Three Persons, One Being (by T.F. Torrance)
This post overviews "Three Persons, One Being," -- Chapter 6 of Thomas F. Torrance's book "The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons." This post was written by TFT scholar Myk Habets for a session of the T.F. Torrance Reading Group.
The Christian Doctrine of God (CDG) is perhaps my favourite book of Torrance’s and it is, in my opinion, his magnum opus. I am a constructive theologian, and here Torrance is working in the mode of constructive theology. In CDG I think we find his most developed trinitarian theology, something he calls a “dynamic trinitarianism,” and he makes a number of bold claims that are faithful to the tradition, yet develop it as well.
Following the lead of Torrance, we affirm that “we apprehend the self-revelation of God to us in his indivisible wholeness as one Being, three Persons, three Persons, one Being.”1 Torrance was following a long line of thinkers from the early church through to today. The claim being made here is that we don’t start with one (Being or ousia) or three (Persons or hypostases) but instead with both at the same time: three Persons one Being, one Being three Persons. This is how Torrance begins the chapter immediately prior to Chapter 6, with the whole God, citing a line of thinkers including Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and Amphilochius. Torrance believes this is a departure from the “Augustinian-Western conception of the Trinity” (112).
Methodologically, doing constructive theology does not mean, contrary to some, making stuff up. Rather, we move from the economy of redemption to a constructive and theo-logical account of God before moving back to the economy. Torrance is a reliable guide when he clarifies what this kind of scientific theology involves, namely:
A stratified structure of several coordinated levels of understanding in which the conceptual content and structure of basic knowledge becomes progressively disclosed to inquiry. We moved from the ground level of evangelical or biblical knowledge of God as he is revealed to us in the saving activity of his incarnate Son, to a distinctly theological level in an attempt to grasp and give intelligible expression to the unbroken relation in Being and Act between Christ and the Holy Spirit to God the Father, which belongs to the very heart of the Gospel message of God’s redeeming love. (113)
Following are 30 key points I wish to point out as we overview Chapter 6:
1. TFT begins the chapter reminding us that God is one and three, three and one, a Triunity, and we cannot and should not rend asunder what God has joined together. God is one in his perichoretic interrelations as the one Being of God. (136)
2. TFT again reminds the reader of his method, to go from the economy to the immanent Trinity and then to go from the immanent Trinity in all our dogmatic work. “Our knowledge of the economic Trinity, in the ordo cognoscendi [order or way of knowing], and our knowledge of the ontological Trinity, in the ordo essendi [order or way of being], may not be separated from one another…” (136)
3. Importantly, TFT reminds us (and we need reminding) that in Scripture the order of the triune persons is never unanimously Father – Son – Spirit. TFT believes this teaches the divine equality of all three. (136). [This idea is not developed in much recent trinitarian thought, although do see Rodrick Durst, Reordering the Trinity (Kregel, 2015).
4. Because Jesus is central to the biblical story, TFT normally defaults to the order presented in the benediction of Jesus – Father – Spirit (a sort of ordo cognoscendi). In this chapter, however, he will revert to the order of the ordinance of Baptism, namely Father – Son – Spirit, for this is the more formal order or the ordo essendi. (137)
God the Eternal Father
5. We are reminded that scripturally, ‘Father’ is used in two ways, of the being of God (specifically of God as Creator and Lord) and of the first person of the Trinity (specifically, of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ). (137, 140)
6. Our knowledge of God as Father is “derived from and regulated through the mutual relation of exclusive knowing between the Son and the Father…” (139). The incarnate Son revolutionizes our understanding of God as Father and fills it with content. This is the basis of the affirmation that God is love—“we do not think of God as the eternal Being who also loves, but of God’s very Being who loves and of God as he who is Love.” (139)
7. TFT echoes the affirmation of the early church that human persons are created to participate in the Holy Trinity (theosis) as they are adopted by the Spirit into Christ and come to have God as their own Father in the Son. (140)
8. TFT makes a subtle but significant claim that will undergird his position on the filioque, namely, that ‘Father’ signifies both the being/ousia of the Godhead and the Person of the Father of the Son, such that the Son does not proceed from the person of the Father but from the Being of the Father, as per Nicaea, and moreover, the Monarchy is the being of God not simply the person of the Father. Here East and West are critiqued by TFT. (141)
God the Eternal Son
9. The knowledge of God as triunity is given to us in a trinitarian way as the Son reveals the Father by the Holy Spirit. Here the homoousios is all-important as we have to do with the fullness of deity in bodily form, a true revelation of God as he is in himself, and a full participation in the Trinity (without ceasing to be creaturely beings). (143)
10. “This incarnate embodiment of the fullness of God in Christ has opened up for us an astonishing way of knowing God personally in himself, which was not available to the chosen people of God within the covenant relation which God established with them even when he made himself known to them as Yahweh, as he who he really is and will be as their Lord and Saviour.” (143)
11. TFT’s familiar insistence on God’s two-fold movement of mediation—from God to humanity and then humanity to God—recurs here and is used soteriologically: “Divine revelation and atoning reconciliation take place inseparably together in the life and work of the incarnate Son of God in whose Person the hypostatic union between his divine and human natures is actualised through an atoning union between God and man that reaches from his birth of the Virgin Mary throughout his vicarious human life and ministry to his death and resurrection.” (144). TFT then cites the exchange formula and 2 Cor 8:9.
12. TFT's dynamic trinitarianism finds its basis in the fact that “there is no Son apart from the Father, and the Holy Spirit, and no Father, apart from the Son and the Holy Spirit, and no Holy Spirit apart from the Father and the Son. Homoousially and hypostatically they interpenetrate each other in such a way that each person is distinctively who he is in relation to the other two.” (145) This dynamic trinitarianism becomes the entire basis of TFTs doctrine of Triunity and it is what moves him away from classic Latin and Eastern trinitarianism.
13. TFT subtlety rejects the essence-energies distinction of the East when he coordinates the oikonomia with the theologia and vice-versa by means of the Incarnation. Because it is the incarnation of the Son this falls within the life of the Trinity (but not in an Origenist way!) and atonement falls within the life of the Mediator. “Although the grace manifested in the economy appeared in history with the incarnate advent … of Christ, it derives from and is to be traced back to the eternal outpouring love of God that antedates creation.” (145)
14. Once more theosis is in view when TFT speaks of our participation in the mutual knowing and loving between the Father, Son, and Spirit. (146)
God the Eternal Spirit
15. We are reminded of the homoousion of the Spirit with the Son and the full divinity of the Spirit with the Father. (147)
16. A distinctive aspect of TFT's pneumatology is here stated: “The Holy Spirit does not bring to us any independent knowledge of God or add any new content to God’s self-revelation, but while the knowledge of the Spirit himself as well of the Father is derived through the Son, it is mediated and actualised within us through the presence of the activity of the Holy Spirit.” (147)
17. As with he Father, so too with he Spirit, we can think of the Spirit absolutely or relatively. The Spirit is another name for the Godhead and of the third person of the Trinity. The Spirit is both ousia and hypostasis.
18. TFT again repeats his position that “A proper understanding of the Holy Spirit, therefore, does not carry with it a concept of psychological inwardness in our experience of him or a concept of a subjectification of the Spirit in the life of the Church.” (148). I ask why not? I disagree with TFT here as I think it contradicts his dynamic trinitarianism and reduces the Spirit to an impersonal force in all but name. (148)
19. TFT rejects anything like a Pentecostal doctrine of subsequence, that the Spirit is given as a second blessing or donum superadditum, given his strict insistence that we receive the Spirit when we are united to Christ, as Christ has already received the Spirit for us. (148)
20. Theosis is again in view in the fact that in union with Christ we are given the Spirit and “human creatures through we are, “we participate “in the Communion which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have among themselves and are in themselves.” (148)
21. Because God is Spirit God is dynamic not static and there is only one divine activity or ernergeia. The Being of God is God in action—not God in becoming (Jüngel, etc) (149)
22. Once again the affirmation that “God the Holy Spirit is not directly known in his own Person … for he remains hidden behind…” And further, “He does not show us himself…” And “The Holy Spirit hides himself from us behind the Father in the Son and behind the Son in the Father, so that we do not know him face to face in his own [hypostasis].” (151). Why? This runs counter to much of TFTs teaching and much of Christian experience. For a critique see Myk Habets, “You Wonder Where the Pneumatology Went? Thomas F. Torrance and Third Article Theology," Participatio 10 (2023): 33–55.
23. An idea uniquely articulated by TFT is given and repeated elsewhere in his works, namely, that the Holy Spirit is the animating energy of human life and provides for us a “transcendental determination of our own being for God.” This ends in what “the Greek Fathers spoke of as theosis.” (151) He comes back to this idea when stating: “While the creature does not have any continuity in relation to God that belongs to the creature in itself, it does have a relation to God which is continuously given and increasingly sustained by the presence of the Holy Spirit,” and the Holy Spirit is present within us “in such a way as to lift them up to the level of participation in God where they are opened out for union and communion with God far beyond the limits of their creaturely capacity.” (152) On theosis, see again the constant repetition and affirmation of this idea in TFT and see Myk Habets, Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (Ashgate, 2009).
24. TFT then seems to contradict himself (or I have read hm wrong, which is possible), when he says that the Holy Spirit takes us into God so that we can know him and receive his self- revelation to us. He then cites Gunton on the Spirit. (152). TFT seems here to be saying that the Holy Spirit is cognizable, experienced, knowable, and perceived. This would be a direct contraction of his earlier point against this possibility.
The Persons of Father, Son, Spirit
TFT then turns to look at the interrelations of the three persons in the one Being of God.
25. Father, Son, Spirit are unique and proper names of the three persons of the Godhead. (155)
26. The ontic relations between the divine persons belong to what they are as persons. This means that the divine persons are necessary and mutually self-defining—what TFT calls “onto- relations.” This, again, is at the heart of his dynamic trinitarianism. (156-7)
27. Another distinctive idea from TFT is that God is a “personalising Person” and humans are “personalized persons” through onto-relations with God and secondary, through onto- relations with each other. (160)
The Mutual Indwelling and Loving of Father, Son, Spirit
28. In this section we again have the repeated stress upon theosis, that God has become human in order for humans to participate in God, in the Triune Life, in the triune Fellowship, etc. (162)
29. TFT seems to make a mistake, or over speak as it were, when he says that the “relation in Being and Act between the Persons of the Son and the Father actualised and manifested in the saving economy of Jesus’ life and work in history that constitutes, so to speak, the axis on which there revolves our understanding of the Love that eternally flows between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…” (164). If this is historically actualised (italics added) then we have a problem. It is unlikely TFT actually means to say this though, as it runs counter to his entire theology. I think here we an editorial mistake (!). I think we need to read this epistemologically, not ontologically.
30. The chapter concludes with some affirmations of God’s triune love shed abroad into the economy.
1 Thomas F. Torrance, "The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons, Cornerstones Edition (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 113 (emphasis in original).