Is the person of Father the source of the Godhead, or is the Godhead (the Divine Monarxia) in intratrinitarian relation the ground of who God is (think perichoresis)? These are technical questions, but ones that have significant theological and ecumenical implications; not to mention fiduciary relevance vis-à-vis the Evangel. Thomas Torrance felt the weight of these questions very acutely, and attempted to address them with heft; particularly as he undertook his dialogue with the Orthodox Church, precisely orbiting around this locus. Indeed, it was Torrance’s response to the above questions wherein he offers one of his most definitive contributions to the theological landscape of the 20th century.
As a way into this I wanted to refer us to John Zizioulas and his response to the questions as I have presented them. Zizioulas thinks from a decidedly Greek Orthodox perspective, and one that is not uncontroversial in his own quarters. Zizioulas is also a contemporary of, and interlocutor to Torrance. As such, referring to Zizioulas makes him that much more significant to what we will be visiting in Torrance’s offering. Here is a key quote from Zizioulas that jumps us directly into this important squabble:
Among the Greek Fathers the unity of God, the one God, and the ontological ‘principle’ or ‘cause’ of the being and life of God does not consist in the one substance of God but in the hypostasis, that is the person of the Father. The one God is not the one substance but the Father, who is the ‘cause’ both of the generation of the Son and of the procession of the Spirit. Consequently, the ontological ‘principle’ of God is traced back, once again, to the person. Thus when we say that God ‘is’ we do not bind the personal freedom of God . . . but we ascribe the being of God to His personal freedom. In a more analytical way this means that God, as Father and not as substance, perpetually confirms through “being” His free will to exist . . .Thus God as person – as the hypostasis of the Father – makes the one divine substance to be that which it is: the One God.
Here Zizioulas seeks, among other things, to inject a notion of relationality into the Godhead, and the Triune Life that is often betrayed by the dominating Western tradition that works with concepts like ‘substance’ and unity rather than ‘person’ and multiplicity as the bases for thinking ‘who’ God is. One problem that might stand out quite immediately, for the perceptive reader of Zizioulas, is the concern that ‘subordination’ is given prominence in Zizioulas’ attempt to ground the ‘source’ of Divine Monarxia in the personal agency of the Father; as if God, at an ontological level, reduces to the person of the Father, making the ‘generation’ of the Son and the Holy Spirit subsidiary to the “Father’s Monarchy.” Indeed, this is a critique that is often levied at the Cappadocians in particular, at least when it comes to this issue; of which, Zizioulas can be seen as a modern iteration (with his own innovative constructions in play).
I only introduce us, very briefly, to Zizioulas in an attempt to problematize things, with the hope of allowing Torrance’s own innovative work to provide a sort of denouement to Zizioulas’ et al. presentation. Full disclosure: I do think Zizioulas’ presentation, while imaginative, ends up being problematic for precisely the sort of subordinationism that he has been criticized for presenting. While his aims are noble, his means to reaching those aims, in my view, fail. This is where Torrance’s own approach is so rich for consideration. I think bringing up Zizioulas is apropos, because I think he identifies a real problem—the de-‘personalization’ of God—but then, again, does not offer an alternative that ultimately reaches the sort of orthodox heights that I’d like to see. Torrance, on the other hand, while also recognizing the same ‘problem’ that Zizioulas did, offers a very fruitful way forward, in my view, by thinking the ‘Monarchy’ from the three persons (hypostases) in intratrinitarian interpenetrating relation; thus avoiding the significant tinge of subordinationism that plagues Zizioulas’ work.
Here is Torrance at length:
This centering of divine unity upon the Person of the Father rather than upon the Being of the Father, with its implication that the Person of the Father is the Fount of Deity, was to introduce the ambiguity into the doctrine of the Trinity that gave rise to difficulties regarding the procession of the Spirit as well as of the Son which we shall consider later. At the moment, however, it is the problem of a distinction drawn by the Cappadocians between the wholly uncaused or underived Deity of the Father and the caused or derived Deity of the Son and of the Spirit, that we must consider. As Gregory Nazianzen, himself one of the Cappadocian theologians, pointed out, this implied a relation of superiority and inferiority or ‘degrees of Deity’ in the Trinity, which is quite unacceptable, for ‘to subordinate any of the three Divine Persons is to overthrow the Trinity’. He was followed in this judgment by Cyril of Alexandria who, like Athanasius his theological guide, would have nothing to do with a generic concept of the divine οὐσία, or with causal and/or subordinationist relations within the Holy Trinity.
It is at this very point that the introduction of the concept of perichoresis proved of decisive importance. It ruled out any notion of a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ or of degrees of Deity and set the doctrine of the Trinity back again on the basis laid for it by Athanasius in terms of the coinherent relations and undivided wholeness in which each Person is a ‘whole of a whole’, while nevertheless gathering up and reinforcing the strong hypostatic and intensely personal distinctions within the Trinity which the Cappadocian theologians had developed so fruitfully especially for spiritual life and worship. This perichoretic understanding of the Trinity had the effect of restoring the full doctrine of the Fatherhood of God without importing any element of subordinationism into the hypostatic interrelations between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and at the same time of restoring the biblical, Nicene and Athanasian conception of the one Being or Oὐσία of Godas intrinsically and completely personal. Moreover, it ruled out of consideration any conception of the trinitarian relations arising out of a prior unity, and any conception of a unity deriving from the underived Person of the Father. In the perichoretic Communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who are the one Being of God, Unity and Trinity, Trinity and Unity mutually permeate and actively pass into one another.
When we consider the order of the three Persons in this perichoretic way we do indeed think of the Father as first precisely as Father, but not as the Deifier of the Son and the Spirit. Thus while we think of the Father within the Trinity as the Principle or Αρχή of Deity (in the sense of Monarchia not restricted to one Person, which we shall consider shortly), that is not to be taken to mean that he is the Source (Αρχή) or Cause (Αιτία) of the divine Being (το είναι) of the Son and the Spirit, but in respect simply of his being Unoriginate of Father, or expressed negatively, in respect of his not being a Son, although all that the Son has the Father has except Sonship. This does not derogate from the Deity of the Son or of the Spirit, any more than it violates the real distinctions within the Triune Being of God, so that no room is left for either a Sabellian modalism or an Arian subordinationism in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The statement of Jesus, ‘My Father is greater than I’, is to be interpreted not ontologically but soteriologically, or ‘economically (oἰκονομικός)’, as Gregory Nazianzen, Cyril of Alexandria and Augustine all understood it. In other words, the subjection of Christ to the Father in his incarnate economy as the suffering and obedient Servant cannot be read back into the eternal hypostatic relations and distinctions subsisting in the Holy Trinity. The mediatorial office of Christ, as Calvin once expressed it, does not detract from his divine Majesty. Since no distinction between underived Deity and derived Deity is tenable, there can be no thought of one Person being ontologically or divinely prior to another subsequent to another. Hence while the Father in virtue of his Fatherhood is first in order, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit eternally coexist as three fully co-equal Persons in a perichoretic togetherness and in-each-otherness in such a way that, in accordance with the particular aspect of divine revelation and salvation immediately in view, as in the New Testament Scriptures, there may be an appropriate variation in the trinitarian order from the given in Baptism, as we find in the benediction, ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ Nevertheless both Athanasius and Basil counselled the Church to keep to the order of the divine Persons given in Holy Baptism, if only to counter the damaging heresy of Sabellianism.
Torrance’s move is to make the ‘being’ of the Father rather than the ‘person’ the reality of the Monarchia. In this sense, it can be meaningfully said, for Torrance, that the Divine Monarxia is indeed, the Holy Trinity lived in co-inhering eternal Life. We can see Torrance’s theo-logic on display, and the way he, ‘classically’, relates the so called ontological Trinity (ad intra) to the economic (ad extra); this becomes a key point for Torrance. It allows him to think God’s inner-life from the economy, and follow the Rhanerian axiom of the ‘Economic Trinity is the Ontological’, while not collapsing the processions into the missions of God. For Torrance there is an antecedent Life of God, but of course we only have access to that through the evangelical life of Jesus Christ; indeed, as He is Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit.
This way of Torrance’s makes the most sense to me. There seems to be some sort of continued debate about this in certain sectors; particularly online in the theological online world. I commend to you Torrance’s solution on this ostensible problem, and hope it allows you to find shalom for your souls and minds.
 Zizioulas, Being as Communion, 40–41 cited by Nikolaos Asproulis, “T. F. Torrance and John Zizioulas On The Divine Monarchia: The Cappadocian Background And The Neo-Cappadocian Solution,” Participatio Journal (Vol. 4), 2013: 174.
 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 179-80.