Human Images of the Trinity that are Static (pt. 4)
God as a Business
from Three in One: Analogies for the Trinity
by William David Spencer
One of my students suggested the Godhead functions like a corporation. Certainly, we could key off Jesus’ parable of the vineyard owner sending his son to recalcitrant employees, who seize the son and murder him to try to take over the land for themselves (Matt. 21:33–41; Mark 12:1–9; Luke 20:9– 16). Businesses are, after all, composed of people.
In the same way, as an analogy, we think of the active God who is in the “business” of rescuing, redeeming, and restoring humanity, a “corporation,” as this student noted, that is “loving.” At the same time, a business is still an enterprise out to make a profit to pay its workers and its stockholders. In that sense, it cannot perfectly represent the God who creates all and needs nothing.
John Gerstner once emphasized that a subordination in the Godhead was reflected in humanity with a rather odd wording: “As long as God has been, there has been a chain of command.” Appealing to a “covenant of redemption or the council of peace,” he explains: “This is the time when (if you will excuse the expression) the economic Trinity came into operation; that’s the time when the three, equal-in-authority members of the ever blessed Trinity voluntarily agreed to subordinate themselves to one another in the interests of redeeming men anticipated as fallen.” So, this is an act of mutual subordination or submission by “three” “equal in authority” persons of the Godhead to accomplish human salvation.
To illustrate this idea, he turns to a business image: “According to this voluntary compact, the Father would be head or executive; the Son would subordinate Himself to the Father in securing redemption for those whom the Father should choose; and, the Holy Spirit consented to be the purchase of redemption in cooperation with and in subordination to both the Father and the Son.” This deal was “necessarily known to all persons eternally.” However, as Gerstner describes the agreement, the persons of the Trinity in this phrasing do not actually appear to “subordinate themselves to one another”—only the Son and Spirit did the subordinating, not the Father. This hierarchical image does provide a helpful illustration to understand the subordinationist position as an agreement among equals. It might not be imprinted in each divine person’s nature but rather a “business venture” for the time of salvation. Once that task is accomplished, then presumably the Three return to their previous “equality-in-authority” in eternity. This would make the subordination of the Son and Spirit temporary as “economic” acts in time.
We could extend this schema’s business imagery by suggesting the Father could be seen as the chairperson of the board (sending the Son to set up the business of redemption on earth), the Son as chief financial officer (since Jesus Christ paid off the penalty for human sin), and the Holy Spirit as the chief executive officer (CEO) left to run the business until the second coming.
However, not all the parables of Jesus about business are ones he would want us to accept as true depictions of the nature of God or emulate in our daily practice. For example, Luke 16:1–15 gives an interesting account of business intrigue, where a shifty manager cooks the books to assure future customer loyalty when his boss fires him for mismanagement of funds. When he learns about his shifty employee’s subterfuge, the boss ends admiring the crooked bailout strategy (v. 8). That story is certainly not analogous to the Trinity (unless the rich owner can be speculated to be a conversive shadow image of God the Father, like the contrast Jesus draws between the unjust judge of Luke 18:1–8 and the always just God [vv. 7–8]). Jesus is certainly not the thieving manager! The shrewd manager is also not the kind of example we want our children to follow. Jesus draws a distinction between worldly business and using money to do good works.
As we can see, business images are relevant, but we can’t take them all too literally to depict “God’s business,” which is all about acting generously. Ultimately, the church (and each of its agencies, e.g., a seminary) is more a nonprofit enterprise or charity built on grace than it is a business out to make financial profit (as a literal reading of the parable of the talents might be misconstrued in Matthew 25:14–30).
Starting with our own being, in this chapter we surveyed images from the traditional understanding of a human person as composed of a body, soul, and spirit. The human body represented unity; the soul, our temporal life on earth; and the spirit, what is eternal within us. As God has three persons, we are composed of three components that are different but united. The point of these analogies is to depict three in unity.
There are benefits and liabilities to using images of groups of people, as with a club or society. That they are all related shows a connection in a way that others outside the group do not share. This is also true for a business with employees. A deficiency as a divine analogy occurs when one adds a hierarchical aspect of many businesses. Such an aspect does not reflect the equality we see in the one God, who is coeternal and coequal.
What keeps imagery from being co-opted completely by error is a healthy view of how images truly serve us. One of the best explanations I have read comes from the work of Charles Williams, a British minister and author of such profoundly theological novels as All Hallow’s Eve, articulated perceptively by Mary McDermott Shideler in The Theology of Romantic Love: “Williams’ epigram, ‘This also is Thou; neither is this Thou,’ while referring specifically to images of God, is equally pertinent to all images. The identities reveal and the differences conceal the greater things.” She offers these examples: “Thus, the hurricane reveals God’s power in nature, while it conceals his power in the still small voice.” And “the mildness of an April day that speaks of his loving care, hides the majesty of his judgment.” Images give us “revelation” when we discover and compare what they reveal and what they conceal.
 John Gerstner, “Is Women’s Ordination Unbiblical?,” panel discussion, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 1980, 2.
 Mary McDermott Shideler, The Theology of Romantic Love: A Study in the Writings of Charles Williams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 21–22.
This post is adapted from Three in One: Analogies for the Trinity written by William David Spencer. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
Do our images of “one God in three persons” reflect God well?
Release Date: November 15, 2022
Throughout history, Christians have pictured the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through analogies. Such illustrations–some from the West but also from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and other places–come laden with theological ramifications that the church has rejected (heresies) or embraced (doctrines). In Three in One, William David Spencer shares a lifetime of insights from teaching within the global church, bringing fresh images and analogies of the Trinity to deepen our theological vocabulary.
Drawing from his extensive teaching in geographically and culturally diverse contexts and his artist’s passion for evocative words and visuals, Spencer offers readers a rich, multifaceted, and practical exploration of the Trinity. Alongside historical and contemporary theology and biblical studies, he considers the strengths and shortcomings of various analogies used to explain the Trinity, such as:
- The Celtic knot
- The totem pole
- Musical harmonies
- The human body
- The family
Readers of Three in One will gain a personal understanding of the Trinity as well as tools for teaching about the Trinity in adult and children’s ministry contexts.