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; it is not homoousios with the eternal Word. And so we may also add:
- 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 in the life of God.
- 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 Thomas 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 the British army. After an engagement in Italy, he went in search for wounded soldiers:
When daylight filtered through, I came across a young soldier, Private Philips, 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 the only God that there is, the God who had come to us in Jesus, has shown his face to us, and poured out his love to us as our Saviour. As I prayed and commended him to the Lord Jesus, he passed away. (Quoted in T. F. Torrance, p. 74)
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, made 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 (or at least, not just 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. 35.8)
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)
No God behind the back of Jesus! This is the decisive answer to the diluted Christs of liberal Protestantism and the vapid unitarianisms that will always be popular in a secular world. Neither proclaims, can proclaim, a message that is truly good news. If the όμοούσιοϛ τω Πάτρι is not true, then the gospel lacks the ontological grounding in the transcendent life of God that it needs to be gospel. To know God in Jesus Christ is to participate and abide in God as he truly is and share in the eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no other God, no other salvation, no other gospel.
(6 March 2014; rev.)