In the fourth century, amidst great theological controversy, the Church Fathers hammered out the foundational assertions of the Christian faith in the creed articulated at the first ecumenical council at Nicaea (AD 325) and reaffirmed and elaborated at the second council at Constantinople (AD 381). The Creed, known today as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (or simply the Nicene Creed), is accepted by all branches of Christianity, including Roman Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, and Eastern Orthodox. The Nicene Creed is trinitarian in its structure, addressing first the Father, then the Son and Spirit.
In regard to Jesus Christ, the Fathers went to great length to state in precise terms the New Testament witness that Jesus Christ is God. Carefully choosing their words, the Fathers asserted in the Creed that Jesus is "the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father (Greek: homoousios to Patri homo-oo-SEE-us toe PA-tree) . . ."
The phrase, "being of one substance with the Father" (homoousios to Patri) means that Jesus is the same in being, nature, essence or substance as the Father. Just as our children are as fully human as we are (they share equally in our humanity), Jesus, the eternally begotten Son, is "just as God" as the Father; he shares equally in the Godness of the Father. To say that Jesus is "one substance with the Father" (homoousios to Patri) is to assert against the Arians that Jesus is not less than God. It is to assert against the semi-Arians (see previous post) that Jesus is not merely "like" God. To the contrary, Jesus is God—of the same essence, nature, or being as the Father. To be a bit more technical, the Father and Son are one in being (ousia) while distinct in personhood (hypostasis). In short, while Jesus is personally distinct from the Father (against modalism), Jesus is no less divine than the Father. Against all forms of ontological subordinationism, Jesus is fully divine, the eternally begotten Son of the Father, "God of God."
The Content of revelation
In sending his only begotten Son into the world, the Father does not send us mere information about himself. Nor does he send only a moral example, that is, a good man who shows us how to live a godly life. Rather than leave us floundering, lost in our darkness trying to discover who God is, our loving Father sends the Son who is homoousios to Patri: the same in nature, essence, and being as the Father. Jesus Christ is nothing less than God toward us, God in our midst, and God for us! Revelation is the act of God's self-communication, wherein the Revealer and the Revelation are one. It is both God who reveals and God who is revealed. To say that Jesus is homoousios to Patri is to say that the content of God's revelation is God himself. In short, Jesus is The Revelation of God.
Because Jesus is "one substance with the Father," we have real and accurate knowledge of God, for God has revealed himself from a point within his own eternal Triune Being. Against the Greek philosophers who based their knowledge of God on rational speculation; against Augustine, who, under the influence of NeoPlatonism, looked inward to the human mind or soul to find "vestiges" of the Trinity (vestigias trinitatis); and against the medieval Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas, who used Aristotelian metaphysics to articulate "proofs" of God based on the observable, empirical phenomena in creation, God has revealed himself in accordance with his own nature by sending his divine Son who is of the same essence or being as the Father (homoousios to Patri). Moreover, in sending his Son into the world, God has revealed himself in a form comprehensible to human understanding. The eternally begotten Son has come among us as a human being like us: the Son of Mary, Jesus of Nazareth. To know God, we look to Jesus, for only the Son knows the Father (Mt 11:27). He is the express image of God (Heb 1:3), the fullness of God in bodily form (Col 2:9).
Revelation and reconciliation
After asserting the ontological (having to do with being, essence, nature) oneness between the Father and the Son, the Creed immediately articulates the soteriological (having to do with human salvation) implications of homoousios to Patri. In accordance with the New Testament witness to Christ, the Creed describes Jesus as the one "Who for us men, and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate."
The Apostle Paul tells us that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself (2Cor 5:19; Col 1:20; Eph 1:9,10)). According to Colyer (2001:78), "Throughout reconciliation, in all that Jesus Christ is and does for us, there is an unbroken homoousial relation in being and activity between the incarnate Son and God the Father." Not only are the Father and Son one in being, they are also one in agency, that is, in their creative and redemptive activity for us. The Nicene phrase, homoousios to Patri, clearly asserts that not only is there no division between the being of the Son and the being of the Father, but also there is no division in the acts of the Son and the acts of God (Torrance, 1995:137). The saving and reconciling acts of Jesus are nothing less than the very salvific acts of God "for us men and our salvation." According to Torrance (1996:5), we can never think accurately of God apart from God's saving and redemptive activity in Jesus. Torrance writes: "It is of course because God actively loves us, and actually loves us so much that he has given us his only Son to be the Saviour of the world, that he reveals himself to us as the Loving One, and as he whose Love belongs to his innermost Being as God. . . . It is precisely as this living, loving, and acting God that he has come to us in Jesus Christ and unites us to himself by his one Spirit . . . all in order to be our God and to have us for his people" (Torrance, 1996:5). "It is in the Cross of Christ," Torrance continues, "that the utterly astonishing nature of the Love that God is has been fully disclosed, for in refusing to spare his own Son whom he delivered up for us all, God has revealed that he loves us more than he loves himself" (Torrance, 1996:5; italics added).
Furthermore, the Nicene homoousion ("of one substance") applies not only to the ontological oneness of the Father and Son; it applies also to Jesus as the Son of Man. If Jesus is not of one substance with the Father (homoousiois to Patri) then his redemptive acts are not the acts of God and have no salvific effect, for only God can save. On the other hand, if Jesus is not homoousios (of the same substance) with us, that is, fully human as we are, then his saving actions do not reach us in the depths of our fallen humanity. As Colyer (2001:81) notes, following Torrance, if Jesus were not fully human like us, "All that Christ has done would have no connection with our side of the chasm between humanity and God created by human sin, guilt and alienation. To be mediator, Jesus Christ has to be as fully human as he is homoousios with God the Father." In the one person of Jesus Christ, both divinity and humanity are joined together in reconciling union. Jesus himself encompasses both sides of the relationship between God and humanity. As the Second Adam, Jesus has recapitulated (lit. "re-headed") the human race. He has reversed the Fall and undone the work of Adam (to borrow Baxter Kruger's phrase). By bringing his divine nature to bear upon human flesh, Jesus has sanctified humanity and presented us, redeemed and reconciled, to the Father. In the incarnate Son of God, who is both fully divine and fully human, the one who is the express image of the Father and the revelation of the Triune God, both revelation and reconciliation are one. In the incarnate Person of Jesus, revelation is reconciliation.
The Evangelical significance of the homoousion
As Torrance (1995:132) asks, what would it mean if Jesus were not homoousios to Patri? If Jesus were not "one substance with the Father," it would mean that God has not revealed himself in accordance with his own nature. It would mean that God remains inscrutable, unknown because unrevealed. It would mean that we cannot be sure that God is for us. According to Torrance (1995:133), "If what God is in himself and what he is in the Lord Jesus Christ were not the same, there would be no identity between God and the content of his revelation and no access for mankind to the Father through the Son and in the Spirit. Hence we would be left completely in the dark about God." If Jesus were not homoousios to Patri, God would appear to us something like what Dallas Willard called "an unblinking cosmic stare." As Torrance (1995:134) notes, if Jesus were not the revelation of God, our talk about God would be mere mythology, not theology. We would be left with nothing more than the remote, static, disengaged Unmoved Mover of Aristotle and Aquinas. Moreover, and far more disheartening, if Jesus were not homoousios to Patri, there would be no ontological (having to do with being) or epistemological (having to do with how we know what we know) connection between the love of Jesus and the love of the Father.
Thankfully, our loving Father is the God who chooses to reveal himself. He is the God who, in his sovereign freedom, determines to be God for us (God pro nobis)! In sending Jesus, God reveals himself as God eternally is. According to Torrance (1995:135), "The homoousion asserts that God is eternally in himself what he is in Jesus Christ, and, therefore, that there is no dark unknown God behind the back of Jesus Christ, but only he who is made known to us in Jesus Christ." As Jesus himself said, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (Jn 14:9) and "I am in the Father and the Father is in me" (Jn 14:11) and "I and the Father are one" (Jn 10:30). There is no other God than the God revealed in Jesus; there is no inscrutable deity whose purposes for us are uncertain. To know God, we must look to his Son, for Jesus is the self-definition of God. God is not different in his eternal being than in the loving, saving activity of Jesus for us. In short, the Father and Son are one in being and act. Thus, the evangelical significance of the homoousion is the incredibly good news that in the loving eyes of Jesus—the healer of the sick, the friend of sinners and outcasts, the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world—we peer deeply into the very loving heart of the Triune God, for the heart of the Father is not different from the heart of the Son. Halleluiah!
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Colyer, E. 2001. How to Read T.F. Torrance: Understanding His Trinitarian & Scientific Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 393pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1995. The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church. London: T & T Clark. 345pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1996. The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons. London: T& T Clark. 260pp.