The Christian Doctrine of God (part 3)

This is part 3 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: 1, 2, 4, 56.


At the council of Alexandria in 362, the Athanasian and Cappadocian approaches were brought together in a position best expressed by Gregory Nazianzen: one Being, three Persons, three Persons, one Being. In this chapter we concentrate on the one Being.  

Just as we reject a docetic Christology ‘from above’ and an ebionitic ‘Christology from below’, so in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity we must think conjunctively of God’s trinitarian self-revelation from below and from above – of what God is toward us, and what He is in Himself, of the Trinity in Unity and His Unity in His Trinity, and consider the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity inseparably together.

The word the Greek fathers used was ousia, but Athanasius did not use this in the metaphysical and static sense of on/ousia as in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, translated into Latin as essentia or substantia. He used it not as static but as living being, not as dumb but as speaking being, and hence as personal being. God and His Being are one and the same, and the epistemological significance of the incarnation is that it has opened up for us knowledge of God as He is in Himself in the relation of the Father and the Son. Athanasius preferred to use verbs rather than nouns when speaking of God as the living and active God rather than abstract substantives.

However, when Athanasius did refer to the Being of God, he took his guidance from Exod. 3:14: I am who I am. The Name of God and the ‘I am’ of God are identical: the Name of God signifies His very Being, for the Being of God is God Himself. He understood this in a Hebraic personal way, not in an abstract and impersonal way. In the De synodis he argues that Jesus Christ is ‘of the being of the Father’ (ek tēs ousias tou Patros) and of one and the same Being (homoousios) with God. That is to say, it is the Fatherhood of God as revealed in Jesus Christ that determines for us precisely how we are to understand the nature of His divine Being. Athanasius shows that the word ousia, derived from the verb einai, to be, with the quite straightforward meaning of be-ing (ōn) is to be understood in terms of the divine ‘I am’ (ego einai). He follows this with a passage in which he points out that the ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus can only be understood in terms of His being homoousios with God. At this point we may discern how profound and intensely personal the ontological interrelation between the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity is. If God were other in His eternal Being than the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit whom we encounter and know in the economy of redemption proclaimed to us in the Gospel, there would be no objective basis for God’s revelation of Himself.

We must take a closer look at what the Old Testament Scripture has to say about Yahweh as ‘I am who I am,’ or ‘I will be who I will be.’ (119) The verb ‘to be’ has a dynamic sense which comes out in the preceding verse: ‘I will be with you.’ God is presented throughout the Old Testament revelation as Saviour and Redeemer. Who God really is, is to be understood not primarily in the light of his creation of heaven and earth, but in the light of His covenant purpose for the community of Israel and His concrete saving activity on their behalf. In other words, we are to understand by the divine ‘I am’ or ‘I will be’ the Being of the living and active Lord God. Who God is and what God does interpret each other, for His Being and His Act are inseparable. Barth: God’s Being-in-His-Act and His Act-in-His-Being. ‘I am’ is spoken in the first person singular, which tells us that the Being and Act of God are the very Being and Act of the transcendent I. The Lord God is the Subject (Yahweh, Kyrios) and the sole Subject of all He is and will be. The one Being of God then must be understood as intrinsically and intensely personal. The Being or ‘I am’ (ousia or Ego eimi) of the Lord God is the ultimate Source of all His personal and personalizing activity through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit. The significant point to be emphasized here is that the self-naming of God as Yahweh is bound up with the covenant of steadfast love and truth He made with Israel. The Being of Yahweh is His Being-in-union with His people.

I have been directing considerable attention to the Hebraic way of understanding the I am of God to which the early Church often appealed in seeking to understand the Being or ousia of God, for it is very different from the static metaphysical notion of essence or substance found in the Greek philosophical tradition. It is understood not simply in terms of the self-grounded Being of God, but as the Being of God for others with whom he seeks and creates fellowship. While the Being of God is not to be understood as constituted by His relation to others, that free outward flowing of His Being in gratuitous love toward and for others reveals to us something of the inmost nature of God’s Being, as at once transcendent and immanent.  God in the highest and God with us and for us, the divine ousia is understood as parousia and the divine parousia is understood as ousia. Hence it may be said that the Being of God is to be understood as essentially personal, dynamic and relational Being, and hence as fellowship-creating or communion-constituting Being. By His very nature He is Communion (koinōnia) in Himself: His Being is Being-in-Communion (J.B. Torrance). In saying, ‘I am in the Father and the Father in me,’ Jesus showed His disciples that his own ‘I am’ is grounded in the indwelling of the Father and the Son in one another. He prayed that the Father would give to the disciples the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and is given in the name of the Son so that they might be perfectly one as the Father and the Son are one. The communion-constituting activity of the divine ousia and its source in the mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son, together with the oneness between the ‘I am’ of Yahweh and the ‘I am’ of the Lord Jesus, tell us that the Being of God is not undifferentiated in His oneness, but comprises a Triunity of relations internal to the Godhead.

It was when the concept of the homoousion was resolutely applied to the understanding of the Holy Spirit, as well as of the Son, by Athanasius in his epoch-making Letters to Serapion that the doctrine of the Trinity was brought to its full measure. (125) In their mutual in-existing, co-indwelling and coactivity, the three divine Persons are completely homousial with one another and have in common the one indivisible Being of the Godhead. It is only through the Communion of the Spirit, he insisted, that we may have union and communion with the Father and the Son, for God is Spirit. The Communion of the Holy Spirit belongs to the mutual relation between the Father and the Son. This was taken up and developed by Epiphanius, the Jewish Christian bishop of Salamis, for one Person cannot be homoousion with Himself. He understood the homoousion to apply not just to the three Persons, but to the inner relations of the Trinity as a whole. He spoke of the Holy Spirit as ‘in the midst’ of the Father and the Son, and as ‘the bond (syndesmos) of the Trinity’.

It was with Basil’s On the Holy Spirit that the conception of the Trinity as koinōnia or Communion was given prominence (126). While he was strangely reluctant to speak of the Holy Spirit as homoousios with the Father and the Son, he held in accordance with the liturgy that the Spirit is equally glorified and adored.  He thought the Spirit as the living Being (ousia zōsa).

We return to the fact that we apprehend God’s trinitarian self-revelation from below and from above (127). This rules out any speculative or metaphysical approach through logico-deductive operations. Through personal union and communion with Christ and in the Spirit that our minds become adapted to a knowing of God in accordance with this divine nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus while the theologians of the early church made use of Greek terms and ideas, they reshaped them. Hence far from Nicene theology being a Hellenization of biblical Christianity, there took place instead a recasting of familiar Hellenic thought-forms to make them the vehicle of the saving truth of the Gospel.

Of decisive importance is the way in which the Greek terms ousia and hypostasis were shaped and developed toward the formulation mia ousia, treis hypostaseis agreed at the Council of Alexandria in 362, and finalized at the Council of Constantinople in 381. (128) At Nicaea, ousia and hypostasis were used in a cognate way, carrying an ambiguity and leading to misinterpretation.  Athanasius hesitated to commit himself to a fixed formalization of the terms, but it soon became evident that some used them as regular equivalents in such a way as to imply that the three divine Persons were separate divine Beings. A change had to be made, as the Cappadocian theologians argued, in drawing a distinction between the two terms in order to avoid both tritheism and modalism. Therefore Athanasius agreed that ousia in the strict sense should apply to the one Being of God in distinction from hypostasis. But far from being an abstract or general notion, ousia applied to God had an intensely personal and concrete meaning. The one Being of God is intrinsically personal.  

The concept of the Nicene homoousion brought about a profound reconstruction in the basic concepts of Greek thought. It was as decisive as it was revolutionary. It expressed the evangelical truth that what God is toward us in His love and grace He really is in Himself, and that He really is in the internal relations and personal properties of His transcendent Being as the Holy Trinity the very same Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that He is in His revealing and saving activity in time and space toward mankind.

In precise theological usage ousia now refers to ‘being’ not simply as that which is but to what it is in respect of its internal reality, while hypostasis refers to ‘being’ not just in its independent subsistence but in its objective otherness. G.L. Prestige expressed the distinction as not that between the general and the particular, but between subject and object: ousia denotes being in its ‘inward reference’, while hypostasis denotes being in its ‘outward reference’. While both ousia and hypostasis refer to being, ousia is being considered in its internal relations, and hypostasis is being considered in its otherness, i.e. in the objective relations between the Persons. However there is a fundamental sense in which we must think of the Being of God not as isolated in Himself (in se) but as Being for others (ad alios).  God lives and moves and has His being for us as well as for Himself. For God to be is to be for Himself in Himself, that is, for the three divine Persons which God is to be for one another. As such, God’s Being is inherently altruistic, Being for others, Being who loves.

This is what we learn from the Old Testament revelation of God as the God who freely created the world and human beings within it for personal relations with Himself, and who in His redeeming purpose for all mankind made a covenant with the people of Israel for fellowship which Himself: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love.’ This is what we learn above all in the message of the Gospel, the New Testament revelation of God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to be our Saviour. The Gospel tells us that God did not choose to live for Himself alone. And so we learn that the one Being of God is the Being of the Father who did not spare His only Son but freely gave Him up in atoning sacrifice for us. It is the Being of the Son who gave Himself for us and it is the Being of the Holy Spirit who brings us into communion with the Father and the Son. God’s whole Being as three divine Persons is his Being for others.  The eternal ground in God from which there flows His communion-seeking love and grace toward us, is the Communion which the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have among themselves, and really are. The Father is not properly the Father apart from the Son and Spirit, the Son is not properly the Son apart from the Father and Spirit, and the Spirit is not properly the Spirit apart from the Father and the Son. They exist in and through one another. Each Person is who He is for the other two. God is a fullness of personal Being within Himself. 

As Basil wrote in De Spiritu Sancto, they are worshipped and glorified as One. Lex orandi, lex credendi. Our worship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is the worship of one Lord God.  We do not divide our prayers between them, or direct our devotion separately, for in worshipping and praying to each Person we worship and pray to the whole undivided Godhead, one Being, three Persons


In this chapter we focus on the Communion of the three divine Persons who in their perichoretic interrelations are the one Being of God. It is only in knowledge of the economic Trinity that we have access to the knowledge of the ontological Trinity. He is in Himself the content of His self-communication to us. Our knowledge of the economic Trinity in the ordo cognoscenti and our knowledge of the ontological Trinity in the ordo essendi may not be separated from one another. It is worth recalling from the biblical basis that mention of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is not always made in the same order. In the mission of the Church the spotlight fell on Jesus Christ, for it was through Him as the one Mediator between God and man that human conceptions of God were critically transformed. Therefore we followed the evangelical or economic order presented in the benediction, ‘the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Love of God and the Communion of the Holy Spirit.’ Now however we shall follow the order given in the ordinance of Baptism in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father comes first: it is to Him that the Lord Jesus directs us through Himself as the Son of the Father. Although in the order of knowing the Son comes first, in the order of God’s triune Being it is the Father who comes first in virtue of His being the Father of the Son. The relation of Father and Son is irreversible, for ‘the Son is from the Father, not the Father from the Son’ (Augustine, De Trin.4.20.27).

God the Eternal Father [136]

In the NT and the theology of the early Church, ‘Father’ was used in a two-fold way, of God the heavenly Father as the Creator and Lord of all that is, and of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is as the Father of the Son that in His love God has freely condescended to be our Father and to make us His sons and daughters by grace. It is this Son/Father, Father/Son relationship which constitutes, along with the Holy Spirit, the inner ontological framework of the Gospel. Our knowledge of God as Father and Creator then is derived from and regulated through the mutual relations of exclusive knowing between the Son and the Father: ‘… no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son will reveal Him.’ It is only in the light of the unsparing self-giving and the intimate self-revelation of God to us in Jesus Christ that we come to know the Nature of the Father as Love…

We discern the wonderful truth that God does not exist for Himself alone, that He will not be without us but has made us for Himself…

When the Father is considered relatively, that is ad alios in relation to the Son and the Holy Spirit, he is thought of as the Father of the Son, but when the Father is thought of absolutely, that is as in se, as God Himself (Autotheos), the name ‘Father’ is often applied to God or the Godhead. The name ‘Father’ then may refer to the one Being or ousia of God, but it may also refer to the Person or hypostasis of the Father. In this particular sense, as Gregory Nazianzen held, ‘Father’ is the name for the relation (schesis) the Father bears to the Son and is not a name for the ousia. This does not mean however that the Son is to be thought of as proceeding from the Person of the Father, but from the Being of the Father (ek tēs ousias Patros) in the pronouncement of the Council of Nicaea.

God the Eternal Son [141]

‘No one knows the Son except the Father…’  So in the Nicene Creed we confess our belief in God the Father and in His incarnate Son together. We believe that if the Lord God Himself had not come among us, the Gospel would be wanting in divine validity. In the Incarnation God has communicated His divine Self to us. The pivotal issue here is the identity between God and the revelation of Himself, between what He reveals of Himself and of His activity in Jesus Christ and what He really is in Himself.  

By uniting Himself to us in our human nature and living the divine life within our human life as real human life, God has revealed something of His innermost secret of His own divine life not otherwise possible. We have to do with a twofold movement of mediation, from above and from below (II Cor. 8:9).

Since the incarnation falls within the Life of the Holy Trinity, and the atonement falls within the life of the Mediator, we must think of this mutual interpenetration of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as obtaining in the oikonomia as well as in the theologia and in the theologia as well as the oikonomia.

God the Eternal Spirit [147]

The Holy Spirit is no less than the Son the self-giving of God, for in Him the divine Gift and the divine Giver are identical. This is why the homoousion is applied to the Holy Spirit. A distinction must be made between thinking of the Spirit absolutely and thinking of Him relatively. Absolutely considered, the Spirit is God of God, and like the Son, whole God of whole God, so that the Being of the Spirit is the Being ousia of the Godhead: ‘God is a Spirit’. In this absolute sense ‘Spirit’ refers to the Deity, without distinction of Persons. Considered relatively however, the Spirit is a Person or hypostasis. Like the Father and the Son then, the Holy Spirit is both ousia and hypostasis.  

Our receiving of the Spirit is objectively grounded in and derives from Christ who as the incarnate Son was anointed by the Spirit in His humanity and endowed with the Spirit without measure, and who then mediates the Spirit to us through Himself. The impartation of the Holy Spirit to us specifically as Holy Spirit confronts us with God Himself in His unlimited Godness and Majesty (blasphemy against the Holy Spirit). This filled the Church with awe at His outpouring at Pentecost. Liturgical expressions was given to this doxological worship in the Trisagion. While God the Father and Son are revealed to us in their distinctive personal subsistences, God the Holy Spirit is not directly known in His own Person for He remains hidden behind the very revelation of the Father and the Son which He mediates through Himself.

1) The Persons of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit [155]

In the Old and New Testaments there is no explicit concept of ‘person’, although we find the Name, the Presence, the Face and the Glory of God. It was the understanding of the incarnation of the Word and Son in Jesus Christ in which the ‘I am’ of Yahweh and the ‘I am’ of the Lord Jesus were brought together that deepened the OT understanding of the Being of God as profoundly ‘personal’ and forced the Church to develop the theological concept of ‘person’. The word hypostasis (from Heb. 1:3) was adapted to express the objective self-revelation of the Son and Word of God and filled out through association with the association with ‘name’ used in the concrete sense, ‘oneself’ or autos and ‘face’ (prosopon) to refer to the self-subsistent self-identifying subject-being in objective relations with others. Hypostasis was not just taken over from Greek thought unchanged but was stretched and transformed. This change from a Hellenistic impersonal to a Christian personal way of thinking is evident in the way the early church theologians attached autos (oneself) – autotheos, autologos, autoousia, autozoe, autoexousia – in order to stress the intensely personal nature of God’s interaction with us through the presence of His Word and Spirit.

It became clear that the ontic relations between divine Persons belong to what they are as Persons. No divine person is who he is without essential relation to the other two, yet each is distinct. These ontic and holistic interrelations between the three divine Persons are substantive relations (ousiodeis scheseis). For Gregory of Nazianzus this concept of Persons as substantive relations implied that they were not just ‘modes of existence’ but hypostatic interrelations which belong intrinsically to what Father, Son and Holy Spirit are coinherently in themselves and in their mutual objective relations with and for one another.

While there is a certain figurative or metaphorical ingredient in the human terms ‘father’ and ‘son’, they are to be understood in a way that points utterly beyond what we mean by ‘father’ and ‘son’ among ourselves. Both the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit are incomprehensible mysteries so that we must set aside all analogies drawn from the visible world and think of ‘Father’ and ‘Son\’ as imageless relations. We may not read the creaturely content of our human expressions (e.g. gender) into God.

Athanasius wrote of the Spirit as the ‘image’ of the Son, but the Spirit himself is imageless so that it must be in an ineffable, imageless and wholly spiritual way that we are think of them in their relations within the Holy Trinity.

2) The Mutual Indwelling and Loving of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit [162]

Since the fullness of God dwells bodily in the Lord Jesus Christ, we must think of the entire Godhead as condescending in him to be ‘God with us’. This does not mean that the Father and the Spirit were incarnate with the Son, but that the whole undivided Trinity was present and active fulfilling the eternal purpose of God’s Love for mankind. Through the Son and in the Spirit, we are taken into the triune fellowship of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The Love that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit eternally are has taken incarnate form in the Lord Jesus Christ for us and our salvation. The self-giving and self-sacrificial Love manifested in him flows from the self-giving and sacrificial Love of God. To the fellowship which God established with us there corresponds an eternal Fellowship of Love within God himself. The Freedom in which God enters into communion with us is grounded in the Freedom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in their love for each other, their mutual indwelling. This is what the doctrine of the Holy Trinity supremely means, that God himself is Love.

We found that ‘I will be who I will be’ is to be understood as the Being of God for others, and this reveals something of the inmost Nature of God’s Being as Being for within himself. Nazianzen found his concept of being for (pros ti) characterized the profound hypostatic relation between the Father and the Son. It applies to the interrelations of all three divine Persons as ‘onto-relations’. Our immediate concern here is with the onto-relations as being for one another.

The biblical account of the mutual movement of love immanent in the Holy Trinity is found in the teaching of Jesus himself in the Gospel of John, followed up by St John in his first epistle. Also in the Synoptics.  ‘God is Love’: the very being of God as love is identical with his loving: his Being and his Act are one and the same. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit who indwell one another in love constitute the Communion of Love. As one Being, three Persons, the Being of God is to be understood as an eternal movement of Love. The relations of Love which the three Divine Persons have us intrinsically ontic as well as dynamic. The relations belong to what they each are hypostatically in themselves as divine Persons. The differences, instead of separating them from one another, involve a ‘sort of ontological communication’ between them. The Love that flows between the Father, the Son and the Spirit, freely flows out in an outward movement of loving activity towards us. It is not in any sense a selfish love, but the mutual movement in which the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit dwell in one another and exist for one another.

In view of the teaching the New Testament about the Communion (koinōnia) of the Spirit, we can understand why the Church Fathers quickly thought of the Holy Spirit both in terms of the Communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and in terms of the communion which he creates between us in the Church. Athenagoras, Athanasius, Basil, Nazianzen.