Last year, I posted an article titled “Does Christianity need a resurrected Jesus?” In this present article, I want to consider another important question: Does Christianity need the homoousion?
Alas, while we all know what “resurrection” means, the same cannot be said of homoousion, so allow me to explain. The term was invoked at the Council of Nicaea (325) as a way to identify the convictions of the emerging fourth-century orthodoxy. In direct response to (and censure of) the convictions of Arius and his supporters, the Council affirmed that Jesus is the same (homo) substance (ousia) as the Father. While the precise meaning of the term was a matter of some controversy, in subsequent theology the homoousion has been taken to be an affirmation of ontological equivalence: that is, the Son shares the same divine nature as the Father.
Now, let me be clear: as an evangelical Baptist, I accept the homoousion and recognize it as an important mark of Christian orthodoxy. That said, my concern here is to consider the validity of some of the elevated language about the doctrine’s importance that one commonly finds in Christian theologians. For this essay, my representative example will come from theologian Alan Torrance. Torrance writes:
“Put simply, if I did not believe I could affirm what is being affirmed in the homoousion, I would cease to be a Christian forthwith; I would resign from the church, from my vocation as a theological teacher, and go and do something useful!” (“Being of One Substance with the Father,” in Christopher Seitz, ed., Nicene Christianity: The Future For a New Ecumenism (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2001), p. 50.)
It’s important that we are clear on what Torrance is saying here. He is not saying merely that if we reject an essential orthodox Christian claim like the homoousion that we are then obliged to leave the orthodox church that confesses this doctrine. That may be true (though it frankly depends on how tolerant your particular ecclesial communion is to divergent opinion). Regardless, Torrance’s point is far more provocative, for he is claiming that rejection of the homoousion inevitably undermines the value of Christianity entirely. Reject this doctrine and there is nothing left in your remaining Christian beliefs to sustain an existentially livable and worthwhile Christian faith.
That’s a robust claim, but is it true?
In order to test this, let’s consider a situation in which you come to believe the homoousion is false and that a competing doctrine, the homoiousion, is true. While these two terms are separated by a similar letter (iota in Greek), they convey very different doctrinal assertions: according to the homoiousion doctrine, Christ is similar to but not the same substance as the Father. To fill out the picture, you come to believe something similar to what Arius believed: namely, that God the Son is the Father’s first creation, a being the Father brought forth as the first of his works and through whom he made all other things.
The rejection of the homoousion is a big deal. But still, it is worth noting that while you would no longer believe that the Son is ontologically equivalent to the Father, you would still be a monotheist; you’d still believe that God the Son is the creator and sustainer of the world, the one mediator between God and all (other) creatures; you’d still retain a robust doctrine of creation and providence; you’d also still have your sense of justice and are committed to a cruciform ethic; and you’d look forward to a doctrine of future resurrection, posthumous judgment for those outside Christ, and the redemption of creation. Based on this extensive list of doctrines, what could justify Torrance’s claim to that loss of the homoousion would lead him to “cease to be a Christian forthwith”?
Torrance’s defense of this claim is summarized in the following quote he cites from Alasdair Heron:
“What was missing in Arius’ entire scheme was, quite simply, God himself. True, he was there—after a fashion. He was there, but he was silent, remote in the infinity of his utter transcendence, acting only through the intermediacy of the Son or Word, between whose being and his own, Arius drew such a sharp distinction. The God in whom Arius believed had no direct contact with his creation; he was for ever and by definition insulated and isolated from it in the absolute serenity of an unchanging and unmoving perfection. God himself neither creates nor redeems it; he is involved with it only at second hand.” (Cited in “Being of One Substance with the Father,” p. 53)
In this quote, Heron declares that Arius’s theology — and presumably every other non-homoousion theology — loses the unique doctrine of incarnation/immanence that is entailed by the homoousion. In other words, once you deny the homoousion, God is “involved … only at second hand.”
The problem with this kind of argument is that it is vulnerable to a tu quoque rebuttal: in other words, Torrance’s homoousion theology is likewise subject to the rebuttal that God is “involved … only at second hand” relative to other distinct conceptions of divine presence and immanence. Consider, for example, a theology of panentheism. On a panentheist theology, creation is understood to be, in some sense, God’s body. This model contrasts with Torrance’s orthodox Christian theology of creation which posits an absolute ontological distinction between God and creation.
Thus, while on Torrance’s view, the unique presence of God is mediated solely in the incarnate Son, the panentheist can claim that on their theology every aspect of creation participates in God’s being as an expression of his presence. And thus, one could claim that relative to the panentheist’s expansive conception of divine mediation, Torrance’s theology posits God’s involvement in creation “only at second hand”.
Of course, Torrance will not be bothered by this alleged diminution in the divine presence. On the contrary, he will dismiss the panentheist’s theological framing of the divine presence as tendentious and self-serving. But this is where the tu quoque enters in because the homoiousion theologian will likewise not be bothered by the insistence that denying the homoousion renders God’s involvement in creation second hand. Instead, they too will find this theological framing of the divine presence to be tendentious and self-serving.
The same issue appears within the bounds of orthodox Christian opinion. For example, some Christians claim that God is atemporal (i.e. such that temporal predicates do not apply to God). Others claim that God is temporal (i.e. such that temporal predicates do apply to God). The temporalist can argue that on the atemporalist view (a view that has been historically dominant in the Christian tradition) God’s involvement in creation is “only at second hand” through the timeless willing of temporal effects. And where the question of divine presence to creation is concerned, it seems to me that the move from homoousion to homoiousion is not obviously more radical than the move from divine temporality to atemporality.
To conclude, while I believe the doctrine of the homoousion is both true and important, we should be careful not to exaggerate that importance. The fact is that we demonstrate our care for doctrines by accurately describing their meaning and significance, not by blurring the line between accuracy and pious hyperbole.