Thursday, February 25, 2010

Torrance: The Epistemological Significance of the Homoousion

No need to roll your eyes at me! I can't help it! I just love expressions like the "epistemological significance of the homoousion." You ought to see the way my wife, Sara, looks at me when I start spouting off this stuff. She is definitely not impressed!

So here we go again with "All Things Torrance."

Let's get started with a short quiz. Put on your thinking caps and ponder the following riddle:

What do these three statements have in common?

1. Realties must be investigated in accordance with their natures.
2. Epistemology follows ontology.
3. Only God can reveal God.

For you brighter lights out there ‒ and I know there are many (?) the answer may seem obvious; yet, it only dawned on me after a few weeks of study that these three statements are saying essentially the same thing! Duh! Maybe I am denser than most; then, maybe not.

The fundamental axiom of Torrance's scientific approach to theology is that realities must be investigated in accordance with their nature. That is to say, our "knowing" of something, if it is to be authentic rather than a projection of our own fantasies, must be determined by the nature or "being" of the object of inquiry. In other words, "knowing" follows "being"; epistemology follows ontology. I admit this all sounds rather high-browed, so in regard to the knowledge of God, we can follow the early Fathers such as Irenaeus and Athanasius and assert simply that only God can reveal God. Thus, if we are to develop authentic knowledge of God, we must inquire into the nature of God.

And where do we do that? You guessed it, Grasshopper. We start with Jesus, for as the Nicene Fathers (4th C) took great pains to articulate, Jesus Christ is "of one nature with the Father" (homoousios to Patri). Let me restate that so it is perfectly clear. If you want to know God, you start with Jesus!! And I don't want to hear any Thomist (Aquinas) belly-aching about starting with a tree (or any of the effects of the cosmos). The tree, as lovely as it may be, is not "of one nature with the Father"; Jesus is. Get the picture?

In the Nicene Creed, the Fathers cut away all ambiguity about the Father-Son relationship and (according to Torrance) removed any possibility of misunderstanding by inserting the crucial expression, homoousios to Patri, which meant that the Father and Son are equally God within the one being of God; that is, the Son is the very being of God and is God in the same way that the Father is God (Torrance, 1988a:122). In the creedal assertion that Jesus is "of one being with the Father," the Nicene Fathers articulated "what they felt they had to think and say under the constraint of the truth and in fidelity to the biblical witness to Christ and the basic interpretation of it already given in the apostolic foundation of the Church" (Torrance, 1996a:ix). Because homoousios was a non-biblical term, it had to be interpreted with great care. It steadily became clear that the term meant "of one and the same being and nature" and expressed equality between the Father and Son in asserting that the Son is identical in being with the Father and of one nature with him. As Torrance notes, properly understood, the Nicene homoousios to Patri means that the incarnate Son is "of identically the same being as the Father" (Torrance, 1988a:123, 124). As the word, homoousios, was debated, clarified, and refined throughout the fourth century, the Church came to believe that the word was a technical theological term that embodied the essence of the Gospel (Colyer, 2001a:72) and the "primary heuristic theological instrument" of a unitary, realist epistemology, whereby the church rejected the pagan dualism between the divine and material (Achtemeier, 2001:54). Whew!! That'll make your head hurt.

As Torrance (1986a:295; 1992:54, 55) rightly argues, the Nicene assertion that Jesus is "of one being with the Father" is the "central point" upon which the whole creed turns and perhaps the most important theological statement since apostolic times:

[The Nicene Creed] hinges upon the fact that he who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, he who mediates divine revelation and reconciliation to mankind in and through himself, is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God ‒ that is to say, Jesus Christ is to be acknowledged as God in the same sense as the Father is acknowledged as God, for it is in virtue of his Deity that his saving work as man has its validity.

The Nicene homoousion has tremendous implications for the mediation of revelation, for it concisely expresses the fact that what God is in our midst in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son, God really is in himself. In terms of the mediation of revelation, the homoousion asserts that in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, it is not just something of himself, nor mere information about himself, that God has revealed but, rather, in the incarnate Son, God has revealed his very own self to us. As Torrance (1992:23) argues:

What God the Father has revealed of himself in Jesus Christ his Son, he is in himself; and what he is in himself as God the Father he reveals in Jesus Christ the Son. The Father and the Son are One, one in Being and one in Agency. Thus, in Jesus Christ the Mediation of divine Revelation and the Person of the Mediator perfectly coincide. In Jesus Christ God has given us a Revelation which is identical with himself. Jesus Christ is the Revelation of God.

In regard to epistemology, or the knowledge of God, the Nicene homoousion is of central importance in Torrance's scientific theology (Seng, 1992:341). Torrance (1980:39, 40) cogently and coherently articulates the epistemological significance of the homoousion as follows:

[Classical theology] was committed to the Gospel of the incarnation of the Son of God, the Word made flesh, and was concerned with a way of believing and thinking imposed upon it by the sheer fact of Christ, in accordance with which it was held that this world of ours in space and time is actually intersected and overlapped, so to speak, by the divine world in the parousia, or advent and presence, of Jesus Christ. He was acknowledged and adored, therefore, as one who is God of God and yet man of man, who in his own being belongs both to the eternal world of divine reality and to the historical world of contingent realities. The linchpin of this theology, the essential bond of connection that held it together in its foundations, as it was formulated in the great ecumenical creed of all Christendom at Nicaea and Constantinople, is the homoousion, the confession that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son is of one being or of one substance with God the Father. Because Jesus Christ is God of God and man of man in himself, in Christ we who are creatures of this world may know God in such a way that our knowledge of him rests upon the reality of God himself. It is not something that is thought up and devised out of ourselves and mythologically projected into God, but it is grounded and controlled by what God is in himself.

The Nicene homoousion is of "staggering" significance, for it crystallizes the Christian conviction that while the incarnation falls within the spatiotemporal events of human history, it falls within the eternal being of God. Thus, Jesus Christ is not a mere symbolic representation of God, ontologically detached from divinity, but rather is God in God's own "being and act" come among us, "expressing in our human form the Word which he is eternally in himself, so that in our relations with Jesus Christ we have to do directly with the ultimate Reality of God." As the "epitomized expression" of Jesus' oneness in being with the Father, the Nicene homoousion is the "ontological and epistemological linchpin" of Christian theology. "With it, everything hangs together; without it, everything ultimately falls apart" (Torrance, 1980:160, 161; cf. 1996a:95). As Torrance (1982:23) notes elsewhere, "Everything hinges on the reality of God's self-communication to us in Jesus Christ, in whom there has become incarnate, not some created intermediary between God and the world [as in Arianism], but the very Word who eternally inheres in the Being of God and is God, so that for us to know God in Jesus Christ is really to know him as he is in himself."

Torrance often notes the early Fathers' assertion that "only God can reveal God"; that is, no knowledge of God is possible apart from God's revelation of himself (Torrance, 1983:8ff; 1988a:54; 1994:54; 1996a:77). Thus, as Myers (2008:4, 5) notes, the incarnation is "epistemologically essential" to Torrance's realist, scientific theology, wherein knowledge of the reality under investigation (God) is developed in accordance with the objective nature of that reality. For Torrance, the "epistemological significance" of the incarnation is that we can know God only "in accordance with the way in which he has actually objectified himself for us in our human existence, in Jesus Christ" (Torrance, 1969:310). 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 (Torrance, 1996a:18).

In the incarnation an "epistemic bridge" is established in Christ between God and humankind that is grounded in both the being of God and the being of man. In one of his more straightforward descriptions of the epistemological significance of the incarnation, Torrance (1980:165) notes:

[T]he incarnation of the Son or Word constitutes the epistemological centre in all our knowledge of God, with a centre in our world of space and time and a centre in God himself at the same time. It is in and through that Word that we have cognitive access to God and to knowledge of him in himself.

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). For Torrance, therefore, the homoousion occupies a place of "unique and controlling finality" in our knowledge of God (Torrance, 1980:40). If Jesus Christ were not wholly God, that is, "of one being with the Father," but remained external to God (as Arius argued), then God would remain utterly unknowable, for there would be no access to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit (Torrance, 1996b:34, 35; Achtemeier, 2001:55). If the ontological "bridge" between Jesus Christ and God is severed, revelation is emptied of ultimate truth and reality and we are left with a merely symbolic or mythological way of speaking about God. In short, if we say that Jesus Christ is God when in fact he is not God, then there is no fidelity between what he reveals and what God is. As Torrance notes, this is why the Nicene Fathers fought so hard for the preservation of the creedal assertion that Jesus Christ is homoousios to Patri. Without the unbroken homoousial relation between Jesus and God, the foundation of the Gospel crumbles (Torrance, 1994:54).

Stay tuned! There is more to come on Torrance and the homoousion!! Next post around April 5. See you then.


Achtemeier, P.M. 2001. Natural Science and Christian Faith in the Thought of T. F. Torrance. In E. Colyer, ed. The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T. F. Torrance. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Ch. 11.

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

Myers, B. 2008. The Stratification of Knowledge in the Thought of T. F. Torrance. Scottish Journal of Theology, 61, pp. 1-15.

Seng, K.P. 1992. The Epistemological Significance of Homoousion in the Theology of Thomas F. Torrance. Scottish Journal of Theology, vol 45, pp. 341-366.

Torrance, T.F. 1969a. Theological Science. Oxford: OUP. 368pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1980. The Ground and Grammar of Theology: Consonance Between Theology and Science. (Preface to new edition by T.F. Torrance, 2001). Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 256pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1982. Reality and Evangelical Theology: The Realism of Christian Revelation. (Forward by K.A. Richardson, 1999). Downers Grove, IL: IVP. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster. 174pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1983. The Deposit of Faith. Scottish Journal of Theology, vol 36, pp. 1-28.

Torrance, T.F. 1986a. The Legacy of Karl Barth. Scottish Journal of Theology, vol 39, pp. 289-308.

Torrance, T.F. 1988a. The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church. London: T & T Clark. 345pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1992. The Mediation of Christ (rev ed). Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard. 126pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 71pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1996a. The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons. London: T & T Clark. 260pp.


  1. Seems an enemy to the gospel is greek philosophy and its remnants. Your words serve as a sweeper who clears away that wrong thinking. You open a door to the sanctuary and fresh air comes in and we see him. We see him within humanity whom he loves, and he still reaches us with that love. There's the door, an open door. Look, an open door and look at who is standing there.
    Sincerely, Ron.

  2. Jesus said "the Father and I are one." What a comfort to us that God thought so much of us that he was willing to reveal himself to us in Jesus by telling us who Jesus is! And as Mark Lowry (of the Gaither Vocal Band) says, "we are such a tiny speck in a great big universe, how are we going to find God? God had to come looking for us, by sending his Son, Jesus Christ!" Thank you, Father! And thank you, Martin, for helping to keep our focus on what God has revealed in Jesus, rather than our own thoughts or projections.

  3. Hi Jerome,

    Thanks as always for your comments at God for Us! It was great to spend a long weekend speaking to and interacting with the good folks at New Beginnings Christian Fellowship. I greatly appreciate the kind reception I have received in my visits to beautiful Big Sandy.

    Torrance makes a helpful distinction between “theology” and “mythology.” “Theology” is thinking from a center in God; that is, thinking according to the nature (kata physin) of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, who is “of one being (nature) with the Father” (homoousios to Patri). In short, theological thinking begins with Jesus, who, in his incarnate person, as both fully God and fully man, is the definitive self-revelation of God. Mythological thinking, on the other, is centered in man, and is nothing more than the projection of the human psyche onto the heavens. Mythological thinking is not limited to the Olympic pantheon of the ancient Greeks and Romans. To be sure, much of the Western doctrine of God, with its emphasis on immutability, impassibility, omnipotence, and all-determining sovereignty, conceived in terms of Greek (pagan) philosophy, is nothing more than mythology.

    It is sad to think that traditional Western “theology,” particularly the Augustinian-Thomist view of God, based on substance ontology and natural theology rather than God’s self-revelation in the incarnate Son, is more mythology than theology.


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