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Could God shine without Jesus?

I was in a little bible study on Hebrews 1 recently.  We were looking at v3:

The Son is the radiance of God's glory

Someone asked the excellent question: "Does this mean that God couldn't shine without Jesus?"

What would you reply?

Perhaps our knee-jerk response is to say "No of course God could shine without Jesus.  He's God after all!"  Well let's hold our horses just a minute.

Athanasius and Arius had a disagreement over a very similar issue.  They both looked at verses which called Jesus "the Wisdom of God" (e.g. 1 Cor 1:24) and it led to a similar question:  Could God be wise without Jesus?

Again... how do you instinctively want to answer that question?  Don't you want to say, "Don't be silly, God is wise, Jesus is wise, the Spirit is wise - the Father doesn't need Jesus in order to be wise.  He just is wise"

Really?  But what does the verse actually say!?

Athanasius took verses like this seriously and followed them to their conclusion.  So he argues like this:

And if the Son is the “Word” and “Wisdom” of God, how was there “a time when He was not?” It is the same as if they should say that God was once without Word and without Wisdom.  (Depostion of Arius)

Here's the argument:

1. The Son is the Wisdom of the Father.

2. It is inconceivable to have the Father without wisdom.

3. The Father must have always had the Son.

Now it doesn’t take much thought to imagine the Arian come-back.  Surely Arius could simply reply that the Father has always had wisdom in Himself, i.e. considered apart from the Son.  But this was a move which Athanasius was unwilling to make.  He just took the verse at face value - Jesus is the Wisdom of God.  Thus the logic of Athanasius’ position - without which his argument fails - is that the Father must have the Son to have wisdom.  And without the Son He is not wise.

To be clear - Athanasius assumes that the Father does not have wisdom in Himself.  Rather the Father has wisdom in His Son who is His wisdom.  But, and here's the argument for the Son's eternity, God is never without His Son, indeed He is in His Son and the Son in Him.

Therefore a time without Christ is as absurd as a Father without a Son which is as absurd as a God without wisdom.  But truly God would be without wisdom if He did not always have His Son.  That's Athanasius's thinking.

And I think it's so refreshingly different to the majority of today's sytematic theologies.  So many theology books consider the divine attributes first before discussing the Persons-in-relationship.  So they build up their statements of God's perfections (whoever this God may be): "God is wise, God is powerful, God is immense."  And then they raise the issue of triunity and introduce us to the three Persons.  Of course now that they've determined what it is to be God, they'll have to convince us that all three of these Persons qualify.  So each Person must now prove that they've individually got the full complement of divine attributes.  And then, by the end of the process, we've finally got the omni-being thrice repeated.  All hail the Unoriginate!

Yet we must prefer Athanasius here.  The Persons do not have identical CV’s of God-stuff with only the Names at the top differing.  Rather the God-stuff is, irreducibly, the communal life of different Persons inter-penetrating each other in non-reversible relations.  Each Person therefore shares in the common divine life not because they've got identical CVs but because they so belong to one another that Each has a complete share in the life of the Others.  Yet their distinct giftings are properly unique to the Persons in their distinct existences as Begettor, Begotten and Proceeding.  The Son is the Wisdom of the Father.  The Father is not wise in Himself but only in the Son and by the Spirit.

Ok, now that we're thinking about this... let's touch on that old thorny issue - the ignorance of the Son about His return. (Matt 24:36)  Well, now that we're thinking in Athanasian ways, the Son's ignorance is fine, right?  I mean, clearly we don't have to go down the tortuous road of saying "He's ignorant according to His human nature, He knows according to His divine nature."  Instead, don't we just say that the Son entrusts knowledge of that day to His Father.  Simple right?

In a certain sense He has knowledge of that day because the Father does.  But much more fundamentally He's happy to depend on His Father completely such that, considered by Himself, He is ignorant.  And this doesn't make Him less divine - it reveals His true divine nature as the Sent One who goes at the Father's inititative.

I don't see a problem with this solution.  It's no more (in fact it's much less) shocking than the fact that the Father is without wisdom when considered apart from the Son.  Father and Son depend on each other (and on the Spirit - 1 Cor 2:10f)  in order to know what they know.  The Persons are not identical and they are not self-sufficient - they really do depend on each other for everything.

So then, this has been a very roundabout way of answering a simple bible study question.  But I hope we're now in a position to give a straightforward answer: Could God shine without Jesus?

No!  So it's a good thing He's never without Him.



0 thoughts on “Could God shine without Jesus?

  1. Richard Walker

    I like this!

    Does this mean that at this point you depart from T F Torrance? I read an overview of his theology this summer and as far as I remember, he seemed to be saying that the Father, Son and Spirit differ in essence in name only? That said, the person doing the reviewing could have been misrepresenting...

  2. Glen

    Hi Richard,
    I think probably Torrance put me onto Athanasius's 'Wisdom of the Father' point in the first place.

    I remember some great quotes from him about 'homoousios' being just as must a statement of distinction as unity. Let me check my own notes and get back to you.

  3. woldeyesus

    Theology takes to nonsensical heights an altruistic distinction (between Father, Son and Holy Spirit) which proves completely spurious in Christ's death on the cross.

  4. pgjackson

    'Instead, don’t we just say that the Son entrusts knowledge of that day to His Father. Simple right? In a certain sense He has knowledge of that day because the Father does. But much more fundamentally He’s happy to depend on His Father completely such that, considered by Himself, He is ignorant'

    Hi Glen. A question about the above. This doesn't really solve the 'problematic nature' (for want of a far better way of talking) of these verses does it? After all, who is this Son who can be 'considered by himself' and without his Father? Doesn't he completely possess and know the Father? Are they not mutually in-dwelling? Doesn't the Father share everything that he has and everything that he is doing with his Son? Having dodged the accusation that the verse undermines the Son's deity have we not landed in territory in which it could be said that the verse denies the inseparability of the persons (which actually, when you think about it, also mucks up the deity thing too)?

    Also, the language of 'in himself' is slippery in all this isn't it? In discussions about the Son as autotheos and eternal generation in doctrine of salvo I seem to remember that it is best used to refer not to the sense of 'in reference to the other persons' but in the sense of 'in reference to any other essence than his own.'

    Hence we can say that the Father is wise in himself, because who and what he is will and always has been indwelt by and indwelling the Son (just as the Son is 'autotheos' but he is 'autotheos' because he's eternally begotten of the Father). Hence the scriptures are perfectly willing to say that the Father is wise (Romans 11:33) as well as saying that how he is wise is because he always possesses His Wisdom.

  5. Paul Blackham

    Great stuff Glen.

    I long for the day when we might have a Trinitarian exposition of the divine attributes. I grew up enjoying and loving the great classic doctrine of God material, especially from writers like Charnock and Bavinck. I got so much from them and they showed me wonderful things. Yet, there were always concerns in my mind that somehow it did not quite fit the full picture of God that we see in Jesus.

    It was as if all the nuances and details and gems of the actual life and teaching of Jesus were almost deliberately ironed out in order to make that fit into the "bigger" context of a general doctrine of God. At the time I didn't understand all that and to me it was just a matter of puzzling over various things that Jesus said and assuming that I would understand all of it one day.

    Sometimes I have tried to think through what the love or power or knowledge or righteousness or glory of God might look like if each attribute was described entirely in terms of the work and role of the Father, Son and Spirit.

    Yet, to be honest, I lose heart. There are such deep cultural attachments to a classical general theism in English speaking theology and the structural challenges are so wide-ranging that in practice I settle for a "warmed up" general doctrine of God with as much Trinity/Jesus bits forced in as possible.

    Nevertheless, there are times when I lay awake late at night, halfway to sleep, when I do for a moment dream an impossible dream... of a doctrine of divine attributes that really did begin and end with Jesus.

  6. Glen

    Hi Richard,

    The Persons are definitely of the same essence (that's what homoousios means) but you've then got to ask the question what is the divine essence.

    Torrance often makes the point that homoousios maintains distinction as well as unity since you can't be homoousios with yourself. Therefore in "Trinitarian Faith" he says that 'homoousios' means that "the Father/Son relationship falls within the one being of God.” (p119) I like this. It puts relationship (distinction-including-and-affirming-relationship) where it belongs - as part and parcel of the divine nature.

    It's interesting to note that Nicea doesn't first come up with the concept of ousia (essence) and then apply it to the Persons equally. The first mention of ousia in the creed is to say that the Son is homoousios with the Father - and Torrance says this means “that the Son and the Father are equally God within the one being of God.” (p122). The word "within" is important in both quotations. For Torrance (and I'd say for Nicene Trinitarian theology) the being of God is constituted by the relations of the Persons in their distinct roles.

    So I think you have to say (along with Torrance) that the Persons equally have an entire share in the divine essence. But also (along with Torrance) that divine essence is about distinct Persons in relationship.

    Hi Pete,

    I'd agree (of course) that the Persons are inseparable, yet the way they share in one another's being and act is a way that maintains the distinctions of their roles. e.g. In the inseparable action of sending Christ for the salvation of the world, the Sender experiences this very differently to the Sent One and differently again from the Equipper. The Son experiences the cross differently to the other Two, e.g. the Spirit does not bear the sins of the world - He knows that atoning sacrifice in quite a different way.

    So with the second coming, I don't think inseparability means that the Son *knows* in the same way as the Father. He knows as utterly dependent Sent One - which is to say He doesn't know but entrusts such knowledge to the Father. I'm not trying to posit a Family secret here -the Son is content to leave all the initiative in His Father's hands, and so this is actually a revelation of His true divinity as Sent One.

    I'm not a fan of autotheos. I see no need for it whatsoever if the Athanasian trajectory is followed.

    Hi woldeyesus,

    "The blood of Christ... through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God." (Heb 9:14)

    Not nonsense, nor spurious - here is the true meaning of the cross!

    Hi Paul,

    Maybe your dream's not so far off. I think we're more and more in a position to rubbish the god of general theism. I think there's huge evangelistic potential in that strategy these days. But the biggest stumbling block will be getting christians to ditch their old god and start again with Jesus. But I think it may just happen. You're not the only dreamer... :)

  7. pgjackson


    I hear ya.

    But I do think there's actually a difference between what you're saying re. wisdom and then what you're saying re. the Son's knowledge.

    In one the Father is wise, but it needs to be said that he is wise precisely because he is always in possession of the Son who is his Wisdom. In the second, the Son actually doesn't know, whatever way you slice it. It's not that he does actually know but the how of his knowing must be understood in terms of the trinitarian inter-relations, it's that he actually doesn't know but we can chill about that cos he doesn't know out of trusting the Father. He actually lacks something that the Father has. It is a family secret, but the Son is ok about it. That would seem to clash with mutual in-dwelling, no?

  8. Glen

    Hi Pete

    You're right, they are different cases. But I think that helps my point (a little bit anyway). All I want to get from the Jesus=Wisdom point is that divine attributes don't work like qualifications for deity that each Person needs to identically possess. Therefore (considered by themselves) one Person's lack of a quality does not disqualify them from deity - which is what the 'Jesus cannot be ignorant and divine' argument assumes.

    I see that not you're critiquing my proposal from that exact angle - you're worried I'm not honouring mutual indwelling.

    To that I'd just return to the point that mutual indwelling *must* uphold real distinctions or else we don't have Personal community but a mush of divine essence. Therefore Christ's possession of knowledge will not be the same as the Father's or the Spirit's possession of knowledge. It will be a possession of knowledge as dependent Sent-One (not as initiating Sender or empowering Equipper). And how that sounds when you ask Him in AD30 about His return is "I don't know, my Father does."

    (Part of this discussion of course revolves around what divine knowledge looks like exactly. See, for instance, the Son's ignorance in Genesis 18 - "I'm doing a reconnaissance of Sodom to see if it's as bad as I've heard... If not, then I'll know.")

    Also my phrase 'Family secret' makes it sound like a community destroying ignorance - when in fact it is the essence of the community life of Sending and Sent.

    By the way, what's your best shot at Matt 24:36?

    God bless,


  9. pgjackson

    'By the way, what’s your best shot at Matt 24:36?'

    Hey, that's cheating. I was asking the questions not offering any! You found me out. ;)

    I guess I'm less scared by the 'traditional' line on it, since there are a whole load of experiences that are different/ new for the Son now that he is incarnate, like being able to die. Is not knowing certain things inherent to being human like being able to die? Did his taking a human nature to himself involve that just like it involved becoming mortal? And I'm comfortable that there might be points where we need to make a distinction between the Son according to human/ divine nature - he didn't stop in-dwelling/ being in-dwelt by the Father when he died on the cross did he, for example?

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  11. Perry Robinson


    I am not convinced the Son’s ignorance is any more a problem than the Son’s ineffectual human willing, in say willing to heal some, but he could not. Shall we say he has no human will along with no human ignorance? Why think that ignorance and knowledge are opposites? I know why Plato would think so, but not why a Christian would.

    The problem with the “according to his human nature” line is that it is imprecise and crypto-Nestorian. But if we take it seriously, that Christ has a human intellect, which is limited then the divine person can be said to be ignorant. One more step. The further problem comes when we inject the concept of a substance, an individual thing (not a stuff here-Aristotle’s first usage, not third.) that we have a problem, for contradictory properties cannot be true of the same substance at the level of substance. The solution is simple. Persons aren’t substances and knowledge and ignorance aren’t in opposition.

    The line you give though seems to have a somewhat implicit incarnational subordinationalism in it. That might warm Calvin’s heart, but not a Chalcedonian one since the Son is never of himself apart from the Father, not even on the Cross.

  12. Glen

    Hi Perry, not wanting incarnational subordinationalism (or any other kind). So, for instance, the Son also displays ignorance in Genesis 18:21. I don't see this as an issue to do with Christ's humanity per se.

    At that point I suppose the suspicion comes that I'm a flat out ontological subordinationist. But no, I believe the Son's glorious identity as Sent One is no less divine than the Father's as Sender - these relations mutually constituting both their Persons and the divine nature of which they both have a full share.

    I'm not trying to build my case on the Son being 'apart from the Father'. Instead I'm wanting to say that *because* He entirely depends on the Father He entrusts that knowledge to Him. By parallel, I'd say that the Son displays weakness in Himself but is strong in His total dependence on the Father and Spirit. He is able to speak about His weakness "by Himself" (John 5:19) while at the same time affirming that He never is "by Himself". So the Son both is and isn't weak. And He both is and isn't ignorant.

    Does that fly?

  13. Perry Robinson

    Hey Glenn,

    I am not convinced that the bible doesn't support some kind of subordinationalism. In fact, your view seems like a version of it. Eph 1:17 comes to mind highlighting the dependence of the Son on the Father. That does't imply essential inequality.

    I don't think Gen 18:21 is necessarily a display of ignorance any more than it implies a spatial relationship between the world and God. There is obviously more than one way to take this and the tradiiton hasn't taken it in the way you are.

    Third, your reply leaves untouched both the gloss on two intellects as well as Christ ineffectual human willing. Are we to chalk up his ineffectual willing to the divine person and his dependence relation to the Father? I don't think that works.

  14. woldeyesus

    Trespassing the mandate and validity of Scriptures by going beyond Christ's "finished" works at his diacritical death on the cross, including baptism in the Holy Spirit --the seal of the terms in the "new covenant", is a subtle diversion! (Jer. 31: 31-34; Matt. 26: 26-29, etc.)

    The "brightness of God's glory" or his exact likeness is already on record. (Ibid, 27: 50-56; John 19: 30-37)

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