Friday, September 11, 2009

The Self-Revealing God

The following material was originally written for academic purposes. For this blog post, I am taking the liberty to interject comments [in brackets] to bring out certain aspects of the material.

As we saw in our last post (8/22/09), among contemporary trinitarian theologians there is a return to the trinitarianism of the Patristic era. Following Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, and many others, modern theologians are calling the Western Church to return to a doctrine of God that is firmly grounded in God's triune self-revelation in redemptive history (oikonomia) rather than in substantialist metaphysics [see last post] rooted in pagan philosophy. Among contemporary Trinitarians, a renewed interest has arisen in formulating a doctrine of God that is firmly grounded in God's unique self-revelation in the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ.

Gunton (2003:25-27) rightly and cogently argues that whenever our doctrine of God is separated from Jesus, we move either into abstraction or idolatry. Hence, God's self-revelation in the incarnate Son is central to the doctrine of the Trinity. One of the values of the doctrine of the Trinity is that it ties our speech about God to Jesus and helps us not to create gods of our own making [as in certain forms of Protestant evangelicalism]. To be sure, any doctrine of the Trinity which loses its hold on the historical Jesus no longer represents the ancient faith of the Church [Irenaeus, Athanasius, and the Cappadocians are in full agreement!] In the end, argues Gunton (2003:18), the doctrine of the Trinity is only worth knowing if it helps us to know who the God is who reveals himself in the redemptive activity of the Son and Spirit. "Without the doctrine of the Trinity we might have a God of power, or a God in some way identical with the world, but not the God of the Bible, who is a God of love, and whose love takes shape in the story of creation and redemption."

  • [Comment: God's essential nature is love; God IS love! His power and sovereignty are in the service of love. If you want a deterministic god of power and unrelenting sovereignty, buy a camel and become a Muslim.]

As Migliore (2004:72) notes, the doctrine of the Trinity "redescribes" God in the light of the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the transforming work of the Spirit. It describes a God whose love for the world is not accidental or capricious. The doctrine of the Trinity assures us that there is no sinister, demonic deity different from the God we know in the stories of Jesus who befriended the poor and forgave sinners. If talk of the Triune God is to be more than "wild speculation," argues Migliore (2004:69, 70), it must be grounded in, and limited by, the scriptural witness to the love of God that is mediated to the world in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Thus, proper Trinitarian theology does not first speculate on a Trinity in eternity (theologia), only afterward to search for evidence of the Trinity in revelation (oikonomia); rather, it begins with the history of revelation and salvation attested by Scripture and experienced by Christians from the beginning of the Church. Responsible Trinitarian thinking must begin with the 'economic' Trinity, that is, the threefold agency of Father, Son and Spirit revealed in salvation history (oikonomia). "To this beginning point in God's relationship to us through Christ in the Spirit Trinitarian theology must return again and again."

  • [Comment: Real and accurate knowledge of God must be grounded in, and developed from, God's triune self-revelation in the Father, Son and Spirit. Real and accurate speech about God does not begin with speculative inferences on the nature of God based on the observation of the cosmos, as in Aquinas and Aristotle (see "Tommy A. and the Western Split," 3/09). Nor do we follow Augustine and look for "vestiges" of the Trinity in the human mind (see "The Wedding Cake Cosmos: Augustine and Neoplatonism, 2/09). As Gunton noted above, that leads to abstraction or idolatry. If we really want to know what God is like, then we need to take a long look at Jesus!]
  • [By the way, I recently realized something about Augustine that may seem obvious to one or two of you. The entire Platonic-Neoplatonic (i.e, pagan tradition) is trapped in a damaging dualism that asserts that spirit is good and matter is bad. According to that tradition, human beings are essentially "sparks of divinity" imprisoned in a physical body. Therefore, as a committed Neo-Platonist, it makes sense that Augustine would look for "vestiges" of the Trinity in the human mind, for that is where one finds the spark of divinity. But note that in turning to that Platonic spark within, he turns away from God's self-revelation in the incarnate (i.e., en-fleshed, bodily) Jesus. Western Christians have suffered greatly as a direct result of Augustine's epistemological and methodological error, for he initiated a movement of theological thought that finally turned the Church away from Jesus (and toward the veneration of the saints) and put in the place of the Triune God, whose nature is revealed as love, the awful and dreaded omniGod of Western Christianity (see "How to Make a Western Omelet God," 4/09).]

LaCugna (1991:69, 70) argues that the eternal transcendent being of God (theologia) must not be considered in an abstract way divorced from God's self-revelation in salvation history (oikonomia) [This is the problem of natural theology. We'll examine that in detail in an upcoming post.] The issues important to Medieval Scholasticism, for example, numbers of processions and relations or whether person precedes relation, can no longer be the primary concern of Trinitarian thought. Instead, "Christian theology must begin from the premise that because the mystery of God is revealed in the mystery of salvation, statements about the nature of God must be rooted in the reality of salvation history." In other words, theologia must once again be considered primarily in terms of oikonomia (LaCugna, 1991:3, 4). [Wow! I love LaCugna! Read those last two sentences again!] For LaCugna (1991:97), it is "impossible" to think of the divine essence or substance of God apart from the concrete particularities of the Triune Persons, for it is only through God's self-revelation as incarnate Son and Sprit that "the unknowable God (Father) who dwells in light inaccessible is revealed to us." Hence, in formulating the doctrine of God, the "real question" is whether or not one begins with God's self-revelation in the economy of salvation.

LaCugna's assertion, of the impossibility of speculation on the being (ousia) of God apart from God's self-revelation in salvation history, is persuasively articulated by T. F. Torrance (1996:116). He notes that, while the term ousia [substance, being, nature] was familiar in the various schools of Greek philosophy, Christian theologians [particularly Athanasius and the Cappadocians, but not Augustine] used the term differently, in a way governed by God's self-revelation in redemptive history as attested in Scripture, to denote not static, dumb being but rather living, speaking, personal being. Thus, the divine ousia should not be understood in the static sense of Aristotelian metaphysics variously translated by Western Latin theologians as essentia and substantia; rather, ousia should be understood in terms of the oneness and identity of being of the Father, Son and Spirit. To be sure, if God really is in his eternal, transcendent being (theologia) what he is revealed to be in the person and activity of his incarnate Son (oikonomia), as the Nicene homoousion would indicate, then the being (ousia) of God must be understood in a very "un-Greek way" (Torrance, 1995:131).

  • [Comment: That last sentence is what we want to get. We don't want to articulate our understanding of the being of God in terms of pagan Greek philosophy (immutability, impassibility), although that is exactly what has been enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith. We want to develop our understanding of the nature of God in personal (not impersonal), dynamic (not static) terms as disclosed in God's triune self-revelation as three distinct persons perichoretically united in one being.]

For Torrance (1995:132; 1996:30), the Nicene homoousion is the "hinge" upon which the whole [Nicene] Creed turns as well as the "ontological and epistemological link" to knowledge of God in his eternal, transcendent nature. Thus, God's self-revelation in the incarnate Son demands a "revolution" in our thinking about God, for "the one Being of God is intrinsically personal, and indeed as intensely personal as God is in the manifestation of himself to us in the Gospel as Father, Son and Holy Spirit" (Torrance, 1996:3, 129). God is, therefore, not the remote deity of Greek philosophy, imprisoned and isolated in his own aloofness, unmoved by human plight; rather, God is the one who, in sovereign freedom, passionately engages and interacts with his creation, "for in his own eternal Being he is the ever living, loving and acting God who will not be without us but who in his grace freely determines himself for us as our God and Saviour" (Torrance, 1996:4). [Way to go, Tom!!]

  • [Comment: Jesus is the ontological link to knowledge of God because he is one in 'being' with the Father; he is the epistemological link to knowledge of God because only Jesus 'knows' the Father and he is the express Word (Logos) of God to us; therefore, to establish accurate knowledge of God, we start with Jesus.]

Abstract philosophical speculation on the being (ousia) of God in terms of the presuppositions of the substantialist metaphysics of Greek philosophy is no longer tenable in the light of God's self-revelation in Christ (cf. Torrance, 1996:116). In Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, "God defines himself for us," so that we may rightly apprehend and know God as he really is (Colyer, 2001:76). In light of the divine self-disclosure in Jesus Christ, God can no longer be viewed as remote, aloof, immutable and impassible; rather God must be viewed as dynamic, active and intensely personal. In short, the Fatherhood of God revealed to us through the incarnate Son determines precisely how we are to understand God's being (Torrance, 1996:118).

The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the "actual source" and "controlling centre" of the Christian doctrine of God, for Jesus Christ is one in both being and agency with the Father he came to reveal. As Torrance (1996:18) rightly argues:

[T]o know God in Jesus Christ, and to know him as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, is really to know God as he is in himself in his eternal Being as God and in the transcendent Love that God is. He is in himself not other than what he is toward us in his loving, revealing and saving presence in Christ.

  • [Comment: Linger on that quote, folks; Tom is the man!]

A 'Christian' doctrine of God, therefore, must be developed from the "unique, definitive, and final self-revelation of God" in Jesus Christ, for, in the incarnate Son, God defines and identifies himself for us as he really is. Jesus Christ is the complete revelation of God to man, for in Jesus, who is "of one substance with the Father" (homoousios to Patri), God's historical self-manifestation to us in the Gospel as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is wholly commensurate with who God is "inherently and eternally in himself" (Torrance, 1996:1).

Because Jesus Christ is "of one substance with the Father" (homoousios to Patri), as the Nicene Creed asserts and all orthodox Christians believe, all speculation about the nature of God rooted in Greek metaphysics and natural theology must be abandoned in favour of a return to the Patristic (pre-Augustinian) thinking about the essence or substance of God as revealed particularly in the incarnate Son and his ongoing self-communication to the Church through the Holy Spirit. Through the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit, the inner being of God is revealed in salvation history: "the invisible is made visible." In LaCugna's (1991:70) terse but trenchant phrase, "Theologia is recapitulated in oikonomia."


Colyer, E.M. 2001. How to Read T.F. Torrance: Understanding His Trinitarian & Scientific Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 393pp.

LaCugna, C.M. 1991. God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco. 434pp.

Gunton, C.E. 2003. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Essays toward a Fully Trinitarian Theology. London: T & T Clark. 240pp.

Migliore, D.L. 2004. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing. 439pp.

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.

Look for next post on or shortly after October 1, 2009. See you then!


  1. Martin, vigorous and lively theology is alive and well in your capable hands, brother. I can't remember reading anything recently that so stimulated my mind, stirred my faith, and tickled my funny bone. I miss you and our face-to-face dialogue---a lot. ---Bert

  2. Mr. Davis, this is mind exploding stuff! I love every bit of it! This is one of my many favorite parts-
    [Comment: Jesus is the ontological link to knowledge of God because he is one in 'being' with the Father; he is the epistemological link to knowledge of God because only Jesus 'knows' the Father and he is the express Word (Logos) of God to us; therefore, to establish accurate knowledge of God, we start with Jesus.]
    Thank you so much again brother for allowing the Lord Jesus Christ to do all that hard work through you!

  3. Thanks guys for your kind comments. Encouragement like yours is what keeps me writing this blog. Your words are much appreciated.

  4. Please do not ever stop writing, for it is chiefly by referencing your work that I don't appear to be such a dunce.

    I can say "God is Love" by my study and experience, but you can document it academically. That helps reveal Him to some. Thanks.


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