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.


The Tradition of the Church and orthodoxy Need to be Tested by the Rule[r], Jesus: Hilary, Barth, and Bobby

© Ann Chapin 2016 For more info see or email

It is right to only attempt to do Christian theology after the recognition that Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’). Herman Bavinck, and Karl Barth after him, in their own ways recognized this reality and proceeded in their theologizing accordingly (if you would like to read where Barth develops this then tolle lege his Göttingen Dogmatics). George Hunsinger, as he is engaging with this theme in general (while sketching the thinking of Irenaeus and Hilary), and doing so while engaging with Barth’s theology in particular provides an excellent quote from Hilary,

Human feebleness cannot by any strength of its own attain to the knowledge of heavenly things; the faculties which deal with bodily matters can from no notion of the unseen world. Neither our created bodily substance, nor the reason given by God for the purposes of ordinary life, is capable of ascertaining and pronouncing upon the nature and work of God. Our wits cannot rise to the level of heavenly knowledge, our powers of perception lack the strength to apprehend that limitless might. We must believe God’s word concerning himself, and humbly accept such insight as he vouchsafes to give. We must make our choice between rejecting his witness, as the heathen do, or else believing in him as he is, and this in the only possible way, by thinking of him in the aspect in which he presents himself to us…. The meaning of words shall be ascertained by considering the circumstances under which they were spoken; words must be explained by circumstances not circumstances forced into conformity with words. (De Trin. IV.14)

For he whom we can know only through his own utterances is a fitting witness concerning himself. (De Trin. I.18)[1]

As Barth himself writes:

§3 Deus Dixit. Christian preachers dare to speak about God. The permission and requirement to do so can rest only on their adoption of the witness of the prophets and apostles that underlies the church, the witness which is to the effect that God himself has spoken and that for this reason, and with this reference, they too must speak about God. This assumption can arise only because they take it that God’s address is directed to them as well. It means that with fear and trembling they recognize God as the true subject of the biblical witness and their own proclamation.[2]

Don’t be fooled, this all sounds too normal and self evident; as a result you might well skim right by the radical nature of what both Barth and Hilary are asserting. It is a radical procedure to actually do what Barth says, and what Hilary speaks; radical because it usually is not done. Too often theological reflection is sublated by and conflated with philosophical theology; of the sort that conceptions about God are conceived of prior to hearing God speak. And then these philosophical conceptions are forced into a conversation with what ‘God has spoken’ about Himself in His Self revelation in Jesus Christ attested to by Holy Scripture. It becomes really hard for us, centuries removed from much of this style of theologizing to differentiate between what God has spoken to us and for us of Himself and what has been conflated with that.

We should be on guard then! If Hilary and Barth are correct then we need to really work at discerning what God has genuinely said about Himself and what the Tradition of the church says He has said of Himself. The trad, at least for Protestant Christians is not our rule of faith, Jesus Christ is (and Holy Scripture as it bears witness and finds its lively reality in Christ). This doesn’t mean that we ignore the Tradition of the church, or that it is all wrong (or wrong at all!); it simply means that like the Bereans we are to test all things by Scripture and hold fast to that which is good (to Jesus Christ). As we operate this way we must do so humbly lest we elevate ourselves over the wisdom and insight of the teachers that Christ has been bestowing on His church (Ephesians 4) ever since His ascension. We are well advised to be in conversation with the Tradition, all along understanding that what counts as the Tradition or as orthodox might well be a contrivance of philosophical conceiving with what God has spoken such that a differentiation needs to yet be made between the two. We need to be critical, and primarily in conversation with the Living Word as He intercedes for us, as He the Great Teacher teaches us. We need to operate as if we have a living moment by moment relationship with God in Christ, and realize that if we seek Him we will find Him because He is love, and because He has made Himself known to us as He has spoken His definitive word to us in His Son. This is radical even if it might not seem like it to some.

[1] Hilary cited by George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 60-1 kindle.

[2] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion, Volume One (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 45.