The Christian Doctrine of God (part 5)

This is part 5 in a series by Torrance scholar Thomas Noblesummarizing Thomas F. Torrance's book The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons. For other posts in this series, click a number: 123, 4, 6.


It is very easy when using technical terms like perichōrēsis to think concepts rather than the realities denoted by them. In the last resort they are no more than empty abstract propositions apart from their real content. In this chapter we shall be concerned to pursue an essentially dynamic approach to the coactivity of the three divine Persons denoted in the theological shorthand. 

In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, belief in God as the Sovereign Creator is presented within a trinitarian structure: one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and all things visible and invisible; one Lord Jesus Christ through whom all things are made, and the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life. This signifies that the doctrine of the Creator belongs to the heart and substance of the Gospel. While the concept of God as Creator derived originally from the Old Testament revelation and had been developed in Judaism, it was radicalised through the New Testament teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ as the Word of God through whom all things came into being. In Jesus Christ, the Creator of all things has himself become a creature. In Christ, we creatures meet our Creator face to face. It is then within the economy of redemption and in the twofold mission of the Son and Spirit from the Father that the distinctive nature of the sovereign power of God is made known. In the first chapter of Colossians, we learn that Jesus Christ is the central and pivotal reality of the universe. With the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ a portentous change had taken place in the universe so that we are to understand the divine creation as proleptically conditioned by redemption.

The Almighty Father

We must reject all abstract notions of divine omnipotence and understand it not as potense raised to the nth power (‘omni-potence’), but in terms of what God actually is and has done. His powers is not different from his Nature. He does not do and cannot do what is other than what he actually and eternally is as the Lord God or what is other than the nature of his Being as God the Father. Hence abstract questions postulated about what God can do and cannot do are empty of meaning and give rise to nonsensical answers. 

In the Nicene Creed we confess belief in one God the Father Almighty, but we also confess belief in one Lord Jesus Christ, only-begotten of the Father and these two clauses have to be taken together. Any doctrine of the Sovereign Creator must be true to the personal nature of God revealed in Jesus his Son. The homoousion tells us that the sovereignty of the Father is identical with the sovereignty of the incarnate Son. When we speak of God as Father, we mean the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot know God as Father either in himself or as our Father, apart from the Person of his only begotten Son incarnate in Jesus Christ. There is no way of knowing the sovereignty or almightiness of God by going behind the back of Jesus Christ. God’s sovereign power is therefore not other than the power manifest in the incarnation. God’s almighty power, omnipotence or sovereignty is to be understood in terms of what he unalterably and immutable in in Jesus Christ.

It must be added, however, that this relation is not rightly and properly known except within the oneness and wholeness of the triadic relations of the Godhead, and therefore not apart from the Holy Spirit. Owing to this oneness of nature between the Father, the Son and the Spirit, there is a oneness of activity between them. It is then of God the Father in this full sense, in his mutually homoousial and perichoretic relations with the Son and Spirit, that we are to think of him as the Sovereign Creator. Within this trinitarian perspective, the power of almightiness of God is revealed to be essentially personal, defined as God’s triune Being and Nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This personal power does not overrule the creature but sustains, does not negate freedom but is the power of love that sustains relation and freedom. 

Two cognate points call for our consideration:

(a) God is always Father, not always Creator [207]

Athanasius sharply distinguished between the eternal generation of the Son from the nature of God and the creation of the world by the will of God.  The first relation is ontological, the second is contingent. God does not need the world to be God, but we learn from his incarnate self-revelation that he does not will to exist for himself alone but has in his eternal purpose of love freely created a universe. What Athanasius encountered in the teaching of Origen, his failure to distinguish between the eternal generation of the Son and the creation of the world, is found today in process theology. Origen’s Hellenistic failure was that he did not distinguish between the ontological and cosmological dimensions. As Creator, God acted in a way that he had not done before in bringing about absolutely new events. The creation of the world was new even for God. Similarly, while God was always able to become incarnate, the incarnation came ‘in the fullness of time’. These new decisive acts of God in creation, incarnation and the coming of the Spirit have breath-taking implications for our understanding of the unlimited freedom of God. His every-living acting Being is always new while remaining what it ever was and is and ever will be. His almighty power and freedom are not exhausted in what he has done, does do, and will do. There is a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in God’s activity which calls for a consideration of the unique nature of ‘time’ in the eternal life of God.

(b) It is as Father that God is Creator, not vice versa [209]

The fact that God is always Father, not always Creator, but became Creator, means that it is precisely as Father that he is Creator, and not that became Father because he was Creator. We do not confess that God is Father and Almighty, for God’s almightiness is the almightiness of his Fatherhood from everlasting to everlasting. While the creation of the universe, in form and matter out of nothing, certainly involved omnipotent power, the living power of the eternal father flowed from his intrinsic nature as Love, as the movement of Love which God ever is in himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Since God is Father in himself, as Father of the Son, he is essentially generative or fruitful in his own Being. It is because he is inherently productive as Father, that God could and did freely become the Creator or Source of all being beyond himself. Creation arises out of the Father’s eternal love of the Son. This is a truth we have come to grasp through the incarnation of his love in Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son whom he did not spare but delivered up for us all. The utterly astonishing truth which this reveals is that ‘God loves us better than he loves himself’ (Mackintosh). Thus, we may say not only that the creation was proleptically conditioned by the incarnation of that love within it and that the actual creation of the universe in the outward movement of the Father’s love was proleptically conditioned by the incarnation of that love within it. This is another way of expressing the divine act of ‘predestination’ in which ‘pre’ is not a temporal, logical or causal priority as those with which we have to do within the universe of space and time.

Because God is Love, we cannot and may not try to press our thought speculatively behind that Love to what might have happened had not the fall taken place any more than we can think beyond the ultimate Being of God. On the other hand, because the Love of God did not have a temporal beginning, our understanding of the movement of his redeeming Love cannot but reach back beyond time to the eternal Fountain of divine Love out of which it flowed. In trinitarian terms, this means that the Love of God the Father historically manifest in the economic Trinity directs us back to the Love that God eternally is in himself in the ontological Trinity apart from his relation to the world. While clapping our hands over our mouth, without knowing what we say, we may nevertheless feel urged to say that in his eternal purpose the immeasurable love of God which brought creation into existence would have become incarnate within creation even if we and our world were not in need of his redeeming grace. Certainly, we cannot think of God’s eternal purpose apart from the way his Love has actually taken, nevertheless in being loved with the Love, we know it to be both unbeginning and unending Love that transcends all space and time and human thought.

To repeat: we cannot think truly of God the Father Almighty and of his omnipotent power except on Christian ground for we have no other source of knowledge other than that given us in Christ. The Kingdom of God has merged with his Person so that all power in heaven and earth is given to him. In thinking of God the Father as Almighty Creator therefore we cannot but think of him in terms of unbroken and perfect oneness between his Beloved Son and himself. Far from being some irrational arbitrary power in itself, the sovereign power of the Creator is to be understood strictly in accordance with his divine Being who cannot be or do other than he actually is and does as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

God’s holy Love is defined for us above all by what took place in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and his outpouring of the Holy Spirit. it is defined therefore in its triune reality as the Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit. It is that triune way that we must think of the intrinsic Nature and Power of God the Father Almighty. Colin Gunton: ‘The only satisfactory account of the relation between the creator and the creation is a trinitarian one.’ In the Holy Trinity the Father is not properly Father apart from the Son and the Spirit, nor the Son apart from the Father and the Spirit, nor the Spirit apart from the Father and the Son. The Oneness of Nature is a Oneness of Activity.

(1) The Activity of God the Father [212] 

There are relative distinctions in the threefold activity appropriate to the Persons. It is from the Father that the Son and the Spirit eternally proceed and thus it is to the love of the Father that the ’reason’ for creation is to be traced. There is no reason for creation to be apart from the eternal movement of Love of God the Father. There is no reason why there is something rather than nothing apart from the eternal movement of Love in the inner Life of God. The intrinsically Holy Love of God is the Low of his own divine Being and Activity and so this Holy Lawful Divine Lover constitutes the ultimate invariant ground of all rational and moral order in the created universe. The whole realm of heaven and earth is to be understood as framed by God to bear witness to himself as a theatrum gloriae Dei (Calvin). Nature itself is mute, but the human being is the one constituent of the created universe through whom its rational structure and astonishing beauty may be brought to word in praise of the Creator.

(2) The Activity of God the Son [213]

In Jesus Christ none other than the Creator, the ultimate Ground and Source of all being, order and rationality, the Creator Word of God has himself become man.  Here we are given a revelation of God who does not hold himself aloof from the world of space and time which he has brought into existence out of nothing. This is not to be thought of as a suspension or interference in the natural order of things. In the incarnation, the order of redemption has been made to intersect with and overlap the order of creation in such a way that the whole history of mankind and the universe comes under the Kingdom of Christ as the First and the Last, the Protos and Eschatos, the origin and goal of creation. Through his incarnation God the Son made himself one of his own creatures and one with them, penetrating through time to the very beginning of creation and gathering it all up in himself as its Head. Through his cross and resurrection the incarnate Saviour penetrated into the ontological depths of creation where in death created being borders on non-being, and set it upon an altogether new basis. In Jesus, the mystery of his creative activity becomes disclosed to us – the new creation effected in the midst of the old, inaugurated in Jesus’s birth of the Virgin Mary and consummated in the resurrection from the dead.

In the incarnation, the transcendent becomes contingent without ceasing to be transcendent, the eternal becomes time without ceasing to be eternal. This is even more astounding than creation out of nothing. The kenosis or tapeinosis does not mean the self-limitation of God but the staggering exercise of his power. The sovereignty of God is here revealed to be omnipotence clothed in littleness. In the death of Christ, God himself enters into our death in order to take it all upon himself and redeem us from it, penetrating back through the guilt-laden irreversibility of time into the very beginning so as to undo the past and undo our sin and guilt. He descends into the chasm or abyss of our alienation from him to effect atonement and reconciliation. This is an act of incredible divine omnipotence in which God reveals that he loves us more than he loves himself. In his resurrection God incarnate manifests his lordship of life and death, being and non-being. This power is so distinctive that his omnipotence cannot be described by analogical reference to any other kind of power. In other words, the sovereignty of God is the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ who became poor in order that through his poverty we might become rich. God manifests his infinite power in his ability to condescend to the level of his creatures to be one of them in their littleness. The incarnation is not just a transient episode in the interaction of God with the world, but has taken place one-and-for-all. Jesus Christ is not just an instrument in the hands of God: he is God incarnate.

(3) The Activity of God the Holy Spirit [216]

The Holy Spirit is also Creator in union with the Father and the Son, but Creator in his distinctive nature and activity as Spirit. The sovereign power of God is his transcendent and unlimited freedom. There is no necessary relation between God and the world he has created for he had no need of the creation to be who he is. The creation exists un complete dependence on the free grace of the Creator, but that reality and independence are themselves dependent upon God in his unceasing continuous creative presence. This is what is meant be saying that the created universe is contingent not only in its origin through creatio ex nihilo but in its continuing spatio-temporal existence and its rational order. ‘By contingent order is meant that the orderly universe us not self-sufficient or ultimately self-explaining but it given a rationality and reliability in its orderliness which depend on and reflect God’s own eternal rationality and reliability.’

The orderly universe is not a closed but an open system, an incomplete system, whose physical and moral laws depend on a transcendent ground of rationality in God the Creator. Both in his creation of the world and in his incarnation, God has done what he had never done before. In them the transcendent Power of God is revealed in terms of his unlimited and unrestricted freedom. The fact that he who freely created the universe has once and for all become incarnate within it means that its continuing existence is ontologically bound to the crucified and risen Jesus and destined to partake in the consummation of God’s eternal purpose in him. It means also that the whole universe us brought to share in the unlimited and inexhaustible freedom of the Creator.

In the Nicene Creed the Holy Spirit is spoken of as ‘the Lord and Giver of Life’ which is linked to statements about the creative work of the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit shares in the Sovereign Power (basileia) of the Father and the Son but his distinctive sovereign activity is that  of quickening or giving life to the creature. This is what St Basil called ‘the perfecting cause’ of the Spirit, or the sovereign freedom of the Spirit. Barth wrote: ‘The Spirit of God is God in his freedom to be present to the creature and therefore to be the life of the creature.’ This means that God did not ‘deistically abandon’ what he had brought into existence. Her continuously holds itn being over the chasm of nothingness out of which it was created, embracing its frail contingent reality.

The supreme end for which God has designed his creation and which he activates and rules throughout all his relations with it is the purpose of his Holy Love not to live for himself alone. It is in the incarnation of God’s beloved Son that in our sharing in that relations of the Son to the Father through the Holy Spirit, that the secret of the creation, hidden from the ages, has become disclosed to us. Ephesians 1: 3-14. In his eternal purpose, God established between himself and the creation an all-embracing framework of grace. This has to do with the Father/Son, Son/Father relation which through the incarnate Son constitutes the central axis round which the whole universe is made to revolve. This has to do with the relation between the faithfulness of God and the created order or the relation between covenant and creation (Barth). It would not be surprising then if the creation and its history should bear the imprint of the Trinity upon it. This is indeed what Barth affirmed when he spoke of the creation as a ‘temporal analogue’, taking place outside of God of that event in himself by which God is the Father of the Son. This is not an analogy of being (analogia entis), for the Creator and the creation are ontologically utterly disparate. But it does means that in his free out-going love and grace, the universe took form as a created counterpart to the uncreated movement of Love within the Holy Trinity. This may be envisaged as ab ‘analogy of relation’ (analogia relationis) – an analogy with an utter difference between the creature and the Creator.

Through the freedom of his Spirit the Triune Creator relates himself to us as the Father, the Source of all other beings. Thus corresponding to the mystery of God’s uncreated Being there is the wonder of our created being, given a reality and freedom of its own, yet wholly contingent upon God's transcendent reality and freedom. It is an analogical correspondence of opposites posited by his grace. Through the Freedom of his Spirit, the Triune Creator is present to us in such an immanent way as to realise in our human existence the creative, reconciling and personalising power of the Word and Son of God so that in our creaturely rationality enlightened by him we may reflect by grace something of the uncreated Rationality of God.

A differentiated analogical correspondence between the Creator and the creation may be traced between the heavenly life of God and the earthly life of creaturely being, between the uncreated Time of God and the created time of our world, between the uncreated Light and created light, and not least between the transcendent communion of the three divine Persons in God and the communion of persons in the Church.

At this juncture is may be helpful to think of the bearing of the Trinitarian order immanent in God upon the contingent order immanent in our world. We will take our cue from the way in which divine and human natures have been united in the one incarnate Person of Jesus Christ ‘without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.’  In the overlapping of the Trinitarian Order and the contingent order through the incarnation we may gain a deeper understanding of the Sovereign Power of the Triune God and grasp something of what is traditionally called the ‘immutability’ and the ‘impassibility’ of God.

Divine Providence

In turning to the doctrine of divine providence, we must bear in mind two truths. First, the Triune Being of God is a Communion of Love whose activity revealed through Christ and in his Spirit is perfectly and completely personal. Secondly, in his overflowing love God freely created the universe of space and time, doing something utterly new, and in the incarnation of his beloved Son, delivering him up on the Cross in atoning sacrifice and in pouring out his Spirit, God has again done new things that he had never done before. The doctrine of providence must be governed by the incarnation, for this is an event even more astounding that that of the creation of the universe out of nothing. Here there is revealed the nature of the sovereignty of God. Hence, if we want to know how God exercises his sovereignty we must turn to the evangelical presentation of it in the conception, birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In him we find that God does not exercise some impersonal force majeure, but acts in an intensely personal way from below.

It is supremely in the sacrificial death of Christ on the Cross that the power of God is manifest – an entirely different kind of power from any we human beings can conceive, power absolutely supreme over all being and non-being, over all life and death, over anything in heaven and earth. Mackintosh: ‘Its [Christianity’s] faith in divine providence is simply the converse of faith in redemption.’ The birth, life, death and resurrection of God incarnate tell us that we must think of him as completely free to relate himself to the world in innumerable ways while being true to his nature as Holy Love. In his relations with the world, the unlimited freedom of God and the limited freedom of the world in is contingent rationality overlap and intersect to give rise to refined and subtle patterns of order in the on-going spatio-temporal universe which constantly take us by surprise. That is why nature is so elusive and unpredictable at its deepest levels.

Divine providence is to be understood not as continuing or perpetuating the original act of creation as if it were incomplete, but as the continuation of God’s creation through his disposing and ordering presence within it through the incarnate Word. But we must think of this as conditioned by his redemptive activity. God correlates the creation with himself in a new way by embodying his creative Word and redemptive activity within the created order. Providence has to do with God’s creative and redemptive relation with creation in which all that happens comes under his Fatherly rule and with the execution of God’s eternal purpose of love embodied in Jesus Christ.

If the covenant of grace is held to be the internal basis of creation, and the creation the external basis of the covenant (Barth), then providence has to do with the redemptive overruling of history not through absolute fiat but through incarnate grace. God does not exercise his providence over creation from afar, deistically detached from it as an absentee God, but is personally near to us. It is in accordance with his mighty acts of creation, incarnation and redemption and with his infinite flexibility in those acts that we may understand something of the wonderful operation of his gracious providence. He maintains and rules over all things by the ordering activity of his Word and Wisdom. He does not abandon the world to blind chance or impersonal necessity or determinist law but endows it with a creaturely rationality and contingent freedom of its own. He upholds the world in coexistence, an asymmetrical coexistence, to be sure, but in genuine coexistence with himself so that he is supremely transcendent over it but also immanently present within it.

Before we go further we must consider the baffling problem of evil. A malign power has lodged itself in the midst of God’s good creation. The fearful depth of evil has been exposed by the fact that in the incarnate life and death of his beloved Son, God himself had to descend into the very heart of the world’s evil. Thereby he brought the power of his divine love to bear upon it and penetrated it at the point of its supreme thrust against him in the crucifixion of Christ in order to judge and reject it and save the world from its doom. The paradoxical activity of God sharply exhibited in the Eli, Eli, Lama sabachthani of Jesus on the Cross is the same activity in which the Triune God ceaselessly engages throughout his providential overruling and ordering of all things. This is not an extending of the incarnation but the triumphant extending of the effect of that finished work. The crucified Jesus is now exalted to be the organic centre of all things in heaven and earth. 

This triumph is not just over a difference between the created realm and God but a triumph over a fallen, twisted and alienated world in direct opposition to God. God does not deal with evil impersonally but penetrates personally into its ultimate stronghold in evil, sin and death and absorbs its attack upon himself in order to vanquish it through his own holy love. God in Christ does not just obliterate our sin by absolute fiat, but actually substitutes himself the Holy One in our place and takes our sin and judgment upon his own heart. Several points must be borne in mind here.

First, human existence and history are not separable from the material universe for man is soul of his body and body of his soul. The human being is not exempt from material forces. Somehow it is not just man who has fallen but the whole created order with him so that we may not isolate human evil from natural evil or moral evil from material evil. There is a perverted principle of evil in nature. Real redemption from the power of human guilt and sin involves a radical change in the material world and the complete redemption of the created order. Our understanding of what this means is governed by the physical or bodily nature of the death and resurrection of Christ. But just as we cannot comprehend how God created the world out of nothing or how he brought Jesus Christ forth from the grave, so we are unable to grasp how his redemptive and providential activity makes all things material and spiritual serve his eternal purpose of love.

Secondly, moral or natural evil is essentially anarchic – an utterly irrational factor. It involves the introduction of a radical discontinuity into the world that affects the relation of mankind to God, of man to himself, of man to woman and woman to man. It defies human comprehension or any rational explanation. It is a virulent, demonic force which Paul called ‘the mystery of lawlessness’ (anomia). The sharp personal conflict of Jesus with evil reveals it to be more that the hypostatisation of a principle, and to be an organized kingdom of evil with a kind of headquarters of its own, and utterly evil will or spirit which the Holy Scriptures call Satan.

Thirdly, by its very nature evil has a kind of impossible though deadly real existence – impossible because it is utterly alien to the will of God and yet has a strange contradictory form of existence under divine rejection. This is the ‘impossible possibility’ which Barth grappled with as Das Nichtige. The very possibility of evil are indirectly and strangely related to the will of God who nevertheless remains lord over it. We who are evil and partake of its deception and duplicity cannot know this except through the Cross where the appalling depth of evil is exposed. But through the power of the Cross, God the Creator and Redeemer exercises his overruling providence and providential care. Divine providence is correlative to the Cross and the obverse of divine redemption. This is a unique kind of power which by its very nature cannot be demonstrated. It is grace and may be acknowledged only by faith. The kind of demonstration which is appropriate is what St Paul called ‘demonstration of the Spirit and power’. That is to say, Jesus identifies the mighty power of God over evil with the power of the Holy Spirit which may not be coordinated on the same level with the kind of power in physico-causal relations. It is to be understood from the bodily resurrection of Christ which was at once a pure act of the Spirit and an event which took place in space and time. 

We must also take into account the fact of the Church of Christ sent into history as ‘the earthly-historical form of his own existence’ (Barth). To the eye of faith, the life and mission of the Church as the Body of Christ carry into ongoing history the sovereign Word of God’s saving grace.

It may help to reflect on the distinctive role of angels in biblical accounts of God’s redemptive and providential activity. In the Holy Scriptures angels are real beings of an incomprehensible nature. They are not sent to indwell us like the Holy Spirit, but they are present and active in our midst as God’s agents. They are given a subordinate function to fulfil in the great apocalyptic strife between the Lamb of God and Satan. As heavenly messengers they cannot be conceived in terms of human or earthly corporeality, or as subjects to the limits of time and space. They have no creative or redemptive powers but indicate that salvation events are due entirely to God’s gracious intervention and are not to be put down to chance or necessity. In the book of Revelation, the eschatological thrust of the incarnation as it penetrates to the very centre of world history is presented in terms of the evangelical humiliation and exaltation of the Lamb of God, but all through that account the witness of angels enables us to discern the redemptive pattern of the mystery of God.