Jesus is God’s ‘Space’ for Us: In Contest with ‘Container’ Notions of Space

An important undervalued or critically engaged with locus in current Reformed retrievals of theology has to do with ‘space’ vis-à-vis God. The way we think space, and its other corollary, time, has important features attendant to it that implicate the way we think God’s relationship to us. In other words, theories of causation, participation, and koinonia are given shape by the way we approach this particular locus and/or loci. Thomas Torrance argues that the Patristics, particularly, Athanasius, imbibed a critical conception of space that was oriented by a relational conception that was given impetus by reflecting deeply into the paradeigmata (pointer) of the Incarnation itself. In other words, as Torrance maintains, with reference to Athanasius et al., the normal (of the time) Platonic, Aristotelian, or even Stoic conceptions thought space in ways that ultimately were antithetical to the Gospel’s Revelation of God’s relation to us; albeit, Torrance does acknowledge that the Stoic notion of an embodied space had closer resonances to the implications of the Gospel features versus other alternatives. Torrance’s greatest concern was to move away from what he calls a ‘container’ notion of space-time wherein the limit of space was dictated by a stable center that ultimately was unmoved; thus, injecting a mechanical notion into time-space wherein there is no room for a dynamic relational understanding of space that is demanded by the Incarnation itself. Torrance writes, after giving a sketch of Aristotle’s conception of space,

Two problems may be noted here. Aristotle’s thought is clearly governed by his demand for a point of absolute rest as the centre of reference for the understanding of change and transition. If everything were in flux we would have no standard by which to gauge anything. That centre of immobility was supplied by Aristotle’s cosmology by the centre of the material universe, for although it rotated it did not move forwards or change place. Thus although from his approach to the notion of space through the examination of movement in and out of place, Aristotle appeared to offer a dynamic view of space, he offered instead a rather static concept grounded finally upon relation to a point of absolute rest, which was of course in line with his doctrine of the ‘unmoved Mover’. The definition of place as the first unmoved limit of the container involved a further problem, for in equating being in place with a particular volume, it also equated volume with a spatial magnitude. The effect of this predominately volumetric notion of space was not only to isolate the notion of space from that of time, with all the paradoxes that involves, but to import such a rigidity into the concept of space that it could only be made flexible through a highly artificial disjunction of substance from accidents—the endless difficulties of Western Medieval theology at these points may be taken as sufficient commentary upon these problems.[1]

But Torrance understands another way, along with Athanasius and others. The way Torrance proposes, with many of the Fathers, is the way that is certainly working with the grammar provided for by such systems of thought like Plato, the Stoics, and others provided; but this way takes the grammatical of such systems and reifies it under the pressure of God’s Self Revelation in Jesus Christ (Torrance calls this kata physin ‘according to the nature of’ way). The result of this is to think of God’s relations with us through a personalist and relationally charged ‘metaphysic,’ one that is given illumination by the bond that has eternally cohered between the Father of the Son and the Son of the Father in koinonia by the Holy Spirit. This presents us, according to Torrance, with an alternative, and even spermatic way to think of the space that God has provided for, in Himself, as His relation to, with, and for us. The space is charged with the pleroma, or fullness of God; God who is by nature a multiplicity of relation in the persons as the Singular God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Torrance writes with eloquence:

In the nature of the case, the paradeigmata . . . that we employ in theology are not those we choose, but those that are thrust upon us through divine revelation, and which have their ultimate ground, correction and validity in the relation between the Father and the Incarnate Son, and the Incarnate Son and the Father. That is the relation that bridges the separation . . . between God and man and supplies the epistemological basis for all theological concepts, and therefore for our understanding of the relation between their creaturely content and the reality of God Himself. It is in Christ that the objective reality of God is intelligibly linked with creaturely and physical forms of thought, so that the latter may be adapted and given an orientation enabling them to direct our minds to what God really makes known of Himself, although in view of His infinite nature they will not be able to seize hold of Him as He is in Himself.

It was by using paradeigma in this way that Athanasius sought to relate the being and activity of the Son of God to bodily place . . . when He entered into our human space . . . and became man, without leaving God’s ‘place’ and without leaving the universe devoid of His presence and rule. Since space is regarded here from a central point in the creative and redemptive activity of God in Christ, the concepts of space as infinite receptacle or infinite substance, or as extension conceived as essence of matter, or as a mere necessity of our human apprehension, and certainly the concept of space in terms of the ultimate immobile limit of the container independent of time, all fall away, and instead there emerges a concept of space in terms of the ontological and dynamic relations between God and the physical universe established in creation and incarnation. Space is here a differential concept that is essentially open-ended, for it is defined in accordance with the interaction between God and man, eternal and contingent happening. It is treated as a sort of coordinate system (to use a later expression) between two horizontal dimensions, space and time, and one vertical dimension, relation to God. In this kind of coordination, space and time are given a sort of trans-worldly aspect in which they are open to the transcendent ground of the order they bear within nature. This means that the concept of space which we use in the Nicene Creed is one that is relatively closed, so to speak, on our side where it has to do with physical existence, but is one which is infinitely open on God’s side. This is why frequently when Byzantine art sought express this ikonically it deliberately reversed the natural perspective of the dais upon which Christ was represented. The Son of God become man could not be presented as one who had become so confined in the limits of the body that the universe was left empty of His government. He could not be represented, therefore, as captured by lines which when produced upwards met at some point in finite space, but only between lines which even when produced to infinity could never meet, for they reached out on either side into the absolute openness and eternity of the transcendent God.[2]

Earlier I noted that current retrievals of Reformed theology have not really attended to the subject matter we are considering alongside Torrance. They have failed to recognize what Torrance has emphasized; that is, that the mechanical and ‘static’ world of Aristotle, which shapes so much of the Latin theology us Protestants are inheritors of, eschews what the Fathers were presenting the church catholic with. As such we end up with an emphasis on a Decretal God who engages with His world through an Absolute Decree that keeps the created order away from Him, but artificially brought near through artificial droplets of His will and power for humanity and the created order at large. In other words, Latin theology presents us with a conception of space wherein space becomes a series of self-enclosed concentric circles that only stop moving once they meet their stable center of the circle who turns out to be the cause and unmoved Mover; but not necessarily the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The original emphasis, that Torrance is pressing, places a primacy on God’s life as Triune relationality as the basis for how space and thus movement within that space between God and humanity inheres; it inheres in the mirifica commutatio (wonderful exchange) of God’s assumption of our flesh. In this inherence, and the eternally antecedent basis for it in the Father’s life with the Son and the Son’s life with the Father, in and through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, is the space wherein we as God’s re-creatures have a place and a time to think out what it means to be a child of God; a Christian.

Further, we see Torrance noting the notion of the ‘open-endedness’ that this conception of Incarnated space inscribes for us. Of importance, we need to bear in mind that this openness is not understood in and from a container notion of space (which might lead us to ‘Open theology’), but instead it is an openness that recognizes the reality of the mysterium Trinitatis; that we are pressed up against an Ultimacy in God that will be and always already is forever giving (the logic of grace). This should supply us with great hope, and present us into a posture of utter adoration of a God like this; our Father who art in Heaven.



[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Space Time & Incarnation (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 8-9.

[2] Ibid., 17-18. You can hear traces of ‘Calvin’s Extra’ in what is being communicated here as well; indeed Torrance previously refers to the ‘extra’ in the broader context of this discussion about space and the Incarnation.

One thought on “Jesus is God’s ‘Space’ for Us: In Contest with ‘Container’ Notions of Space

Comments are closed.