The God of Classical Theism vs. the Triune God of Scripture

As a follow-up to my last post about Thomas Aquinas and his formulation of classical theism as a synthesis between Aristotelian philosophy and natural theology, I would like to provide an extensive quote from T.F. Torrance in which he contrasts this view with the
trinitarian God of Scripture. Far from being an example of inconsequential hair-splitting, torranceyoungdistinguishing between these two views is of supreme importance. If we really grasp what Torrance is saying here, we will begin to understand how crucial these differences truly are not only for how we think of God but also for how we think of everything else. It is, in short, the difference between the Triune God who made us in his image and the god which we make in our own image. Here is Torrance:

 [O]wing to the reconciliation which God has worked out in Jesus Christ he has established an intimate two-way relation between himself and us and us and himself, making himself accessible to us and giving us entry into the inner fellowship of God’s Life by allowing us to share in God’s own eternal Spirit. That amounts to the greatest revolution in our knowledge of God. It is precisely when we grasp this that we see the enormous significance of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. For Judaism or for Greek Philosophy, and indeed for every religion apart from Christianity, God remains ultimate knowable, the nameless, the incomprehensible One, who cannot be known in himself or conceived in his inner life. Hence the statements they make about God, as many modern philosophers would have it, are non-cognitive, involving at best only borderline conceptions of God.

Christianity stands for something very different: the fact that in Jesus Christ God has communicated to us his Word and has imparted to us his Spirit, so that we may really know him as he is in himself, and not just in his external relations toward us or in some merely negative way [e.g. natural theology/classical theism]. The Word and the Spirit are not transient creaturely media through which God has revealed to us something about himself; for they are not external to God but are internal to his transcendent Being. Through his Word and his Spirit God has communicated himself to us in his own eternal and indivisible Reality as God the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. That is why we believe that what God is toward us in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, he is in himself, antecedently and eternally in himself; and that what he imparts to us through the Spirit who sheds the love of God into our hearts, he is in himself, antecedently and eternally in himself. It is thus that through Jesus Christ God has given himself to us and through the Holy Spirit he lifts us up into communion with himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in a two-way movement of propitiation in which he draws near to us in such a way as to draw us near to himself within the circle of his knowing of himself.

Think of the immense revolution this means for our understanding of God. It means that God is not some remote, unknowable Deity, a prisoner in his aloofness or shut up in his solitariness, but on the contrary the God who will not be without us whom he has created for fellowship with himself, the God who is free to go outside of himself, to share in the life of his creatures and enable them to share in his own eternal Life and Love. It means that God is not limited by our feeble capacities or incapacities, but that in his grace and outgoing love he freely and joyously condescends to enter into fellowship with us, to communicate himself to us, and to be received and be known by us. Moreover, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity means that God does not surrender his transcendence in condescending to be one with us in Jesus Christ, but it does mean that more we are allowed to know God in himself in this way the more wonderful we know him to be, a God who infinitely exceeds all our thoughts and words about him, but who in spite of that reveals himself tenderly and intimately to us through his Son and his Spirit.

It also means that God is not some immutable, impassible deity who cannot be touched with our human feelings, pains and hurts, but on the contrary is the kind of God who acts and interacts with us in this world, for in his own eternal Being he is the ever living, loving and acting God. It is this living, loving, and acting God who comes to us in Jesus Christ and unites us to himself by his one Spirit, interacting with us in creation and history, and in our human and physical existence in space and time: it is there that we understand why Christians believe the God and Father of Jesus Christ to be a God of providence who cares for each of his children and for every created being, who listens to our petitions and answers our prayers.

Again the doctrine of the Holy Trinity means that by his very nature as a Communion of Love in himself, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, dwelling in the plenitude of divine Love, God is the kind of God who as a fullness of personal being in himself creates personal reciprocity between us and himself and creates a community of personal reciprocity in love, which is what we speak of as the Church living in the Communion of the Spirit.

It is certainly true that the enormous importance of the doctrine of the Trinity and its revolutionary implications have tended to be lost from sight, to be treated as rather irrelevant, or only of peripheral significance for Christian faith and living. This is evident, for example, in the strange paucity of Trinitarian hymns in our modern repertoire of praise. But the reason for this is that people have worked for so long in the West with a notion of God who is somehow detached from this world, exalted inaccessibly above it, remote from our creaturely cries and prayers. And so in Western theology it has become the tradition to separate the doctrine of the one God from the doctrine of the Triune God: thus giving expression to a deistic disjunction between God and the world, far removed from what God has revealed of himself in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures or in the New Testament.

T.F. Torrance, Trinitarian Perspectives: Toward Doctrinal Agreement. T&T Clark, 1994, pp.1-4


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