold revelation. God’s three-fold activity in salvation history allows us to understand the tri-personal God in eternity without difference. God communicates God’s Word through the eternal generation of the Son imminently and through the Incarnation of the Son economically, so that the Father may be known. In communicating God’s Word, God also communicates God’s love in the eternal procession and sending of the Spirit so that we may know God’s love that is expressed as the Father generates and communicates the Son and breathes out the Spirit.

Rahner’s axiom poignantly directs our understanding of the revelation of the Triune God. God’s self-communication is real and experienced in the Son and the Spirit. For example God’s self-communication in the Incarnation truly reveals the fullness of God. In opposition to the Scholastic notion that any member of the Trinity could have assumed the Incarnation, Rahner recognizes that such a move further divides immanent and economic aspects. Such a notion proposes that nothing specific of the immanent Trinity is conveyed in the economic merely the common essence of divinity, while Triune particularity is untouched, unrevealed, and irrelevant. However because the Incarnation is actually the Logos of God, the second person of the Trinity become flesh, then not only does the economic truly communicate the Divine, but it even communicates specifically the Divine person of the eternal Son. The Incarnation is Rahner’s proof that the two aspects are convertible. The particularity of the Incarnation reveals the particularity of the hypostasis, in this case the Logos. Thus methodologically, the economic revelation in salvation history works. It truly communicates who God is and what God does (1967:28-33). The imminent-economic connection is made.

For Rahner, there is no “real” God behind the God of our experience, which in essence would reduce the economics of the Son and the Spirit to mere appearances or created mediations, thus Arianism (1967:37-38). The God we receive in salvation is the God of eternity. Rahner clarifies that “these three self-communications are the self-communication of the one God in the three relative ways in which God subsists” (1967:35). The economy of the Trinity is faithful to unveil the immanence of the Trinity because ultimately there is only one Divine self-communication immanently and economically. There is no distinction methodologically. Rahner’s attempt to fortify the integrity of the economic revelation is significant for mission in that it is an attempt to reconnect mission with the intra-Trinitarian life (1967:30). In fact since the economic reveals the immanent in salvation history, and what we know of the latter comes from the former, then “the doctrine of the “missions” is from its very nature the starting point for the doctrine of the Trinity” (1967:48). God’s mission in the world reveals the very nature of the tri-personal God.

Thus in Rahner, there has been a thoughtful attempt at repairing this internal breach within the Trinity that tends to dislocate mission from the immanent tri-personality of God. The integrity of the Incarnation prevents a wedge to be driven between the immanent and economic aspects at least methodologically. Not only is the immanent the economic and the economic the immanent, but also, according to La Cugna, “Rahner’s principle on the identity of economic and immanent Trinity ensures a commensurability between mission and procession” (La Cugna 1991:213). There is a qualified congruence between the processio and the missio.

Thomas Aquinas and Hans Urs von Balthasar: the Processio-Missio Connection

Rahner strikes a methodological balance between immanent and economic aspects of Trinitarian theology and touches briefly on the primacy of mission as a starting point. However, it is Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar who further joins mission with the ad intra relations of the divine persons by retrieving Aquinas’ foundational work, in which the missio is intertwined with intra-Trinitarian relations, namely the processio. Von Balthasar, as part of the Catholic Ressourcement, draws from the fountain of Aquinas. For Aquinas and von Balthasar the immanent processions locate and define the mission in terms of the relations of the Son and the Spirit to the Father in eternity and in the oikonomia. The nature and action of the processio extends to and expounds the missio. 

Before examining von Balthasar’s retrieval of Aquinas, let us review Aquinas’ own understanding of the Trinity and its processions, and mission. Aquinas construes the intra-Trinitarian relations of persons through analogy. Aquinas draws somewhat from Augustine’s psychological model of the Trinity that parallels the knowing and willing self. There are two processions, “the action of the intellect, the procession of the Word; and the other from the action of the will, the procession of love” (Aquinas 1948:154). Aquinas posits an immanent processional doctrine of Word and Love. The immanent modes of procession are the intellectual mode of knowing, and the volitional mode of will/love (Emery 2007:19). The object known and loved, God, is within the knower and lover, God (Aquinas 1948:149). For example, if I know and love my wife, then the knowledge of her is in my mind, and the love of her is in my heart. Both knowledge and love are internalized. In this sense internal or immanent processions of knowledge or Word and will or love are subsistent within God.

In the Summa Theologica Volume One, Question 27, Articles 1-3, Aquinas’ account of the intellectual mode begins by way of similitude or comparison with creation and its highest activity, the act of cognition. God’s self-awareness or self-knowledge generates the Word of God, just as a thought is generated within our own minds when we behold an object. The object in this case is God’s own self. The Word is the thought or reflective knowledge arising or generating from God’s self-perception, a process of conception by intelligible self-reflection. God communicates his thought in language and meaning as Word and that Word is Son, the eternally begotten Son. Eternal generation occurs within the Divine nature bearing the Word in similitude to the Word’s eternal origin in the Father (1948:147-148).

As God relates to God’s self in terms of generating self-knowledge, there is also the exertion of God’s will towards God’s self in the eternal generating of the Son, and that will is love, the procession of the Spirit. The dynamic of the will is inspired in love towards the good of God’s self. The processions are God knowing and willing ad intra. The Father loves himself and the Son, and this is exuded in the Holy Spirit. The love of the Spirit is breathed out and exudes and flourishes from the Father through the generation of the Son into the spiration of the Spirit. God’s eternal knowledge of God’s self eternally generates the Word, and the will proceeds in love towards the goodness of God’s self. The Spirit as love also becomes the mutual bond between Father and Son. The Father and Son love each other by the Holy Spirit, who is love proceeding (1948:190).

The processions are immanent actions, ad intra, as knowing and willing are for us. It is essential that the processions are within the agent itself, in this case the Father (1948:149). The proceeding persons are consubstantial with the origin, the Father, and are not external but within the agent, preventing Arianism. The analogy of the procession is the internal generation of language and meaning that proceeds from within the mind. The Word is communicated as person, Son. Procession is the basis of the relation of origin and constitutes the person. It is a real relation of persons who are constituted in and as relations. The divine persons are defined by their “relations of origin”, which are their processions from the Father. Relation of origin delineates distinction in God (1948:159). The act of the procession establishes the relation, and the relation constitutes and distinguishes the persons (1948:151,204). The Son is the Son because the relation of origin is to the Father. Aquinas acknowledges both subsistence and relations as constituting divine personhood and divine essence. A divine person is a “subsistent relation”(1948:159).

Aquinas’ work contends that the immanent processions that are definitive of the persons are also definitive of the missions, the missions of the Son and the Spirit (Emery 2007:364). Immanent and economic aspects of the Trinity are conjoined and continuous as the former is the source and foundation for the latter. God’s same knowledge and love ad intra is communicated ad extra. Within God’s own generational and processional knowledge are also God’s knowledge of all creation, and in this knowledge is God’s love for all creation. As God knows and loves God’s self, so God knows and loves all of creation. All things are made and sustained by the generation of God’s word and proceed out of God’s love. The processio is defined by the nature of the relations and the distinctive properties of the person. The missio is also defined by the processional relations and distinctive properties of the person. In the case of the Word, the Son is eternally generated in the procession. The Word is distinct in person due to relation, Son. The procession defines and constitutes the person, Son. The procession defines and constitutes the Spirit as well. The procession of the persons also defines the mission, which for Aquinas is a “temporal procession” (1948:221). Mission begins in the eternal procession and has a temporal effect in the world (1948:220).

Thomas distinguished between “eternal procession” and “temporal procession” and between “visible mission” and “invisible mission” (1948:220-223). Eternal procession has been discussed. Temporal procession is simply mission in the world. It is the action of the eternal procession carried out in space and time. The temporal processions or missions begin with the creation and move to the Incarnatio. The visible mission is the visible embodiment of the Divine person in mission, for example the Incarnation. The invisible mission is the interior sanctifying work of the Son and the Spirit in the church and in the lives of believers. With these distinctions made it is clear that Aquinas tightly links mission with the processions of the persons in the immanent Trinity and not apart from them. In Question 43, Article 4, he lucidly declares, that mission means procession from the sender (1948:222). Mission is tied to procession and the sender or origin.

Mission points to the sender and thus points to the origin in the Father and the procession of the Son (1948:220). Gilles Emery cites Aquinas that “A divine person’s mission will have two constitutive features: (1) this person’s eternal procession; and (2) the divine person’s relation to the creature to whom this person is made present in a new way” (Emery 2007:364). For example, the mission of the Word is the eternal generation from the Father, and the Incarnation, the Word made flesh. Immanent and economic are conjoined in one divine action that stems from the nature of God and not from contingency and need of salvation. Also mission is not an after thought connected back to God in order to substantiate a Missio Dei in the ontological Trinity. Emery explains the missional nature of the immanent processions and their relations in this manner:

The notion of missions is a part of the integrated theory of the immanent processions and Trinitarian relations of origin: a divine mission ‘includes’ an eternal procession in itself. So the premier feature of mission is an origination relation as between one divine person and another. This relation is eternal and uncreated, like the divine persons themselves (Emery 2007:365).

Mission is directly connected to the processions, the relations the processions represent, and the origin of the relation. Procession is missional since it involves a sender (the origin) and the sent (the relation of origin) (1948:220). Aquinas puts it this way, “Thus the mission of a divine person is a fitting thing, as meaning in one way the procession of origin from the sender, and as meaning a new way of existing in another; thus the Son is said to be sent by the Father into the world” (1948:220).

Aquinas’ missional theology grounds the divine missions in the divine persons who are forever one in the divine essence. Aquinas links the relations and processions of the immanent Trinity with the missions of Christ and the Spirit in the economic Trinity. The mission is the revelation of the distinctive personal properties of the Son and the Spirit. The temporal processions (missions) including creation, God’s revelation to Israel, the Incarnation, Pentecost, and the birth and work of the church all originate from the Father and his divine action in the immanent eternal processions. The eternal generation of the Son, and the procession of the gift of love, the Holy Spirit are revealed economically in creation, the creation of humanity in the imago Dei, the Incarnation, and the gift of salvation.

Hans Urs von Balthasar retrieves Thomas’s mission theory for his own Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, the secondpart of his magnum opus trilogy in 18 volumes, The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama and Theo-Logic. For von Balthasar the immanent processio of the divine persons becomes programmatic for the missio in a way in which not only is the economic work of the Trinity immutably grounded ad intra in God’s transcendence rather than human experience, but also immanent and economic aspects are conjoined to resist any dualistic or reductionistic construct of the divine nature and Trinitarian activity.Mission is the guide and basis for Von Balthasar’s theodramatic theory that centers on the person and mission of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ (Balthasar 1992:3:201). The eternal generation of the Son becomes and is the mission of the Son of man in the world. For Balthasar the Son, or Sonship, is itself the mission. “Son” is a processional and missional category. Son indicates his “Trinitarian relationship to the Father and the soteriological goal of his mission” (1992:3:153).  Von Balthasar discovers an a apriori connection between person, defined by procession, and mission (1992:3:165-166). Mission is divinely personal.

Balthasar stresses that mission is not given ex post facto or is a function of human conditions and terms, but the second “person has been given a mission, not accidentally, but as a modality of his eternal personal being; if, as Thomas says, the Son’s missio is the economic form of his eternal processio from the Father” (1992:3:201). With the second person of the Trinity, the relation of origin, Son, is the mission. For von Balthasar, mission becomes an aspect of being as exemplified in the Son. “Son” defines the person and the work, inseparably. The procession of the Son is the mission. Von Balthasar makes this connection in the Synoptic and Johannine “sending formulas” that are definitive of Christ’s “sent-ness” (Von Balthasar 1992:151-153). Christ has a “mission consciousness” and understands himself in these terms as “one who is sent” (1992:3:163-166).

Space does not provide for a thorough scriptural unpacking of Christ’s mission and sent-ness, but the point is that mission is grounded in the immanent processions, in this case, the generation of the Son determines the mission of the Son. The sending of missio is rooted in the primordial processio (1992:5:154). Simply, the processio becomes definitive and causal of the missio in one divine action with eternal and temporal effects. The eternality of generation and procession within the Godhead does not cease in time but analogically and temporally manifests in mission with the “generation” of the Word and the “procession” of the Spirit in creation, incarnation, and in new creation. There is a continuum of the processio and missio of God that extends from the eternal divine action and relations into creatio, culminating with the Incarnatio and theosis.

Von Balthasar’s correlation between processio and missio thus far is in accord with Rahner’s Rule. With the processions ad intra taking on the form of missio ad extra, the immanent is revealed and experienced in the economic. Yet since processio can only be within a nature, the Divine nature, and missio pertains to created or contingent nature, there is an ontological difference, a remainder, and never simply an equating, whereby the economic order can never totalize the ontological nature of God, a necessary corrective to what could be construed as a reductive tendency in Rahner’s Rule.

In volume three of his Theological Dramatic Theory, Von Balthasar cautiously assures us that the economic reveals and interprets the immanent but is not fully, axiomatically identified with the immanent since the immanent is the ground and support of the economic (1992:508). He clarifies that the laws of the economic Trinity arise from the immanent Trinity, but they are not simply identical (1992:157). There is always a remainder. Von Balthasar is highlighting what would be more the methodological symmetry rather than the ontological. Both Thomas and Von Balthasar operate too strongly out of an analogical epistemology to allow the empirical to totalize the transcendent. There can be no univocal expression of God either in language or ontology.

It is vital to recall that Thomas’ and von Balthasar’s analogical ontology, an analogia entis, recognizes not merely similarity but more so the dissimilarity between the nature of God and God’s mission and our understanding of both, preventing a strict immanent-economic equation. The analogia entis is Von Balthasar’s move to preserve God’s prerogative, freedom, mystery, and transcendence over against the totalizing tendency of univocity. Even in the Incarnation, which is the concrete analogia entis, the ontological difference between created and uncreated natures remains (1992:3:222). There is always a remainder due to the ontological gap between necessary and dependent being, and a remainder due to an epistemological gap that involves the noetic effects of sin and the mystery of apophasis. The remainder serves as a response to any attempt at making an ontological or epistemological equation of Rahner’s Rule, which in essence would become Rahner’s Reduction.  

Problems arise when Rahner’s Rule is made an ontological or even an epistemological equation. A different problem can arise when any one of the two postulates of Rahner’s Rule defines the rule to the exclusion of the other postulate. On the other hand, Catherine La Cugna has called for the elimination of the immanent-economic distinction in favor of an experiential model that is defined and shaped by soteriology. Defining the Trinity in strictly empirical terms can lend to a tendency to collapse the immanent into the economic, resulting in erasure of God’s transcendence and a totalization of the eternal Triune God into natural, temporal and human terms.

IT=ET – Catherine La Cugna and the Problem with the Equation

Catherine Mowry La Cugna’s magnum opus, God For Us, has been a seminal work in the advancement of Trinitarian studies. In recovering the soteriological and practical nature of the doctrine of the Trinity, she built upon the work of Rahner. La Cugna is aware of the aporia in Rahner’s Rule if it were to be interpreted as an ontological or epistemological equation. She states in her introduction to Rahner’s The Trinity that “Both the distinction and the identity between the economic and immanent Trinity are conceptual, not ontological” (Rahner 1967:xiv).  As a method it stands that “God truly is as God reveals God’s self to be” (1967: xiv). Nothing of God’s essence or persons is lost. In God For Us, La Cugna reiterates her assessment that Rahner’s Rule must be understood methodologically and not as an ontological or epistemological equation. She states, “but the distinction between economic and immanent Trinity is strictly conceptual, not ontological” (La Cugna 1991:212). She later asks the question, “Is it literally true that the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, as in the tautology A=A” (1991:216). La Cugna answers that a “strict ontological identity” would result in Rahner’s Rule being no different than pantheism (1991:217). There is always a remainder between theologia and oikonomia because “God’s self-communication in history is not exactly not identical with God’s eternal self-communication” (1991:219). La Cugna confirms that there is unity between theologia and oikonomia but not identity “either epistemological or ontological, between God and God for us (1991:221). She acknowledges the ontological difference, but, at times, in her work she seems to conflate the difference.

Although, La Cugna built on the work of Rahner, she believes the corrective in Trinitarian theology needs to extend to Rahner’s theology as well. For La Cugna, Rahner is still caught up in the “stranglehold of the post-Nicene problematic when he uses the undeniable distinctions of persons in the economy to posit intradivine self-communication, intradivine relation, God in Godself” (1991:222).  La Cugna’s work seeks to restore the work of salvation to the doctrine of the Trinity, as it was prior to Aquinas and Augustine and even Nicaea, when in her estimation theologia was not separated from oikonomia, and oikonomia revealed and defined theologia (1991:221-222). She believes most of the discourse and work around the doctrine from Nicaea until today to be highjacked by speculation. For La Cugna, this period is characterized by metaphysical speculation concerning the foundational and determining nature of theologia on the doctrine of the Trinity to the exclusion of the oikonomia of God, or how salvation is revealed to us and experienced by us through the persons of the Trinity. In order to overcome this “defeat of the Trinity,” she calls for a revision of the doctrine that would abandon the imminent-economic distinction and operate solely out of Trinity as oikonima (La Cugna 1991:223).

 Ultimately, La Cugna desires to do away with the immanent-economic distinction (1991:223). Theologia, unlike the immanent Trinity, is not a theology of God’s inner self or God in se, involving relations, processions, etc. Theologia is the “eternal mystery of God” communicated through the economy of salvation (1991:221). La Cugna would have all talk of theology proper, God in se, to be abandoned, as well as any intra-divine distinctions, self-communications or relations such as are found in Rahner (La Cugna 1991:231). Any theology that still seeks to define an inner lifewithin the Divine is speculative and perpetuates an unnecessary division that renders the doctrine of the Trinity irrelevant.

For La Cugna, simply the ineffable mystery of theologia is revealed and known in the oikonomia, and ultimately “There is neither an economic nor an immanent Trinity; there is only the oikonomia that is the concrete realization of the mystery of theologia in time, space, history and personality (1991:223). If oikonima is the ontological source for theologia, per La Cugna’s recommendation, then we are unable to locate mission or any action in the ontological nature of God. Such a move not only undermines a Trinitarian foundation for mission but also undermines the very tri-personal nature of God and any intra-divine relations that inform the church’s koinonia, diakonia, apostelein, and leitourgia. In abandoning our understanding of the immanent nature of the Trinity we would have to abandon the Nicene Creed and possibly its Johannine echoes that speak of the “eternally begotten Son” and the “Spirit who proceeds from the Father.” Possibly, without the Divine processions there would be no relations and distinction of persons, leaving us with Sabellianism and possibly Arianism (Aquinas 1948:153).

Many consider La Cugna’s work revolutionary and her accolades are many. However, her detractors are equally as numerous. Much of the attention centers on her rejection of immanent-economic terminology as well as her equating theologia and oikonomia that is tantamount to a rejection of the immanent Trinity. In Rediscovering the Triune God, Stanley Grenz surveys the resurgence of modern Trinitarian theology. In his section on Catherine La Cugna, he documents the charges of her critics that can be summarized as a collapsing of the nature of God into the economy of salvation (Grenz 2004:160). With the numerous caveats previously cited in which La Cugna emphasizes the ontological difference between immanent and economic and even theologia and oikonomia, it is difficult to want to read her as intentionally conflating, reducing or totalizing in any way. Yet, at times, it seems that is exactly what she is doing when she attempts to define fully theologia as oikonomia and remove any autonomy or self-relation from the ontology of God (La Cugna 1991:320).

In defining the Trinity through soteriology, La Cugna is not exactly claiming that God is reduced to what is revealed in salvation history, though it can be construed as such. La Cugna is stating that for us that which is outside of the oikonomia is merely unspoken or apophatic. The problem is what we have left if we keep the immanent-economic distinction is a totalized equation, the “economic is the immanent.” If we follow La Cugna’s theologia-oikonomia nomenclature then we have a totalized equation, “oikonomia is theologia,”and this could lead to many unintended problems, such as  Sabellianism, Arianism, a kenotic Trinity, a deflationary Trinitarian ontology, a compromise of Divine freedom, an open view of God, pantheism or a host of other difficulties.

IT=ET and/or ET=IT: The Problem with the Equation

            If La Cugna has unintentionally collapsed the nature of God into the oikonomia, then what we have is a makeover from Rahner’s Rule to La Cugna’s Conflation. In such a case there are several questions that would need to be addressed. Is Rahner’s Rule to be understood as an equation? Immanent Trinity (IT) = Economic Trinity (ET) and/or Economic Trinity (ET) = Immanent Trinity (IT). If so, how is it an equation, and how is it not an equation? If we look at Rahner’s Rule as an axiom with two postulates, what happens when one postulate, ie, IT=ET, defines the entire axiom?

If understood ontologically then several problems ensue. First, if there were a strict identity between the two, an ontological equation, then the result would be two trinities. Second, there would be an erroneous conflation of the ontological difference between God and creation. Third, the result would be a kenotic Trinity that economically inflates into pantheism, a divinization of the world process. There is also a serious epistemological problem that follows from the ontological problem, especially in problems two and three. If the immanent ontology is deflated into the economic, and the economic serves an epistemological function to know the immanent, then all that is known of God in human terms is all that God can be. God becomes the world, and more so God becomes what we understand the world to be. An immanent Trinity that implodes into the economic would be a kenotic Trinity that could only be defined and totalized by any configuration of human terms. Von Balthasar warns that the economic Trinity cannot be strictly identified with the immanent Trinity, “Otherwise the immanent, eternal Trinity would threaten to dissolve into the economic; in other words, God would be swallowed up in the world process” (Balthasar 1992:3:508).

Some of these questions have been addressed in part thus far. First, Rahner’s Rule is to be construed as methodological, as Rahner, von Balthasar and La Cugna concur. Methodologically, the Rule conjoins the being of God with the acts of God and restores salvific value to the doctrine. They also concur that the Rule cannot be an ontological equation, though it seems that La Cugna has a tendency to commit this error. The Rule cannot be an equation because simply there is an ontological difference between God and creation. The terms are never univocal or equal. God is eternal, infinite, perfect, necessary and all of the other traditional characteristics that we attribute to God. We are none of these. God’s economic revelation of salvation is not necessary for God but for us.

There is a difference between necessary uncreated being and contingent created being and how they relate. The nature of the relations between the immanent relations of divine persons and the economic, salvific relations between God and humanity are different. God’s self-communication in eternal intra-divine community is not salvific but perichoretic. The nature of self-communication is the same immanently and economically. It is eternal holy and perfect love, but the goal and reception of that communication differ due to the ontological difference. When God communicates to us, it is not “Light from Light; True God from True God; Begotten not made; One in being with the Father.” It is more like God from God-man to man. True God-man to fallen man.

The ontological difference in this case is between Creator and creation. The difference is communicated through the Incarnation. The ontological difference between God and man within the Incarnation is the Incarnation itself that is both bridge and gap simultaneously. The Incarnation unites the divine nature with human nature, the immanent and ontological nature of God with the ontology of humanity and dependent being without confusion. We become partakers of the divine nature in Christ. In the Incarnation, the immanent is the economic and the economic is the immanent, but as we are in Christ, our experience says that “the immanent is in the economic, and the economic is in the immanent, not a totalization. In our experience of the Incarnation, Rahner’s Rule cannot be an ontologically balanced equation, but it does have congruence with a remainder and may be stated as ≈ or approximately equal to, yet with an infinite remainder. The economic is the epistemological starting point for the immanent, but it is not the ontological foundation for the immanent. It also cannot be an epistemological equation but remains similarly an approximation, less the immanent Trinity is emptied and totalized in human terms.

It cannot be that our experience of the economic is the full experience of the immanent. This is the pitfall of equating experience with ontology and making the economic transcendental to our knowledge and experience of God. Our experience then becomes the boundary of ontology and ontology becomes the boundary of experience. It cannot be so. Thus we must declare that the economic methodologically conveys the immanent and is conjoined with the fullness of the immanent but is not to be conflated or equated with the immanent.


Mission theology begins with the Trinity. There are many challenges in constructing a Missio Trinitatis. One such challenge is to locate the source of mission in the Trinity itself and then to resolve the immanent-economic tension that follows. Rahner’s Rule provides methodological ballast to any intra-extra divide within the Trinity. Aquinas and Von Balthasar locate mission with the processions of the persons themselves, as the processio becomes causal and definitive of the missio. Problems arise when Rahner’s Rule becomes an ontological or epistemological equation, or when oikonomia, totalizes the Trinity and eliminates the processions. It is debatable whether La Cugna falls into this error. If it is the case then it is a conflation that compromises the very nature of the Divine in terms of simplicity, freedom, transcendence, and God’s essence. Rahner’s Rule always has a remainder in order to preserve the ontological nature of the Trinity, to locate mission in the intra-Trinitarian relations, and to uphold the integrity of God’s freedom and transcendence.


Aquinas, Thomas                                                                                                                    1948                Summa Theologica: Complete English Edition. Trans. Fathers of                                            the English Dominican Province. Volume One. Benziger Bros.                                             New York, NY. 

Balthasar, Han Urs von                                                                                                                      1989                Explorations in Theology 1: The Word Made Flesh. San Francisco,                                        CA:Ignatius Press.

1992                Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory. III. Dramatis                                                  Personae:Persons in Christ. San Francisco, CA. Ignatius Press..

            1998                Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory. V. Dramatis                                                    Personae:The Last Act. San Francisco, CA. Ignatius Press.

Emery, Gilles, OP

2007                The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Oxford University Press.

Flett, John G.                                                                                                                          2010                The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the                                     Nature of Christian Community.Eerdmans Publishing Co.Grand                                          Rapids, MI.

Grenz, Stanley                                                                                                                                    2004                Rediscovering the Triune God. Minneapolis, MN.Augsburg                                     Fortress.

La Cugna, Catherine                                                                                                                1991                God for Us. San Francisco, CA. HarperCollins.

Rahner, Karl                                                                                                                            1970                The Trinity. Crossroads Pub. Co. New York, NY.

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