Book | God For Us by Catherine LaCugna

God for Us by Catherine Mowry LaCugnaLaCugna, Catherine Mowry. God for Us : The Trinity and Christian Life. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

A Substantial Inquiry into  Catherine LaCugna’s God With Us, focusing on Part I | by Steve Thomason | A Term Paper Presented to Professor Gary Simpson | Luther Seminary | As a Requirement in Course CL8950 Trinity and Mission | St. Paul, Minnesota | 2012


The purpose of this paper is to engage in dialogue with the first part of Catherine LaCugna’s book God for Us: Trinity and Christian Life.[1] The scope and audience of this paper is purposefully limited. The intended audience is the members of the CL8950 Trinity in Mission class at Luther Seminary. I will intentionally constrain the conversation to Part One of God For Us with the expectation that the questions I raise in this paper will either find resolution or be rendered irrelevant during the subsequent class discussion of Part Two in the following week.

I will engage this discussion in three parts. First, I will briefly summarize the historical stepping stones LaCugna lays down that lead to the ultimate “emergence and defeat of the doctrine of the Trinity.”[2] Second, I will highlight and analyze a few key points in LaCugna’s argument. Third, I will pose some questions as to how this alleged problem may impact life in the missional church today.

A Brief Summary

LaCugna posits two basic claims. First, she claims that “the doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a practical doctrine with radical consequences for Christian life.”[3] Her second claim is that the doctrine of the Trinity that we–meaning the Western church–have inherited through the history of Greek and Latin theology has been distorted and rendered bankrupt by the separation of theologia and oikonomia. Part One of the book deals primarily with the second claim. She methodically steps through the historical development of the orthodox Trinitarian doctrine and demonstrates how it unwittingly rendered itself disconnected and unhelpful in piety and salvific relationship between God and creature.

She analyzes this historical development of the doctrine of the Trinity through the very narrow and intentional lens of the relationship between oikonomia and theologia. She marks a clear path through this development. It can be divided into two major historical sections: pre-nicene and post-nicene. The pre-nicene writers include the biblical authors, the patristic writers, the apologists, Alexander and Athanasius. Each step of the journey after Nicea marked the further separation of oikonomia and theologia. The progression begins with the Cappadocians, moves to Augustine, and then is ultimately epitomized by Thomas Aquinas in the West and Gregory Palamas in the East. Her oft-repeated claim is that the final version of the orthodox Trinitarian doctrine has completely severed the connection between oikonomia and theologia to the detriment of the church.

LaCugna’s entire argument is built around the understanding and relationship between the words oikonomia and theologia. Oikonomia, or economy, is the pattern of salvation history and the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as it is revealed in scripture. Scripture uses both binitarian and trinitarian formulas to describe  the pattern of salvation history. “God redeems through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. (italics mine)”[4] The language seems to indicate a subordinate relationship between the Son and the Father. Similarly, the Spirit appears to be in service to the Son and the Father. Nowhere in scripture is this mystery of three persons explained. It is simply assumed and appears in the earliest baptismal creedal formulas.

The patristic writers understood it to mean God’s providential plan, the incarnation, and the coordination of the constituent elements of the divine persons.[5] Ireneaus described the economy with the image of Jesus and the Spirit being the hands of the Father. Tertullian saw the economy as the expression of the unity of the monarchy of God. Clement of Alexandria and Origen both considered the economy to be God’s inner being overflowing in salvation history.”[6] There were varying definitions for the oikonomia among the pre-Nicene theologians, but they all agreed that the economy was the means by which God was revealed and related to the creature.

Theologia, on the other hand, was not used frequently among the pre-Nicene theologians. It was used generically among Greek philosophers to refer to the myths of the gods. The term came into prominent use after the Arian controversy and the council of Nicea. From that point on theologia referred to the nature of God within Godself. This is also known as the immanent Trinity.


Prior to Nicea

the economy was at the center of Christian speculation. The representative expression of this phase was subordinationism, which was an interpretation of Scripture based on salvation history. At this point there was no need to appeal to the distinction between oikonomia and theologia, nor any intention to teach that the Son is ontologically inferior to God. It was simply that the Son come from God (Father), expresses what God is, makes visible the invisible God, and fulfills the eternal plan of God.[7]

Everything changed after the Arian Controversy. Arius claimed that it was logically impossible for the Son to be of the same substance as the Father. “If Fatherhood/Godhood is unoriginate and unbegotten, then the Son who is begotten cannot be of the same nature.”[8] This logic sent the theologians–most notably Alexander of Alexandria and Athanasius–scrambling to find a logical explanation for how the Son could both be a begotten, suffering human and be of the same substance with the immutable Father. Athanasius’ solution addressed and refuted the Arian issue but severed oikonomia from theologia in the process. The trinity was now an intradivine relationship that had no relatability to creation and needed to find a new intermediary besides the Son. This would set the stage for the subsequent historical developments in the Cappadocians and Augustine.

The Cappadocians widened the gap between oikonomia and theologia in their response to Eunomius’s theology. They accused him of using Aristotelian philosophy to domesticate mystery. Their countermeasures borrowed from both Stoic and Aristotelian categories to demonstrate how the relation between the hypostases Father and Son did not in any way affect the ousia of each. This dialectic isolated the discussion of Father/Son relationship completely within the intradivine “godhead” thus separating it from the relationship to salvation history. God in Godself was completely unknowable to the creature thus necessitating the mediation of the energies emanating from the godhead.

Augustine sought to understand the Trinity through the analysis of the human consciousness. He borrowed heavily from the neo-Platonic philosopher, Plotinus. He taught that the human soul is involved in the movement of downward emanation and upward return to God. LaCugna states

Two principles of Augustine’s theology vividly illustrate the extent to which his relocation of the economy within the human soul, away from the events of saving history, his preoccupation with processions over missions, and also his starting point within the unity of divine essence rather than the plurality of divine persons within the economy, contribute to the rupture between theologia and oikonomia. These principles became formalized in the conciliar statements of the Roman church, presupposed in scholastic theology and in the post scholastic manual tradition, and had enormous influence on the whole of Latin theology.[9]

The results of this rupture are evidenced in the respective theologies of Thomas Aquinas in the West and Gregory Palamas in the East. The overall structure of Thomas’ Summa Theologica is the exitus-reditus characteristic of neo-Plantonism. He organized it according to the Dionysian cycle of emanation and return. His innovation was to use the metaphysics of Aristotle as the basis for his theology. Thomas begins with God in Godself and only then turns to the incarnation. According to LaCugna and Karl Rahner, “the starting point ‘in God’ no longer recommends itself to us for both philosophical and theological reasons.[10]

Gregory Palamas’ theology emerged to a great degree out of the debates with Barlaam in defense of the Hesychastic, mystery theology. Palamism was based on a Stoic and neo-Platonic conception of deification and participation in God.[11] God in godself is completely unknowable in Palamite theology. The only direct communion between creature and divine is through the mediation of the energies of God, not through a person of the trinity. “Palamism makes the Trinity soteriologically ‘Functionless.’”[12]

LaCugna demonstrates the practical implications of the schism between oikonomia and theologia by showing the historical transformation of the doxologies and eucharistic prayers of the church. The early church prayed to God through Jesus in the power of the Spirit. Eventually the Father and the Son became interchangeable and prayers were directed to the Father and the Son and the Spirit. The Son was no longer our advocate at the right hand of the Father but was the exalted, preexistent Christ. Jesus was now so distant that it gave rise to the veneration of the saints and a growing devotion to Mary so that the creature could have access to an intermediary that worked from below rather than from above.[13]

LaCugna summarizes the problem

in the end, Christian theology abandoned the idea of an intermediary God who could serve as bridge between the impassible, inaccessible Father and the realm of the finite and transitory.[14]

The protestant reformers rejected the Trinitarianism of the Medieval scholastics and reoriented theology to the economy of salvation through Jesus’ death on the cross. The Enlightenment era rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and deemed it as speculative and little more than a footnote in theology.[15]

Some Observations and Analysis

Reactionary Theology?

My first observation is that all of the theologians that LaCugna mentioned have two things in common. First, they were all reacting against something. Second, they all borrowed heavily from Greek philosophy. Borrowed might even be too small a term. They built their theologies upon Greek philosophy.

It all started with Arius. His problem was a Greek problem. He could not accept the deity of Jesus because it did not fit into his Platonic presuppositions. Platonic thought said that God–the realm of the divine–was immutable perfection. This begs the question, “who says that the divine is immutable?”

I agree with LaCugna’s assessment,

if Christian theology had let go the insistence on God’s impassibility and affirmed that God suffers in Christ, it could have kept together, against Arianism, the essential unity and identity between the being of God and the being of Christ.[16]

Instead, our theologians took great pains and contorted themselves in great philosophical gymnastics to explain the mystery of God according to Greek philosophical constraints. We find them splitting hairs between terms like homoousia and homoiousia, and genetos/agenetos and gennetos/agennetos. They spent time defining the term relation and, by using Aristotelean categories, found a way to show that the relation between Father and Son denoted relation without diminishing substance. These problems were supposedly solved, but then when the conversation was translated into Latin the difference in terms opened up new layers of the problem.

It is no wonder that the vast majority of Christians flocked to Arianism despite its official label of heresy. While the theologians were defending orthodoxy, the people wanted a God they could relate to. This raises some further questions. Was it necessary for the theologians to address the issues within the framework of Greek philosophy? In other words, since the question was immersed within the cultural context dominated by Greek thought, and the theologians themselves had been formed within this perspective, could they have done any other than argue within this mode?

There are two possible images to use to further articulate this question. Was the popularity of Arianism more like scenario A or scenario B. Scenario A draws the analogy to Moses, Aaron, and the golden calf. Were the orthodox defenders like Moses spending time with God up on the mountain, in the cloud, while the Israelites fell down before the golden calf of Arianism? Or, was it more like scenario B where the orthodox defenders climbed up into their ivory towers of abstract philosophical conjecture and left the masses to fend for themselves?

The seed of the Gospel was planted in Graeco-Roman soil. It is only natural that it would grow within this context and grapple within Graeco-Roman language and noetic structures. It would be interesting to bring LaCugna’s analysis into conversation with the theological discussions that were taking place at the same time in China, India, the Middle East, and further south in Africa. Were these cultures wrestling with the economic Trinity in the same way? Is there a non-Western trinitarian doctrine that has evolved in the world apart from this controversy. Or, has this debate soured the pot for everyone?

This issue raises two questions for the theologian today. First, should we construct theological frameworks as a reaction to something that we consider heretical? Second, if we do engage in apologetic dialogue, should we engage the inquisitor on their terms, or should we construct the theological frame on the terms of revelation and enter into open dialogue. It seems that the current ethos of the hermeneutical turn, at least in the West, allows for us to be less conciliatory in our apologetics and more assertive of biblical revelation as a valid framework for reality.

Is LaCugna’s lens Correct?

Another question we must ask of LaCugna’s work is whether her premise is solid. There is no mistaking her thesis. She claims, repeatedly, that the Trinitarian Controversy that took place in the Mediterranean basin during the first 500 year of the church severed the connection between oikonomia and theologia to the point of rendering the doctrine of the Trinity fruitless. First of all, is her conclusion true? She acknowledges occasionally throughout the book that she is being intentionally narrow in her focus, and that she is not vitiating these great theologians in their entirety. She also mentions in passing that some scholars would refute her interpretation, especially of Aquinas. However, she never voices her objectors. Is it not good scholarly practice to acknowledge the opposing position when building an argument?

Secondly, is her question the right question to ask? It becomes quite obvious early in the book that she is forming a foundation upon which she can construct a new paradigm. This time she thinks she will be able to both win the Arian controversy and keep the oikonomia and the theologia connected. Still the question remains, is this the question to ask? Would this question make sense to the players in the story, or is this a category that LaCugna is superimposing over the narrative?

Positive Thoughts

I have voiced my questions and now move to some positive commentary. I like where LaCugna is heading. I would carry her argument even further and draw it into the 20th century and the “death of God.” She identifies that this rupture led to the Christological/soteriological obsession of the Protestant Reformers and the Schleiermachian ambivelence to the Trinity of the Enlightenment theologians. In both cases God in godself was relegated to the outer limits, beyond the scope of human perception and either needed to be reached after death by the blood of Jesus, or became irrelevant and disappeared into deism and ultimately atheism in the 20th century. The great 20th century debate between the transcendence of God and the Immanence of God[17] is evidence of this gap. God is either so far out there that God can’t be known apart from special revelation, or God is so immanent that God becomes indistinguishable from the cosmos itself. All of these positions stem from the isolation of the Triune Godhead within itself.

It is as if the Trinity has been locked into a isolation cell of intradivine unity and hypostatic relatedness that is so far beyond our comprehension that it really makes no difference to use whether there is one, three, or one hundred. LaCugna wants to break open this false isolation and reconnect to the God who is active in the cosmos through Jesus and in the power of the spirit.

It seems that what is at stake for LaCugna in this discussion is nothing less than the cosmos. If God is trapped in the box of the immanent Trinity and disconnected from creation, then we are left all alone in the cosmos to figure things out. We have not been doing a great job of it so far. We need a God who is both Almighty Creator and immanent sustainer. It is only through Christ in the power of the Spirit that we can come into the eschatological hope of reunion with the Father and restoration to wholeness and new life.

Implications for the Missional Church

I have raised the question of context. Was the Arian Controversy necessary and inevitable because the Gospel found itself within the context of Greco-Roman culture? Was it possible for Athanasius to tend the gap as LaCugna suggests, or was he limited by the tools of his noetic structure? This has implications for the missional church. The church is in participation with the missio dei. We have a revelation of Jesus in scripture and that message must interact with culture and meet culture within its framework. How does the story of Jesus relate to a pantheistic culture? How does it relate to an animistic culture? Past missiological paradigms have proposed that the culture must be transformed into that of a Judeo-Christian culture in order to understand the Gospel. However, in light of this discussion with LaCugna, perhaps the “Judeo-Christian” culture that we (Western Missionaries) have assumed to be the culture of the Gospel is actually foreign to the Gospel narrative.

Similarly, is it possible for those of us in the West, who have breathed the air of the Greco-Roman/Medieval Scholastic/Enlightenment-ized Gospel in which the Trinity is the unknowable, unmoved mover, transcendent deity to reconfigure our minds to see the economic Trinity clearly? Can we truly read the Gospel narratives through the lens of the Jewish Jesus and the eschatological vision?

One of the many benefits of being in the PhD program at Luther Seminary is that we have a majority of international students in the student body. I pose a question to my African and Asian colleagues. Was the discussion in LaCugna a conversation that rang true to your journey, or was it foreign to you? Let me frame the question differently. Has your theological heritage come through Western lines, or is there a theological construction native to your own soil that stands in contrast to this theological narrative?

Finally, as we move forward into the 21st century, I believe this conversation will be a fruitful one. My culture is waking up to the pluralistic reality of the globalized world. Theology is not an exclusively Western phenomenon. The Good News of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit has been at work in Asia, Africa, and Europe since the day of Pentecost. The people in the United States are more open now, in my estimation, to embrace new ideas and a broader, global perspective than perhaps they have been in previous generations. Those of us who feel called to lead the church have an opportunity to explore the ideas that LaCugna raises without fear of unraveling the fabric of reality or bringing the entire structure of the church to a halt. A spirit of humble inquiry and openness to listen to multiple voices from multiple cultures will help us to unravel the questions that LaCugna poses to the Western heritage and hopefully bridge the gap between oikonomia and theologia.

[1] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us : The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).

[2] Ibid.,  198.

[3] Ibid.,  1.

[4] Ibid.,  22.

[5] Ibid.,  26.

[6] Ibid.,  28-29.

[7] Ibid.,  30.

[8] Ibid.,  33.

[9] Ibid., 97.

[10] Ibid., 146-148.

[11] Ibid., 183.

[12] Ibid.,  195.

[13] Ibid.,  127.

[14] Ibid.,  42.

[15] Ibid.,  144.

[16] Ibid.,  43.

[17] Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).

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