The Father-Son Relation: Rowan Williams on the Irenaean Theology of Participation, and TF Torrance’s Homoousion

Rowan Williams in his chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Jesus entitled A History of Faith in Jesus offers historical insight to the rapid doxological posture the early church took towards Jesus as God become man. As Williams details this he highlights this particular development in the theology of Irenaeus, and how Irenaeus provided for what Karl Barth, later, might call an analogia relationis. This is a beautiful way, a doxological and participatory way to conceive of what God in Christ has done for us in the mediatorial vicarious humanity of the eternal Logos, Jesus irenaeusChrist. It is this relation that Thomas Torrance swoons about so much and as corollary so do we as evangelical Calvinists. Williams writes of this development in Irenaeus’ theology this way:

Some of the language of early Alexandrian theology in particular similarly emphasises the role of Jesus as the visible manifestation of the invisible God, the mediator, not so much  of salvation or forgiveness as of true perception of the divine nature. The earlier theologian to stress this theme, however, is not an Alexandrian, but an émigré from Asia Minor, Irenaeus, who became bishop of Lyons in France; and fro him Jesus’ role as revealer immediately connects with a further and more profound set of considerations. Jesus reveals because of his own relation to the Father; because his face is wholly turned to the Father, it reflects his glory. For us to know and recognise that glory, we must be brought into that relation – a fundamental theme of Paul and John in the New Testament (Rom 8, John 17, among much else), which Irenaeus develops extensively, Jesus is an example, not only in the sense of being a model of behavior we ought to imitate (again a New Testament theme, as in Matt 11.29; 1 Cor 11.1), but as a paradigm of relation to God as Father. Our attention or devotion to him is a kind of tracing the contour of his life so as to see its conformity to the Father’s character and purpose; we are to pick up the essential clues as to how to recognise what it is to be a child of the heavenly Father by looking single-mindedly at him (cf. Heb 12.2). Being in the Spirit is not only or even primarily a gift of prophetic alignment with the ultimate judgement of Jesus, but entails the gift of sharing Jesus’ relation with the Father, beginning to love God as parent with the same confidence as Jesus shows.[1]

As I reflect upon this it conjures up for me the way T.F. Torrance presses into his constructive appropriation of the Athanasian themed, patrological focused homoousion, that developed post-Irenaeus. The idea that Jesus, the eternal Son, is consubstantial or one nature (ousia) with the Father [and the Holy Spirit]. Note Torrance:

. . . Hilary of Poitiers argued that it was the primary purpose of the Son to enable us to know the one true God as Father. This was the theme to which he gave considerable theological reflection in view of the Nicene homoousion and what it implied for our two-fold belief in God the Father Almighty and in God the Son of the Father. ‘All who have God for their Father through faith have him for Father through the same faith whereby we confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ Again: ‘The very centre of saving faith is the belief not merely in God but in God as Father; nor merely in Christ, but in Christ as the Son of God; in him, not as a creature, but as God the Creator born of God.’ ‘The work which the Lord came to do was not to enable you to know him as the Father of the Son who addresses you . . . The end and aim of this revelation of the Son is that you should know the Father . . . Remember that the revelation is not of the Father manifested as God, but of God manifested as the Father’.[2]

It is this theme of participation in Christ, who is homoousios or consubstantial with the Father that was so important for Irenaeus, Nicene and Chalcedonian theology, as well as for people like Torrance who made that particular doctrine a touchstone for his theological-hermeneutic. It is the idea of ‘relation’ with God as Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit that I believe is so important for what it means to know God in proper standing as His children. It is a matter of being rightly related through Christ; if we understand what that means, we will understand God to be our loving Father, and as Williams writes we will begin “to love God as parent with the same confidence as Jesus shows.”

As of late we have seen a lot of energy expended over the so called eternal functional subordination debate; the debate that is attempting to clarify what in fact the inner-life (ad intra) of God’s life looks like. I would contend that if that debate was shaped more by the dialogical, participationist mood that we have been highlighting in this post, and less by the analytical mode and tone it has taken, that the “debate” itself may never have happened to begin with. It is surely important to attempt to apprehend the mystery of God’s ineffable Triune life, and it is surely important to follow the pattern of God’s inner-life as revealed in Jesus Christ (which I believe the pro-Nicene theology has done), but when we press the edges of that apprehension too far we end up saying more than we are capable of saying; we lose sense of the fact that God will share His glory with no one. That said, there are “orthodox” contours of thought articulated by the church catholic that indeed set the boundaries and thus grammar by which Christians have a certain rule to follow when attempting to speak meaningfully about God as Triune. But we would do well to remember that just as the early church did, this all must be prayerfully held within a sense of deep awe and worship of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; co-equal, co-eternal, with no subordination whatsoever in the inner-life (ad intra).

Apart from my digression on EFS, what I really wanted to emphasize through this post is how central and important the ‘analogy of relation’ is for evangelical Calvinism; how important it should be for all Christians, even if they don’t identify as evangelical Calvinists (God forbid it!). If you really contemplate the implications of all of this all you can do is worship.

 

[1] Rowan Williams, “A History of Faith in Jesus,” edited by Markus Bockmuehl, The Cambridge Companion to Jesus (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 221-22.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 139.

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