T. F. Torrance on getting one’s ordos and analogias around the right way

Torrance 5‘There can be no true ordo cognoscendi (order of knowing) which is not based upon an ordo essendi (order of being) conceived entirely as grace, and the ordo essendi reaches its true destiny in the ordo cognoscendi. This is the problem of analogy as Reformed theology sees it today. The analogia entis is entirely grounded upon the analogia gratiae, and only in an analogia fidei corresponding to the analogia gratiae does the analogia entis have any truth or reality. Outside of that, the truth of God is inevitably turned into a lie’.

– Thomas F. Torrance, ‘The Word of God and the Nature of Man’, in Theology in Reconstruction (London: SCM, 1965), 116.

George Dion Dragas and an appreciation of T.F. Torrance

As one who sometimes finds himself bemoaning the fact that he has not yet been able to attend a gathering of the T.F. Torrance Theological Fellowship, I was delighted to discover tonight, via Alvin Kimel, a talk given at last year’s meeting by the Orthodox theologian George Dion Dragas. Reverend Dragas was a student of Tom Torrance, and many of the themes that characterised TF’s own work are evident here in this warm hearted presentation.

Plus the Q&A:

Participatio is out

Torrance_4The latest edition of Participatio, the journal of the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship, is now available. It includes an extended article by Bob Walker on the relationship between the incarnation and the atonement in TF‘s theology, as well as pieces (some quite dated) by Baxter Kruger, David Fergusson, Victor Shepherd and Paul Molnar.

While I’m thinking of Torrance, those looking for some advent reading would do well to consider journeying with, among other of TF’s work, TF’s New College lectures published as Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, or his brilliant study on the Nicene Creed published as The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Faith (which was my own entrée to TF’s thought), or his extraordinary shorter book The Mediation of Christ.

Papers on TF Torrance

The journal Theology in Scotland has just published a special issue devoted to papers given at two recent day conferences marking the publication of the two-volume edition of Prof. T.F. Torrance’s dogmatics lectures.

The issue’s contents are a mix of academic papers on aspects of Torrance’s work and personal reminiscences by several of his former students. Also featured is a fascinating exchange of letters between T.F. Torrance and the distinguished American philosopher Brand Blanshard on the reception of the theologies of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner.

The special issue is priced at GBP12.50 including p&p, and is available from the University of St Andrews online shop or by sending a cheque payable to ‘University of St Andrews’ to Production Manager, Theology in Scotland, St Mary’s College, St Andrews, Fife KY16 9JU, Scotland.

 

 

 

Aquinas, Luther and Calvin on the role of the priest in the eucharist

While in the current of writing a lecture on the Eucharist, I have been enjoying intincting – and, in some cases, re-intincting – into some great books: William T. Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, Angel F. Mendez Montoya’s The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist, Stephen Sykes’ Power and Christian Theology, among them. William Stringfellow’s essay ‘Liturgy as Political Event’ is also wonderful. I’m also enjoying George Hunsinger’s The Eucharist and Ecumenism: Let Us Keep the Feast, a book that deserves a very close read and is certainly among the boldest and most important studies available on the subject.

Hunsinger notes that Thomas Aquinas, who was among the most impressive of the pre-Reformation theologians, understood the role of the priest in the eucharist as in some sense mediating between Christ and the faithful. In other words, for Thomas, the priest was the central figure in the eucharistic sacrifice. So Hunsinger writes: ‘‘He [i.e., the priest] acted both “in the person of Christ” (in persona Christi) as well as “in the person of the church” (in persona ecclesiae) (ST 3.82.8). In the person of Christ, he consecrated the sacrament. In the person of the church, he offered Christ in prayer to God (ST 3.82.8). Whatever the priest did when acting in the person of Christ was taken up in turn by the people (ST 3.83.4). The priest’s union with Christ, however, was different than it was for the laity. “Devout layfolk are one with Christ by spiritual union through faith and charity,” explained Aquinas, but the priest was one with Christ “by sacramental power” (ST, 3.82.1). At his ordination the priest had received a special status, “the power of offering sacrifice in the church for the living and the dead” (ST 3.82.1). The priest was set apart from the people, and above them, by virtue of this sacramental power’ (pp. 114–5).

Luther, of course, would radically qualify – or extend – this notion in his argument that the priest symbolised the priesthood of all believers, while possessing no special powers of consecration and sacrifice in and of himself. Luther stated:

‘Thus it becomes clear that it is not the priest alone who offers the sacrifice of the mass; it is the faith which each one has for himself. This is the true priestly office, through which Christ is offered as a sacrifice to God, an office which the priest, with the outward ceremonies of the mass, simply represents. Each and all are, therefore, equally priests before God . . . For faith must do everything. Faith alone is the true priestly office. It permits no one to take its place. Therefore all Christian men are priests, all women are priestesses, be they young or old, master or servant, mistress or maid, learned or unlearned. Here there is no difference unless faith be unequal’. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35: Word and Sacrament 1 (ed. J.J. Pelikan, et al.; vol. 35; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 100–1.

Hunsinger, in Eucharist and Ecumenism, properly notes that Luther upheld the idea of grace alone by combining christological mediation with communal participation:

‘The believer and the community can be said to offer Christ by participating in Christ’s own self-offering, which in turn mediates them into eternal life with God. Inclusion in Christ’s priestly self-offering is at once the promise and the consequence of grace. At the same time, the place of the priest in the mass has been radically redefined. Christ the eternal priest does not operate in and through the visible priest, nor does the priest offer Christ as the invisible victim through the bread and the cup. The bread and the cup, for Luther, are the sacramental but not the sacrificial body and blood of Christ. That is, they are not the means of reciprocal self-offering to God by Christ, priest, and people. They are not the eucharistic means by which Christ is offered up. The bread and cup are simply a pledge of Christ’s faithfulness to his promises. It is not the priest but the faith of each believer that offers Christ to God. The role of the priest is simply to symbolize by outward ceremonies the one true priestly office, which is faith’. (p. 135)

The Reformed, following Calvin and the best of those who spoke in his wake, sought to witness to how the cross and the eucharist are held in a unity that does not violate but reinforces their distinction via two forms: The constitutive form is the cross while the mediating form is the eucharist. ‘The cross is always central, constitutive, and definitive, while the eucharist is always secondary, relative, and derivative. The eucharistic form of the one sacrifice does not repeat the unrepeatable, but it does attest what it mediates and mediate what it attests. What it mediates and attests is the one whole Jesus Christ, who in his body and blood is both the sacrifice and the sacrament in one. As the sacrifice, he is the Offerer and the Offering. As the sacrament, he is the Giver and the Gift. The Son’s sacrificial offering of himself to the Father for us on the cross is the ground of the Father’s sacramental gift of his Son to the faithful in the eucharist’ (Ibid. 151). As TF Torrance has shown in Theology in Reconciliation, the cross is the ‘dimension of depth’ in the eucharist. The eucharist has no significance in and of itself. Its significance is both derived and grounded in the cross. The cross alone is, as TF Torrance notes, the saving ‘content, reality and power’ of the eucharist. It is to this that the Reformed minister and church directs our gaze.

It was precisely such a position which led PT Forsyth, the theologian of the cross, in his lectures on The Church and the Sacraments, to offer the following statement:

The Lord’s Supper is the most complete and plenary of all the cultic ways of confessing the work of reconciliation, where the sin of humanity is conquered by the grace of God in a holy Kingdom. It is therefore the real centre of the Church’s common and social life. This should not be sought in social reunions, or ecclesiastical monarchy, or philanthropic cohesion, but in the spiritual region, in the worship, and the theology moulding it. For here we are summoned to what is our vital centre deep within all the individual wills that wish to unite, to what is the centre of the faith that makes the new Humanity, and to the goal which rounds all’. (p. 260)

 

 

Interviews

The folks over at Grace Communion International have recently uploaded the following interviews:

Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance: A Review

A Review of Myk Habets, Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (Ashgate New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies; Surrey: Ashgate, 2009), x + 212 pp. ISBN 978-0-7546-6799-5; EISBN: 978-0-7546-9407-6

This book represents the published version of Myk Habets’ PhD dissertation recently completed at the University of Otago under the supervision of Ivor Davidson. In the Introduction, Habets offers a brief outline of the history of the doctrine of theosis (or “divinisation” or “deification”) in both the Eastern Church (represented by Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, Symeon the New Theologian, Nicholas Cabasilas and Gregory Palamas) and in that of the West (here he considers Augustine, Aquinas, the Finnish School of Luther interpretation, John Calvin – in whose thought the notion of theosis finds its voice in the grammar of “union with Christ” – the Oxford Movement, the Wesleys and modern Pentecostalism). He suggests that T.F. Torrance functions as something of a mediating theologian insofar as his soteriology betrays a “creative continuity” (8) with both Eastern and Western notions of atonement and gathers them around “the controlling metaphor of theosis” (ix).

Through an examination of Torrance’s doctrines of creation, anthropology, incarnation, reconciliation and spirit-ecclesiology, Habets identifies that while theosis is not the central point of Torrancean soteriology, and that “direct references to theosis within Torrance’s work are relatively few” (14), (Torrance prefers to employ the grammar of “union,” “communion,” “participation,” “atoning exchange,” etc.), “it is a necessarily crucial integrating theme within his overall theological oeuvre” (16). Habets’ study examines these themes in their theological contexts and concludes that “what emerges is a complex but coherent Torrancean doctrine of theosis,” albeit one which raises “critical questions, deficiencies, and indications for further study” (15–16).

Chapter One explores Torrance’s claim in The Christian Doctrine of God that creation is “proleptically conditioned by redemption,” that from the beginning creation’s telos is both revealed and actualised in the incarnation. With striking clarity, Habets outlines the mutual history that creation and redemption share, a history which is brought together in a creative synthesis in Torrance’s doctrine of theosis. This work of theosis is the purpose of Holy Love’s gracious determination to not live for himself alone but to bring into being an-other, namely creation, which might share, in Torrance’s words, “the Communion of Love” which constitutes the Triune life. This, Torrance insists in the aforementioned book, is the “secret of the creation, hidden from the ages” but has now in Christ “become disclosed to us” (218), secured in the act of God’s incarnation, and fruited in the human experience of redemption which comes as the gift of the Holy Spirit. Habets contends that while “Christ is central to creation as a whole, [and] not simply to humanity” (27), humanity is given “the function and privilege” to assist creation to both “realise and evidence its rational order and beauty and thus to express God” and to “realise its priestly vocation, in order to bring forth the requisite praise that God deserves” (45).

In Chapter Two, Habets attends to the core of Torrance’s theology – Jesus Christ – and he outlines the redemptive nature of the Incarnation and how, for Torrance, Christ’s entire life concerns the work of divinisation. Rehearsing the central motifs in Torrance’s christology (namely, the retrospective/prospective aspects of the atonement, the homoousion, the vicarious humanity, mediation, and ascension of Christ, etc.), Habets recalls Torrance’s indebtment to the Greek Fathers in “constructing a doctrine of theosis around two distinct but interrelated movements” that take place in the hypostatic union (a doctrine with significant epistemological currency in Torrance’s thought), namely the “divinising” of the human nature of the Logos and the subsequent application of this to the human subject in “deification” (55). So Habets: “In the person of Jesus Christ we see true humanity partaking of true Divinity by nature in such a way that by union, communion, and theosis with Christ by the Spirit we too, by grace, can participate in the divine nature” (62). The ultimate achievement of this divinising action is reached in the ascension of the Son: “As a man, Jesus Christ has perfect fellowship with God, and because of the eternity of the hypostatic union, the one person of the Son is in the ‘place’ (topos) and ‘space’ (chora) of humanity in and with God” (89). While otherwise sympathetic to Torrance’s theology, Habets charges Torrance with a “lack of detailed attention to actual historical life of Christ” (83), with misrepresenting patristic sources, with embracing a form of divine passibility which leaves his christology too ambiguous at points (see 84–7), and, more substantially, with a deficient and underdeveloped pneumatology, particularly that as concerns the bond of union in Christ’s theandric nature. On the latter, Habets contends that Torrance’s over-correction of Edward Irving’s apparent Ebionite christology leads to Torrance going “too far in the direction of Alexandrian christology” (74) and so under-emphasising the atoning work of the Spirit in Christ’s life.

Habets turns, in Chapter Three, to examine the dynamics of how believers are brought into relationship with God. He properly highlights Torrance’s indebtment to Calvin (and to Barth) and argues that the Church’s doctrines of theosis are compatible with Reformed theology’s understanding of participation. In many ways, the discussion on union with Christ (97–115) takes us to the very heart of the Reformed account of the doctrine of theosis that Torrance represents. This informs Habets’ thesis that theosis functions as a “controlling metaphor that gives coherence to the disparate themes of Torrance’s soteriology” (94). Some readers may feel that Habets has overplayed his hand in proposing that the doctrine of union with Christ is determined by a deeper and distinct-though-related doctrine of theosis within Torrance’s theology; others, that Habets has not made his case, or that he remains too uncritical of the character of theosis that Torrance outlines and whether it remains too incompatible with the Reformed ontology with which Torrance otherwise operates. Habets is not unaware of these criticisms, however, and devotes some ink to wrestling with them. Throughout, Habets consistently avers that the hypostatic union means that humanity’s centre and God’s coincide, that in Christ the Triune God and humanity dwell in each other in mutual personal satisfaction in such a way that humanity is gathered up into the space of the triune community but without loss of creaturely status, nor blurring of the Creator–creature distinctives.

Pneumatology and ecclesiology are the subjects of Chapter Four, “Community and Communion.” Here Habets, in the most constructive of the book’s chapters, argues for the indispensability of an adequate pneumatology (which is “perhaps the least examined aspect of Torrance’s theology” (140)) for a doctrine of theosis as “it is here that the reality of the believer’s participation in the divine nature emerges” (139). He notes that the same Holy Spirit who equips and enables the incarnate Son to offer the “wonderful exchange” for us is also the “bond of love who unites believers to the incarnate Son and enables them to be drawn into the life of God” as well as “the bond of communion who constitutes the church as the locus of theosis” (139; cf. 168–70). Habets (tentatively) agrees with Jason Yeung’s assessment (in Being and Knowing: An Examination of T.F. Torrance’s Christological Science) that while Torrance is right to never isolate pneumatology from christology, Torrance’s pneumatology remains under-developed. Moreover, Habets charges that Torrance’s robust emphasis on the objective elements of soteriology are not matched by corresponding subjective aspects. He recalls the gracious action of God who in/by/with the Spirit unites the Church to the response, obedience, faith and worship of Jesus, and raises that communion up in Christ to participate in heaven’s worship and in the eternal communion of the triune family. Put short, “theosis is worship from beginning to end, for it is an active participation in Jesus Christ made possible by the Spirit” (192). The “central ecclesial acts” in which “theosis occurs” (170), Habets notes of Torrance’s thought, is in Baptism and Eucharist. “Participation in the sacraments is … the path to participation in the divine nature, a mystery of the faith that unites the believer to Christ by the Spirit” (184). Baptism functions as “the liturgical mediation of forgiveness” (176), as the event through which believers participate in the incarnate Son’s theopoiesis, and as that action which “inaugurates theosis in the believer” (178). Habets understands that the Eucharist, like Baptism, is a mediating rather than a constitutive form of God’s saving action. Moreover, it is a form in which Christ’s real presence reflects the hypostatic movement evident in the incarnation and in Christ’s priestly work. In answering the question “How close is the union that believers have with God in theosis by means of the Eucharist?”, Habets recalls Torrance’s claim that “No union, save that of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, could be closer, without passing into absolute identity, than that between Christ and His Church as enacted in the Holy Eucharist” (182).

The book’s conclusion draws together and recapitulates the main themes of the study before naming some concerns that the author has about some details of his subject’s theology, evidencing that Habets is a grateful though not uncritical reader of Torrance. Habets remains unconvinced, for example, of Torrance’s insistence that Christ assumed fallen human nature, that Torrance has done enough to articulate the compatibility between the model of theosis he is proposing and a Reformed doctrine of justification by faith, and that Torrance’s theology of unio mystica is pneumatalogically sufficient in those areas where the concern presses beyond epistemology. Moreover, Habets believes that Torrance’s theology of theosis, while compatible with the Church’s teaching and with contemporary scholarship, requires additional maturity, sophistication and some “specific discussion beyond that which he provides of what theosis ‘looks like’ in everyday life” (189).

While the book could do with an additional proofread and edit (there are a number of typographical and grammatical errors, particularly in the footnotes), it joins work by Colyer, McGrath, Dawson and Molnar as an insightful and clear introduction to Torrance’s extensive oeuvre, and makes a real contribution to ongoing conversations about the shape and location that the Christian doctrine of theosis assumes in systematic and ecumenical theology, and in theological anthropology.

[An edited version of this review is to appear in Colloquium in due course]

Lectures by T.F. Torrance, Interview with Trevor Hart

Grace Communion International have made available for download T.F. Torrance’s lectures on the Ground And Grammar Of Theology. These were given in 1981 at Fuller Theological Seminary.

They have also uploaded a recent interview with Dr. Trevor Hart, in which Trevor (who was my Doktorvater) talks with characteristic clarity about the theology of Karl Barth, and about the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

You can watch the interview here.

Preparing for Ascension Sunday

‘[F]aith exists not only in hope in the epiphany of Christ; it is bound up with the veiling of Christ, with the ascension, and here we come back to the other reason for the ascension or the purposed withdrawal of Christ from sight. Faith can exist only where there is a gap, an eschatological reserve, between the present and the future, between actual participation in the kingdom here and now and the future manifestation of its glory. Let us consider it like this. If Jesus had manifested his full divine glory on earth so that men and women were confronted face to face with the ultimate majesty of God, then they would have been damned on the spot; they would have been face to face with the final judgement. But the veiling of his ultimate glory meant that Jesus was giving people a chance to repent; he was holding them at arm’s length away, so to speak, giving them time to repent, room for decision. He came veiling his glory, yet revealing himself obliquely, so as to give people enough light to believe but not enough finally to blind them or judge them. That is why he refused to give a compelling demonstration of himself, but sought to evoke faith. Faith is not sight, but faith answers to revelation that is yet only in part, for faith exists in the gap between partial and final manifestation. Faith is, therefore, essentially eschatological in its inner nature.

Now the ascension means that Jesus Christ has withdrawn himself from sight and history in order to allow the whole world time for repentance. He holds back the final unveiling of his glory and majesty, holds back the final judgement when there will be no time to repent, and when, as the Apocalypse puts it, the person that is filthy will be filthy still. That gap between the times is the eschatological time when this present age is already interpenetrated by the age to come, but it is time when the new age in all its glory is as yet veiled from sight, in order to leave room to preach the gospel and give all opportunity for repentance and faith. Thus the world-mission of the church is part of God’s grace, for it is God’s grace alone that keeps back the dissolution of this age’. – Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (ed. Robert T. Walker; Downers Grove: IVP Academic/Paternoster, 2009), 434–5.

‘As [Jesus] ascends, creation is healed. The gulf between heaven and earth caused by human sin is bridged; the rift of our ancient wound is closed. The ‘flesh of man’ is able to go where it was always intended but had ever been prevented since the Fall – into the courts of heaven and the immediate presence of God. This is the foretaste of ‘the glorious freedom of the children of God’ in which the entire creation will be ‘liberated from its bondage to decay’ (Romans 8:21). The ascending, triumphant King is the firstfruit of the new creation. Such is the victory procession of the ascension … The victory of Jesus, celebrated in the ascension, inaugurates his reign as the God-human enthroned at the right hand of the Father. This economy will continue until the entire creation in Christ Jesus, led by Christ Jesus, submits to the Father and the Triune God again fills all in all. The ascension, then, is the promise of a more complete victory. Our King has gone forth to his throne; he will come again in splendour. In this hope, the church has found its identity in the world, and the more the church has embraced the place of its ascended Lord, the more it has advanced his kingdom …

For the present situation of the church, a proper doctrine of the ascension preserves the vital core of historic orthodox Christology: Jesus who walked among us was, and is, truly a man, and also fully God. The ascension provides the narrative structure upon which the clothing of the doctrine may be hung. For the ascension locates our understanding of the person of Christ squarely within Jesus-history. Our doctrines are not merely speculations imposed on Jesus, but rather arise from reflection upon what happened to Jesus as well as what he said and did. We find, to our relief and felicity, that the historical frame bears the full weight of the Christology.

In fact, the doctrine of the ascension keeps us from collapsing our understanding of the person of Christ into any of the Christological distortions of the present age. For not only does Jesus continue now in our flesh, he continues in his divinity. The fully human Jesus is and ever shall be fully God. The Son of God from eternity, in the fullness of time, took our humanity up into himself as he became incarnate in Jesus. Now, he will keep our humanity in himself beyond all time. So we may joyfully resonate with the doxology of Professor [Hugh Ross] Mackintosh, who frequently declared: ‘When I look into the face of Jesus Christ and see the face of God, I know that I have not seen that face elsewhere and could not see it elsehow, for he and the Father are one’. The ascension as an essential part of the story of Jesus protects the doctrine of his person against the pluralizing tendencies of our culture. The ascension was a singular event (as was, of course, the resurrection and indeed the whole course of Christ’s sojourn with us) that demands a proper understanding of Jesus to account for it. I believe Professor Mackintosh would agree that not only ‘if we regard him as Saviour’ but also if we regard Jesus as ascended, ‘we must see him at the centre of all things. We must behold him as the pivotal and cardinal reality, round which all life and history have moved. That is a place out of which his Person simply cannot be kept’. When we know the triumphant Jesus as continuing in his full humanity and divinity through the ascension, we are open to the splendour of the riches of understanding him as our head and firstfruits …’. – Gerrit Scott Dawson, Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation (London/Phillipsburg: T&T Clark/P&R Publishing, 2004), 71, 72, 90–1.

John Webster on T.F. Torrance on Scripture [updated]

In his recent lecture on ‘T.F. Torrance on Scripture’ (presented in Montreal, 6 November 2009, at the Annual Meeting of the T.F. Torrance Theological Fellowship), Professor John Webster argued that Torrance’s most sustained writing on Scripture lay not in extended cursive exegesis but rather in ‘epistemological and hermeneutical questions – in giving a theological account of the nature of the biblical writings and of the several divine and human acts which compose the economy of revelation’ (p. 1). Such an account requires the theologian to both develop an anatomy of modern reason, in order to expose a ‘damaging breach in the ontological bearing of our minds upon reality’ (Reality & Evangelical Theology, 10), and to make an attempt at ‘repairing the ontological relation of the mind to reality, so that a structural kinship arises between human knowing and what is known’ (ibid., 10). Webster contends that Torrance’s writings on these matters constitute ‘one of the most promising bodies of material on a Christian theology of the Bible and its interpretation from a Protestant divine of the last five or six decades – rivalled but not surpassed’, Webster suggests, ‘by Berkouwer’s magisterial study Holy Scripture’ (p. 1).

Webster devotes the bulk of his paper to three related areas of Torrance’s thought on Scripture: namely, that (i) Scripture must be ordered from a trinitarian theology of revelation; (ii) that the biblical writings are complex textual acts of reference to the Word of God; and (iii) that the Bible directs its readers to ‘a hermeneutics of repentance and faith’ (p. 4).

On this first point, Webster notes that ‘a theological account of the nature of Scripture and its interpretation takes its rise … not in observations of the immanent religious and literary processes, as if the texts could be understood as self-articulations on the part of believing communities, but in the doctrine of the self-revealing triune God. Torrance is unhesitatingly and unrelentingly a positive dogmatician at this point, in a couple of senses. First, and most generally, he takes revelation as a given condition for the exercise of theological intelligence, not as a matter about which intelligence is competent to entertain possibilities or deliver a judgment … Second, more specifically, Torrance’s positivity concerns the way in which knowledge of God, including knowledge of God through Holy Scripture – arises from the specific modes in which God deals with rational creatures’ (pp. 4–5). In support of this claim, Webster cites from (among other sources) Torrance’s Divine Meaning:

‘The source of all our knowledge of God is his revelation of himself. We do not know God against his will, or behind his back, as it were, but in accordance with the way in which he as elected to disclose himself and communicate his truth in the historical theological context of the worshipping people of God, the Church of the Old and New Covenants. That is the immediate empirical fact with which the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New testaments are bound up’ (Divine Meaning, 5).

Such a move, Webster recalls, enables Torrance to develop an account of revelation in which the relation of divine communication to the biblical texts is not fundamentally problematic, but rather is one in which ‘creaturely media can fittingly perform a service in relation to the intelligible speech of God’ (p. 6). He continues:

‘It was this, perhaps more than any other factor, which led to his estrangement from mainstream British theological culture, preoccupied as it was both in biblical and doctrinal work with the supposedly self -ontained realities of Christian texts, beliefs and morals, struggling to move beyond historical immanence, and weakened by a largely inoperative theology of the incarnation. Torrance was able to overcome the inhibitions of his contemporaries by letting a theology of the divine economy instruct him in the way in which God acts in the temporal and intelligible domain of the creature’. (p. 6)

Webster proceeds to note that the ultimate ground of Torrance’s claim that only God speaks of God is the Word’s assumption of flesh, an event which ‘carries with it the election and sanctification of creaturely form’ (p. 7). He concludes the section by underscoring Torrance’s refusal to be ‘trapped either by the kind of revelatory supernaturalism in which the Bible is unproblematically identical with the divine Word, and so effectively replaces the hypostatic union, or the kind of naturalism in which the Bible mediates nothing because it has been secularised as without residue a product or bearer of immanent religious culture’ (p. 8).

In the next section, Webster recalls how for Torrance the relation between the divine Word and the human words of Scripture is a positive one: ‘there is no crisis about the possibility of human text acts serving in God’s personal activity of self-presentation to intelligent creatures’ (p. 9). At this point the doctrine of Scripture exhibits similar formal features as does that of the hypostatic union. And Webster goes on to identify three ways in which Torrance amplifies this basic proposal: (1) Scripture as an accommodated divine Word (a theme that betrays Torrance’s indebtment to Calvin); (2) Scripture as sacrament; (3) Scripture’s expressive or referential relation to the divine Word. On the first, divine accommodation, Webster writes:

‘A theology of accommodation is a way of overcoming the potential agnosticism or scepticism which can lurk within strong teaching about the ineffable majesty of God. Doctrines of divine transcendence can paralyse theological speech, severing the connection between theologia in se and theologia nostra, and cause theology either to retreat into silence or to resign itself to the referential incapacity of secular human words. If, however, we think of divine revelation actively accommodating itself to creaturely forms, we make use of language about divine action, but without the assumption that divine action can only be efficacious an trustworthy if it is direct and immediate, uncontaminated by any created element. We retain, that is, a measure of trust that divine communicative activity is uninhibited by creaturely media, which it can take into its service and shape into fitting (though never wholly adequate) instruments. In terms of the doctrine of Holy Scripture, this means that, although we do not receive the Word of God directly but only ‘in the limitation and imperfection, the ambiguities and contradictions of our fallen ways of thought and speech’ (Divine Meaning, 8), nevertheless we do have the divine Word. Creaturely limitation, imperfection, ambiguity and contradiction do not constitute an unsurpassable barrier to the Word as it makes itself present to created intelligence … Divine appropriation, moreover, brings with it the transformation of creaturely speech, its transposition into a new field of operation and its being accorded a new set of semantic functions’ (pp. 11, 13).

In the next section, Webster turns to the question of biblical interpretation, where he allows the agenda to be set by Torrance’s own questions; namely, What is biblical interpretation’s most characteristic posture before the divine Word? What is the general tenor of its activity? From whence does it come, and to what end does it move? How does it come to learn to dispose itself fittingly in the domain of the divine Word? Webster recalls that for Torrance, the governing rule for the interpretation of Scripture is that the Scriptures ‘are to be interpreted in terms of the intrinsic intelligibility given them by divine revelation, and within the field of God’s objective self-communication in Jesus Christ’ (The Christian Doctrine of God, 43). He later cites from Torrance’s brilliant Reality & Evangelical Theology, noting that for Torrance theological interpretation is, therefore, a matter of ‘subjecting the language used to the realities it signifies and attend[ing] to the bearing of its coherent patterns upon the self-revelation of God which it manifestly intends’ (Reality & Evangelical Theology, 117). Webster concludes that ‘because of this, hermeneutics is not a poetic activity. The interpreter is not a co-creator of meaning by the work which he or she undertakes with the text. And so, in biblical hermeneutics the interpreter’s task is more than anything to receive with the right kind of pliability the gift of meaning which the divine Word extends through the text’s service. It is this all-important alertness to the text’s relation to the reality which it signifies which constitutes the scientific character of biblical hermeneutics … If the all-important property of the Bible is the semantic relation between divine Word and created text, the all-important hermeneutical activity is that of probing behind or beneath literary phenomena in order to have dealings with that which the phenomena indicate. The “depth – surface” language, that is, goes hand in hand with what has already been said of Scripture as sign or sacrament: the movement of which the Bible is part does not terminate in itself, and the interpreter must not be arrested by the merely phenomenal, but instead press through the text to the Word of which it is the ambassador’ (p. 16, 17).

A gravely important point. Webster does not, unfortunately, unpack the claim about poetic activity, nor does he proceed to relate this directly to preaching, and to what sense (if any) preaching – and, indeed, the Church’s entire liturgical witness – entails poetic action, that divine speech in Scripture calls not only for ‘crucifixion and repentance’ (Divine Meaning, 8) but also for a rigorous affirmation of the imagination, not as, to be sure, a ‘co-creator of meaning’ or where readers and hearers might be said to ‘make’ meaning, but as part of the Word’s faithful and sanctifying unveiling. Is imagination somehow not included in the claim, made earlier, that the Word’s assumption of flesh ‘carries with it the election and sanctification of creaturely form’ (p. 7)? I think here of Brueggemann’s Finally Comes The Poet, of Nicholas Lash’s Holiness, Speech and Silence (see, for example, pp. 3–4), and, indeed, of Torrance’s own The Mediation of Christ. Unless I have misunderstood Webster here, surely this is a matter of both/and. So Trevor Hart:

‘We must insist, to be sure, that God’s self-revealing initiative (in Scripture, in his own self-imaging in his Son, and in his personal indwelling of the church in his Spirit) be taken absolutely seriously and accounted for adequately in Christian discipleship and theological construction. Yet we must also acknowledge the vital roles played by imagination in laying hold of the reality of this same God and in enabling our response to God’s engagement with us. For faith, as evangelicals above all know very well, is a relationship with God that transforms and transfigures. It is a relationship in which the Father’s approach in Word and Spirit calls forth from us ever and again imaginative responses as we seek to interpret, to “make sense” of, and to correspond appropriately with what we hear God saying to us. It is not a matter of having a divine image impressed on us like tablets of wax but of having our imagination taken captive and being drawn into a divine drama, playing out the role that the Father grants us in the power of the Spirit, whom he pours out on the entire group of players’. – Trevor A. Hart, ‘Imagining Evangelical Theology’, in Evangelical Futures: A Conversation on Theological Method (ed. J. G. Stackhouse, Jr.; Grand Rapids/Leicester/Vancouver: Baker Books/Inter-Varsity Press/Regent College Publishing, 2000), 197–8.

Professor Hart, who has, I think, engaged with these questions more deeply and more satisfactorily than most in recent centuries, has argued elsewhere that imagination remains a key category for any discourse about themes eschatological, that in order to make sense of the kind of hopeful living towards God’s future that Scripture bears witness to demands that we take the imagination seriously. ‘One of the key functions of imagination is the presentation of the otherwise absent. In other words, we have the capacity through imagination to call to mind objects, persons or states of affairs which are other than those which appear to confront us in what, for want of a better designation, we might call our “present actuality” (i.e. that which we are currently experiencing). I do not say “reality” precisely because the real itself may well prove to be other than what appears to be actual’. He continues: ‘Another key role of imagination in human life is as the source of the capacity to interpret, to locate things within wider patterns or networks of relationships which are not given, but which we appeal to tacitly in making sense of things. We see things as particular sorts of things, and this is, in substantial part, an imaginative activity. And, since more than one way of seeing or taking things is often possible, what appears to be the case may actually change with an imaginative shift of perspective, rendering a quite distinct picture of the real’. – Trevor Hart, ‘Imagination for the Kingdom of God? Hope, Promise, and the Transformative Power of an Imagined Future’ in God Will Be All In All: The Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann (ed. Richard Bauckham; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 54. In other words, the present, Hart insists, does not contain its full meaning within itself, but only in its relation to what is yet to come.

It is precisely imagination, the capacity which is able to take the known and to modify it in striking and unexpected ways, which offers us the opportunity to think beyond the limits of the given, to explore states of affairs which, while they are radical and surprising modifications of the known, are so striking and surprising as to transcend the latent possibilities and potentialities of the known. If, therefore, the promise of God is the source of hope, it may be that we must pursue the suggestion that it is the imagination of men and women to which that promise appeals, which it seizes and expands, and which is the primary locus of God’s sanctifying activity in human life. (Hart, ‘Imagination’, 76)

Returning back to Torrance (and to Webster), it seems to me that the graced value of the imagination is not necessarily excluded from Torrance’s own rigorous scientific method, though, as Tony Clark has argued in a 2006 paper given at St Mary’s College, St Andrews, Torrance does have a tendency to see the scientific nature of theology as an exclusive paradigm for theological knowledge and in this the Scottish Presbyterian ‘discounts or marginalises other approaches to theology which ought properly to complement the “scientific model”’. [BTW: I heartily commend the published version of Clark’s PhD thesis, Divine Revelation and Human Practice: Responsive and Imaginative Participation]. If Webster’s point that hermeneutics is not a poetic activity is simply to underscore the basic unilateral givenness of the text then I can have no problem with his statement, but if by this claim he means to suggest that ‘the scientific character of biblical hermeneutic’ takes place apart from human imagination, then I would want to suggest otherwise.

To be sure, Webster touches on something of this in the final section of his lecture wherein he alludes to ‘a theology of the Word’s majestic freedom and condescension in appropriating and adapting created speech to revelation’ (p. 24), but he leaves this point undeveloped, electing instead to focus on Torrance’s trumpeting of ‘a genealogy of exegetical and interpretative reason … not only to give a pathology of hermeneutical defect but also to retrieve a set of useable dogmatic, metaphysical and spiritual principles by which to direct the interpretative exercise’ (p. 25).

My relatively-small reservation aside, Professor Webster’s paper is a superb introduction to Torrance on Scripture, and betrays his own longlasting engagement with questions of Scripture and hermeneutics, most obviously in Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch but also in other places. It certainly rekindled my appetite for Webster’s own forthcoming commentary on Ephesians (as part of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series). Many thanks to the TF Torrance Theological Fellowship for making Professor Webster’s paper widely available.

The Triune God and the stratification of truth

My previous two posts invite some reflection on where theological thought begins. Here I want to suggest (taking my cues from TF Torrance, and drawing heavily on McGrath’s less-than-brilliant biography on Torrance) that theological reflection, or theological science, begins by immersion within the Christian community and its practices of worship and prayer. Here the believer absorbs the grammar of Christian faith, shares what Torrance calls its ‘evangelical and doxological’ experience, and begins to appreciate the ‘evangelical pattern or economy of the redeeming acts of God in Jesus Christ’ (The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons, 98, 91). In other words, the basis upon which Christian theological reflection takes place concerns ecclesiology, christology and soteriology.

Consider the following statements about levels – or layers – of truth in the natural sciences:

… knowledge is gained not in the flat, as it were, by reading it off the surface of things, but in a multi-dimensional way in which we grapple with a range of intelligible structures that spread out far before us. In our theoretic constructions we rise through level after level of organized concepts and statements to their ultimate ontological ground, for our concepts and statements are true only as they rest in the last resort upon being itself. – Thomas F. Torrance, Reality and Scientific Theology (Theology and Science at the Frontiers of Knowledge; Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985), 136.

We start with our ordinary experience in which we operate already with some sort of order in our thought which is essential for our understanding of the world around us and for rational behaviour within it. We assume that the world is intelligible and accessible to rational knowledge … we operate on the assumption that by means of thought we can understand in some real measure the relations between events and grasp their orderly sequence and consistent structure. – Reality and Scientific Theology, 147.

This initial perception of orderedness and structure, however, turns out, for Torrance, to be a starting point for a more penetrating and discerning investigation in which successive layers of truth are identified and uncovered, and their inner relationships established. One of the most helpful areas explored by Torrance concerns how our knowing God differs from how we know anything else. Consider this (lengthy) quote:

[When it comes to our knowledge of God] we have to reckon with a considerable difference between the kind of knowledge that obtains in physical science, for the created universe does not disclose or declare itself to us as God does – otherwise it would not be the creaturely or contingent reality that it is. The universe does reveal itself to our inquiries in its own limited reality, in correspondingly limited ways, but it is quite unable to explain itself or to yield any final account of the fact of its astonishing intelligibility, and so at these limits the universe by its finite nature simply turns a blank face to our questions. In contrast, God opens himself to us and informs us of himself in a way that no created being can. Even though he retains behind a veil of ineffability the infinite mystery of his uncreated Being, he nevertheless unveils himself to us as the transcendent Source and sustaining Ground of all created being and created intelligibility, and therefore of all our knowing of him as well as of the universe he has made.

Moreover, the Being of God is made known to us as Subject-being, not just as Object-being over against us. As Subject-being he is the Creator and Ground of all other subject-beings, who sustains them in relation to himself as personal rational agents enabled to have communion with him. That is to say, God interacts personally and intelligibly with us and communicates himself to us in such a personalising or person-constituting way that he establishes relations of intimate reciprocity between us and himself, within which our knowing of God becomes interlocked with God’s knowing of us. In fact our knowledge of God thus mediated is allowed to share in God’s knowledge of himself. An ellipse of knowing, so to speak, is set up within which God’s uncreated Intelligibility and our creaturely intelligibility, God’s self-witness and our human understanding, are correlated, so that there arises among us within the conditions of our earthly and temporal existence authentic knowledge of God in which God’s self-revealing is met by human acknowledgment and reception, and in such a way that our knowing of him, however inadequate, is made to repose ultimately on the free creative ground of God’s own Subject-being.

Nevertheless when all this is admitted it still remains the case that God confronts and interacts with us as he who is utterly transcendent over all our knowing of him, infinitely inexhaustible in the Truth and Intelligibility of his own eternal Being. As such the Reality of God ever remains the Source of all our authentic concepts of him and the unchanging Ground of all our faithful formalisations of his revelation. God himself does not change, and in his unchanging Being is open to ever deepening understanding on our part, while our forms of thought and speech in which we articulate our knowledge of him are ever open to further clarification, fuller amplification, and change. The Truth of the divine Being cannot be enclosed within the embrace of our finite conceptualisations. In that God admits of recognition and understanding on our part we may indeed grasp him in some real measure, but we cannot contain him in the forms of our grasping. We may apprehend God but we cannot comprehend him. In so far as our concepts of God derive from him and terminate upon his Being, there is much more to them than the concepts themselves, more than the formal truths of conception, for the Reality conceived transcends conceptual control. Before the Reality and Majesty of the divine Being whom we are graciously allowed to know, we know that all our knowledge of him is at a comparatively elementary level, and all our articulation or formulation of divine revelation is a relatively insignificant reflection of its Truth. The knowledge and understanding of God, however, which we are allowed to have, and which in some measure we may bring to systematic expression, are what they are in their lowly forms because, in spite of their utter inadequacy, as the human end of the ellipse of knowing established by God and maintained between us and himself, they are locked into an infinite range of truth and intelligibility grounded finally in God’s own eternal Being.

The development of our knowledge of God evidently involves a multi-levelled structure in which our thought moves through various levels of concepts and statements, to the levels of created being through which God makes himself known to us in space and time, and then through them ultimately to the supreme level where God is the transcendent Source of all truth in the Truth of his own uncreated Being. Each lower level is governed by reference beyond itself to the level with which it is immediately coordinated, so that together the lower levels constitute a coherent semantic frame of reference through which we are directed to the ultimate Truth that God is in himself. Thus every lower level, in so far as it is true, must have the character of an open structure pointing us away from its own limited and relative status to its ontological ground in God who is ‘the norm for the truth of all beings’ [Clement of Alexandria]. In clarifying and deepening theological knowledge, therefore, we must learn to penetrate through the various levels of rational complexity that arise in the process of inquiry to the ultimate ground upon which they rest in the Being of God. Just as we do not think statements or even normally think thought but think things through them or by means of them, so the structures of the reason which arise in the process of gaining knowledge have to be treated as refined conceptual instruments through which we let reality shine across to us, in order that its own truth of being and inherent intelligibility can operate creatively in our understanding of it.

What are we to understand by ‘truth’ in a context like this? – Torrance, Reality and Scientific Theology, 138–40.

What are the implications of this for the task of theological reflection? At the very least, it means that our knowledge of God is dependent upon God’s gracious self-unveiling, i.e. epistemology is grounded in the divine economy and particularly in Jesus Christ who comes to us ‘clothed in the gospel’ (Calvin). Jesus Christ is the ‘cornerstone of all authentically Christian theological reflection’. But this process of reflection, like all scientific enquiry, is also is multi-levelled. Torrance identifies three levels: (i) evangelical and doxological level; (ii) theological level; and (iii) higher theological level.

The first level is the evangelical and doxological level. (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 88–90). This might be thought of as the basic level of Christian experience and living, ‘the level of our day-to-day worship and meeting with God in response to the proclamation of the Gospel’. At this level, God is apprehended intuitively, ‘without engaging in analytical or logical process of thought’ (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 89). At this level, the Christian believer has an experience of the reality of God as a ‘basic undefined cognition which informally shapes our faith and regulates our trinitarian understanding of God’ (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 89). The Christian experience of worship, reading of Scripture, and an intuitive awareness of the reality of God constitute the point of departure for further theological reflection.

From the very start of our believing experience and knowledge of the incarnate economy of redemption undertaken by Jesus Christ for our sakes, form and content are found fused together both in what we are given to know and in our experience and knowing of it. A child by the age of five has learned, we are told, an astonishing amount about the physical world to which he or she has become spontaneously and intuitively adapted – far more than the child could ever understand if he or she turned out to be the most brilliant of physicists. Likewise, I believe, we learn far more about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, into whose Name we have been baptised, within the family and fellowship and living tradition of the Church than we can ever say: it becomes built into the structure of our souls and minds, and we know much more than we can ever tell. This is what happens evangelically and personally to us within the membership of the Church, the Body of Christ in the world, when through the transforming power of his Word and Spirit our minds become inwardly and intuitively adapted to know the living God. We become spiritually and intellectually implicated in patterns of divine order that are beyond our powers fully to articulate in explicit terms, but we are aware of being apprehended by divine Truth as it is in Jesus which steadily presses for increasing realisation in our understanding, articulation and confession of faith. That is how Christian theology gains its initial impetus, and is then reinforced through constant reading and study of the Bible within the community of the faithful (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 89).

The second stage that Torrance identifies in this process of engagement is what he calls the theological level. This secondary level of engagement involves moving on from the primary level of ‘experiential apprehension’ of God, and towards discerning the structures which lie within it.

By forming appropriate intellectual instruments with which to lay bare the underlying epistemological patterns of thought, and by tracing the claims of connection throughout the coherent body of theological truths, [theologians] feel their way forward to a deeper and more precise knowledge of what God has revealed of himself, even to the extent of reaching a reverent and humble insight into the inner personal relations of his Being. Our concern at this secondary level, however, while distinctly theological, is not primarily with the organic body of theological knowledge, but with penetrating through it to apprehend more fully the economic and ontological and trinitarian structure of God’s revealing and saving acts in Jesus Christ as they are presented to us in the Gospel (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 91).

In the third level (or higher theological level) our thinking ‘enters more deeply into the self-communication of God in the saving and revealing activity of Christ and in his one Spirit’. At this level, Torrance continues, ‘we are explicitly concerned with the epistemological and ontological structure of our knowledge of the Holy Trinity, moving from a level of economic trinitarian relations in all that God is toward us in his self-revealing and self-giving activity to the level in which we discern the trinitarian relations immanent in God himself which lie behind, and are the sustaining ground of, the relations of the economic Trinity’. In other words, this level involves a move from ‘a level of economic trinitarian relations’ to ‘what [God] is ontically in himself’ (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 93, 98–107).

We might map Torrance’s trajectory of trinitarian theological reflection and formulation thus:

Experience of God → Economic Trinity → Essential Trinity

To be sure, Torrance’s distinguishing of different levels of reality must not be taken to mean that he is sponsoring their independence so that one or other may be dispensed with or treated as redundant or superseded. Rather, as McGrath notes, the ontological Trinity cannot be regarded as independent of the economic Trinity, nor of Christian trinitarian experience. Nor is Torrance suggesting that lower levels within the stratification of truth are to be regarded as false or redundant; they are all to be regarded as interconnected responses to their object. A failure to recognise the mutual interconnectedness of these levels of discourse can lead to theological reflection becoming divorced from Christian experience on the one hand, or from its proper ontological foundations on the other (McGrath, Torrance, 174).

The Poetry of Care and Loss

davisDoing the rounds this week:

  • Ellen Davis presented her inaugural lecture as the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology on October 27, 2009, at Duke Divinity School. The title of the lecture was ‘The Poetry of Care and Loss’. It is available via iTunes.
  • The Thailand Burma Border Consortium compares Eastern Burma to Darfur.
  • Julian Bell reviews Vincent van Gogh – The Letters (now we just need Thames & Hudson to review the price!).
  • A fascinating interview with Slavoj Žižek: ‘… it’s very easy to have a radical position which costs you nothing and for the price of nothing it gives you some kind of moral superiority. It also enables them to avoid the truly difficult questions’.
  • Andrew Brower Latz continues his note sharing on Alan Torrance’s 2009 Didsbury Lectures (Parts I, II and III).
  • Jim Gordon reminds us why reading Bonhoeffer is ‘like engaging in a theological detox programme’.
  • Kyle Strobel writes about Evangelical Idolatry.
  • Rick Floyd posts on Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.
  • W. Travis McMaken, on his way into his final qualifying exam in systematic theology, shares a quote from TF Torrance on modern preaching and the god named ‘existentialist decision’.

Baptism, ordination and God’s calling forth of faith

ServantBen’s recent post on Baptism and ordination reminded me of some stuff that Ray Anderson once prepared on the relationship between the two. Anderson cautioned that we understand ‘ordination’ not only in relation to baptism, but also in relation to God’s work of calling forth faith, God’s work of guiding and enabling the whole community of faith, God’s care for all people. Ordination must be seen in the light of this broader movement of the divine will – that is, in the context of God’s good purposes for creation. So, the ministry to which a pastor is ordained is deeply and inherently about a life in God, and it means participation in that life. This means that ordination makes no sense not merely apart from baptism but – and more fundamentally – apart from Jesus Christ, and apart from his service to the Father on behalf of the world. So T.F. Torrance (who is not a particularly great friend of Ben’s):

Christ was Himself the diakonos par excellence whose office it was not only to prompt the people of God in their response to the divine mercy and to be merciful themselves, not only to stand out as the perfect model or example of compassionate service to the needy and distressed, but to provide in Himself and in His own deeds of mercy the creative ground and source of all such diakonia. He was able to do that because in Him God Himself condescended to share with men their misery and distress, absorbed the sharpness of their hurt and suffering into Himself, and poured Himself out in infinite love to relieve their need, and He remains able to do that because He is Himself the outgoing of the innermost Being of God toward men in active sympathy and compassion, the boundless mercy of God at work in human existence, unlimited in His capacity to deliver them out of all their troubles. – Thomas F. Torrance, ‘Service in Jesus Christ’ in Theological Foundations for Ministry: Selected Readings for a Theology of the Church in Ministry (ed. Ray S. Anderson; Edinburgh/Grand Rapids: T&T Clark/Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979), 718.

Ben’s post, and the comments that follow (particularly those from the Revd Bruce Hamill who laments ordination ‘to a kind of generic “leadership” which covers all the bases of being a “professional Christian”), reminded me of a powerful essay that I read just last week by Dietrich Bonhoeffer wherein he warns against leadership becoming vested in the concept of the Leader (der Führer), where the humanity of the leader becomes concealed in a role:

Where there is community there is leadership … The group is the womb of the Leader. It gives him everything, even his authority. It is his person to which all the authority, all the honour and all the glory of the group is transferred. The Leader holds no office independent of the group. The group expects the Leader who derives from the group in this way to be the bodily incorporation of its ideal. This task, impossible in itself, is made easier for the Leader by the fact that the group which produced him now sees him already bathed completely in the light of its ideals. It sees him, not in his reality but in his vocation. It is essential for the image of the Leader that the group does not see the face of the one who goes before, but sees him only from behind as the figure stepping out ahead. His humanity is veiled in his Leader’s form … The Leader is what no other person can be, an individual, a personality. The relationship between those led and their leader is that the former transfer their own rights to him. It is this one form of collectivism which turns into intensified individualism. For that reason, the true concept of community, which rests on responsibility, on the recognition that individuals belong responsibly one to another, finds no fulfillment here. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘The Nazi Rise to Power’ in No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes from the Collected Works (ed. John Bowden; London: Collins, 1970), 191, 192, 195.

Now I really need to get back to my reading on Celtic Christianity … some of us have lectures to prepare.

Participatio: A new journal is born

tftorranceParticipatio is the journal of the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship. The long-anticipated first volume is now available for download here, and includes Eulogies by Alasdair Heron and George Hunsinger, and Recollections and Reflections by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Elmer M. Colyer, Jock Stein, Howard Taylor, David Torrance, Kenneth Walker and Robert T. Walker. It also includes the following Essays:

  • Ray S. Anderson, ‘The Practical Theology of Thomas F. Torrance’
  • Alister E. McGrath, ‘Thomas F. Torrance and the Search for a Viable Natural Theology: Some Personal Reflections’
  • Paul D. Molnar, ‘The Centrality of the Trinity in the Theology of Thomas F. Torrance’

I know what I’ll be reading in the next few days …

Lent Reflection 4: TF Torrance on power

Hercules‘[The] movement of God’s holy love into the heart of the world’s evil and agony is not to be understood as a direct act of sheer almighty power, for it is not God’s purpose to shatter and annihilate the agents and embodiments of evil in the world, but rather to pierce into the innermost center of evil power where it is entrenched in the piled-up and self-compounding guilt of humanity in order to vanquish it from within and below, by depriving it of the lying structures of half-truth on which it thrives and of the twisted forms of legality behind which it embattles itself and from which it fraudulently gains its power. Here we have an entirely different kind and quality of power, for which we have no analogies in our experience to help us understand it, since it transcends every kind of moral and material power we know, the power which the Bible calls grace …’. – Thomas F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2005), 136.

Around the traps …

 

The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism

The latest edition of the Irish Theological Quarterly is now out and includes an essay by Myk Habets on ‘The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism: T. F. Torrance as a Case Study’. Here’s the abstract:

Representing what may be termed ‘evangelical Calvinism,’ Thomas Forsyth Torrance’s doctrine of election is, with critical modifications, recommended as a model worthy of contemporary acceptance. Torrance follows Barth’s christologically conditioned doctrine of election closely, but not slavishly, and presents a view of universal atonement and even universal pardon, but not universal salvation. Torrance contends that the word ‘predestination’ emphasizes the sovereign freedom of grace and so the ‘pre-‘ in predestination refers neither to a temporal nor to a logical prius, but simply to God Himself, the Eternal. For God, election is not an event of the past but rather an action internal to God (a se). Because Christ is the ground of election, and Christ came in space—time, election took on a temporal component. Election derives from the Divine initiative of grace and Torrance is highly critical of Arminian theology at this point, accusing it of being semi-Pelagian; he is equally critical of Roman Catholicism which, according to Torrance, is also semi-Pelagian if not Pelagian outright.

A Day Conference in Memory of Very Rev Professor Thomas F. Torrance

The School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh are hosting a day conference in memory of TF Torrance on Wednesday 29 October 2008. The programme includes:

  • ‘Opening Remarks’, by Iain Torrance
  • ‘The Influence of Torrance’s Theology on Parish Ministry’, by Colin Williamson & Rev Eddie Simpson
  • ‘The Shape of Torrance’s theology’, by Andrew Purves
  • ‘Torrance on Worship’, by Sandra Fach
  • ‘The Torrance lectures’, by Robert Walker
  • ‘Closing Act of Worship’, by Andrew Anderson

More information here.

SJT is out

The latest edition of the Scottish Journal of Theology (Volume 61 – Issue 01 – February 2008) is out and comprises the following articles, including a timely essay by Dr Ben:

Abstract: T. F. Torrance has made a significant contribution to theological method with his model of the stratified structure of theological knowledge. According to this model, which is grounded in Torrance’s realist epistemology, the knowledge of God takes place at three distinctive levels of increasing conceptual refinement. First, at the level of tacit theology, we intuitively grasp God’s trinitarian reality through personal experience, without yet understanding that reality conceptually. Second, at the level of formalised theology, we develop an understanding of the economic trinitarian structure which underlies our personal experience. Finally, at the meta-theological level, we penetrate more deeply into the structure of God’s self-revelation in order to develop a refined conceptualisation of the perichoretic relations immanent in God’s eternal being. The conceptuality achieved at this meta-theological level constitutes the ultimate grammar and the unitary basis of all theological knowledge; and a concentration of thought at this level offers the promise both of thoroughgoing theological simplification and of a shared ecumenical vision of the essential content of theological knowledge. Central to Torrance’s entire model is the homoousial union of Jesus Christ with God: the homoousion enables a movement from a personal encounter with Jesus Christ to a knowledge of the economic Trinity, just as it further enables a movement from the economic to the ontological Trinity. Although our theological thought thus moves towards increasingly refined concepts and relations, it remains always grounded in and coordinated with our personal knowledge of Jesus Christ.

An Obituary to TF Torrance by David Fergusson

Today’s The Independent includes this obituary to TF Torrance by David Fergusson:

The Very Rev Professor Thomas F. Torrance: Distinguished theologian and leading exponent of the work of Karl Barth

Thomas Forsyth Torrance, theologian: born Chengdu, China 30 August 1913; ordained minister 1940; minister, Alyth Barony Parish 1940-43, 1945-47; Church of Scotland chaplain, MEF and CMF 1943-45; MBE 1945; minister, Beechgrove Church, Aberdeen 1947; Professor of Church History, New College, Edinburgh University 1950-52, Professor of Christian Dogmatics 1952-79; Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1976-77; FBA 1983; married 1946 Margaret Spear (two sons, one daughter); died Edinburgh 2 December 2007.

Thomas F. Torrance was a theologian of international distinction. His long academic career, at New College, Edinburgh, was marked by a prolific scholarly output and a range of projects that were of significance for Reformed and ecumenical church life. With an early enthusiasm for the work of Karl Barth, the most influential theologian of the 20th century, Torrance became his foremost exponent in the English-speaking world.

This involved, with Geoffrey Bromiley, the supervision of the English translation of the 13 volumes of the Church Dogmatics and a full-length study of the development of Barth’s theology. Together with J.K.S. Reid, Torrance founded the Scottish Journal of Theology, a periodical that has since remained at the forefront of the field. He was also a co-founder of the Scottish Church Theology Society and the (UK) Society for the Study of Theology in 1952.

A series of essays produced in the 1950s on doctrinal disagreement and convergence were later gathered into two volumes (Conflict and Agreement in the Church, 1959 and 1960), these remaining among his most useful contributions to international ecumenical dialogue. In 1957, he supported the famous “Bishop’s Report” at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Had it been approved, it would have led to the union of the national churches north and south of the border. Yet, despite the backing of Torrance and other leading Scottish churchmen of the day, the proposals suffered defeat following a campaign of resistance led by the Scottish Daily Express. Torrance, however, would often say that he was proud to have been born in China to an Anglican mother and later to have married an Anglican wife. Narrow nationalist or ecclesiastical sentiment were alike abhorrent to him.

Within the Church of Scotland, he led the highly influential Baptismal Commission which concluded its work in 1963. This affirmed a high doctrine of sacramental grace together with the catholic practice of infant baptism. His position on baptism dominated the doctrine of the Church of Scotland until its more recent gesture towards dual practice, a flexibility that he would surely have deplored just as he had earlier regretted Karl Barth’s abandonment of infant baptism.

His ecumenical enthusiasm was particularly marked by his cordial relations with the Orthodox churches. Deeply committed to the theology of the early church, Torrance stressed the catholic dimension of the Reformed tradition, never losing an opportunity to note the indebtedness of Calvin to the Greek Fathers. For many years, he led the Reformed-Orthodox doctrinal conversations and had the unusual distinction as a Reformed minister of being made a Protopresbyter of the Greek Orthodox Church by the Patriarch of Alexandria in 1973.

Torrance’s own theological publications exhibited his extraordinary energy, determination and erudition. As a scholar of Christian dogma, he published on almost every topic, but especially on the doctrines of the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the Holy Spirit and the sacraments. His position was broadly Barthian but increasingly shaped by his reading of the Greek tradition, especially Athanasius, Cyril and Gregory Nazianzus. He championed the theology of the Nicene Creed, his important study The Trinitarian Faith (1988), being structured by its teaching.

Although Torrance was viewed as resolutely orthodox by more liberal thinkers, he could be deeply critical of a hyper-Calvinism, particularly its doctrines of predestination, substitutionary atonement and biblical inerrancy. All these he regarded as displacing in different ways the person and work of Christ from the centre of a properly evangelical theology. He had almost nothing positive to say about the 17th-century Westminster Confession of Faith, the Church of Scotland’s subordinate standard for over 350 years.

His most original work comprised a body of writings from the late 1960s onwards which sought to form a disciplinary alliance between the natural sciences and Christian theology. Although sometimes difficult to follow, this work brought him into close contact with several leading scientists, particularly Michael Polanyi, whose literary executor he became.

Torrance’s commitment to a rapprochement with the natural sciences led him beyond the work of Karl Barth, who was more inclined to stress the unique character of theology. Torrance strove to identify common methodological approaches, a shared commitment to a critical objectivity, and an implicit belief in the intelligibility of the physical universe which, he believed, must point unmistakably to a transcendent ground of its rationality.

This rehabilitation of natural theology was never allowed to compromise the distinctive commitments of his doctrinal work, yet it represents one of the most determined efforts in the 20th century to establish a fruitful conversation between theology and science in search of a unified worldview.

Born in Chengdu, in the province of Sichuan, China in 1913 to missionary parents, Thomas Torrance carried their evangelical devotion and sense of vocation into his career. The eldest of six children, he came to Lanarkshire in 1927, where he was raised by his mother after their father’s return to China.

After schooling at Bellshill Academy, he took an arts degree at Edinburgh University before proceeding to its Faculty of Divinity at New College. There his teachers included H.R. Mackintosh and John Baillie. A period of graduate study was undertaken with Karl Barth in Basel from 1937. Torrance was later to complete his doctoral dissertation begun under Barth on the theology of the second-century church while at Oriel College, Oxford. By that time, he had already acquired teaching experience during a brief sojourn at Auburn Seminary in New York.

In 1940, Torrance was inducted as a Church of Scotland minister at Alyth in Perthshire. His ministry there was interrupted by wartime chaplaincy service, initially in the Middle East and later with the 10th Indian Division in Italy. Returning to parish ministry in Scotland, he moved to Beechgrove Church, Aberdeen in 1947 – the previous year, he had married Margaret Spear – where he remained until his appointment three years later as Professor of Church History at his Alma Mater in Edinburgh. In 1952 he translated to the Chair of Christian Dogmatics, a position he held until his retirement.

As a teacher at New College in Edinburgh, Torrance was a dominant figure for almost 30 years. He attracted large numbers of students from across the world, particularly the United States. To a large extent, theology in Edinburgh was synonymous with his name during his time there. Other members of his family shared his vocation and theological commitments: his late brother James held the Chair of Systematic Theology at Aberdeen University; his son Iain is now President of Princeton Theological Seminary.

Torrance’s forceful personality and combative style, however, could generate conflict as well as command allegiance. This became most intense with the public attack on aspects of his work by his distinguished colleague James Barr in Semantics of Biblical Language (1961). Barr was later to leave Edinburgh for a chair in Manchester. Years afterwards, Torrance would remark ruefully that Barr had been a brilliant tail-gunner in the RAF and had carried on shooting throughout his academic life.

Choosing to remain in Edinburgh until his retirement, Torrance exercised a significant influence over several generations of ministers. In 1976-77, he was appointed Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland when he welcomed the Queen to Edinburgh during her jubilee celebrations.

It is not unreasonable to claim Torrance as the leading British theologian of the past century. Several full-length discussions of his work have already appeared, while a scholarly society devoted to the study of his theology has been formed in the US. He was elected Fellow of the British Academy, and awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize (1978) for his work on theology and science. In retirement he maintained his prolific output, publishing a steady stream of monographs, while continuing to lecture throughout the world.

Although his final years in a nursing home were frustrating, his interest in theology remained undiminished. Always he was sustained by his wife and family, the still point at the centre of an extraordinarily energetic lifestyle.