Monday, March 3, 2014

Meeting Us at Our Worst: A Lenten Meditation

 Hi everyone,

Please check out my new article, published just in time for Lent, entitled "Meeting Us at Our Worst." Click the link below to read the article online. (It can also be printed.)

BTW, there are a number of other articles related to the Cross in this edition of Plain Truth Magazine that are excellent reading.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Latin Heresy Revisited

Readers not familiar with Torrance’s doctrine of the atonement should read the previous post before reading this post. The following is an expanded version of a previous post with new material included. 

The Latin Heresy 

In asserting the assumption of sinful human flesh, Torrance (1986b:477, 478, 480; cf. 1990:232, 233; 1992:40, 41; 1993:237-239; 1994a:58, 59) rejects what he terms the “Latin heresy,” that is, a “dualist” understanding of the person and work of Christ, traceable to Leo’s Tome sent to the Council of Chalcedon, that provided the Western Church with its paradigm for a formulation of atoning reconciliation in terms of “external” relations, whether exemplary, as in Abelard, or juridical [legal], as in Anselm. As Scandrett (2006:86) notes, beginning in the fourth century, the idea that the eternal Word of God would assume sinful human flesh was increasingly seen as unworthy of the “holiness and perfection” of God’s being. Because the idea of the incarnate assumption of sinful flesh was “odious” to Christians, notes Scandrett, it was largely rejected in the West by the end of the fifth century. 

In asserting the assumption of a neutral humanity, argues Torrance (1986b:476), Latin theology rejected the “cardinal soteriological principle,” associated with Nicene theology, that “the unassumed is the unhealed.” In arguing that Jesus assumed a neutral human flesh, Latin theologians split apart the intrinsic relation between the person and work of Christ by construing the atonement in an “instrumentalist” way, wherein the incarnation was regarded simply as a means of supplying a sinless human being who could live in perfect obedience to the law of God and take our place on the cross. Subsequently, atonement was regarded either as an external moral transaction or as an external penal transaction, wherein the penalty for sin is transferred from sinners to the sinless Saviour. As Gill (2007:48) succinctly states, for Torrance, this transactional view reduces the atonement to an “external action” between the sinless Christ and God, wherein the Son pays the price of human sin to the Father. Either view, however, Torrance (1986b:476) contends, creates a separation (i.e., dualism) between the incarnation and the atonement by construing Christ’s saving act in external terms, whether exemplary or juridical, rather than in terms of the internal Father-Son relation, wherein the atoning work of Christ is a function of his incarnate constitution as the eternal Son who is homoousios to Patri. Protestant theology, particularly Evangelicalism, has generally followed the Latin Church in this regard, specifically in its development of various theories of the atonement, all of which, in varying ways, dualistically divide the incarnation and the atonement by separating the person and work of Christ (Torrance, 1986b:476).  

As Scandrett (2006:86, 87) argues, in the Latin view, the humanity of Jesus Christ must be perfect if the eternal Word is to assume it in the incarnation. The problem with this view, argues Scandrett, is the de facto distinction it makes between Jesus’ perfect, sinless humanity and our own sinful humanity. For Torrance, notes Scandrett, this distinction results in the “radical diminution” of the atonement from an ontologically transformative, healing, and, therefore, saving event to a detached externalised transaction understood in purely forensic terms and limited to the cross. For Torrance, as Scandrett rightly argues, such a viewpoint is woefully inadequate, for in its concern to safeguard the holiness of the eternal Word against the taint of original sin, it ironically denies fallen human nature the promise of healing inherent in the incarnation-atonement. Similarly but more simply, as Gill (2007:56) notes, for Torrance, the denial of the incarnate assumption of fallen Adamic humanity is to deny the reality of the incarnation and to throw doubt on the atonement as anything other than an “arbitrary exchange.” Against those who argue that Christ assumed a “neutral” human nature in the incarnation, we ask with Gunton (1992:52; cf. Gill, 2007:56), “[I]f Christ bore the flesh of unfallen Adam … what is his saving relation to us in our lostness?”  

According to Cass (2008:159), Torrance has a “rare understanding” of the hypostatic union among Western theologians in arguing that the hypostatic union is itself an atoning union, wherein atonement and reconciliation between God and sinful humanity are “perfectly effected vicariously for all” in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. By grounding salvation in the hypostatic union, argues Cass, Torrance breaks with the Western Augustinian tradition, which grounds salvation in Christ’s [external] relationship to humanity and requires a “contribution” from sinners to complete the work of salvation. As Torrance (1992:40) argues:
If the incarnation is not held to mean that the Son of God penetrated into and appropriated our alienated, fallen, sinful human nature, then atoning and sanctifying reconciliation can be understood only in terms of external relations between Jesus Christ and sinners. That is why in Western Christianity the atonement tends to be interpreted almost exclusively in terms of external forensic relations as a judicial transaction in the transference of the penalty of sin from the sinner to the sin-bearer. 

The Latin view of the atonement as a “forensic transaction,” wherein the sinless Saviour offers his body in an “external,” “instrumental” way, stands in marked contrast to Torrance’s discussion of the atonement in terms of the eternal Word’s “internal penetration” of fallen Adamic flesh and its consequent “ontological healing.” 

In contradistinction to the “gospel” of “external relations” that characterizes the Latin heresy, Torrance (1992:41) follows patristic theology in arguing that the incarnation and the atonement are “internally linked,” for “atoning expiation and propitiation are worked out in the ontological depths of human being and existence into which the Son of God penetrated as the Son of Mary.” As Torrance (1994a:59) argues, if the incarnation itself is essentially redemptive rather than instrumental, that is, merely a means to an end, then “atonement must be regarded as taking place in the ontological depths of Christ’s incarnate life, in which he penetrated into the very bottom of our fallen human being and took our disobedient humanity, even our alienated human mind, upon himself in order to heal it and convert it back in himself into union with God.” Jesus penetrated to the depths of our original sin “in order to redeem us from it by bringing his atoning sacrifice and holiness to bear upon it in the very roots of our human existence and being.” Noting that in his genealogy recorded in Matthew, “Jesus was incorporated into a long line of sinners,” Torrance (1992:41) eloquently argues:
[H]e made the generations of humanity his very own, summing up in himself our sinful stock, precisely in order to forgive, heal and sanctify it in himself. Thus atoning reconciliation began to be actualised with the conception and birth of Jesus of the Virgin Mary when he identified himself with our fallen and estranged humanity, but that was a movement which Jesus fulfilled throughout the whole course of his sinless life as the obedient Servant of the Lord, in which he subjected what he took from us to the ultimate judgment of God’s holy love and brought the healing and redeeming power of God to bear directly upon it in himself. From his birth to his death and resurrection on our behalf he sanctified what he assumed through his own self-consecration as incarnate Son to the Father, and in sanctifying it brought the divine judgment to bear directly upon our human nature both in the holy life he lived and in the holy death he died in atoning and reconciling sacrifice before God. 

In contradistinction to the Latin tradition, Torrance (1992:41, 42) argues that we must “recover the awesome truth that through his Incarnation the Son of God appropriated our fallen humanity under the judgment of God.” Throughout the whole course of his life, the incarnate Saviour brought his healing and redeeming power to bear upon sinful Adamic flesh, even in the deep recesses of original sin, in order to heal, cleanse, and sanctify it in atoning reconciliation.  

I hope you are finding the posts on this blog helpful. If so, I would appreciate your help as I raise money for an upcoming teaching trip to Kenya in May or June of this year. I need money for a plane ticket as well as for 16 days travel expenses. Help in any amount is much appreciated. You can safely donate with a credit or debit card through PayPal directly from this blog.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Ontological Healing vs. Traditional Views of Atonement

Important words: 
Hypostatic union: the union of divne and human natures in the one Person of Jesus.
Ontological: having to do with “being,” “essence,” “nature”; having to do with what something “is.”
Instrumental: used as a means to an end; used as a “tool” to accomplish a purpose 

When I began to study T.F. Torrance’s doctrine of the atonement, I was confused by his critique of traditional “theories” of atonement. For Torrance, the models of atonement that developed in the history of the Western Latin church portray the atonement as an “external,” “instrumental” transaction between Jesus and God. Following Barth, Torrance groups these models of atonement under the rubric, the “Latin heresy.” Only after I had gained some understanding of Torrance’s own view of the atonement, was I able to fully appreciate his critique of traditional models of atonement. 

In order to understand Torrance’s critique of the “Latin heresy” and what he means by “external,” “instrumental” approaches to the atonement, we must first review his own view of atonement and then compare it to traditional Western views of the atoning “work” of Jesus Christ.

Hypostatic Union 

Torrance’s doctrine of the atonement arises directly from his understanding of the doctrine of the “hypostatic union,” formulated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. This doctrine asserts that Jesus Christ is “fully God” and “fully human” “in” one Person. For Torrance, the union of divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ is an “atoning” union, where the word “at-one-ment” means “reconciliation.” That is, the incarnation itself is redemptive. In his one incarnate person, Jesus Christ is the reconciliation of God and fallen humanity. 

Unity of Person and Work 

In Torrance’s holistic, unitary [non-dualist] doctrine of atonement, the “work” of Jesus Christ is never separated from the “person” of Jesus Christ. For Torrance, “how” Jesus Christ provides atoning reconciliation is a direct function of “who” he is as the incarnate Saviour, who is at once both God and man. As Scandrett (2006:71) rightly notes, the unity of the “person” and “work” of Jesus Christ is an important corollary of Torrance’s discussion of the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. For Torrance, atoning reconciliation takes place “within” [not “external to”] the incarnate constitution of Jesus Christ; that is, Jesus Christ “is” the Gospel, for he “embodies” [“internal”] reconciliation between God and humanity. 

Assumption of Fallen Flesh 

The sine qua non of Torrance’s doctrine of “incarnational redemption” or “atoning reconciliation” is the Patristic doctrine that the eternal Word of God assumed fallen, sinful, Adamic flesh in the incarnation. Following Athanasius, in his Contra Arianos (Torrance, 1988a:161 n. 52), Torrance argues that in taking upon himself “the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7), Jesus Christ assumed “fallen Adamic humanity” from the Virgin Mary, that is, “our perverted, corrupt, degenerate, diseased human nature enslaved to sin and subject to death under the condemnation of God” (Torrance, 1988a:161; cf. 1994a:58). In becoming flesh, the Son of God “became what we are as sinners alienated from God and existing down to the roots of our being in a state of disobedience against him” (Torrance,1990:203). Elsewhere (1992:39) Torrance writes:
[T]he Incarnation was the coming of God to save us in the heart of our fallen and depraved humanity, where humanity is at its wickedest in its enmity and violence against the reconciling love of God. That is to say, the Incarnation is to be understood as the coming of God to take upon himself our fallen human nature, our actual human existence laden with sin and guilt, our humanity diseased in mind and soul in its estrangement or alienation from the Creator.  

As Gill (2007:53) notes, in his reconciling revelation, God put himself on the side of the enemy (cf. Barth, 1957g:151). In becoming flesh, the Son of God “became what we are as sinners alienated from God and existing down to the roots of our being in a state of disobedience against him” (Torrance,1990:203). Torrance continues:
[I]n his incarnation the Son of God penetrated into the dark recesses of our human existence and condition where we are enslaved in original sin, in order to bring the redeeming love and holiness of God to bear upon us in the distorted ontological depths of our human being. 

According to Torrance, the assumption of fallen human flesh was “a doctrine found everywhere in the early Church in the first five centuries” (Torrance, 1992:39). The Greek fathers argued that in becoming flesh, the incarnate Son was not merely “externally” or “accidentally” related to us, for without being united with us in “our condition of sin, corruption and slavery,” he could not save us (Torrance, 1990:202). According to Gill (2007:53) and Ho (2008:70), Torrance is directly influenced by Barth in asserting the assumption of fallen flesh. For Barth, as Gill notes, the word translated “flesh” in John 1:14 (i.e., sarx) means “fallen” flesh (Barth, 1957g:151, 152). Moreover, Gunton (1992:52) supports the “fallenness” position by arguing that Christ assumed our actual fallen nature and not some “idealised” human nature. As Gill (2007:55) correctly argues, the assumption of fallen flesh is “central” to Torrance’s doctrine of incarnational redemption. 

Ontological healing and Atoning Reconciliation 

In distinction to “forensic” [i.e., “legal,” “penal”] categories of the atonement (see below), Torrance frames his discussion of the atonement in ontological terms (i.e., having to do with “being,” “essence,” “nature”]. For Torrance (1990:204), it is important to realise that “in the very act of taking our fallen nature upon himself Christ was at work healing, redeeming and sanctifying it.” Thus, Torrance (1988a:162) views the incarnate Son’s assumption of fallen Adamic flesh as a “reconciling, healing, sanctifying and recreating activity.” Cass (2008:169) rightly describes Torrance’s soteriology as one of “ontological healing.” As Scandrett (2006:85) notes, Torrance’s argument for the assumption of a fallen human nature follows from his understanding of both the incarnation and the atonement. If the goal of the atonement is to heal humanity of sin and death and bring us back into right relationship with God, then the eternal Word must assume our fallen Adamic flesh in order to cleanse and heal it.  

Torrance’s assertion of the assumption of fallen Adamic flesh in order to heal and cleanse it in the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in Jesus Christ is based on the soteriological principle given “its most epigrammatic expression” by Gregory Nazianzus: “the unassumed is the unhealed.” The early fathers understood that if the whole man was to be healed, the whole man had to be assumed in the incarnation, for that which is not taken up by Christ is not saved (Torrance, 1992:39).

Summary: For Torrance, the incarnation is no mere “static” union of God and human flesh; rather, it is a dynamic healing, cleansing, reconciling, sanctifying union of God and humanity. The incarnation itself is redemptive; the union of divine and human natures in Jesus is atoning reconciliation. Atonement is not something Jesus “does,” as in traditional models of the atonement (see below). Rather, Jesus is the atonement; he is God and fallen Adamic flesh joined in reconciling union. From “inside” the skin of Adam and throughout the “whole course” of his obedient life, Jesus bent the rebellious human will back to the Father, healed and cleansed our corrupt, diseased “flesh” and reconciled us to the Father.   

Traditional Theories of Atonement 

To better appreciate Torrance’s view of the atonement, let us briefly review three major models or “theories” of atonement that have arisen in the history of the Western-Latin church. These are: 1) Anselm’s “satisfaction” theory; 2) Abelard’s “moral influence” theory; and 3) Calvin’s “penal substitution” theory. (I am not including Luther’s Christus Victor theory because I believe that Torrance incorporates this view into his model of the atonement, while not limiting himself to it.) 

Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory 

In the Middle Ages, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) developed a model of the atonement usually known as the “satisfaction” theory. Also known as the “Latin” or “juridical” view, this model of atonement has been prominent in Roman Catholic Scholasticism and Protestant orthodoxy. Rooted in the feudal societies of his time, Anselm’s theory of the atonement depicts God as a “feudal lord” whose honour has been violated by his “vassal,” that is, sinful humanity. In order to uphold justice in the cosmos, God must receive satisfaction for the affront to his honour occasioned by human disobedience. Humanity’s debt is so great, however, that it cannot pay it; hence, it is necessary that God assume human nature, so that, as a human being, God can pay the debt that humanity otherwise cannot pay. For Anselm, Christ’s death on the cross is a substitutionary payment of a debt owed by humanity to God. When Christ dies, atonement is complete; God’s honour is satisfied, his wrath assuaged, and humanity’s penalty of eternal death is set aside (Olson, 2002:257, 258; Bloesch, 2006:153).  

Note: In this model the eternal Word assumes human nature in order to pay a debt. Jesus offers his body on the cross, so that divine honour may be “satisfied.”  

            Abelard’s Moral Influence Theory    

Another medieval theologian, Peter Abelard (1079-1142), offered an alternative to Anselm’s satisfaction theory. For Abelard, God does not require payment of a penalty. Rather, God wants sinful humanity to repent and throw itself on God’s mercy. People do not repent, however, because they fear and hate God. In consequence, Christ lays down his life in atonement in order to demonstrate God’s great love for humanity. Abelard portrays the atonement in terms of a “moral influence” that changes the perspective of humanity, causing us to trust God and repent of our sins. In this model, Christ’s death on the cross is viewed as exemplary, rather than propitiatory (turning away wrath) or expiatory (expunging sin). Christ suffered in order to subdue the alienation of humanity by a supreme example of self-sacrificing love (Olson, 2002:258, 259; Bloesch, 2006:158). 

Note: In this model Jesus’ life (i.e., humanity) is merely exemplary; that is, Jesus sets us an “example” of self-sacrificing love. 

Calvin’s Penal Substitution Theory 

Another theory of the atonement arose during the Reformation as an adjustment to Anselm’s satisfaction theory. This is the “penal substitution” theory associated with John Calvin (1509-1564) and Reformed theology. In this view, Christ reconciles God and humanity by taking upon himself the punishment sinful humans deserve, thereby reconciling God’s righteous anger with his love for mankind. At the cross, human salvation is made possible and the Father can now regard mankind favourably. In this theory of atonement, the focus is on punishment. The penalty born by Christ for humanity is not the satisfaction of God’s wounded honour; rather, it is capital punishment as retribution deserved by sinful humanity’s disobedience.  

This theory has been rightly criticized because it introduces a disjunction between God the Father and the incarnate Son in which the Father is depicted as angry, wrathful, and punitive, while Jesus is regarded as loving, kind, and forgiving. Moreover, “womanist” theologians regard this theory as sanctioning child abuse and violence (Olson, 2002:259, 260, 262). 

Note: In this model the eternal Word assumes a human body so that it might be “punished” in order to exact the payment of a penalty. 

Dualist, External, Instrumental 

Recall that in Torrance’s model, the incarnation itself is a healing, sanctifying union between God and fallen humanity. Atonement occurs “within” the hypostatic union (the union of God and humanity in the one person of Jesus Christ). In other words, the atonement is “internal” or intrinsic to the person of Christ. Atonement is “Who” Jesus is, not merely what he “does.” In his incarnate constitution as God and humanity united in one Person, Jesus is that atonement. 

In the traditional Latin views, on the other hand, atonement is not regarded as “internal,” to the “person” of Jesus Christ. That is, atonement is not a function of “who” Jesus Christ is as God and humanity joined in reconciling union; rather, atonement is a “work” that Jesus does. As Torrance argues, traditional views of the atonement create a dualism (separation, division) between the “person” and “work” of Jesus. In all three views, atonement is “external” to the person of Jesus; he is merely an agent of atonement, for his humanity (i.e., “body”) is merely instrumental―that is, a “means to an end.” In Anselm’s view, and the “penal” view that arose from it, Jesus’ humanity is merely a vehicle or “instrument” supplied to satisfy divine honour or pay a penalty by enduring punishment. In Abelard’s view, Jesus’ life (humanity) is merely “exemplary”; that is, Jesus sets an “example” for us to emulate. All three models lack a real (ontological) connection between Jesus and us. Atonement is a “work” that Jesus does “for” humanity, not “in” humanity. 

Because there is no ontological connection between Jesus and us, traditional models require that the atonement be supplemented or complemented by a subsequent work of the Holy Spirit (i.e., “sanctification”). For Torrance, this creates a dualism between the atonement of Jesus Christ and the “work” of the Holy Spirit. 

Moreover, lacking a real ontological connection between the atonement and humanity, traditional views require that we be “declared” righteous (i.e., “justified”) upon a profession of faith. In Torrance's ontological approach to the atonement, however, humanity is actually made “righteous” in the vicarious humanity of Jesus. We participate in his righteousness through union with him by the Holy Spirit. In Torrance’s view of the atonement, conversion, repentance, faith, justification and sanctification are all realized in our place and on our behalf “in” Jesus. 


Traditional (Latin)
satisfaction (Anselm)
example (Abelard)
punishment (Calvin)
ontological healing
Subsequent acts
Declared righteous by imputation (i.e., justification)
Sanctified by the Holy spirit
Made righteous and sanctified in Jesus’ vicarious humanity

Next post (coming soon!): The Latin heresy revisited 

For 9 posts on Torrance’s doctrine of atonement, click:

 For 13 posts on the doctrine of the “vicarious humanity” of Jesus Christ, click:


Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Nature of the Atonement: Torrance and J.M. Campbell

Torrance’s doctrine of incarnational redemption does not fit neatly into any one of the major theories of atonement that have arisen in the history of Christian theological thought. In fact, Torrance is critical of the “theories of atonement” that have arisen in the history of Western theology. In one way or another, he contends, all these theories operate with an “external way of relating theory and event in the interpretation of Jesus Christ” (Torrance, 1986b:478; cf. below). In contrast to Western theories of the atonement developed in terms of “external” relations between Jesus and God, Torrance develops his doctrine of the atonement from the “internal” consubstantial Father-Son relation and the consubstantial God-human relation “within” the one person of Jesus Christ. Torrance’s view of the atonement is closely related to the “representative theory” or “theory of vicarious repentance” associated with the Scottish pastor and theologian, John McLeod Campbell (1800-1872) (Torrance, 1996c: 287ff). Elements of this view are also found in P.T. Forsyth (1848-1921) and Karl Barth (1886-1968). In this model of atonement vicarious identification is stressed over penal substitution (Bloesch, 2006:157).  

In his Auburn lectures, delivered in the late 1930s, Torrance (2002b:166) describes two “notable and significant attempts” to understand the atonement in modern theology. One is the theology of R.W. Dale, who stressed “the substitutionary work of Christ in his submission to divine judgment and in satisfaction for sin offered on the cross.” The other is the Scottish pastor and theologian, John McLeod Campbell, who stressed “Christ’s vicarious life of obedience to the Father and his atoning suffering in life and death in fulfilment of the love of the Father,” without giving major place to the concept of the “forensic satisfaction” of divine justice at the cross. As Torrance notes, Dale’s approach is regarded by many as nearer the traditional Anselmic concept of atonement with a stress on the aspect of “penal judgment and satisfaction” before the righteous wrath of God. Campbell’s stress, on the other hand, is on the atoning obedience and love of the incarnate Christ. With his “primary emphasis” on Christ’s vicarious life and passion in fulfilling the holy and forgiving love of the Father, Campbell pays relatively little attention to the Anselmic aspect of satisfaction. 

In regard to T.F. Torrance’s doctrine of the atonement, perhaps no theologian has had greater influence than John McLeod Campbell. According to Torrance (1996c:287, 288), McLeod Campbell was deposed from his ministry in the Scottish Kirk because of his doctrine of “universal atonement and pardon,” as well as the doctrine that assurance is “the essence of faith and necessary for salvation,” a teaching set out in his great work of 1856, The Nature of the Atonement (Campbell, 1996). As Torrance (1996c:289, 290) argues, McLeod Campbell was troubled by the “unnatural violence” done to scripture, particularly passages such as John 3:16, 1John 1:2, 1Tim 2:4ff, and Heb 2:9, 17-19, when interpreted according to “logical Calvinism” and its assertion of “particular redemption.” Furthermore, McLeod Campbell was disturbed by the doubt he found among his parishioners in regard to the love of God and the nature of repentance and forgiveness. His congregants lacked assurance of their salvation, for their trust was undermined by current doctrines of atonement and election, which held that only some were chosen to be saved.
For McLeod Campbell, notes Torrance (1996c:291, 294, 295), nothing less than “the very nature of God as love” was at stake, for it is in the face of Jesus Christ, the suffering Saviour, that the true character of God as love is revealed (cf. Jn 3:16; 1Jn 4:8, 16). In the federal theology of the Scottish Kirk, Campbell perceived what he regarded as a dualism, or “division,” between justice and mercy that pitted a merciful, “tender-hearted” Jesus against an angry Father-God. Rather than seeing God as a loving Father who satisfies his justice through the atoning work of his Son, federal theology, according to Campbell, portrayed the “man” Jesus as placating an angry Father God, so that he might finally love the elect. As Torrance argues, the federal theologians thought of God as loving mankind only in response to what Jesus had done and could not understand how, in God, “mercy and justice, love and holiness, grace and judgement, belong intimately and inseparably together.” On the other hand, notes Torrance, McLeod Campbell expounded the atonement, not in “abstract legal terms,” but in the “personal,” “filial” terms of the Father-Son relation. For Campbell, atonement must be understood in recognition of the fact that God provides the atonement; God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Thus, for McLeod Campbell, forgiveness precedes the atonement, for the atonement is “the form of the manifestation of the forgiving love of God, not its cause.” While he appealed to the New Testament and to the Scots Confession, McLeod Campbell’s teaching was regarded as a violation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which was the basis on which Scottish pastors took their ordination vows. As Torrance (1996c:289, 290) argues, though McLeod Campbell was deposed from the Kirk, “his teaching had the effect of opening the door wide to fresh biblical and evangelical understanding of cardinal truths of the Christian faith.”
McLeod Campbell’s theology of the atonement was a radical break with the federal theology of the Westminster Confession and a development of older Scottish theology, represented by the “Evangelical Calvinists” [e.g., Thomas Erskine (1788-1870)], the Reformers, and the Greek fathers (Cass, 2008:59, 60). As Cass (2008:89) argues, Campbell’s development of a “Catholic” doctrine grounded in the Triune life of God and a Reformed doctrine of the all-sufficient nature of grace in Christ had a major influence on Torrance’s methodology and soteriology. As Cass notes, Torrance regards McLeod Campbell as one of the greatest witnesses in the history of the Scottish Kirk to the unconditional, all-sufficient, and unlimited nature of the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
A further understanding of McLeod Campbell’s influence on Torrance can be gained by comparing two differing doctrines of God. As Torrance’s younger brother, James (Torrance, J., 1996b:1) argues, the history of Christian thought shows that our doctrine of God shapes our understanding of the atonement and of Christian assurance. If we view God primarily as a lawgiver and judge, with humans created to keep the law, then our doctrine of atonement will portray God as a judge who must be “conditioned into being gracious,” either by human merit or by Christ on the cross, “satisfying” the Father’s conditions, so that God might be gracious to the elect. According to Torrance, this view arises in some forms of scholastic Calvinism. On the other hand, if our basic concept of God is that of “the Triune God of grace who has his being in communion as Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and who has created us to share as sons and daughters in that communion, then our doctrine of atonement will portray a gracious God bringing his loving purpose to fruition. In this view, notes the younger Torrance, “we see the priority of grace over law, the filial over the judicial, and that God is a covenant God of faithfulness, not a contract-God.” As Torrance notes, no theologian saw the effects of these differing concepts of God on the doctrine of atonement and Christian assurance as clearly as did John McLeod Campbell, who “was so passionately concerned to call the Church back to the Triune God of grace” in a land where God had come to be conceived primarily as lawgiver and judge.
Throughout his writings, one of the fundamental differences Torrance sees between these two differing views of God is whether grace is placed before law or whether law is placed before grace (Cass, 2008:95). According to T.F. Torrance (1996c:293), federal Calvinism incorporated a “legal strain” into their teaching on the atonement shaped by the “reign of law.” McLeod Campbell, on the other hand, sought to understand the atonement “in the light of itself,” by moving away from the “logical framework” of double predestination and a narrow conception of particular redemption. Against his contemporaries, who sought to understand the atonement “within the brackets and abstract definitions of their own rationalistic Calvinism,” coupled with their belief that the Westminster Confession was “an exact and complete transcript” of biblical doctrine, argues Torrance, McLeod Campbell made a “methodological decision of quite immense importance” by seeking to understand the atonement in its own light and in accordance with its own intrinsic nature, thereby refusing to separate method and content. We note that McLeod Campbell’s methodology, with its integration of method and content according to the nature of reality is, of course, in strict harmony with the kataphysical method of Torrance’s own scientific theology.
As Torrance (1996c:298) argues, McLeod Campbell clearly “asserts the primacy of the filial relation over the legal relation, of grace over law.” For Torrance, as Cass (2008:96) notes, Campbell’s “primary theological move” was to “align the character of God the Father totally with Jesus Christ as revealed in the economy of salvation.” In locating the revelation of God in the economy of salvation as revealed in Jesus Christ, Torrance (1996c:301) believes that Campbell calls for a recasting of the traditional Scottish Calvinist doctrine of “penal substitution” by returning to the teaching of Athanasius (Contra Arianos, 4.6), who regarded the Godward-humanward and humanward-Godward movement of mediation as a two-fold, but unitary, movement of mediation occurring “within,” not external to, the incarnate constitution of the mediator. Finally, McLeod Campbell’s emphasis on the Father-Son relation over the legal aspects of atonement appears to be a return to Athanasius (Contra Arianos 1.34; cf. Torrance, 1988a:49 n. 3), who argued that “it would be more godly and true to signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.” To be sure, Torrance clearly follows both Athanasius and McLeod Campbell in his oft-repeated assertion that there is no God behind the back of Jesus Christ (Torrance, 1988a:135; 1990:71; 1996c:294).
According to Cass (2008:59, 88, 89), John McLeod Campbell had more influence on Torrance than any other theologian, particularly in regard to McLeod Campbell’s understanding of the Father-Son relation, Christ’s condemning sin in the flesh in his “active” and passive” obedience, the integration of ontological and forensic metaphors of salvation, and the doctrine of the Judge judged in our place (cf. Barth, 1957d:211ff). Noting the “enormous influence” of Barth, Cass argues that, at certain points, Torrance rejects Bath’s soteriological position in favour of the Greek fathers, Calvin, and McLeod Campbell.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Annunciation of Grace

To see a published version of this article, titled "Breaking News: Grace has Arrived!" click the following link.

The Annunciation

The angel Gabriel announced (“annunciated”) the staggering news to Mary, an unmarried Galilean teenager from a backwater village in an inconsequential corner of the Roman Empire, that she would be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and conceive the Son of God in her womb. This incredible proclamation to a peasant girl, that she was chosen to be the virgin mother of Jesus Christ, is called “the Annunciation” (Luke 1:26-38).
The Priority of Grace
The choice of Mary to be the mother of Jesus did not depend on any virtues she possessed that would “qualify” her for the unique role she would play in God’s redemptive plan. There was nothing remarkable to commend the young peasant girl for the awesome responsibility she was to assume. She brought no resources to the God-human encounter. She had no wealth or social standing; she held no important position in society, even in her small village. In terms of worldly power, possessions and prestige, she was of no consequence. Despite her lack of worldly status, however, the angel Gabriel hailed Mary as highly favored and blessed among women because of the unique role for which she was chosen as the human mother of the fully divine Son of God (Luke 1:28, 42).
Notwithstanding her unique status as the virgin-mother of Jesus, however, Mary was an ordinary human being—made of the dust of the ground. There was nothing extraordinary about Mary to make her worthy of her highly favored position.  
Even Mary’s willing consent to God’s plan for her life was not a precondition for God’s goodness towards her. The choice of the young peasant girl to bear the Son of God was not determined by any prior decision on her part. Mary could not have decided of her own accord to become the virgin “mother of God.” As the angelic messenger announced, the divine decision to choose Mary had already been made for her.
Mary freely received the divine favor that God had sovereignly and graciously chosen to bestow upon her by consenting to the extraordinary plan God had prepared for her life, trusting that with God “nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37, NKJV). With simple trust and humility, she replied to the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant … May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38).
The Conditional Grace of Religion
Mary, the virgin-mother of Jesus, is an outstanding example of an ordinary human being whose life is transformed by grace. Unilaterally and unconditionally, God graciously lavished his favor upon the young peasant girl, apart from any prior attempt on Mary’s part to earn divine favor. With trusting consent to the divine plan for her life, Mary simply received God goodness towards her.
We often hear “grace” defined as “unmerited pardon” or “favor.” G-R-A-C-E is often defined as “God's Riches at Christ’s Expense.” And, rightly so, we often hear that we cannot earn God’s grace. Despite a proper emphasis on the unmerited nature of grace, however, there are—perhaps unintentionally—implicit, yet contradictory, conditions in much teaching and preaching. Grace is presented conditionally when it is explained in terms of a “contract”: that is, if the sinner fulfils certain conditions, then God will be gracious. Some preachers may claim that God’s goodness and mercy are available only to those who have made a “decision for Christ,” or who have recited “the sinner’s prayer” and “accepted” Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Preachers and teachers with a more legalistic bent may attach other conditions to divine grace, asserting that only those who believe specific doctrines or adhere to certain standards of behavior deserve God’s favor.
According to much contemporary teaching and preaching, human salvation is not complete in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Contrary to the words of Jesus when he hung on the cross, it is not “finished”; rather, some task remains undone, to be completed by the repentant sinner; some doctrine must be fervently believed if the fires of hell are to be avoided. For many, salvation is a mere potential, waiting to be “actualized,” or brought to fruition, by some action on the part of the person who desires to be “saved.” Only when the sinner has played his or her part in the drama of salvation is he or she “saved.”
The gospel, however, is the good news that our standing before God does not depend upon any decision, belief or action on our part. We do not have to “earn” God’s favor. The gospel proclaims that God’s goodness is freely bestowed upon all in Jesus Christ. Grace cannot be detached from the person of Jesus Christ and presented as a contract whose conditions must be fulfilled if the sinner is to be “saved.” God’s grace cannot be detached from the person of Jesus Christ and constituted the sole property of an institutionalized church, so that it may be doled out to sinners via the sacraments, penance or confession.
Grace is God’s self-giving for all humanity in Jesus Christ (see John 3:16). Hence, grace is personal, for grace is identical with Jesus Christ, in whom the “gift” and the “Giver” are one and the same.
A Sinner Encounters Grace
Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus is an outstanding portrayal of a sinner’s encounter with grace as a personal reality (Luke 19:1-9). As a “chief tax collector,” a servant of the oppressive, pagan government of occupying Rome, Zacchaeus was regarded as a sinner—a social-religious outcast shunned by the respectable members of first-century Jewish society, who doubtless resented the wealth he accumulated by skimming money from the taxes he collected from his neighbors.
Upon hearing that Jesus was passing nearby on his way to Jerusalem, Zacchaeus, who was short in stature, climbed a sycamore tree, so that he might get a better look at Jesus. When he saw Zacchaeus in the tree, Jesus shunned contemporary social convention by inviting himself to the tax collector’s home. Jesus’ gracious intention to “stay at the house” of the chief tax collector triggered the complaints of the local villagers, who disapproved of the Lord’s willingness to lodge in the home of a social and religious outcast. As a result of his surprising encounter with grace, Zacchaeus pledged to give half his possessions to the poor and to return fourfold to any he may have cheated. Upon hearing this, Jesus proclaimed, “Today salvation has come to this house … for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10).
It is vital to note that, like the Virgin Mary, Zacchaeus had done absolutely nothing to deserve what was nothing less than a divine visitation. Zacchaeus merely climbed a tree to get a better look as Jesus passed. Yet, despite the local villagers’ contempt for the tax collector, Jesus reached out to Zacchaeus. Apart from any attempt to make himself worthy—indeed, with no opportunity to make himself worthy—Zacchaeus freely received (Luke 19:6, NKJV) Jesus into his home. Through his personal encounter with grace, Zacchaeus, like the Virgin Mary, was highly favored by God!
Here again we see the priority of grace. Note that Jesus did not wait for Zacchaeus to accept him before expressing his wish to stay in the tax collector’s home. To the contrary: Zacchaeus did not “accept” Jesus; Jesus accepted Zacchaeus, who had done nothing more than climb a tree. The sinful tax collector could only receive the favor that Jesus had already decided to freely bestow upon him, for, as Jesus proclaimed, “The Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
The Transforming Power of Grace
As the direct result of his encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus was radically transformed, so that he freely and willingly reached out to his neighbors in repentance and restitution. The transforming power of the divine favor Jesus unconditionally gave to Zacchaeus reveals the abject failure of religion to change the human heart. Religion attempts to control external behavior by its emphasis on law rather than grace, expressed in stern-jawed demands for unquestioning submission to human rules and expectations. Yet human sinfulness is an internal problem, originating in the “heart” (Matthew 15:19), and even the most stringent outward adherence to the demands of religion cannot transform the human heart or constitute even the most zealous worthy of the grace of God.
The proclamation of the gospel heralds the end of religion, where “religion” is understood as any attempt to please or appease God through human effort. Grace cannot be earned through the onerous demands of religion; grace can only be received by the empty hand that reaches out in trust to touch the edge of Jesus’ cloak (see Matthew 9:19-21). Zacchaeus was not transformed by the rituals, rules and regulations of the cumbersome religion of his day; rather, he was condemned by his neighbors and scorned as a sinner for his failure to live according to its burdensome demands. Zacchaeus was transformed by God’s love as revealed in the incarnate Son, as Jesus graciously engaged him in intimate fellowship.
Jesus’ loving, gracious engagement with Zacchaeus unveils the eternal heart of God. Because Jesus is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the “exact representation of His being” (Hebrews 1:3), the one in whom the “fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9), and the eternal Word who “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14), his loving act toward Zacchaeus is an expression of the eternal heart of the Triune God, whom Scripture describes as “love” (1 John 4:8, 16). God engages us, even in our sinfulness, and pours himself out in self-emptying love for us (see Philippians 2:5-11)!
The Way of Grace
Returning to the much-loved story of Gabriel’s appearance to the virgin Mary¸ the “Annunciation” appears at the beginning of the life and mission of Jesus Christ as a sign of the way God’s love has taken, not only for Mary, but for each of us (1). We too are the recipients of God’s goodness, and our standing with our heavenly Father does not depend upon our “worthiness” to receive divine favor. The Lamb of God has taken away the sin of the world (John 1:29). In Jesus Christ, the world is fully reconciled to the Father (2 Corinthians 5:19; Colossians 1:20), who has lavished his love upon us and claimed us as his children (1 John 3:1). Like Mary and Zacchaeus, ours is simply to receive by faith the grace of God that is already given us in Jesus Christ.
In the old Latin translation of the New Testament, Gabriel greets the young virgin with words made famous in Schubert’s beloved song, Ave, Maria! That is “Hail, Mary!” Because of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, the angelic hosts joyfully proclaim: “Hail Mary!” “Hail John!” “Hail Susan!” And “hail to you” dear reader, for the good news of the Advent-Christmas season is that, like Mary, we are all highly favored by God! (2) Amen.
1.       Torrance, T.F. 1957. “When Christ Comes to the Individual.” In When Christ Comes and Comes Again. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, pp. 31-38.
2.      Ibid.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mission to Kenya

I will be leaving 12 October for Kenya. Over the course of a month, I will be doing several one and two day conferences on Christology ("Who is Jesus Christ"). I have been informed already that more than 100 pastors are expected to attend the first conference in Sabasaba, a one hour drive north of Nairobi.

No doubt we are all aware of the recent terrorist attack at Westgate Mall Nairobi. What is usually not reported in the western media is the smaller versions of this kind of attack that happen routinely in Africa. Churches are burned, congregations are slaughtered as they gather on Sunday mornings and pastors are killed on a regular basis in Africa. The killers are Islamists. They want to rid Africa of Christianity and impose the bondage of Sharia law on her citizens. Those who report these kinds of attacks as "political" or "inter-tribal' are misinformed or willfully ignorant.

Kenya, South Sudan, southern Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania are now on the front lines of the Islamic onslaught that began centuries ago. The vast Sahara desert shielded sub-Saharan Africa from Muslim encroachment for centuries but this is no longer so.

One of the reasons I want to minister in East Africa is to strengthen the pastors there, so that they in turn can strengthen their parishioners, as they stand against the ongoing threat of Islam. I am happy to work with pastors of all denominations, for they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. East Africa is rapidly becoming a new battleground, where the dark forces of Islam pose an ongoing threat to our Christian brothers and sisters.

I would appreciate any help you can give in the way of travel expenses. I will be in East Africa for a month, and I am in constant need of financial support. I do not get paid for my work, nor do I ask for pay. Neither do I ask my fellow pastors to pay for their admission to the conferences I lead. If you want to help out, click and make your donation through our church website. You can print out a receipt for your tax records.

Asante sana (thank you very much).
Bwana Yesu asifiwe! (Praise the Lord Jesus)


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Trinity: A Beginner's Guide

To read the published version of this article, with additional material, go to: 

Years ago, when I was a family therapist in the counseling ministry of the local megachurch, a young couple recounted a hurtful, destructive argument that occurred when the young bride asked to put a “chair” in her husband’s office so she could be near him when he worked at home. Because his office was quite small, the young husband was irate and annoyed because there simply was not enough room for another “chair.” The young wife felt hurt and rejected because she thought her husband did not want her near when he was working. As the couple disclosed their feelings in counseling, the wife revealed that she had merely wanted to put a small straight-back chair in a tiny corner of the room, where she could read as her husband worked. With some embarrassment, the young husband admitted that he thought she wanted to bring in a large “easy ‘chair’” from the living room, one that would take up far too much space in an already overcrowded room. Even though they were using the same word, the couple had argued because they attached very different meanings to the word “chair.” 

Language matters; words are important. Moreover, the meaning attached to words is crucial if confusion and misunderstanding are to be avoided. Perhaps nowhere is language more problematic and the meaning of words more subject to misunderstanding than in the doctrine of the Trinity—the belief that the One God of the Christian faith eternally exists as three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  

Recently, as I quickly flipped through the surplus of “Christian” channels invading my home via satellite, I stopped at an Australian broadcast when I heard the word “Trinity.” The host was asking her guest, an “expert” on the doctrine,” “How can God be one and three? How can one ‘equal’ three? she asked. “The ‘math’ just doesn’t add up,” she said. Her questions betray the common misunderstanding of the doctrine of the Trinity as a “mathematical” puzzle.
A few years ago, a survey was taken among a group of church members in London, who were asked, “How can God be three persons in one?” Showing their misunderstanding of the “oneness” of God, about one-third of the respondents replied that God was “one” in the sense of being “one person.” As one respondent typically affirmed, “The three are one person; they’ re all one person.”[1]  

To be sure, much confusion exists regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. The confusion is exacerbated by preachers who describe the doctrine of the Trinity as a mind-boggling mystery or an incomprehensible enigma far beyond the limits of human understanding. While it is true that we finite humans are incapable of fully comprehending the infinite God, it is not true, however, that the doctrine of the Trinity is beyond our understanding. A “doctrine” is simply an attempt to put into words what we do know about God based upon God’s self-revelation of himself in the history of salvation. The “doctrine of the Trinity” is an attempt to make sense of the fact that the “one God” of the Christian faith has revealed himself in the Holy Bible in “three persons”—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The biblical narrative of the Father’s reconciliation of the world in Jesus Christ, as well as his bringing that work to fruition by the Spirit, implies a Trinitarian understanding of God (see 2Cor 5:18-20; Rom 5:1-5; Eph 1:3-14). 

The early Church was composed, at least initially, of Jews. In distinction to the cultures around them who worshipped many gods, the Jews worshipped one God. At the same time, the early Jewish Christians believed that God had come in the flesh and dwelt among them in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:1, 14). They believed that Jesus is “Immanuel”: God with us (Matt 1:23).  Moreover, the early Christians believed that the crucified Christ remained present among them through the Holy Spirit (2Cor 3:17, 18). 

The believers of the early Church, many of whom were slaves who could neither read nor write, did not concern themselves with abstract speculation about the nature of God; yet, their worship and practice was distinctly Trinitarian in character. Following the commandment of Jesus Christ (Matt 28:19), the early Church baptized in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, even as they declared the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit (2Cor 13:14). Early second-century writings—including the 1) Didache, an early writing on Church order and practice; 2) Hippolytus’ Holy Communion prayer and baptismal formula, and 3) Justin Martyr’s early description of a Christian worship service and baptism—portray Christians baptizing and celebrating Holy Communion (or the Lord’s Supper) in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  

Development of the Doctrine of the Trinity 

From the “raw material” provided in the worship and practice of the early Church, Christian theologians began their construction of the “doctrine” of the Trinity. The starting point for Christian reflection on the nature of God is the relationship between God and Jesus Christ. The problem faced by early Christian theologians, as they pondered the New Testament witness to Jesus Christ, [2] was not whether Jesus was God, but how, within the boundaries of their inherited monotheism, could they maintain the unity of God while confessing the deity of one who is distinct from God the Father. That is, how could the early Church claim that Jesus is one with God while maintaining there is only one God?  

As the early Church began to proclaim the deity of Christ, they encountered opposition from those who distorted the New Testament witness to the Triune nature of God. In the second century, some incorrectly argued that the terms “Father,” Son” and “Holy Spirit” are merely different “names” for God, each designating a different “role” played by a “one-person” God, like a single individual who plays the roles of spouse, employee and soccer coach on a given day. Others wrongly argued that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct “individuals,” like the coach, quarterback and wide receiver on a football team. The first error, known historically as modalism, preserves the one “being” of God but loses the specific identity of the three persons of the Godhead by reducing the Father, Son and Spirit to one person. The second error, tritheism (or “pluralism”), stresses the “distinction” of the three persons of the Godhead at the expense of the “unity” of God and results in “three gods,” rather than “one God in three persons.” Quite importantly, both errors fail to express the essential Trinitarian element of relationship among the three persons of the Godhead. The first precludes relationship by reducing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to “one person.” Less obviously, the second error precludes relationship, for though the three persons may function together in a limited way, they are not “one” in terms of sharing a common “being.”  

In the face of these distortions of the New Testament witness to the nature of God, early Christian thinkers struggled to accurately express God’s triadic self-revelation in salvation history as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, while stringently maintaining the unity of the one God of the Judeo-Christian heritage. 

Justin Martyr, the great “apologist” who defended the early second-century Church against false charges brought against Christians, invoked the image of light to capture the eternal relation between the Father and the Son. Justin captured both the equality and the distinction of the Father-Son relation by arguing that the Son is indivisible from the Father in the same way that light emitted by the sun is indivisible from its source. His metaphor became a favorite among the Church fathers and was later enshrined in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, where one of several phrases used to describe Jesus Christ is “Light from Light.” 

Irenaeus, an important theologian of the second-century, developed his Trinitarian insights in contention with the Gnostics, who erroneously thought of God as utterly transcendent and completely separate from the taint of the “evil” material world. To the contrary, Irenaeus argued that God the Father interacts with creation through his “two hands,” that is, the Son and the Spirit. For Irenaeus, the Son and Spirit belong intrinsically and eternally to the being of God, as the hands of a sculptor belong intrinsically to the artist and are the means of his or her creative expression. 

In the third century, the North African lawyer Tertullian coined the word “Trinity” (Latin: trinitas) and argued that Christians worship “one God in three persons.” For Tertullian, “being” or “nature” is the unifying principle of the Godhead, that is, what the three persons of the Trinity have in “common.” “Person” is the principle of “distinction” or “otherness”; that is, the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, and the Father and Son are not the Holy Spirit. Rather, each person of the Triune God is “distinct” from the other.  

The fourth century was a time of great conflict among the theologians of the early Church. Since the time of Tertullian, confusion had existed between the Greek-speaking theologians of the eastern Mediterranean and the Latin-speaking theologians of the west regarding the proper translation of important Trinitarian terms such as “being” and “person.” To add to the confusion, these terms were often used interchangeably, much as today when a single individual may be described both as a “person” and as a human “being.” Prior to the fourth century, the universal Church simply lacked the conceptual and linguistic resources to express how God is both one and three. 

This confusion in terminology climaxed in one of the greatest theological conflicts in the history of the Church. Arius, a deacon from Alexandria, argued that the “one being” of God cannot be “divided,” for such would result in more than one God and compromise the inviolate principle of monotheism. For Arius, therefore, Jesus Christ cannot participate in the “being” of God; that is, he is not fully divine; rather, he is “subordinate” in being to God. Much like modern-day Jehovah’s Witnesses, Arius argued that Jesus is a created being, that is, an exalted “creature,” like an archangel, who is less than fully God. The great Athanasius, one of the most important theologians in the history of the Church, stalwartly defended the deity of Jesus Christ against the subordinationism of Arius. As Athanasius understood, if Jesus is a “created” being, he cannot be the “eternal” Word of God “incarnate,” that is, God in human flesh (John 1:1, 14). For Athanasius, this was no mere academic theological squabble; to be sure, nothing less than human salvation was at stake, for if Jesus Christ is not fully God, then we are still in our sins, for only God can save.  

In what has been called the most important theological statement since the New Testament, Athanasius argued that the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, is “of one being with the Father.” That is, Jesus Christ is fully God, just as the Father is God. Athanasius’ defense of the full deity of Jesus Christ was enshrined in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381 A.D.), where, in accordance with the apostolic witness recorded in the New Testament, the Church fathers declared that Jesus Christ is “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made, Of one being with the Father.” At the same time, the fathers asserted the full deity of the Holy Spirit. [3] 

With the assertion of the full deity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit against distortions of the New Testament witness to the triadic nature of God, the way was cleared in the late fourth century for the classic, orthodox statement of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, formulated by a trio of theologians—Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzus—known collectively in Church history as the “Cappadocian Fathers.” By precisely defining important Trinitarian terms such as “being” and “person,” these Greek-speaking theologians were able to conceptually express the unity (“one-ness”) and diversity (“three-ness”) of the Triune Godhead in a way similar to that of the Latin theologian Tertullian of a century earlier. In view of the triadic pattern of God’s self-revelation in salvation history as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Cappadocians argued that God exists as “one being” (i.e., “nature,” “essence”) in “three persons,” where “being” is the principle of unity and “person” is the principle of distinction or diversity. As the Cappadocians argued, the divine persons of the Trinity share a common “being”; at the same time, they are three distinct “persons.” In other words, “what” Father, Son and Spirit are is the same; “who” each is is distinct and unique.[4] 

It is important to note that the terms “being” and “person,” as used by the Cappadocian fathers, are not interchangeable. If we say God is “three beings,” we commit the error of “tri-theism.” If we say God is “one person,” we commit the error of “modalism.” The Cappadocian formula—“one being, three persons”—preserves both the “unity” (one-ness) and the “diversity” (three-ness) of the Godhead, while articulating the Trinitarian grammar that would allow the Church to speak of God as “one being in three persons”—One in Three, Three in One. 

In addition, it is essential to note that the Father, Son and Spirit cannot be thought of as independent, autonomous “selves,” as the modern use of the term “person” suggests. For Athanasius and the Cappadocian fathers, the term “person” inherently includes relationship, for the terms “Father” and “Son” are necessarily relational. There can be no “Father” apart from the “Son”; there can be no “Son” apart from the “Father.” Thus, the divine persons in relationship constitute the “being” of God. At the same time, each divine person is unique in terms of “origin.” In Trinitarian language, the Father is “un-begotten,” the Son is “begotten” and the Spirit “proceeds.” The language of relationship captures the “unity” of the persons of the Holy Trinity, while the language of origin captures the distinctiveness or “diversity” of the divine persons. 

Finally, at the heart of the Holy Trinity, the Cappadocians saw an interpersonal communion (koinonia) or “fellowship,” where each divine person is intimately related to the other two in reciprocal joy and delight. The internal relatedness of the divine persons is expressed in the Trinitarian concept, perichoresis (Latin: “coinherence”), where the divine persons are said to mutually “indwell” and permeate one another in a divine “dance” of intimate fellowship and communion.  

Putting all this together, we can say that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, mutually indwelling one another in an intimate communion of love, is the “one God” of the Christian faith. As the Cappadocian father Gregory Nazianzus put it, “When I say ‘God’, I mean the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The Cappadocian formula—“one being, three persons—with its regard for the importance of “relationship” as an integral aspect of the “being” of the one God, is enjoying renewed appreciation today among leading contemporary Trinitarian theologians.  

God is Love 

In light of what may appear to be theological hair-splitting about the nature of God, does the doctrine of the Trinity really matter? Does it make any difference whether God is “one being in three persons,” as the doctrine of the Trinity asserts, or simply one person who plays three roles (i.e., “modalism”) or even three different gods pursuing their own ends (i.e., “tritheism”)? In regard to the last point, if Christians are really polytheists who worship three “gods,” rather than “three persons in one God,” then we can never be certain that God is like Jesus. The Church fathers’ assertion that Jesus is “of one being with the Father” concisely expresses the biblical truth that the loving heart of Jesus is a window into the inner heart of the Holy Trinity. The unity of “being,” as well as the unity of will and purpose between the Father and the incarnate Son (John 5:30) assure us that there is no dark, inscrutable god hidden behind the back of Jesus Christ,[5] but only the God who has loved us to the uttermost in sending his Son to be our Savior. Thus, it matters whether the Holy Trinity is three “gods,” each independently seeking his own ends, or “one God in three persons,” who enjoy unity of being, harmony of will and singleness of purpose in creating humanity to share in the life and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  

Moreover, if God is only “one person” who plays three different “roles, then the apostolic witness to the nature of God is called into question. According to the apostle John, “God is love” (1John 4:8, 16). For John, love is not one characteristic among many that we “attribute” to God; rather, God is love. Yet, what is godly love like? In his memorable treatise on love (see 1Cor 13), the apostle Paul writes that love is patient and kind. It does not envy or dishonor others. Love is not self-seeking. It keeps no record of wrongs. Note that Paul describes love in interpersonal terms; that is, he describes love in terms of relationship. To be sure, godly love is relational, for by its very nature, love requires another 

In regard to the doctrine of the Trinity, “Father” and “Son” are terms of relationship. God is not an “in-itself,” apart from others, but is “the epitome of love in relation.”[6] God is not alone, in isolation from relationships, but is eternally related within the Holy Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The one God of the Christian faith eternally exists in a Triune communion of relationship whose nature is “love”: the Father loves the Son in the Holy Spirit; the Son loves the Father in the Holy Spirit.  

On the other hand, if God is unitarian rather than trinitarian, that is, “one” divine person who plays three different “roles,” then God cannot be eternally love; rather, God becomes love when he creates another. In that case, we cannot be certain of God’s purpose in creation, for a one-person god isolated in eternal “alone-ness” may create from a need for fellowship. If so, then creation is not God's free and gracious act for us but is, rather, a self-fulfilling act designed to fill the one-person-god’s need for community.  

Happily, because scripture reveals that God is a divine communion of love, eternally existing as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we can be certain that there is no lack or necessity in God. God did not create us to fill a void or need in the Godhead; rather, God created us as an act of overflowing love, for by its nature godly love cannot be contained; it reaches out in self-giving for us. God created the world in order to share his divine life and love with all humanity. That is why we were born: to be included in the divine life and love of the Holy Trinity, to participate in and enjoy the eternal communion of fellowship shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

Eternally Father, Son and Holy Spirit 

The doctrine of the Trinity is the Church’s attempt to express within the limitations of human thought and speech the biblical witness to the eternal nature of God whom the New Testament describes as “love.” God’s self-revelation in the history of salvation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is finally God’s self-witness to his eternal, loving purpose for the whole world. Most importantly, the doctrine of the Trinity is the Christian assertion that God is antecedently and eternally the same God who has revealed himself in the history of human salvation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In short, we know who God is from what he does. There is no other God than the loving Father who has loved us to the uttermost in the sending of his Son and the gift of the Spirit—all for us and for our salvation. “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2Cor 13:14).

[1] In Fiddes, P.S. Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), pp. 4-5.
[2] See, for example, John 1:1, 14; 10:30; 14:9; Col 1:16, 17; 2:9; Heb 1:3
[3] Regarding the divinity of the third person of the Godhead, Scripture describes the Holy Spirit as one who is a “personal, encountering, interacting Thou” clearly distinguishable from the Father and Son. The Spirit speaks in the first person (Acts 10:20; 13:12), teaches (Jn 14:26), stands as witness (Rom 8:16; 1Cor 1:22; 5:5; Eph 1:13, 14), sends (Acts 13:2), grieves (Eph 4:3), struggles with other persons (Gen 6:3; Isa 63:10) and gives gifts (1Cor 12:4-11; Eph 6). Moreover, the names (Acts 1:8; Jn 4:24; 14:21; 15:26; Rom 8:14), attributes (Heb 9:14; 1Cor 2:10-12; Lk 11:20; Rom 15:18-19) and works (1Cor 2:10; Acts 5:30-32; 28:25; Titus 3:5; 1Cor 6:19) of God are ascribed to the Spirit. See Oden, T.C. Systematic Theology, Volume One: The Living God. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006), p. 199.
[4] As an aid to memory, we might say that, in the Holy Trinity, there is one “what” (“being”) and three “who’s” (“persons”).
[5] This phrase was commonly used by the great 20th century Scottish theologian, T.F. Torrance.
[6] Sanders, J. The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007), p. 148.