Thinking Trinity: No God Behind the Back of Jesus

What if the Nicene assertion of Christ’s Jesus’ consubstantial unity with the Father is not true? In the previous article I focused on the story of the paralytic and Christ’s word of forgiveness and argued that if Christ is not one in being and agency with God, then his word of forgiveness is only a human word, lacking ultimate validity and redemptive power. A prophet may speak in the name of God; but his word remains at infinite remove from the transcendent Creator whom he represents. A prophet may speak promise and judgment on behalf of YHWH; but he cannot command the seas and recreate the cosmos. The word of the prophet is not homoousios with the eternal Word.

One might expand upon this theme in various ways. If Christ is not consubstantial with the Father, then his death on Golgotha is not the death of God for the sins of the world. If Christ is not consubstantial with the Father, then his resurrection on Easter morning is not the rebirth and transfiguration of humanity. If Christ is not consubstantial with the Father, then we will be judged at the Last Day not by the Crucified, who still bears upon his body the wounds of ransom and love, but by the Deus Incognito who haunts our nightmares.

Every important soteriological claim of the gospel depends on the consubstantiality of the Son and Spirit with the Father, for every important soteriological claim depends on the identity of God in his self-communication and self-giving. As T. F. Torrance liked to say, “There is no God behind the back of Jesus.”

This evangelical truth was firmly impressed upon Torrance during his service in World War II as a chaplain for the British army. After an engagement in Italy, TFT went in search for wounded soldiers:

When daylight filtered through I came across a young soldier (private Phillips) scarcely twenty years old lying mortally wounded on the ground, who clearly had not long to live. As I knelt down and bent over him, he said “Padre, is God really like Jesus?” I assured him that he was … As I prayed and commended him to the Lord Jesus he passed away.

The homoousion of the Council of Nicaea boldly declares the ontological identity of Jesus Christ with the Creator of the universe. During the fourth century Arians and Semi-Arians were content to affirm the likeness of Christ to the Father. They might disagree about the points of likeness; but they all agreed that there could not be an identity of being. In their eyes, such an assertion would compromise the simplicity and holy transcendence of the Deity. The Son is a creature, created by the unbegotten God from out of nothing. No matter how exalted a creature he may be, the distance between the Son and his Maker is infinite. The one thing that the Arian Christ cannot communicate to humanity is God.

George D. Dragas identifies the fundamental difference between Arius and St Athanasius on this point—the potential of the world to bear the uncreated Deity:

St. Athanasius holds that creation does not know God without God, because it was not made nor has it been sustained in existence without God’s direct action. In other words, creation is ontologically and therefore epistemologically dependent on God in a direct manner. Thus, man enjoys existence and knowledge in God directly, and this means that there is no radical incompatibility between the eternal and ineffable being of God and the temporal being of creation which is totally other than his. The fact that creation emerges out of nothing does not exclude it from sharing in the being of God. Or, the Being of God is not something closed to itself, but like a fountain overflowing with activity. The contact then between God and the world is direct and this is the import of the Church’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God. This direct existential contact implies direct epistemological contact. If Jesus of Nazareth reveals God, then he must be really God, and if he is really God, he must be God the Creator.

Arius finds St Athanasius’ position quite impossible, because for him the uncreated and the created are incompatible. Hence he argues for a mediator who is half way between the uncreated God and the created universe. But, as St Athanasius observes, this opposition demands in fact an infinite number of mediators. For St Athanasius to see creation correctly, is to see God in whom all things exist, and when you see him thus, you also see that he is totally other, transcendent. There is no incompatibility or opposition between the uncreated and the created. God is uncreated in the Father, but he is Creator in the Son. Arius finds the two incompatible, hence he divides the Father from the Son placing the latter on the side of creation, if only to end with a mythological image of the mediator-creator who is neither eternal, nor temporal, neither true God nor true creature, but a divine-creature! (“The Eternal Son” in The Incarnation, pp. 29-30)

The Holy Trinity is thus to be understood as “transcendentally immanent or immanently transcendent” in his relation to the world (p. 30). Athanasius is not engaging in philosophical speculation, for he has learned of God through divinity’s ineffable nearness in the Incarnation: in Christ the Creator has stepped out of his anonymity and made himself known “in the most concrete, tangible and unexpected way, in and through the particular human historical existence of the man Jesus” (p. 22). The incarnate Son, the Nicene Creed confesses, is homoousios with the Father. In the words of the Apostle Paul: “For in Christ Jesus the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9). And the Apostle John: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. … No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:14, 18). Yet even in his self-revelation and enfleshment, God remains incomprehensible mystery. At no point does the divine essence become an object of human perception and intellectual conceptualization.  Here is no static apophaticism and kataphaticism. “We do not have God’s being per se, as an object,” explains Dragas, “but God’s being in his act, an act which is apophatic with respect to its ontological origin but kataphatic with respect to its power and effectiveness” (p. 46).

The Arians, on the other hand, rejected the homoousion because of a monadic construal of divinity that would not allow them to entertain the possibility of the Creator’s personal inhabitation of his creation: “They could not, in other words, see God as parousia which can enter the context of our humanity. They only saw him as hyperousia and drew a sharp division between God’s transcendence and God’s immanence in the world” (p. 42).

“There is no God behind the back of Jesus.” In the Word made flesh God truly reveals himself and is identical with his self-revelation. St Gregory of Nyssa beautifully expresses the evangelical significance of the homoousion: “All things that are in the Father are beheld in the Son, and all things that are the Son’s are the Father’s; because the whole Son is in the Father and has all that the Father has in himself. Thus the Person of the Son becomes as it were the Form and Face of the knowledge of the Father, and the Person of the Father is known in the Form of the Son” (Ep. 38.8).

The young soldier to whom Torrance ministered on the battlefield wondered if God is like Jesus Christ. This is a question with which many Christians have wrestled in their lives, a question that cuts to the very heart of human existence. The homoousion of Nicaea gives the answer:

God is not one thing in himself and another thing in Jesus Christ—what God is toward us in Jesus he is inherently and eternally in himself. This is the fiducial significance of the central clause in the Nicene Creed, that there is a oneness in Being and agency between Jesus Christ the incarnate Son and God the Father. What God is in eternity, Jesus Christ is in space and time, and what Jesus Christ is in space and time, God is in his eternity. There is an unbroken relation of Being and Action between the Son and the Father, and in Jesus Christ that relation has been embodied in our human existence once and for all. There is thus no God behind the back of Jesus Christ, but only this God whose face we see in the face of the Lord Jesus. There is no deus absconditus, no dark inscrutable God, no arbitrary Deity of whom we can know nothing but before whom we can only tremble as our guilty conscience paints harsh streaks upon his face. No, there are no dark spots in God of which we need to be afraid; there is nothing in God for which Jesus Christ does not go bail in virtue of the perfect oneness in being and nature between God and himself. There is only the one God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ in such a way that there is perfect consistency and fidelity between what he reveals of the Father and what the Father is in his unchangeable reality. The constancy of God in time and eternity has to do with the fact that God really is like Jesus, for there is no other God than he who became man in Jesus and he whom God affirms himself to be and always will be in Jesus. (Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, pp. 243-244)

If the όμοούσιοϛ τω Πάτρι is not true, then the gospel lacks the grounding in the transcendent life of God that it needs to be gospel. To know God in Jesus Christ is to know God as he truly is—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And to know the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to know and enjoy eternal life. There is no other God, no other salvation, no other gospel.

(Return to first article)

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12 Responses to Thinking Trinity: No God Behind the Back of Jesus

  1. i’m leaning toward incorporating athansius’s “on the incarnation” into my essay which i think will focus on the difference between fourth century rabbinic establishments of orthodoxy in comparison to christianity’s refutation of heterodoxies.

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  2. whitefrozen says:

    I need to read Torrances book on the doctrine of God. I’ve heard it’s a monster, though.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Have you read TFT’s Trinitarian Faith? That’s my favorite Torrance book.

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      • whitefrozen says:

        I haven’t gotten around to that one yet – I’ve read Incarnation/Atonement, Reality and scientific/reality and evangelical theology, and Transformation and Convergance. I’d like to go a bit more into his patristic/dogmatic tracks, though.

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  3. Pingback: First Saturday in Lent: Bosco & St Cyril | All Along the Watchtower

  4. Reader Cuthbert says:

    Fr. Aidan, forgive me if this is not completely relevant to the thrust of your article, but something you mentioned has…perplexed me for a while. I’m almost ashamed to admit my confusion, because it’s such a focal point of the NT and so foundational to our Christian faith, but here goes.

    How are we to understand what happened on the Cross? You said, “If Christ is not consubstantial with the Father, then His death on Golgotha is not the death of God for the sins of the world.” What exactly does it mean to die “for our sins”? Outside of a Penal Substitutionary Atonement framework, why did Our Lord have to die such a death? Why could he not have lived to an old age and “defeated death by death”? Was His death being via crucifixion ultimately arbitrary? Especially if “what has not been assumed has not been healed” as the Fathers say. Was old age “assumed” and healed in the Incarnation?

    Essentially, outside of a penal framework, I don’t understand why Christ “had” to die “for our sins” when the Eastern Orthodox emphasis seems to be so much upon defeating death instead. I know sin and death are related, and I know Christ fulfilled everything in the crucifixion, but I’m having trouble connecting the dots. Any insight is greatly appreciated!

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Great questions, Cuthbert. Thank you.

      First, a clarification: I certainly did not intend “the death of God for the sins of the world” to express a penal view of atonement by which humanity placates the wrath of God.

      Why then do Christians accord such significance to the passion and death of Christ? Why would St Gregory the Theologian declare, “We need an incarnate God, a God put to death, so that we might live, and we were put to death with him”?

      I wish I could give you a thoughtful answer. I think the answer is given in the narrative itself, in the fact that Jesus freely accepts the cost of faithfulness to his mission to proclaim to all of Israel his message of God’s coming kingdom. His faithfulness brought him into direct conflict with the principalities and powers of the world, including both the Roman Empire and the corrupt religio-political structures of Israel, which ultimately resulted in his crucifixion. After the resurrection, the Church would quickly come to see that this death enjoyed a significance far greater than that of martyrdom, that it was itself the defeat of Death and Satan.

      I think that the history of theories of atonement, particularly in the Western Church, have demonstrated the dangers of over-theorizing and over-explaining the Cross. The only real explanation is the Paschal Liturgy.

      I’m sorry I cannot be of greater help to you here. This is a topic with which I too struggle, particularly as a preacher.

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      • Reader Cuthbert says:

        That was helpful, Father, thank you. Could I throw another thought out there that occurred just to me? If we could sort of “riff” on the patristic notion of “that which is not assumed is not healed” do you think we could see the Cross as Christ experiencing pain to the absolute maximum capacity, such that it too is healed, and now there is literally no pain which a human being could experience that cannot be healed and filled by Christ? Coming at it from a different angle, maybe *how* Christ died wasn’t relevant in terms of defeating death (surely dying of old age and rising again would accomplish that too, no?) but it *is* relevant in terms his total participation in the plight of man. What do you think of that?

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I need to think on that a bit. I’m not comfortable with the notion, though.

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        • On the one hand, I have seen spiritual writers in a pastoral sense invoke Christ’s pain as solidarity with our own, i.e., to help us through our suffering. Certainly there are many in some corners who focus on the pain to show the lengths of God’s love, as you said “total participation.” Yet I feel some who linger in this approach can have a tendency towards the unhealthy masochism of penal substitution as if the pain itself was salvific or meritorious – which it was not. Christ’s faith, death, and resurrection were salvific – but not the pain, although He was willing to do this to achieve His desired end. It’s an important distinction, I think.

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    • Reader Cuthbert,

      If you haven’t, I would very strongly suggest reading Athanasius’ “De Incarnatione” (On the Incarnation) which can be found free online. It is probably the most cogent presentation I have ever read on the Atonement and, indeed, the whole Christian faith. Of course, Fr. Kimel has written on this topic before which can found in those posts tagged “John Zizioulas.”

      Let me add a few things, if you don’t mind. Interestingly, Irenaeus once proposed that Christ lived into his forties to answer just what you asked – namely, that Jesus recapitulated the whole of a human life. Not that I believe that. Athanasius actually addressed this question, too, about why that method of death since at that time it had been so dishonorable in On the Incarnation. He said that ordinary deaths are the results of general human weakness (hunger, disease) so Christ’s death must be the greatest demonstration of divine power over the world, especially the corporate nature of His death since others were involved in putting Him to death. By contrast, ordinary deaths are more individual events and do not involve a wholeness of people participating.

      It seems that all theories of atonement agree on some of the basics – namely, that the powers of sin cannot simply be ignored but utterly annihilated. This sin is not simply sins in a personal sense but rather the human condition left to itself, unhinged from the grace of God and subject to death and moral weakness – i.e., the mankind found in history – falling back into the grand “nihilo” from which it came. Because of this, God cannot simply “forgive” this as if it were personal sin or an extrinsic legalism but must put it to right intrinsically – that is, destroy that which manifests in death. Athanasius calls this “the law of death” which even God cannot abrogate by His nature since that law is made in His Word. C.S. Lewis in his Narnia series termed this the “Deep Magic.” I suppose Hugo Grotius might call this God’s acting as cosmic Judge, Anselm God’s justice/honor, although Athanasius did a better job with expressing this. The point is that sin in the sense of cosmic corruption cannot simply forgotten but dealt with as a real corruption and impurity – that is, expiated.

      The Ancient Near East, on the whole, was almost obsessed with ritual purity and gradations of holiness. In ancient Judaism, the Temple was believed to be the locus of God’s presence on earth – indeed, the primordial foundation of creation and its representative before God. If the impurity of the Land came to be too high and pollute the Temple, God would leave or manifest His wrath against this pollution. It’s not as if the wrath is somehow extrinsic but rather represents Godliness itself turned against evil for the sake of Goodness. In the Yom Kippur ritual of Old Testament times, a goat representing Azazel was driven out and carried the sins of the Land away, and another was sacrificed – using the blood to the cleanse the Temple/Creation. I’ve also seen some suggest this blood reinvoked or remade the Covenant and the faith committed by Israel’s ancestors – a covenantal act of participation not unlike the Liturgy’s own participation in the Last Supper. Following this cleansing, God would be ritually enthroned on Sukkot and returned to the creation as Restoring King come to “rest.” The Book of Genesis has been likened to an ancient liturgy along just these lines. The Covenant (also including the Torah and the Law), in this sense, is the OT stand-in for Athanasius’ “law of death” – that is, the real conditions which must be fulfilled – before and through which creation can be restored. Similarly, Christ “fulfilled” this “law” (which is not extrinsic but intrinsic since “the wages of sin is death” – that is, the interlocking between sin and death) and then returns as the New Adam. Like the Divine Warrior-King motif in the OT and ANE, Christ then is set over the powers, victorious, and creation revivifies with Him – a victory prefigured by His exorcisms and healings.

      At this point, a different set of Old Testament motifs comes into play. Here, Israel recapitulates Adam – both of whom are children of God who, with God as Father, are heirs to His inheritance with the holy ones, what we would call angels or the OT called “elohim,” in theosis. In the ancient world, prophets and priests had access to God’s court at times and needed to be purified to this state in order to do so (like Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah). Christ is a type of Adam and Moses as all recapitulate one another as glorified “sons of God” who are bound with their people as mediators with Christ at once being the prototype for Adam and Moses, the original Image, and their descendent. Indeed, covenantal language derives from the language of tribal relationships in the Near East, creating “blood brothers” where there had been none. In the New Covenant, the Church participates in Christ’s inheritance as Israel is God’s inheritance and thus the expected General Resurrection and the Kingdom (theosis) so expected by apocalyptic Jews has been realized in the prototype of Christ. Like the Jerusalem Temple and the High Priest, Christ also unites the heavenly with the earthly in His Person which enables Him to be the place of God’s presence and purification just as the Temple was. Also, the Temple and High Priest were representatives of Israel/Church before God.

      Hope this helps.

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