Sunday, July 4, 2010

Torrance: Evangelical Significance of the Homoousion

In the last several posts, we have considered the importance of the Nicene homoousion as it relates to epistemology. In plainer language, we have examined the importance of the creedal assertion that Jesus Christ is "of one being with the Father" (homoousios to Patri) in regard to the knowledge of God. We saw that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, is the definitive self-revelation of God. All human attempts to arrive at knowledge of God apart from, or behind the back of Jesus, ultimately fall short in the light of God's self-disclosure in Christ.

In the present post, we will consider the evangelical significance of the homoousion; that is, we will examine the significance of the consubstantial Father-Son relation for human salvation. In addition, we will consider the vital pastoral implications of the oneness in being between Jesus and God.

The material contained in this post is among the most important ever published on this blog. The material you are about to read is the heart of the hopeful, uplifting theology of T.F. Torrance. The ideas discussed below are what compelled me to learn more about his inspiring theology.

The Evangelical Significance of the Homoousion

Not only is the Nicene homoousion epistemologically vital to our understanding of the nature of God; there are important soteriological (salvific) considerations to the consubstantial Father-Son relation. To be sure, the Nicene homoousion did not arise from abstract, detached metaphysical arguments about the nature of a distant and impersonal deity. Rather, the fathers understood that the theological debates of their time concerned the foundational message of the Gospel: "for us and for our salvation" (this phrase is from the Nicene Creed). In their debates with the Arians, nothing less than the evangelical message of human salvation was at stake.

For Torrance, the soteriological implications of the consubstantial Father-Son relation, that is, the "evangelical significance of the homoousion," can be better understood by posing a vitally important question: "What would be implied if there were no oneness of being between Jesus Christ and God the Father?"

Comment: What Torrance is asking is this: What would it mean if Jesus is not God?

As Torrance rightly argues, if Jesus Christ were not homoousios to Patri, but rather created out of nothing, as Arius declared, then Jesus would remain "external" to God and altogether different from him; thus, God would remain utterly unknowable, for no "creature," however, exalted, can mediate authentic knowledge of God. "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." Consequently, the Church would be left to pass off as "revelation" not something received from beyond itself but merely a "mythological" fantasy projected from a centre in human consciousness (Torrance, 1988a:132-134).

Comment: Torrance is asking, What if Jesus is merely a less than fully divine "creature" (created being) as the Arians argued (or as the Jehovah's Witnesses and other cults argue)? Jesus would then be "external" to God (as are all created things); hence, Jesus could not give us "inside" information about the nature of God, for Jesus would not be "of one being with the Father." We would be left "in the dark" about God and all our talk about God would be little more than "mythology" (rather than "theology").

Torrance (1988a:134) asks, "What kind of God would we have, then, if Jesus Christ were not the self-revelation or self-communication of God, if God were not inherently and eternally in his own being what the Gospel tells us he is in Jesus Christ?" He poignantly answers:

Would "God" then not be someone who does not care to reveal himself to us? Would it not mean that God has not condescended to impart himself to us in Jesus Christ, and that his love has stopped short of becoming one with us? It would surely mean that there is no ontological, and therefore no epistemological, connection between the love of Jesus and the love of God ‒ in fact there would be no revelation of the love of God but, on the contrary, something that rather mocks us, for while God is said to manifest his love to us in Jesus, he is not actually that love in himself.

If the Nicene homoousion were not true, the Gospel would lack any 'realist' (i.e., occurring in space-time history) foundation in the self-revelation and self-communication of God in Jesus Christ. The integrity of the Gospel, therefore, depends on the unity of being and act between Jesus Christ and the Father. The homoousion asserts the unity of the "I am" of the Father (Ex 3:14) and the "I am" of Jesus Christ (Jn 11:25; 14:6; 15:1, 5), for the incarnate Son of God is the "place" where we may know the Father as he is in himself, in accordance with his divine nature, so that we may draw near to him through his reconciling and saving activity toward us. As Torrance argues, "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" (Torrance, 1988a:135; 1996a:17, 18, 124, 125).

Comment: We may take great assurance in knowing there is no "dark, unknown" God hidden behind the back of Jesus, but only the God revealed in the compassionate eyes of our loving Saviour. The pastoral implications are enormous (see below).

In addition to the unity of being between the Father and Son, another vital aspect of the evangelical significance of the homoousion is the all-important issue of the unity of agency. Again, Torrance asks: "What would be implied if there were no oneness in act between the incarnate Son and God the Father?" Torrance asserts that the Nicene homoousios to Patri implies not only a oneness in 'being' between the Father and Son but also a oneness in 'act', as evidenced by Jesus' words, "My Father works hitherto and I work" (Jn 5:17). The homoousion implies that the Father and Son are one in agency as well as being, so that the work of the Father cannot be divided or separated from the work of the Son. Because there is an unbroken homoousial relationship between the Father and the Son, the acts of Jesus are the acts of God. If the actions of Jesus are not inherently the acts of God, then the "bottom falls out" of the Gospel. If what Christ has done for us is not the work of God, but merely the work of a godly man (as in much liberal theology), then he does not embody in his incarnate constitution the saving grace of God and, thus, is incapable of truly divine activity. "On the other hand," as Torrance argues, "if Jesus Christ cannot be divided in being and act from God the Father, then he constitutes in being and act in his incarnate presence or saving economy the creative self-giving of God to mankind" (Torrance, 1988a:137, 138).

Comment: The acts of Jesus are the very acts of God. What the Father does, the Son does; what the Son does, the Father does. The Nicene homoousion means that Jesus and the Father are one in both being and act (agency).

The evangelical significance of the homoousion (that is, the significance of the Nicene homoousion for reconciliation) becomes clear as it bears upon the saving acts of Jesus in healing, forgiving, and redeeming. All the redemptive activity of Jesus arises from his oneness in being with the Father. The saving acts of Jesus described in the Gospel are imbued with a divine finality and validity, for they are nothing less than the acts of God "for us and our salvation." As Torrance argues, "What God is toward us in his revealing and saving acts in the Gospel he is in himself in his own eternal Being as God." If this is not so, as the Nicene fathers understood, the Gospel is devoid of redemptive content, for what would be the value of a word of forgiveness from Jesus to a sinner if he, in fact, were merely a creature (created ex nihilo) and related to the Father in only an external way? If the words and acts of Jesus are not backed up by the being and reality of God, they amount to nothing more than the words and activity of a moral teacher of note and leave the Gospel empty of any divine reality or validity. In short, if Jesus Christ is detached from God, then his word of forgiveness lacks divine authority and becomes merely the empty word of one creature to another (Torrance, 1988a:141, 142; 1992:57, 58; 1994:53, 54; 1996a:21).

Pastoral Implications

The Nicene homoousion asserts an identity between the saving acts of Jesus and the reality of God; thus, God is not different in himself from what he is in the activity of his saving and redeeming love as expressed in Jesus Christ (Torrance, 1996a:5). As Torrance (1996a: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.

In regard to the transcendent love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, Torrance (1996a:5) expresses his pastor's heart:

It is in the Cross of Christ 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 [cf. Rom 8:31ff].

As Torrance frequently notes, there is no dark, inscrutable deity behind the cross of Christ, for whoever has seen Christ has seen the Father. There is no other God than the God who has shown himself in the face of Jesus Christ, the very same God who has loved us to the uttermost in the incarnate Son and the gift of the Spirit (Torrance, 1986:303, 304; 1988a:8; 1990:176).

There are important pastoral considerations in connection to the evangelical significance of the homoousion. Torrance describes his experience as a chaplain on the battlefield when he held in his arms a young, dying soldier who asked, "Is God really like Jesus?" Such troubling questions, usually arising in moments of crisis and distress, reflect the insidious damage done to the faith of believers by the "dualist habits of thought" that drive a wedge between the transcendent Father and the incarnate Son (Torrance, 1992:59, 60; cf. 1994:55, 56). Torrance traces the "theological schizophrenia" arising from the perceived split (i.e., "dualism") between the loving Son and the "unknown" Father to the medieval habit of developing first a doctrine of the one God (De Deo Uno) derived by reason (natural theology) followed by a comparatively unimportant doctrine of the Triune God (De Deo Trino) based on faith (revealed theology) (Torrance, 1985:166, 167; 1994:56; cf. 1980:147, 148; 1996a:9, 10).

Comment: For more on the insidious dualism in the Western doctrine of God, see my posts, "Tommy A. and the Western Split" (March, 2009), and "How to Make a Western OmeletGod" (April, 2009).

The dualist split between faith and reason resulting from the bifurcation in the western doctrine of God has serious pastoral implications. This is particularly true in regard to the love of God. As Torrance (1992:59) asks, "Where would we be if the bond between the love of Jesus and the love of God were cut, which would be the case if there were no oneness of being between them, for God is love?" If Jesus Christ is not God become man, then God has not loved us to the uttermost; rather, his love has stopped short of becoming one of us in the incarnation for us and our salvation. As Torrance (1992:59, 60) observes:

Fearful anxiety arises in the human heart when people cannot connect Jesus . . . with the ultimate Being of God, for then the ultimate Being of God can be to them only a dark, inscrutable, arbitrary Deity whom they inevitably think of with terror for their guilty conscience makes them paint harsh angry streaks upon his face.

Any disjunction between the being of Jesus and the being of God disrupts the message of grace contained in the Gospel and introduces anxiety into the hearts of many Christians, who fear there may be a dark, inscrutable, arbitrary deity hidden behind the back of Jesus, "before whom in our guilty conscience as sinners we cannot but quake and shiver in our souls" (Torrance, et al, 1999:16). On the other hand, great comfort and assurance arise "when the face of Jesus is identical with the face of God . . . when the perfect love of God embodied in him casts out all fear" (Torrance, 1992:60). In the preaching and ministry of the Gospel, therefore, the most important consideration is to bring believers face-to-face with God in Jesus Christ, for it is the incarnate Son alone, who is one in being and agency with the Father, who defines God for us and does so in a way that calls into question all alien presuppositions about God arising from the "insidious effect of dualism" on both our theology and our pastoral care (Torrance, 1994:56).

Torrance (1988a:8, 142, 143) also notes the evangelical significance of the homoousion in terms of judgment. He asks, "And what about the ultimate destiny of mankind, the day when the Lord Jesus Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead?" If Jesus Christ were merely a created intermediary between God and man, he could not "go bail for our future," leaving us to face at the end an unknown deity who bears no relationship to our Saviour, for the final judgement would be a judgment "apart from and without respect to Jesus Christ and his forgiving love and atoning sacrifice." As Torrance argues:

Quite clearly the homoousion makes an immense difference to our understanding of the divine judgment, for it asserts that there is no interval or gap of any kind between Jesus Christ and God the judge of all the earth. The judgment of Jesus and the judgment of God are one and the same. Even in the final judgment God the Father and the incarnate Son are perfectly one in being and agency.

The believer may find assurance in Torrance's connection between Jesus, the compassionate Saviour, and Jesus the Judge into whose hands all judgment has been given (Jn 5:22), for the hands of Jesus and the hands of God are the same (Torrance (1999:17). There is great comfort in knowing that our final destiny lies in the hands of the one who cried from the cross on behalf of his tormentors, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Lk 23:34), for, in Torrance's trenchant, compelling words, "the voice of divine forgiveness and the voice of divine judgment are one and the same" (Torrance, et al, 1999:15).

Comment: For more on this subject, see my article, "The Judge Judged in Our Place," in the right-hand column of this page under "Articles."

In summary, Torrance (1990:191, 192) succinctly captures both the epistemological and the evangelical significance of the homoousion as follows:

Any disjunction between God and his self-revelation through Christ and in the Spirit could only mean that in the last analysis revelation is empty of divine reality, and any disjunction between God and his saving activity through Christ and in the Spirit could only mean that in the last analysis salvation is without divine validity.

To be sure, the Gospel account of the mediation of revelation and reconciliation would not be true if there is no oneness in being between Jesus and God. Yet, the epistemological significance of the homoousion is that, in Jesus Christ, God has revealed himself as he is, while the evangelical significance of the homoousion is the assuring good news that the loving, saving acts of Jesus are, in fact, the acts of very God for us and our salvation. There is great comfort and peace in realising that the pulsing, compassionate heart of Jesus is a window into the innermost heart of God, for the heart of the Father is not different from the heart of the incarnate Son. We may rest in the assurance that "God does not and will not act toward any one in life or death in any other way than he has done, does do, and will do in Jesus" (Torrance, et al, 1999:16), for, in loving us in the gift of his dear Son, who is "of one being with the Father," God loves us with the very Love which he is (Torrance (1996a:5).


Hallelujah! See you again around August 1!


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. 1985. Reality and Scientific Theology. (New Forward by T.F. Torrance, 2001). Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers. 220pp.

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. 1990. Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 256pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1992. The Mediation of Christ. (rev. ed.) Helmers & Howard Publishers. 144 pp.

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.

Torrance, T.F. et al. 1999. A Passion for Christ: The Vision That IgniteMinistry (edited by G. Dawson & J. Stein). Edinburgh: Handel Press. 150pp.


  1. This is simplified for us to understand. The dualism takes time to disapear since that's what I've known all my life. In my life here in East Tennessee it's been good news about Jesus; he is very very good and that I've believed, but this post brings the dark side of god into view and He is good too; actually the same as Jesus. The trinity hasn't been understoon in my world, it's been believed, but not understood. Dualism is big around here but no one knows it. The pole cat under the supper table.

  2. Hallelujah and amen,brother! And God bless those Nicene fathers for sticking to their guns, er, spears! May we do no less.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I was immensly blessed. Like Ron stated in his comment, I grew up with a dualism theology and did not know it. It was not until God worked salvation in me that I realized it. What a wonderful assurance to know that God is not some angry being waiting to punish, but rather, as he is, full of grace and truth.


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