The Christian Doctrine of God (part 2)

This is part 2 in a series by Torrance scholar Thomas Noblesummarizing Thomas F. Torrance's The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three PersonsFor other posts in this series, click a number: 13, 4, 56.


God may be known only through God: without God, God cannot be known (Irenaeus). The Christian doctrine of God derives specifically from within the definitive self-revelation of the one Lord God through Jesus Christ and in one Spirit – that is, from the historical self-revelation of God as God becomes man for us and for our salvation.

Exclusive relation of mutual knowing between the Father and Son (Matt. 11:25-27; Luke 10:21-22) and between God and the Spirit (I Cor. 2: 9-12). The specifically Christian doctrine of God is thus inescapably and essentially Christocentric, for it pivots on God’s self-revelation and self-communication in the incarnation, in an objective manifestation. Doctrinal statements about God are only possible and true when Christologically grounded.

1. This triune self-revelation of God is something utterly new that we could not otherwise know or conceive – a self-contained novum. Hence the principle: unless you believe, you will not understand. We may acquire knowledge of something hitherto unknown, not through a process of explicit reasoning (important as that may be for what is already known) but only through an ontological act of recognition and assent which cannot be further analysed. This arises compulsorily in our minds as we allow what is new to authenticate itself to us and disclose its intrinsic significance and truth to us. Thus in proving itself to us, God’s self-revelation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit both creates the framework within which it is solely to be understood and generates the very forms of thought and speech with which it is to be grasped and articulated. It generates the conceptual and linguistic instruments with which it may be interpreted and formulated. Ordinary terms like ‘father’, ‘son’, ‘spirit’, ‘word’, ‘being’, and ‘communion’, are taken up and radically altered, and quite new concepts and terms not found in the biblical revelation, like ‘person’, and ‘consubstantial’ together with a new way of thinking of a dynamic, ontological and relational kind, were developed and incorporated into the articulated body of Christian dogmatics.

2. The triune self-revelation of God is necessarily exclusive because (a) he alone makes himself known, and (b) he makes himself known as the one Lord in the utterly singular event of the incarnation. That is to say, God is at once the Subject and Object of revelation. This excludes the possibility of any other revelation, just as the very nature of God excludes the possibility of any other God. ‘I am the Lord your God: you must have no other gods beside me’: ‘I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other.’ The Lord God is thus a ‘jealous God’ for the absolute oneness of his Nature is eo ipso intolerant of any other claim to deity.  

Moreover, Jesus appropriated to himself the self-designating ‘I am’ of Yahweh. As the only begotten Son of the Father who is inseparably one with him, Jesus Christ is the one and only self-revelation of God the Father which by its very nature excludes any other possibility. There is not and cannot be any other incarnation, for there is no other God than this God who has become incarnate once and for all in Christ Jesus. Nor can there be any other God-man or more than one God-man, for that would sharply conflict with the union of the divine and human natures in the one Person of Christ. It is not arrogance but humility and obedience before the intrinsic nature of the truth which makes us assent to this confession.

To look into the Trinitarian content of this self-revelation is to become even more aware of its intrinsically unique and exclusive nature, for to believe in God as Trinity is to renounce all forms of unitarianism as well as of polytheism.  The Three Persons are God, and God is the Three Persons. The Holy Trinity is categorically incomparable and non-derivable. It involves the rejection of even theism as quite inadequate and theologically unacceptable.

This does not mean that the unique revelation of God in Jesus Christ denies that God has made himself known to the peoples of the world from the beginning of the creation. Nor does it extinguish the lights of creation or the contingent intelligibility which God has imposed upon creation through his Word. But it cuts through their twisted apprehension due to the alienated and self-inturned nature of the human mind, whereby it eclipses the light of creation and falsifies the truth. The faithful Christian proclamation of the Gospel must reckon with the refracted lights and distorted conceptions of God in other religions, while nevertheless remaining true to the unique and final self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

3. The triune self-revelation of God is given not in a piecemeal way but in a unitary way as an indivisible whole. The ‘parts’ (though that word is here inappropriate) can only be understood in the light of the ‘whole’ and the ‘whole’ in the light of the ‘parts’. James Clerk Maxwell: Michael Polanyi – a physiognomy, a tune, a pattern. In our apprehension of God’s trinitarian self-revelation in its intrinsic wholeness, we are relying on our subsidiary awareness of the particular Persons, and in our explicit apprehension of each Person, we are relying on an implicit awareness of the whole Trinity.  The ‘all’ here is not the oneness of God as such but his three-in-oneness as an indivisible, comprehensive whole. Necessarily circular procedure: intentionally circular. We cannot apprehend and interpret the Holy Trinity except on his own ultimate ground. It would be fallacious to attempt to justify ultimates in terms of what is not ultimate.


[ Noble provides only the following very brief outline of this chapter.]

1. Interpreting the New Testament in depth. (‘Depth exegesis’ William Manson). Polanyi: indwelling: cognitive union.

2. Divine revelation was given not in a visual but in an auditory mode: the Word.  But when the Word became flesh, his own did not receive him. Revelation and reconciliation belong together.

3. The intertwining of empirical and conceptual, historical and theological elements in the Scriptures. It is not to be interpreted analytically or discursive but in terms of the integrated witness they bear to God’s eternal purpose actualized in Jesus Christ.


A complete formalization of knowledge in explicit terms is impossible (Gödel – p. 86). Mystery (I Tim. 3:16). Concepts and statements do not have the truth in themselves but in the realities to which they refer. Implicit. Irenaeus: the rule of faith. Jesus Christ is the ‘bridge which makes this knowledge possible for us’. His Trinitarian understanding of God was Christologically and soteriologically conditioned through and through. The primary focus should be on Jesus Christ Himself as Lord and Saviour. The fundamental question was how the self-revelation of God within the range of human comprehension in this visible, tangible world is related to His own ultimate Being. Unless there is a substantial bridge, the Gospel would be detached from reality and empty of truth. The ‘gap’ between God’s knowing of Himself and our knowing of Him has been bridged in Jesus Christ.

Three levels: the ground level of religious experience and worship – evangelical and doxological: incipient theology. The theological level: the homoousion, the doctrine of the economic Trinity.  Second theological level: that what God is towards us in his saving economic activity in space and time through Christ and the Holy Spirit, he is antecedently and inherently in himself – the ontological Trinity – perichoresis, the onto-relational concept of Person (hypostasis), radical transformation of the Greek concept of ousia.  

Our concern in the rest of this chapter is not so much with the detailed content of the doctrine of the Trinity but with how we are to formulate it on the ground of the biblical witness with help from the great Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, and how we are to coordinate the different conceptual levels. The ground level where we are concerned with evangelical apprehension and experience is open to the transcendent level of the Trinitarian relations in God himself. There is thus disclosed the multi-level organic structure in which our thought moves from its fundamental base in what God is toward us and has done for us in the Gospel as Father, Son and Holy Spirit to what he is antecedently and eternally in himself. That is, it moves from the economic Trinity to the ontological Trinity, or the evangelical Trinity to the theological Trinity. Cp. the multilevel structure in any rigorous scientific account of knowledge in any field of investigation – Einstein, Polanyi, etc. Our basic concepts are intuitively derived from our experience, and we move to the secondary or scientific level where we connect them in a scientific theory, aiming at economic simplicity. If the theory is consistent, it is open to the disclosure of further and deeper truth and is complete beyond itself on a higher meta-scientific level. Relativity theory is the most striking example of a higher-order theory of this kind, characterized by a honed down economy of logical simplicity.

1. (88) First there is the ground level of religious experience and worship – the basic evangelical and doxological level. Here we have to do with the kerygma and didache of the NT – ‘incipient theology.’

2. (91) Then we come to the theological level. At this level the inchoate form of the doctrine of the Trinity latent in the triadic structure of God’s redemptive revelation of himself through himself is given explicit formulation as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. This is the first definitively theological level in which our thought moves from the intuitive incipient form of an understanding of the Trinity to conceptions of what is called the economic Trinity. (93) This was the task with which the Fathers at the Council of Nicaea were mainly concerned, that is, in moving from the evangelical and doxological level to the theological level where the conceptual content of the faith could be given definite credal form. The cardinal issue was the unbroken relation in being and agency between Jesus Christ and God the Father, to which they gave expression by a carefully defined non-biblical term, homoousios. The homoousion (to refer to it in this abstract form) was the all-important hinge upon which the whole Confession of Faith, and indeed the whole Christian conception of God and of the salvation of mankind, turns. It unambiguously affirmed the deity of Christ, the oneness in Being and Act between Christ and the Father upon which the reality and validity of the Gospel depend. Apart from it, the inner core of the Gospel of divine forgiveness and salvation from sin and redemption through the cross of Christ would die away and disappear. (94) The homoousion is to be taken together with the hypostatic union (henōsis hypostatikē). (95)  The homoousion enables us to deepen and refine our grasp of the self-revealing and self-communicating God in such a way that our thought has to move from the secondary level in which we have to do with the economic Trinity to the tertiary or higher theological level where we have to do with the ontological Trinity, that is, from oikonomia to theologia. The homoousion crystallizes our conviction that while the incarnation falls within our spatio-temporal world, it also falls within the Life and Being of God. It is the ontological and epistemological linchpin of Christian theology. It gives expression to the truth on which everything hangs together and laid the axe to the root of epistemological dualism latent in Greek philosophy and religion. Jesus Christ the incarnate Son is one in Being and Act with God the Father. What Jesus Christ does for us and to us, and what the Holy Spirit does in us, is what God himself does for us, to us and in us. The sanctifying and renewing act of God: theopoiesis and theosis. The concept of the homoousion had to be applied also to the Holy Spirit.

3. (98) We come now to the third or higher theological level. At this level we are concerned with the epistemological and ontological structure of our knowledge of the Holy Trinity, moving from a level of economic trinitarian relations to the level in which we discern trinitarian relations inherent in God himself. Here too the homoousion is of primary significance. It stands for the basic insight that what God is toward us in his saving economic activity he is antecedently and inherently in himself. It does not allow us to read back into God what is human and finite. (100) The homoousion applies to the Spirit in a different way. The Spirit is not knowable in his own distinctive Person for he is not embodied. (102) Through the application of the homoousion in these ways, appropriate to the Spirit as well as to the Son, our thought is lifted up from the level of the economic Trinity to the level of the ontological Trinity. In this process we have to bring in a new concept – perichoresis. In the employment of this term, Christian theology developed what I have long called its onto-relational concept of the divine Persons. Along with this there developed out of the doctrine of the Trinity the new concept of person, unknown in human thought till then.