God’s Eternal Time For Us: How Constancy is Better than Immutability

Thomas Torrance, Barth’s greatest English-speaking doctoral student, and lifelong friend, from that point onward, gained many insights from Barth. But he had his own way of articulating dogma; he was his own theologian, so to speak. Torrance had great respect for Barth’s magnum opus the Church Dogmatics; he had such great respect that along with Geoffrey Bromiley, he translated it from Barth’s native Swiss-German tongue into the English. Torrance’s favorite volume of the CD was II.1, on a Doctrine of God. It is in this volume that Barth offers an alternative, or reification of the classical doctrine of divine immutability; Barth calls his treatment of this doctrine, Constancy. As the theologian reads one of Torrance’s most mature books (The Christian Doctrine of God), in regard to the stage of TFT’s thought and development as a theologian, the reader will see how he riffs on Barth’s doctrine of divine constancy but in his own unique way. He writes:

This means that we must think of the constancy of God which is his unchanging eternal Life as characterised by time, not of course our kind of time which is the time of finite created being with beginning and end, and past, present and future, but God’s kind of time which is the time of his eternal Life without beginning and end. While he creates time along with all that is changeable, he does so without any temporal movement in himself. The time of our life is defined by its fleeting creaturely nature, but the time of God’s Life is defined by his everlasting uncreated Nature in which he transcends our temporality while nevertheless holding it within the embrace of his divine time. Just as we distinguish sharply between the uncreated reality of God and the created reality of the world, between the uncreated rationality of God and our created rationality, or between the uncreated Light of God and our created light, so we must distinguish between God’s uncreated time and our created time. On the other hand, just as we think of our creaturely being as contingently grounded upon the eternal being of God, so we must think of our creaturely time as contingently grounded upon the eternal time of God. Thus we may think of the time of our world, which God has created out of nothing along with the world he has made, as unceasingly sustained by him in a created correspondence to the uncreated time of his own eternal Life. And so far from being some kind of timeless eternity or eternal now that devalues or negates time, the real time of God’s eternal Life gives reality and value to the created time of our life through coordinating its contingent temporality with its own movement and constancy. What does this have to say to us about the unchangeableness or constancy of God which is identical with his self-moving eternal Life? The fact that God has time for us in the partnership he maintains with us in which our fleeting time for all its dissimilarity reflects his eternal time, reinforces the conviction that the nature of God’s time is not static but essentially dynamic and as such is the constant power upon which our contingent temporality rests.1

I think at this point it would be helpful to see how Barth, who TFT is writing after, develops a doctrine of the constancy of God. The reader will see where Barth and Torrance converge, and also where they depart in their own unique and prescient ways. The reader might come to see the types of questions both Barth and Torrance are attempting to address, respectively, from their own informing theological pressures. But I want my readers to understand just how close Barth and Torrance are on fundamental doctrinal points. I can think of no better example of that than as we come to their respective doctrines of divine constancy. Barth writes:

But it is not true that the immutable as such is God. The real truth is—and it is very different—that God is “immutable,” and this is the living God in His freedom and love, God Himself. He is what He is in eternal actuality. He never is it only potentially (not even in part). He never is it at any point intermittently. But always at every place He is what He is continually and self-consistently. His love cannot cease to be His love nor His freedom His freedom. He alone could assail, alter, abolish or destroy Himself. But it is just at this point that He is the “immutable” God. For at no place or time can He or will He turn against Himself or contradict Himself, not even in virtue of His freedom or for the sake of His love. What He does in virtue of His freedom for the sake of His love will never be the surrender but always at every point the self-affirmation of His freedom and His love, a fresh demonstration of His life. This self-affirmation is never anywhere an act of holy egotism, but always everywhere an act of the righteousness in which He establishes His glory over all things. And as an act of His righteousness His self-affirmation must be understood as necessary, not subject to any doubt or temptation. The answer, therefore, to the question: “What is immutable?” is: “This living God in His self-affirmation is the immutable.” The immutable is the fact that this God is as the One He is, gracious and holy, merciful and righteous, patient and wise. The immutable is the fact that He is the Creator, Reconciler, Redeemer and Lord. This immutability includes rather than excludes life. In a word it is life. It does not, therefore, need to acquire life from the impulse of the created world, or above all from the emotions of our pious feeling. It not only has nothing whatever to do with the pagan idea of the immobile, which is only a euphemistic description of death, but it is its direct opposite. It does not require, then, and sentimentalisings in sham concealment or embellishment of its terrible reality. For it is not this fearful reality. It is the reality of life and not of death. God’s constancy—which is a better word than the suspiciously negative word “immutability”—is the constancy of His knowing, willing and acting and therefore of His person. It is the continuity, undivertability and indefatigableness in which God both is Himself and also performs His work, maintaining it as such and continually making it His work. It is the self-assurance in which God moves in Himself and in all His works and in which he is rich in Himself and in all His works without either losing Himself or (for fear of this loss) having to petrify in Himself and renounce His movement and His riches. The constancy of God is not then the limit and boundary, the death of His life. For this very reason the right understanding of God’s constancy must not be limited to His presence with creation, as if God in Himself were after all naked “immutability” and therefore in the last analysis death. On the contrary, it is in and by virtue of His constancy that God is alive in Himself and in all His works. The fact that He possesses selfhood and continuity itself makes Him the living One that He is, and is the basis and meaning of His power and might, the inner divine secret of the movement and wealth itself in which He is glorious on His throne and in all the heights and depths of His creation.2

Both Barth and Torrance, respectively, are intent on demonstrating to the Church, that God is not immobile, but that He has an eternal movement, or an eternal time in Himself. Barth, as we have just read goes so far to say that classical sacra doctrina on divine immutability implies a ‘death’ in God; I agree. What we know of God, as both theologians are committed to, is only the Deus revelatus; the God who is revealed. If this is how the Christian first encounters God, as a God who has moved toward us in Jesus Christ, then to think God in static unmoved mover terms indeed would be to think God in terms of a type of death. We only know God as activity, as eternal and gracious movement; we only know God as His prosopon shines on us like the rays of the Sun shine upon the earth. This is the constancy, or stability of God’s life for the Christian knower; it is indeed an ‘unchangeableness,’ but one that is defined by the perichoretic interpenetrative koinonial Life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in processive intimacy. God’s life is an eternal activity of sabbath rest and shalom. Not immobile, but mobile to the point that He graciously stoops to us, gifts us with an echo-life, one in correspondence with His type of Life, in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

It is within this creaturely structuring, within His gracious movement and humanity for us (Deus incarnandus), that we can come to share in the inner reality of that movement as that is funded by the eternal fount of His forever Life of love for the other. This is what characterizes the changelessness, and thus constancy of God’s Life; it is the triunity of time funded by the ineffability of His eternal threeness (de Deo trino) in oneness (de Deo uno). As such, as we are graciously included in that Life by participatio Christi we experience His eternal time as that has been given its total correspondence in the time of His life for us in the temporality of Life, in the skin and bone of Jesus Christ. As the Christian moves from this temporal life into the consummate eternal Life of God there is a seamlessness to it precisely because we aren’t experiencing something different, relative to the two aspects of time, but simply a transition from one sphere, one seen by the faith of Christ, to another sphere, one seen by the sight of Christ for us; both finding their visio Dei in the Light of God’s free life to be for and with us. There is great hope and expectation here; of the sort that the angels long to understand. And so, they observe us in order to gain some semblance of this strange grace of God for whom they serve at His pleasure; even when they don’t fully grasp just how great this God is.

 

1 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 241.  

2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 §31: Study Edition Vol 9 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 58-9. 

 

God’s Uniqueness: Contra Valhalla and All Other Paganisms

Barth offers, as usual, a brilliant description of God’s uniqueness as that has been understood in the doctrinal development and witness of the historic Christian church. He writes:

Because the Church from the beginning understood the prophetic and apostolic testimony in this way, it responded from the first with a confession of His uniqueness as a kind of primary assertion. Because God is one is, according to Origen, the first of those appearances which were clearly passed down through apostolic preaching (Concerning Rulers I, Praef. 4). There is in all one rule in faith, which is alone unchanging and irreformable, namely belief in one God … (Tertullian, De virg. vel. 1). God, if he is not one, is not (Adv. Marc. 1, 3). Nothing is either above him or after him; nor is he moved by anything but his decree and freely he made all things since he alone is God, alone Lord, alone creator, alone father, alone holds together all things, and he is superior to all things that exist (Irenaeus, Adv. o. h. II, 1, 1). We believe that no nature except this one, neither angel, nor spirit, nor any power, this nature which is to be believed is God (Libellus in modum Symboli [5th century?] Denz. No. 19). God is the One to whose magnitude, or majesty, or power, I would not say anything can be preferred, but nothing can be compared (Novatian, De trin. 31). Knowledge of God in the sense of the New Testament message, the knowledge of the triune God as constrasted with the whole world of religions in the first centuries, signified, and still signifies, the most radical “twilight of the gods,” the very thing which Schiller so movingly deplored as the de-divinisation of the “lovely world.” It was no mere fabrication when the early Church was accused by the world around it of atheism, and it would have been wiser for its apologists not to have defended themselves so keenly against this charge. There is a real basis for the feeling, current to this day, that every genuine proclamation of the Christian faith is a force disturbing to, even destructive of, the advance of religion, its life and richness and peace. It is bound to be so. Olympus and Valhalla decrease in population when the message of the God who is the one and only God is really known and believed. The figures of every religious culture are necessarily secularised and recede. They can keep themselves alive only as ideas, symbols, and ghosts, and finally as cosmic figures. And in the end even in this form they sink into oblivion. No sentence is more dangerous or revolutionary than that God is One and there is no other like Him. All the permanencies of the world draw their life from ideologies and mythologies, from open or disguised religions, and to this extent from all possible forms of deity and divinity. It was on the truth of the sentence that God is One that the “Third Reich” of Adolf Hitler made shipwreck. Let this sentence be uttered in such a way that it is heard and grasped, and at once 450 prophets of Baal are always in fear of their lives. There is no more room now for what the recent past called toleration. Beside God there are only His creatures or false gods, and beside faith in Him there are religions only as religions of superstition, error and finally irreligion.[1]

This is one of the reasons I continue to read Barth, liberally. His focus is theological proper, and this oriented and given shape by God’s Self-exegesis and revelation in Jesus Christ.

The unique nature of the Christian God, who is one in three / three in one, cannot be replicated; He is sui generis and disanalogous with anything or anyone in created history. Why? Because He is the triune Creator; by virtue of His status as the eternal life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and this in interpenetrative co-inhering koinonia, He is His own self-sustaining limit. And thus, He is the One to whom we look for all life and sustenance. All other gods, mythologies, and atheistic self-worship through projection, which is what mythology entails, have no existence, and thus are contingent for their possibility, even as non-entities (if they are), upon the living Word of God. As Barth rightly notes, then, Christians, within the context of the verity of naturalistic and secular deities, ought to be understood as atheists; since Christians have a Yes-God who has no spatial or even spiritual conditioning by the created order. Christians worship a God that is not surmised, or posited based on naturalistic capacity; Christians worship a God that is imperceptible to natural wits—thus, to the outside unseeing world it appears that the Christian worships an a-theos (non-god). To be sure, though, all of humanity will either worship the true and living God, who is scandalously and particularly One, or they will worship something they self-construct in their own fallen image.


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 §31: Study Edition Vol 9 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 4-5.

God is Love

Thinking in terms of God’s so-called perfections can actually be a tricky complex. Is there a way to prioritize them; do we think them speculatively (in se), or concretely (ad extra)? Even through the cursory questions I just noted what we quickly come to realize is that what is at stake, in regard to answering how we approach the perfections, vis-à-vis knowledge of God, implicates our prolegomena; or theological methodology. For this Evangelical Calvinist, as many of you know, following both Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth (not to mention Athanasius et al), I prefer to think God from His economic revelation, which I take to be synonymous with His ontological/immanent/antecedent reality as the triune God. As Jesus said to Phillip,

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be content.” Jesus replied, “Have I been with you for so long, and you have not known me, Philip? The person who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you, I do not speak on my own initiative, but the Father residing in me performs his miraculous deeds. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me, but if you do not believe me, believe because of the miraculous deeds themselves. –John 14:8-11

When we see Jesus [Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν] we see the triune God’s work and person, without remainder, in the Son’s enfleshment. In other words, when the Son incarnate shows up, He comes as Son of the Father, as Athanasius famously emphasized; and He does so by the creative creativity of the Holy Spirit’s activity as the One who works as the bonding agent between the Father and the Son in the effulgence of their three-in-one / one-in-three love. It should be apparent by now what ‘perfection’ I take to be the ground of all others. In other words, it should be clear that I take who God is as Self-revealed love to be the ground and shape of all the other so-called perfections the Christian tradition likes to think God through. Ian McFarland affirms this way of thinking about the primordial perfection of God as triune love. And he thinks that the way we think God ought to come from the primacy of God’s Self-revelation as revealed in the οἰκονομία of His life for the world come in the flesh and bone of Jesus Christ. He writes the following in summary of previous development he has given in the broader context from which this is taken:

In summary, to say that God is love is to confess God as Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is love in that the Father loves the Son in giving all that he is to the Son and confirming this in the Spirit, even as the Son loves the Father by glorifying the Father in the same Spirit, with the Spirit bearing witness to—and thereby sharing in—the mutual love of the Father and the Son. In other words, “love” characterizes God’s concrete existence as these three, traditionally designated as hypostases or “persons.” As realized in the communion of the three persons, the love of God is free, in that it is not involuntary or compelled as though grounded in a reality either logically or ontologically prior to the act of the divine persons’ loving one another. Rather, God loves freely, and thus willingly, since it is integral even to the human love of which God’s is both the ground and goal that love can never be unintended, as though a lover could refrain from acknowledging her love as he own act. At the same time, the freedom of divine love does not make it a matter of choice or decision, as though God’s freedom were to be understood as its cause. If love were in this way the product of some more fundamental divine activity (viz., the divine will), then it would not be strictly true that God simply is love. For us, love is adventitious, in that we are before we love. It is not so for God, since the mutual love of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit is just what it means for God to God: neither relative to or dependent on any nondivine reality, but simply the One who lives in and as three persons.[1]

There are some technical things McFarland is addressing (at least as I read in-between the lines), in the literature, but we won’t let that detain us here. What is instructive for our purposes is to simply press the point that who God is is love; as the epistolero puts it in the starkest of terms: ‘The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love.’[2] Per the Scriptural attestation, and the reality it attests to in Jesus Christ, this is indeed the primary perfection by which all other so-called perfections take shape. If this is so, it tells us that at the very heart of what God does, because He never does anything apart from who He is, is that it is shaped by His overflowing life of Triune love.

When we have theologies that take their relative shape from metaphysical and speculative categories—such as we have in Christian Aristotelianism—God is not thought, primarily from His perfection of love, but instead from discursive reasoning that posits God as the necessary Creator; attendant, of course, with all the other speculative perfections such as eternality, impassibility, immutability, the omnis, so on and so forth. When God is thought under these pressures, alien pressures relative to His Self-revelation, in regard to Who God is, it changes how the Christian thinks a God-world relation. In this frame, no longer does God’s relationship to, for, and with us come attenuated by God is [first] love; instead it comes with the emphases that God is sovereign Creator, who now relates to the world, to us through (in the Reformed case) impersonal decrees that come with a juridical frame.

It is best to think God from the centraldogma that He is love. We can think through the other ‘classical’ categories, but not unless we do so first through the lens of God’s Triune love as the ‘ground and grammar’ of all the other attributes that are present within the Divine life; within the mysterium Trinitatis. Love you, Jesus. Love you, Father. I say so by the Holy Spirit who has brought me into Your life through the anointed and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

[1] Ian A. McFarland, The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of the Incarnation (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 29-30 kindle.

[2] I John 4:8, NET.

Thinking the Triune Grammar with Augustine and Gregory the Theologian

I am an ardent believer in being exposed to Trinitarian grammar as much as possible. The mysterium Trinitatis is a reality that all Christians, at all times, in all places ought to be getting lost in over and over again. I find great joy, and a peace that surpasses all understanding as I contemplate the great mystery of the triune reality; but I don’t do see blindly. To think God as triune is to think concretely about the divine life as that has been Self-revealed and exegeted for us in God’s givenness for us, with us, and in us, by the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ. St. Augustine captures the sense of what I’m after this way:

Should I even ask, O Lord? Should I even ask? You have spoken, and you have acted, and you have called us to believe. You have taught us that we walk by faith and not by sight, by trust in your good promises of goodness, and not by understanding. It is enough that you know the nature of things. Should I ask?

If I ask, will I receive an answer? You are beyond all my thoughts, greater than all that I can say, incomprehensible in your eternal communion as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You cannot be encompassed with any concept, bounded by anything greater than yourself, since you are greater than all. All my efforts to encompass you are acts of idolatry and not true worship. And you made all things and all things shine with the bright radiance of your glory. Your world seems as incomprehensible as you yourself.[1]

With this sense of awe about who God is, as that is set before us by Augustine, let’s turn to Gregory Nazianzus to get his eloquent and rather to the point thinking on who God is as the Triune reality:

I set before you the One Deity and Power, Found in the Three-in-Unity, Embracing the Three one by one, equal in essence and nature, Neither increased not decreased by ideas of greater or less; In every way equal, in every way the same, Just as the loveliness and hugeness of the heavens are one: The infinite oneness of Three Infinite Ones, Each of whom is God when seen individually in Himself. As the Father is God, so is the Son, And as the Son is God, so is the Holy Spirit; And the Three are likewise One God when seen together. Each is God because they are of the same essence, And they are One God because of the single principle of Deity. The very instant I conceive of the One, I am enlightened by the brightness of the Three; The very instant I differentiate them, I am carried straight back to the One. When I regard any One of the Three, I think of Him as the Whole; My sight is filled to the brim, And the greater part of what I am thinking of eludes me! I cannot grasp the greatness of One of the Three So as to reckon a greater greatness to the Others. And when I see the Three together, I see only one torch, And I cannot divide or share out the Undivided Light.[2]

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how unfathomable his ways!

34 For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?
35 Or who has first given to God,
that God] needs to repay him?

36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen.[3]

 

[1] Augustine cited by Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius, xv-xvi.

[2] Gregory Nazianzus cited in, The Early Church Fathers, edited by Nick Needham (Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2017), March 7th entry.

[3] The Apostle Paul inspired by the Holy Spirit, Romans 11:33-36, NET Bible.

On Proctological, I Mean Protological Divine Simplicity and Its Eschatological Correction

The Trinity never intended on being a ‘protological simplicity,’ but instead an eschatological dynamism of relational graciousness to be related to in koinonial blessedness of the sort that the Son has always already and eternally shared with the Father by the Holy Spirit. In sum, that’s what Paul Hinlicky is getting at here (in not so many words, but more):

Clarification of the problem—the ambiguity or instability—of the doctrine of protological simplicity in this Christian synthesis leads to a choice. The kataphatic function of simplicity as an articulation of God’s unity as the timeless identity of essence and existence must be abandoned for the sake of a more modest apophaticism. Simplicity should be affirmed, in the latter case, as a rule in Christian theology, respecting the incomprehensible unity of the Trinity, One of whom suffered at Another’s will, as decreed by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. In that case, to be sure, the tacit notion of time in the metaphysical affirmation of God’s timeless (and spaceless) self-identity will as well experience a corresponding revision. Our notion of God’s eternity and immensity will not be the abstract negation of creation but instead will be constructed out of the time-like begetting and spirating and the space-like perichoresis of the Triune life. In this way, divine eternity and immensity will be understood as providing the divine capacity for the creature, so that fittingly but not necessarily God creates in order to redeem and fulfill in the coming of the Beloved Community. The Creator/creature distinction, more broadly speaking, is gained not by negating God’s relation to the temporal world of becoming in a pseudo-insight but rather, positively, as Gunton required, by reflection on God’s revealed acts to redeem and fulfill all that He has made. The logic of a positive derivation of the divine attributes by which God is ontologically described as Creator is that what God has in fact done and promises to do, God must be thought of as capable of doing; in short: God is the ineffable harmony of power, wisdom, and love in infinite circulation.[1]

Here we have Hinlicky’s critique of what I like to call an essentialist ‘Pure Being theology,’ corrected by a strictly revelational personalist understanding of who God is as revealed in the economy (ad extra). What is of note here is that Hinlicky shows how a theologian can constructively work with the Great Tradition vis-à-vis a doctrine of God, and at the same time not abandon its core orthodox parameters. I really have no idea why so many younger theologians of retrieval feel so slavishly bound to a sort of repristinating mode in regard to retrieving the classical tradition; there seems to be a sense of security in it for them. I just refuse to think that anything ‘modern’ is from the devil; as far as I can remember the devil has been operative since at least the Fall.

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Divine Simplicity: Christ the Crisis of Metaphysics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2016), 52.

No Divine Simplicity Without Multiplicity

Divine Simplicity, as a locus that comes when theologians from the 21st century retrieve the classical theologians from yesteryear, has come to be an essential aspect of the theological task; at least for orthodoxy, when it comes to thinking (and worshipping) God. I have written elsewhere on the dangers of retrieving this doctrine without do attention to the Christian retranslation of this sort of philosophical concept; but I want to reiterate that, and emphasize an aspect that I think must be emphasized when attempting to think of God’s simplicity (in se) when we do so as Christian people. As an alternative, or better, a qualification to emphasizing Divine simplicity, I think the Christian must emphasize the multiplicity of God. I think there is a serious lacuna, when it comes to most discussions on the simplicity of God, in the sense that folks are so dire on making sure that we protect God’s unicity, that there is a failure to emphasize what in fact the character of that unity is for the Christian God.

For the Christian, God is not simply simple, if we mean by that, in regard to an emphasis, that God is a singularity; as if He is a philosophical monad, or pure being. Clearly, Christian theologians who constantly harp on God’s simplicity as a must (and I think it is if qualified correctly), must also be just as vigilant, when discussing this issue, to emphasize that God is simple as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; or to use the conciliar language: He is one in three / three in one (De Deo uno De Deo trino / De Deo trino De Deo uno). We should never speak of God as merely simple, or non-composite, without emphasizing what God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ does: i.e. that God is Son of the Father / Father of the Son / by the bond and fellowshipping of the Holy Spirit. This is the character of God’s simplicity that is given shape by this eternally or ‘onto’ relational reality; a reality of multiplicity in simplicity and simplicity in multiplicity.

As Athanasius was wont to emphasize, contrary to his Arian counterpart[s]: God is a unity of being not simply a unity of will.[1] TF Torrance captures these things well in his Reformed dialogue with the Orthodox Church. He recounts a statement he and they all agreed upon, in regard to a doctrine of God, as they discussed the Monarxia of God. The reader will see how important it is, for these interlocutors, to emphasize God’s unity of being, and how that is given shape by the triune reality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in perichoretic inter and intra relation.

Of far-reaching importance is the stress laid upon the Monarchy of the Godhead in which all three divine Persons share, for the whole indivisible Being of God belongs to each of them as it belongs to all of them together. This is reinforced by the unique conception of coinherent or perichoretic relations between the different Persons in which they completely contain and interpenetrate one another while remaining what they distinctively are in their otherness as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is intrinsically Triune, Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity. There are no degrees of Deity in the Holy Trinity, as is implied in a distinction between the underived Deity of the Father and the derived Deity of the Son and the Spirit. Any notion of subordination is completely ruled out. The perfect simplicity and indivisibility of God in his Triune Being mean that the Arche (ἀρχή) or Monarchia (μοναρχία) cannot be limited to one Person, as Gregory the Theologian pointed out. While there are inviolable distinctions within the Holy Trinity, this does not detract from the truth that the whole Being of God belongs to all of them as it belongs to each of them, and thus does not detract from the truth that the Monarchy is One and indivisible, the Trinity in Unity and the Unity in Trinity.[2]

There is a reason, in the history of theological method, as to why God’s singularity is typically tied to discussions on Divine simplicity, but for our purposes I simply want to focus on the positive reality that when Christians speak of God’s a se simplicity that this must be done within the context supplied by revelation. In other words, as Athanasius did before, we must think God from the Son, as the Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit. This changes the way we think of Divine simplicity; it removes that discussion away from an abstract philosophical conception, and reifies it in the concrete reality that God is a relationality of triune love; this is the shape of the Christian God’s simplicity. He is non-composite, the sui generis ultimate without any analogy; as such we must rely slavishly upon His Self-revelation about who He is; we must repudiate any other foundation than the one that has already been laid in Jesus Christ (cf. I Cor. 3.11). Simplicity, for the Christian, cannot be a standalone reality; it must be radically qualified by the reality of God’s triune multiplicity, and what that does to such grammar and thinking.

 

[1] See Jon M. Robertson, Christ as Mediator: A Study of the Theologies of Eusebius of Caesarea, Marcellus of Ancyra, and Athanasius of Alexandria (Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs).

[2] Theological Dialogue between Orthodox and Reformed Churches, vol. 2, ‘Significant Features, a Common Reflection on the Agreed Statement’, ch. 7, p. 231 cited by Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: T&T Clark, 2016), 185.

Dispelling the Mythos that Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God Once and For All

In an effort to dispel the mythos that the Muslim god is the same god as the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not to mention, Jesus, I want to share a good word from Karl Barth on the processions of the triune God who is eternally and definitionally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Folks like Miroslav Volf, Katherine Sonderegger et al. have been arguing that Christians and Muslims, basically, worship the same God when it comes to His singularity or oneness (de Deo uno); but clearly, at a definitional level, the Christian God, as He has freely made Himself known through His Self-revelation in the Son, is necessarily and only triune without remainder or addition (de Deo trino). For the Christian, the multiplicity of God in the persons of God is just as ‘essential’ as His so called ‘simplicity’ or singularity in regard to His oneness.

Here, Barth is discussing knowledge of God; i.e. how it is that man or humankind has knowledge of God, as man stands before God in and through union with Jesus Christ, and God’s stand with humanity through the humanity of the Son.

But the inner truth of the lordship of God as the one supreme and true lordship revealed and operative in His proclamation and action—the inner truth and therefore also the inner strength of His self-demonstration as the Lord, as this Lord, consists in the fact that He is in Himself from eternity to eternity the triune God, God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The fact that, according to that self-demonstration, man is indebted to Him for everything and owes Him everything is grounded in God’s own eternal Fatherhood, of which any other fatherhood can be only an image and likeness, however much we may owe to it, however much we may be indebted to it. And that self-demonstration constrains us to gratitude and indebtedness and therefore to the knowledge of God the Father as our Lord, because in eternity God is the Father of His own eternal Son and with Him the source of the Holy Spirit. Further, the fact that according to that self-demonstration God Himself is and does everything for the man who still owes Him everything is grounded in the fact that God is in Himself eternally the Son of the Father, eternally equal to the Father and therefore loved by Him, although and because He is the Son. And that self-demonstration constrains us to adoration of His faithfulness and grace and therefore to the knowledge of God the Son as our Lord, because in eternity God is the only Son begotten of the Father, and with the Father, and along with Him the source of the Holy Spirit. And finally, the fact that according to that self-demonstration God is the One from whom we have to expect everything is grounded in the fact that God is Himself eternally the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father and the Son, and their unity in love. In this way the self-demonstration, and in this way the proclamation and action of God through His Word in the covenant concluded with man, is grounded in God Himself. In this way and on this ground it has its compelling force. Because God is in Himself the triune God, both in His Word and in the work of creation, reconciliation, and redemption, we have to do with Himself. It is therefore impossible for us to postpone the decision—which means the encounter with Him—on the grounds that He is perhaps quite different from the One who proclaims Himself and acts in this way. And because God is in Himself the triune God, in this His Word we have to do with the final revelation of God which can never be rivalled or surpassed. It is, therefore, quite impossible to ask about other lords alongside and above this Lord. In the life of God as the life of the triune God things are so ordered and necessary that the work of God in His Word is the one supreme and true lordship in which He gives Himself to be known and is known. When God speaks about Himself He speaks about the fact that He is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And therefore everything else that He has to say to us, all truth and reality, all enlightenment and salvation, depends on the fact that primarily and comprehensively He is speaking about Himself.[1]

Barth works with a traditional Western oriented doctrine of God, one that thinks with the filioque attendant to it; we won’t hold that against him (e.g. Thomas Torrance, in my view offers a better way forward in regard to thinking the Monarxia of God. Even so, he still speaks in the terms we have here in Barth, in regard to origins or relation).What is fundamentally important about what Barth is communicating, particularly for our purposes in this post, is to demonstrate just how essential the threeness of God is vis-à-vis the oneness of God, and how the latter, for the Christian, cannot be understood to be what it is without the former, and vice versa.

If what Barth is articulating is the case (and it is!), then eo ipso, Christians and Muslims cannot worship the same God. There is not an inchoate or seminal understanding of God for the Christian; there is only the full-blown and flaming understanding that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit without compromise. The Christian only knows God by the Son’s revelation of the Father, and the Holy Spirit’s come-alongsideness by whom we say Jesus is Lord. The Christian does not, and cannot conceive of God in any other way. So, to confuse the Muslim God, with the Christian God is an absolute equivocation. And it is rather startling to see Christian theologians of some repute operate under and forward this confusion in their theologizing. I would suggest that this confusion is driven more by a social desire to be ‘ecumenical’ and ‘catholic’ rather than a commitment to be slavishly committed to the fact that God is three in one and one in three.

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. The Doctrine of God II/1 §25 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2009), 46-7.

The Holy Trinity in Intrarelation as the Divine Monarchia: Attending to the Fatherhood of God as Deifier: The Torrancean Solution

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.

 

[1] 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.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 179-80.

Hallmarks of the Trinity and God’s Inner Life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

When thinking of the Trinity people are often thrown into a quandary, and rightly so. The reality of God is an ineffable ultimate sort of reality that becomes slippery to the inquiring mind. Many, and rightly, caution that the mysterium trinitatis is something more to be adored than parsed and ransacked for intellectual coherence. It is true that the Trinity is ultimately a mystery, but the very fact that we can even use language like ‘trinity’ indicates that there is some level of intelligibility to this grand reality. As the tradition has illumined for the inquiring hearts and minds of the church, it is possible even to develop a grammar for speaking of God’s Triune life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Of course, all of these things are possible only because the impossible has been made possible by God’s choice for us in Christ to make himself known from the ontological inside out in the assumptio carnis (assumption of flesh). As such as Christians we do indeed think God as he has desired to be thought and experienced as filial Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

John Webster as he is attempting to offer a properly ordered treatment on a doctrine of creation dogmatically grounds his development in a doctrine of God; more focused, in God’s life as Triune. As he develops his thinking he offers four hallmarks that might be said of God in his inner life as that is given as gift in extra mode in his Self-revelation. He writes at length:

God’s life in himself is the perfect, still and eternal movement in which the Father generates the Son and together with the Son breathes the Spirit. Generation and spiration ­ the two ‘emanations’ or processions in which we may discern the personal modes of the one God ­ are the manner in which God is limitlessly abundant life, reciprocity and ‘ineffable mutual delight’. Of these internal works, a number of things may be said, all of which are (ectypal) indications of the unfathomable depth and originality of the triune God from which there flows his presence to creatures as their maker, reconciler, and perfecter. (a) God’s ad intra works are intrinsic, their term remaining within the subject of the action (this, over against-for example-Arian ideas that the Father’s generation of the Son is a transitive act, a work like creation, terminating in an object outside God, whereas generation and creation are properly speaking entirely different kinds of divine acts. (b) God’s ad intra works are constitutive, not accidental, activities. They are not ‘voluntary’ in the sense of enacting a decision behind which there lies an agent who might have willed to act otherwise: there is no Father ‘behind’ the generation of the Son, no Father and Son ‘behind’ the breathing of the Spirit (relations of origin are eternal, not sequential). In this sense, therefore, God’s immanent activities are ‘necessary’, not by external compulsion but by absolute or natural necessity: these activities are what it is for God to be God. (c) God’s ad intra activities are unceasing, not temporal or transient. They are not an act of self-constitution or self-causation (talk of God as causa sui makes no sense); they effect no alteration or modification of the godhead; they are not productive activities which might be conceived as finished. (d) God’s ad intra activities require us to speak of distinctions between the persons of the godhead. These distinctions are various. The persons are distinguished by origin (the Son is generated by the Father, but not the Father by the Son; the Spirit proceeds from Father and Son, but not they from him); they are distinguished by the order of the relations of origin which make it possible to speak of the first, second and third persons of the Trinity (though not thereby  to suggest temporal priority and posteriority or descending degrees of glory); they are, accordingly, distinguished by the order and mode of their immanent operations, which repeat the order and mode of their personal existence: the Father acts a nullo, the Son acts a Patre, the Spirit ab utroque ­ though not, of course, at cost to the common aseity in which each person is and acts.[1]

Important points about generation, aseity, and how the persons relate in oneness and threeness threeness and oneness (de Deo uno de Deo trino). We do see a commitment on Webster’s part to the filioque and the Western tradition, but we won’t engage with that now. More important, for my eyes, is his emphasizing of there ‘being no God behind the back of the Father or the Son or the Spirit’, a point us Torranceans and Barthians are fans of in heightened ways. We see Webster contradict the sort of post-metaphysical conception that some attribute to Barth’s theology; i.e. the idea that God’s ‘being is in becoming’, or for what Hunsinger calls the ‘revisionist Barth’ that God constitutes his being in his becoming in the incarnation (more pointedly: the resurrection). Instead Webster emphasizes the catholic view of God’s antecedent life as the ground of what is expressed and given in the outer life of the economy; we see Webster avoiding any sort of confusion between processions in the inner life with the missions given in the outer life.

These are all important points to emphasize when thinking God. Even though we have supposedly passed through a Trinitarian renaissance in Christian theology (Barth being one of its most important initiators) we might scratch our heads at the continued dereliction of thought of many, particularly within the realms of Protestant theology. We might think of someone like Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, or Owen Strachan and their eternal functional subordinationism or eternal submission of the Son to the Father. And now we have moved beyond, supposedly, the Trinitarian renaissance and have come to a point, according to Katherine Sonderegger et al. where God’s singularity needs to take precedence to help extinguish the relative emphasis on his multiplicity that has apparently obtained because of modern thinkers like Barth. It is interesting, really, because even Webster himself as a result of his turn to Aquinas et al. seems to want to correct the trinitarian excesses that even he had given himself over to in his early years with Barth and Jüngel. Much of Webster’s desire to correct has more to do with prolegomena or method when it comes to thinking God rather than a simple material correction in regard to a doctrine of God; when we come to that, as we have in the quote above, what we find is a Webster who is still a buddy of the ‘textual Barth’, as Hunsinger calls him.

Trinitarian theology is alive and well with many interesting trends and threads still fluttering in the minds and hearts of those who care. The Trinity matters because God matters. For the Christian there is no generic understanding of who God is; for the Christian God is necessarily Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and this reality, his persons-in-relation are the basis of his oneness, just as his oneness is the basis of his persons. When we get sidelined from the all-important reality of the Trinity, when we fail to emphasize that God is an eternal relation of love (i.e. self-giveness one for the other one in the other) precisely because he is a godhead who is personal, we end up constructing subsequent theologies that reflect whatever emphasis of God we hold dear. For an Evangelical Calvinist, as myself, understanding that God is Father by me entering that reality through the Son by the Spirit, means that the theology I do will always have a personalist and familial shape to it precisely because God in this frame just is Love.

 

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 89-90.

The Self-Communicating God of Athanasius Against the Mute God of Arius: God’s Being As Love Rather Than An Absolute Self

The doctrines of old never really get old. The heresies of old never really get old, they just re-emerge in new language games per the periods those language games are played within. Aspects of what is known as Arianism continue to rear its ugly head into the 21st century. If you don’t know Arianism, at base, is the idea that ‘there was a time when the Son was not’; in other words, there was a time when the Son of God, who we now know as Jesus Christ, was non-existent, that he is a creature. This was the heresy that flowered early in the church through the teachings of Arius, and his followers, and which Athanasius argued against starting early at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Ironically there are many, even today, who want to argue that the development of what became Nicene theology is really the result of overly imposing Hellenic categories upon God thus making God into a three-headed monster; or making God into a pantheon of persons seated above in the heavenlies. I say this is ironic because we do have a case of an over imposition of Greek categories upon the Christian God, but it isn’t from the Trinitarians (the Nicenes); it is from the Arian impulse to mold God into the monadic conception of godness that we can derive from the classical philosophers (e.g. the god of the philosophers). In fact it is the Trinitarians who refused to give into the seduction provided for by the intellectuals, and instead flipped the grammar they developed on its head by allowing the pressure of God’s Self-revelation and Self-communication in Jesus Christ to reify such categories in such a way that the Revelation of God forged the categories Christians think God from. There is indeed a Greek impulse available in the Christian tradition, but it is resident with those who would identify with Arius and his followers rather than with Athanasius and his.

Arthur McGill, in a distilled and precise fashion, offers a fruitful line in regard to what Athanasius accomplished contra [mundum] Arius and the dead fruit he produced.

ATHANASIUS AND ARIUS: A STUDY IN CONTRASTS

Let us conclude this chapter by setting the Trinitarian God and the Arian God in the sharpest possible contrast so that all the issues may be clearly seen.

At one level, we are concerned with the question of God’s essential being, of the quality that gives him his identity as God. According to Arius, the indispensable mark of divinity is unbegottenness, or what we might call absolute independence. God is divine because he exists wholly from within himself, wholly on his own. He needs nothing, he depends on nothing, he is in essence related to nothing. And this, according to the Trinitarian theologians, is precisely what the powerfulness disclosed in Jesus Christ discredits. For as these theologians read certain passages in the Gospel of John, the powerfulness in Jesus is characterized as fully and perfectly divine, and yet at the same time, as totally and continually derived.

In other words, as present in Jesus, God’s powerfulness has a form—the form of dependence—which Arius can only reject as quite unworthy of God. In place of self-contained and self-sufficient autonomy, what the Trinitarian theologians see as the defining mark of divinity is that totality of self-giving which proceeds between the Father and the Son. The Father gives all that he is to the Son; the Son obeys the Father and offers all that he is back to the Father. The Father and the Son are not divine, therefore, in terms of the richness of reality that they possess within themselves. They do not exist closed up within their own being. Rather, they are divine in terms of the richness of the reality that they communicate to the other. Against Arius’ reverential awe of the absolute, Gregory of Nazianzus puts the alternative:

Thus much we for our part will be bold to say, that if it is a great thing for the Father to be unoriginate, it is no less a thing for the Son to have been begotten of such a Father. For not only would he share the glory of the unoriginate, since is of the unoriginate, but he has the added glory of his generation, a thing so great and august in the eyes of all those who are not altogether groveling and material in mind. (Theological Orations III. ii; Christology of the Later Fathers, p. 168.)

If Arius identifies God’s divinity with his absolute independence, Gregory identifies it with his inner life of self-giving.

At a second level, we are faced with the question of how God exercises his divinity in relation to the world and to men. For Arius, God’s complete self-sufficiency means that with the world he appears in the form of absolute domination. As God depends on nothing, everything else depends on him. As he is completely rich, everything else is completely poor. As he is completely powerful, everything else is completely weak, and is called to revere his power. And as he can affect other things without himself being affected, i.e., through an intermediary agent, everything else is its activity affects itself and other things, but not him.

According to the Trinitarian theologians, nothing could be more contrary to the power of God that men encounter in Jesus Christ than this Arian picture. Far from being a vessel of dominating mastery, Jesus is just the opposite. He does not come on clouds of glory. He does not stand over his followers, ordering them hither and yon to his bidding and vindicating his authority by unopposable acts of self-assertion. In the Epistle to Diognetus, and early Christian writing, the question is asked, Why did God send his Son?

To rule as a tyrant, to inspire terror and astonishment? No, he did not. No, he sent him in gentleness and mildness. To be sure, as a king sending his royal son, he sent him as God. But he sent him as to men, as saving and persuading them, and not as exercising force. For force is no attribute of God.

“Force is no attribute of God”—that is the basic principle for the Trinitarian theologians. God’s divinity does not consist in his ability to push things around, to make and break, to impose his will from the security of some heavenly remoteness, and to sit in grandeur while all the world does his bidding. Far from staying above the world, he sends his own glory into it. Far from imposing, he invites and persuades. Far from demanding service from me in order to enhance himself, he gives his life in service to men for their enhancement. But God acts toward the world in this way because within himself he is a life of self-giving.[1]

Which conception of God are you being exposed to today in the Christian church? There is a major recovery movement taking place in and among evangelical Protestant theologians; they are attempting to recover the classical theistic conception of God that they believe is the church catholic conception of God. But we might want to ask ourselves if the God being recovered, the version of the classical theistic conception of God that is being recovered resembles the Athanasian or the Arian understanding more or less? Is the God being recovered for the church the relational and self-communicating God that Athanasius articulates, or are the impulses being recovered more in line with the Arian monadic conception of God wherein God’s absolute independence, apart from relational emphases, is being emphasized? While a fully fledged Arianism may well not be being recovered, this does not mean the untextualized impulses of the Greek godness principles that Arius thought from can’t be attendant in some modulated form in the God being recovered for the evangelical churches.

More materially, as McGill distills Athanasius, what stands out is indeed the reality that God, at core, in se, is a God of onto-relation; a God who finds his being in subject-in-being relation such that the oneness of God (ousia) is shaped by the threeness of God (hypostaseis), and vice versa. That God’s being is necessarily one of love, and that love is defined by his very activity of self-giveness as he is resplendently Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is within this anterior coinhering relations of God that we can begin to understand why God created to begin with; that the who of God’s life precedes the what as that is revealed for us in the God for us in Jesus Christ. It is within this antecedent reality of God’s life that our lives make sense, and that suffering itself takes upon new hues of bright and vibrant color; as we come to recognize the deep relationality of God, and the Self-relating dependence of God within himself, that we recognize how significant relationship is for us. God is able to reverse what the enemy intended for evil by using suffering and tragedy to recognize our deep need for him; that we can come to recognize that the ground and bases of our lives is an ecstatic one given to us as gift ever afresh and anew by the guarantee of the Holy Spirit sealed upon our hearts with the kiss of Jesus Christ.

I am sorely concerned for the churches. I’m concerned that they are getting a more Arian-like conception of God that does not provide them with an adequate understanding of God which can only result in a deleterious spirituality that has nothing to do with who God really is in himself as revealed as the Son of the Father. Yes, the God of the schoolmen has certain qualities to him, but are they the actual realities that Athanasius could see? Yes, Athanasius used a similar grammar to the Greeks, and a similar grammar to the God of the classical theists, but he may well have used that grammar in equivocal ways from the way that say medieval classical theists used that grammar. These are big ideas, and big concerns; but they have real life and concrete iterations and implications in and for the people of the church of Jesus Christ.

[1] Arthur C. McGill, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method (Eugene, OR: Wipf&Stock Publishers, 1982), 80-2.