The Trinity and the Cosmos

How are we to understand the relationship between the Triune God and the cosmos? In the essay posted here, Dr. Gary Deddo, President of Grace Communion Seminary, answers in accordance with the teachings of Thomas F. Torrance.

[Addendum added on July 3, 2021]

In some Christian circles, there is growing interest concerning the relationship between the Triune God and creation (the cosmos). The writings of Thomas F. Torrance contribute to this interest, as have the ancient writings of Irenaeus and Athanasius, and the modern writings of Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Helmut Thielicke and Jürgen Moltmann, Eberhard Jüngel, Colin Gunton, Stanley Grenz, Ray S. Anderson and James B. Torrance. Recently, interest has been picked up and passed on in less academic, more popular circles.

On the nature of the Triune God

Often discussed in the aforementioned writings concerning the relationship between the Trinity and the cosmos is the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God, with the Incarnation sometimes serving as the central or foundational point of departure. Indeed, the Incarnation must contribute to our understanding of the relationship between the Trinity and creation. But two things must be considered before making any grand proclamations:

  1. The Incarnation of the Son of God cannot be separated from the atoning-reconciling work of the Son of God, which includes his crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and promise to return. 
  2. The Creator God is not a creature (a created thing). The Triune God alone has self-existence (aseity). The Trinity of the Bible is not “made.” There never was "a time” when God was not. The God revealed to Israel and finally in Jesus Christ is Creator, not created. There was a time when all that was, was God, the Great “I Am that I Am.” There was “a time” when there was no creation but only the uncreated, unmade, Triune God. 
The second point applies to all three Triune Persons of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Son is just as eternal and divine as is the Father and the Spirit. The Son exists as a divine Person of the Trinity before there ever was or came into being that which is not the Triune God—before there was creation/the cosmos (or anything else). The Persons of the Trinity have no beginning in time, but the creation does. This becomes clearer in John 1:1-10 and in Heb. 1:2-3. All things that are created are created by the Father, through the Word/Son and are upheld in their created existence through the Son. Other passages that contribute to this theological insight include Rom. 11:36; 1 Cor. 8:6; and Col. 1:15-20. The Nicene Creed and the Chalcedon Definition both bear witness to the same. The Son exists eternally, and so is on the Creator side of the Creator-creature relationship. There was a time when there was no creation. 

On the nature of creation

Whereas the Triune God does not have a beginning, the creation does. The God of Biblical revelation would exist and be God whether or not there was a creation. Creation, then really is a creation—the creation of the Triune Creator God. So, we can rightly say that God has always been a Trinity of the Divine Persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But the Trinity has not always existed in relationship with that which the Triune God created, since the creation has not always existed.

Creation is the result of a free act of the Triune God to make and to give a created existence to that which is not the uncreated God, but is God’s creation. That creation is, then, contingent and dependent for its existence upon the free act and decision of God. But the uncreated Creator is not dependent or contingent upon that which is created. The Trinity does not need creation to be or exist as the Trinity. However, creation needs the Trinity to be and to remain the creation, the cosmos. 

It is important to note that the creative act of the Triune God includes the making of time and space and all that inhabits it. Time and space (or the space-time continuum) are/is a created/made thing. Time and space are not eternal, as is the Triune God. There was “a time” when there was no created time and space (space-time continuum). This means that the Triune God is not contained by the time and space of his creation. And so we say the Triune God exists “in eternity” not in time or space. Put positively, we can rightly say that this God exists in an absolutely unique kind of eternal-time—“time,” as it were, for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to exchange glory, knowledge and love, with one another within the one eternal Being of the Trinity. We have awareness of this eternal and internal exchange because Jesus, the incarnate Son, relates this to us in his teachings. The relations of the Trinity are eternal—just as eternal as the being of the Trinity and the Persons. 

On the relationship between God and creation

While the Triune God always was/is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Triune God was not always Creator. The Father is not first or eternally a/the father of creation, but rather the Person of the Father is the eternal Father of the Son and the Son is the eternal Son of the Father. The Father-Son relationship (in the Spirit) is eternal and prior to and independent of the Trinity-creation relationship. However, this understanding does NOT mean that the relationship between the Triune God and creation is negligible. Nor does it mean that in creating, God has done something alien or uncharacteristic of God's eternal triune being, nature and character. Let's expand on these two points:

First, we note that the fact of the Triune God freely deciding to become also a Creator and then accomplishing it, indicates an astounding relationship between the whole Trinity and creation. That relationship is a truly creative one. It is truly creative because it is a unidirectional one between the eternal Trinity and that which does not and cannot have existence in itself but has a beginning, is temporal, space-time bound. That relationship is a deliberately actively creative one between the Triune God and that which is not God, not divine. It is an act of the Trinity which is truly external to the triune being. In theological terms, creation is an ad extra act, in distinct contrast to the eternal relations and acts of the triune Persons, that are ad intra.

The Trinity becoming Creator involves a real, actual and ongoing relationship with that which is made-created. The continuing existence of the temporal (space-time) creation does not just indicate an initial free decision and act of the Trinity, but an ongoing decision and act to uphold it in existence. That ongoing but non-necessary relationship between the Trinity and creation indicates a very particular quality of relationship between them. We'll have more to say about this radically asymmetrical, yet real relationship, below.

We must not imagine that creation is eternal (has aseity) as is the Trinity, nor that that the Trinity is related to the creation in a deistic way, only giving it an initial push into existence, and then remaining at a distance, disinterested and uninvolved with it. Neither of those understandings square with the God we come to know who specially interacts with ancient Israel and reveals himself in the person of Jesus Christ and through the witness of those apostles whom he specially appointed and anointed by the Holy Spirit to be his representatives.

Second, we note that the triune act of creation although free (not necessary to the being or acts of the Trinity) it is not alien to the trinitarian nature and character of God. The freedom of God means that nothing can prevent this God from being true to the being and character of God. It means that the Trinity will always be faithful, will always act true to his being, whether the act is internal to the being and Persons of the Trinity (ad intra) or external (ad extra). Though the act of creation is not necessary to the being and character of God (who is faithful), it is not a capricious, arbitrary, or random act. Rather it is one that is “fitting.” It reflects externally (towards that which is not God), something of what is internally and eternally true of the Trinity. 

Genesis declares that creation is good, even very good. But why? Because the God who acted to create that which is not God is, indeed, eternally and internally good. This God is faithful (true), whether in those internal and eternal relations among the Triune Persons or in relationship with that which is created, that which is not God. And so Jesus, in many ways, continually acknowledges the goodness of God. He does so throughout his entire life and finally in his atoning work.

In what way does creation reflect God?

What aspect of the Triune God's perfect goodness is reflected in the free and fitting act of creation? The answer is found in what we learn of the Triune God from Jesus, and from the New Testament Jesus authorized that the Holy Spirit implemented. On the basis of that revelation, it seems clear that the Trinity’s external relationship with creation mirrors/reflects in a dim way something of the internal and eternal relationships among the Triune Persons. 

But what, if anything, are we told by Jesus concerning the internal and eternal relations of the Triune Persons? At his baptism Jesus hears the voice of his Father who identifies him as “my beloved Son” as the Holy Spirit uniquely descends and remains on him. Jesus identifies the One who sent him, “from above,” as his Father, his Abba. He prays to his Father in heaven. He seeks worshippers for his Father. He tells us that the Father loves him and he loves the Father, and is returning to the Father. He glorifies the Father and asks that his Father will glorify him with the glory he had before the creation began. He tells us that only the Father knows him and only he knows the Father—and those to whom he reveals him. He declares he and the Father are one. He commits himself into the hands of his Father upon his death trusting that the Father will raise him from the dead after three days. He proclaims that he is ascending to his Father. He claims that the eternal life (zōēn) that the Father has “in himself,” has been given to him so that he has life (zōēn) “in himself” (heautō), and so is the sole source of eternal life (zōēn) to give to others.  

We see and hear in Jesus about an absolutely unique and dynamic relationship between the Father and himself that stretches back from his earthly ministry to before the foundations of creation and forward to the eternal future outside of earthly time and space. We are told of a certain eternal giving and receiving, a kind of reciprocal life-exchange that constitutes the internal relations of the Triune God. Early church teaching and ecumenical creeds summed up this biblical teaching by saying the eternal Son is “begotten from the Father (ek tou patros) before all ages” and was “not made.” The eternal Father “begets” the Son “before all ages” so that the “only begotten Son” is “from the Father” (ek tou patros) and not “from nothing,” as is all creation, heaven and earth, the entire the cosmos, and all its ages. 

If the three Divine Names Jesus used and gave to us to address the Creator God and if the kind of eternal relations with the Father Jesus spoke of indicate any truth/reality, then we can affirm that there is a kind of internal generativity to the triune reciprocal relationships that constitute a triunity of eternal holy exchange of loving, knowing, goodness, and glory. So then, we can say, and theologians have said, that the external relationship of creating does correspond to, or image something of those internal and eternal relationships of generativity, of life-giving exchange. There is an analogical comparison that can be made between the eternal relationship of the Father and Son (in the Spirit) and the decision and act of the whole Triune God to create that which is not God, that which is temporally and spatially bound.  The external (ad extra) act of creation is “fitting” to the very internal (ad intra) nature of the Trinity.

Taking another step, we can say, and theologians have said, that the incarnation of the eternal Son of God is another “fitting” external act of the Triune God. The decision and act of the Father to send the Son to assume also a human nature by the Holy Spirit, is not necessary to the trinitarian being of God, however, it is not alien or uncharacteristic to the trinitarian being of God. The incarnation is another free act that demonstrates the entire faithfulness of the Triune God. The Trinity remains faithful in the external act of incarnation as well. 

Furthermore, we should note that the incarnation of the eternal Son of God is not necessitated by God’s act of creation nor of the sinful condition into which the creation fell. The Triune God remains free and faithful in all actions external to the being of God. But both these external actions of God (creation and incarnation) are indeed fitting and faithful to the eternal nature, character, mind and heart of the Trinity exhibited in the internal relations of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The pitfalls of pantheism and panentheism

There are various teachings in our day that misrepresent the relationship between the Triune God and creation. In general, these teachings proclaim an ontological continuity between the being of God and the being of creation. Some of these teachings seek to establish that continuity without reference to the Trinity, Jesus, or the Incarnation, proclaiming that God and creation are one in being, even of one being. They claim that all that is, is divine (holy, one). The general name for this view is pantheism. Others affirm that there is more to God or the divine than creation, but that creation is contained within the being of God. In this case, all creation is divine, but all of what is divine is not creation. Sometimes it is explained that creation is the “womb” of God or the divine. The general name for this view is panentheism.

Some forms of panentheism attempt a connection to Christianity. Toward that end, some claim the man Jesus is a particular instance of what is universally true. Others assert that the man Jesus points to a universal truth or universal force or being called “the cosmic Christ.” According to this view, the man Jesus is not the cosmic Christ, but is ontologically included in the universal cosmic Christ-principle, as is all of creation. Other versions declare that Incarnation creates and/or uniquely reveals an ontological bond or a oneness at the level of being between God and all of creation. On the basis of the Incarnation it is declared we can affirm a continuity between God’s kind of being and the being (existence) of creation. Still other versions mention the Trinity, some even speaking of creation as a fourth member of the Trinity. Others proclaim that the Incarnation involving Jesus was not unique, but rather creation was the first incarnation of God—the universal God is joined to all of creation in the same way that God is joined to creation in the incarnation of Jesus. According to this view, God’s connection to humanity in Jesus is a particular instance of revelation of the universal and general and even eternal relationship between God and creation. 

Pantheistic and panentheistic viewpoints are serious departures from biblical, Christ-centered and historically orthodox teaching. In misrepresenting the relationship of the Trinity with creation they tend to overlook the glory, majesty, goodness, and faithfulness and grace of God the Trinity, thus making God out to be impersonal and transcendently abstract. The connection between such a god and what is creation becomes automatic, natural, built in, cause-effect. and reciprocal. Evil simply becomes an inherent aspect of what is, what has being, whether that is God or creation, or a divine emanation from God. The boundary between God/the divine and creation becomes blurred and confused. Salvation becomes at best awareness or understanding of what the cosmos ontologically is and of its fixed eternal dynamics. And so in the end there is nothing like a personal God acting in grace towards what is not god, towards creation. There is no need for a mediator between a transcendent God and creature. There is no need for the actual grace of God.

The truth of God's grace (a mediated relationship)

God’s grace is not nature and nature is not grace. Grace is not opposed to nature and does not destroy nature. But grace is freely given out of God’s goodness and love and it does rescue, redeem, transform and perfect his creation and creatures. God’s grace is free and fitting, but not necessary! God’s grace is not mechanical or automatic or built into creation. If it were, it would not be grace. By grace God does for creation what it could never do for itself—out of his sheer free act of grace. By grace creation will be given a perfection that it could never attain out of its own potentials and possibilities. Creation reaches its God intended end (telos) in and through a real relationship and interaction initiated and completed by the eternal Triune God.

God's relationship to his creation and creatures is a mediated one. The Triune God is ontologically and eternally connected directly only to Jesus Christ the incarnate Son. We are connected by the ministry of the Spirit to the humanity of Jesus Christ, the only Mediator between God and man. There is no natural non-mediated relationship of God with creation, but one of God's willing, choosing, and grace. Through the incarnate Son the free grace of the Trinity reaches down to the roots of our human being to reconcile, renew, and glorify it. That grace does not give us a different kind of being. Rather, it perfects our human being.

So, our knowledge of God and the source of our salvation comes about through the agency of God, the choice of God, the action of God and so the grace of God. And this grace comes to us by God’s self-revelation and self-giving mediated by the one Person, Jesus Christ. It is not provided by the knowledge of nature or the exercise of its powers. The transcendence of this God is no barrier to God’s being in real and intimate relationship with his creation, but always is achieved through the mediation of his grace. 

The glory of God is that we have, in the end, a real relationship initiated and established between the transcendent God and his finite and contingent/dependent creation, all by his grace, by virtue of his mediation through Jesus Christ. God remains God, and creation remains creation, in this fellowship and communion of grace for all eternity. That is essential to the glory of the Triune God: there is a unity that maintains the difference and distinction of being. The difference between God and humanity is not obliterated, but sustained and glorified through Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit to the glory of the Father.

Relevant quotes from T.F. Torrance

Here from The Trinitarian Faith are quotes from Torrance relevant to this essay:

It is in similar terms that we may speak of the eternal Son who became Man. The Son was always Son of God, but now he is Man as well as God. ‘He was not man previously, but he became man for our sake’ (Athanasius). (p 88)

The truth of the matter... is that while God was always Father, he was not always Creator or Maker. This is not to say that the creation was not in the Mind of God before he actually brought it into being, but that he brought it into being by a definite act of his will and thereby gave it a beginning. Quite clearly words like ‘was’, ‘before’, ‘when’ and ‘beginning’ are time-related, and present us with problems when we speak of God, for the time-relations they imply may not be read back into God. These terms have one sense when used of God when they are governed by the unique nature of God, and another sense when used of creatures in accordance with their transitory natures. (pp. 87-88)

Behind the beginning of creation there is an absolute or transcendent beginning by God who is himself eternally without beginning. This is what makes the creation of the world out of nothing so utterly baffling and astonishing. It is not only that something absolutely new has begun to be, new even for God who created it by his Word and gave it a contingent reality and integrity out with himself, but that in some incomprehensible way, to cite Athanasius again, ‘the Word himself became the Maker of the things that have a beginning’ God was always Father, not always Creator, but now he is Creator as well as Father. (p. 88)

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Addendum 

A blog reader requested Dr. Deddo's input concerning the ramifications of this post:

I would like to sometime hear Dr. Deddo's critique of Jurgen Moltmann, specifically his books "God in Creation, "the Crucified God" and chapter 4 in Trinity and The Kingdom. Moltmann is a part of the Trinitarian Renaissance that helped restore Trinitarian theology to the western church. However many have drawn a form of Panentheism from his writings. From my take on it, he seems to draw some good from both panentheism and classical theism and wants to find a balance between pantheism and a deity who is completely separate."

Here is Dr. Deddo's response:

The question of forms of panentheism being evident in the theology of Protestant theologians Moltmann, Pannenberg, Jensen, Jüngel and B. McCormack has been raised by a number of theologians over the past several decades. Prominent critical engagement has been sustained by George Hunsinger and most notably by Paul D. Molnar. These two theologians and critics align themselves with the expositions of Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance on the topic. They also demonstrate where and when those who make their panentheistic-leaning arguments depart from Barth, Torrance and others. So, there is good reason to take seriously their concerns regarding a form of Christo-panentheism (my term).

Paul D. Molnar is probably the most directly accessible source of fair and reliable critical engagement with those who are liable to lapse into such a line of theological understanding. See especially his book, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology. Also, soon to be released is the second edition of his Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity: In Dialogue with Karl Barth and Contemporary Theology, especially the additional chapter now included in it.

In Molnar’s estimation maintaining the irreversibility of the creator/creature relation as revealed in Jesus Christ requires avoiding 1) “making God in some sense dependent upon and indistinguishable from history,” 2) the idea that “Jesus, in his humanity as such, is the revealer,” 3) confusing the Holy Spirit with the human spirit, and 4) beginning the theological enterprise “with experiences of self-transcendence, thus allowing experience rather than the object of faith to determine the truth of theology.” (Taken from the new Preface, of the second edition of Molnar’s book, Divine Freedom.)

In connection with Moltmann, the problem is at minimum, inconsistency. Moltmann’s most egregious move involves his explicit aim to go beyond Rahner’s problematic thesis of the reciprocal identity of the immanent with the economic Trinity. Moltmann affirms a “retroactive” effect on the Trinity by the Incarnation (The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 151). Another problem involves the notion that Jesus’ sonship is somehow constituted by his resurrection. Moltmann also makes Jesus’ suffering and death part of God’s eternal nature. In all these instances there is a blurring of the ontological distinction between the being of God and the being of creation and human nature.

The problem as Molnar and others see it is not a matter of aiming for a middle view between pantheism and a deistic or separate God. The problem is not a logical problem of finding a balance or third way between two extreme concepts. Molnar shows in detail how the problem for those who tip towards or land in a panentheism is their historico/anthropological/ethical theological starting points for doing theology.

Rather, the theological task is a matter of a faithful representation of biblical revelation that culminates in the incarnation of the Son of God and his own self-interpretation as given to and passed on by those apostles he appointed. That revelation in the Person of Jesus Christ affirms that there is no continuity of being between the being of God and the being of creation. The God of Israel personally revealed in Jesus Christ has no beginning, is uncreated, is not made, is not contained by time and space. But creation is made and that includes the human nature that the eternal Son of God assumed to himself. The Trinity alone is to be worshipped.

Barth, Torrance, Molnar and Hunsinger all demonstrate how the unconfused and irreversible ontological distinction between the being of the Trinity and the being of creation and human nature has been and can be maintained without ending up with pantheism, panentheism, a dualism or an unknown God. The Nicene and Chalcedonian Christological foundation provide a sufficient theological foundation that should not be ignored or violated.

Following Barth and Torrance, my own observation is that a faithful understanding of the relationship of the Trinity with creation requires that at least three aspects of that dynamic be simultaneously upheld, namely: 1) the One Triune being of God, 2) the indivisible yet distinguishable acts of the Persons of the Trinity towards creation, and 3) the divine dynamic and personal relations of the Trinity with that which is not God, that is, with creation/human nature. If any one or more of these facets of relationship is neglected, the door is open to panentheism and beyond that into monism, dualism or even agnosticism, as Molnar indicates.

I find that even if the one being of the Trinity and the ad extra acts of the Trinity are accounted for, most often the asymmetrical and relational element is left unaccounted for by many theologians. This leaves the way open to a reversion to either an abstract ontology of God’s being or to an actualism whereby God’s being is dependent upon or constituted in some way by the ad extra acts of God; for instance, constituted by the incarnation itself and/or by the sufferings of Jesus. In Barth’s terms the analogia relationis, must be upheld against an analogia entis. In Torrance’s terms the personal, unidirectional onto-relational dimension must be maintained along with the acts and being of the one Triune God.

Finally, I should also say that a faithful rendering of the creator/creature relationship must leave unquestionable room for Jesus, the incarnate Son himself, to speak of the transcendent reality that he alone knows and can convey in humanly conceivable terms, and that can be preserved in the apostolic witness of the New Testament which he appointed. We hear normative truth of the immanent relations of the Triune God personally from him in the economy of grace. After all, that is what revelation is about. It remains an enigma to me why some theologians (and biblical scholars) discount the actual teachings of Jesus about himself and about his eternal relationship and knowledge of the Father and the Spirit. Doing so can only rob theological understanding of its ultimate foundation.

Comments

Dave R.. said…
Awesome essay! Though I admit that I has to read and reread (and sometimes re-reread) each sentence!

Question then: As we say that the Father was not always "Creator" - So the Son was not (therefore) always "Savior" ... correct?

\Dave Robinson
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks for your comment and question Dave. Both creation and the acts of God in Christ that brought about salvation, are events in time and space. Thus there was time preceding those events, and time that follows them. So in that sense, there was a time when God was not creator, and not Savior. God's salvation is accomplished through the time-bound Jesus "event"--his incarnation, life, ministry, suffering, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. However, there is a sense in which this event was established "before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4). In the mind, heart, purpose and plan of God, it was already accomplished. And so from all eternity, the Second Person of the Trinity (the Divine Logos) was our Savior. But the decisive saving act came at "just the right time" (Romans 5:6).