A Confession Against Tradition: T.F. Torrance and the Role of Justification in the Scottish Confession of Faith

‘Justification by Christ alone calls in question all systems and orders, and calls them in question because Jesus Christ alone is central and supreme in the one Church of God. In any true theological system, Justification is by reference to Christ alone, for conformity to Christ as the Truth of God for us is the one ultimate principle of unity.’ (Thomas Torrance)

In his gloss on the Scottish Confession of Faith, T.F. Torrance spends a good deal of time on the doctrine of justification. This is interesting, because as Karl Barth notes, ‘the doctrine of justification is never discussed in the Scots Confession,’ (The Theology of the Reformed Confessions, p. 130). What Torrance picks up on is the expression of the nature and consequences of the doctrine. We now will turn to the nature of the doctrine.

For Torrance, the money quote occurs in article twelve:

…we willingly spoil ourselves of all honour and glory of our own creation and redemption (2 Cor 3:5; Phil 3:9), so do we also of our regeneration and sanctification…

This is a consequence of article fifteen:

And therefore, whosoever boast themselves of the merits of their own works, or put their trust in the works of supererogation, boast themselves of that which is naught, and put their trust in damnable idolatry.

For Torrance, this is a radical restating of the Reformation doctrine of justification by the grace of Christ alone. Interestingly enough, Torrance doesn’t deny a kind of natural goodness in man. This natural goodness, however, far from being a form of self-justification, is called into question by justification by grace alone. This is what I’ll call the ‘ontological’ angle of Torrance’s gloss:

Now, let it be clear that Justification by Grace alone does not mean that there is no natural goodness in man, but that man with his natural goodness is called in question.

All that we do is unworthy, so that we must fall down before you and unfeignedly confess that we are unprofitable servants—and it is precisely Justification by the free Grace of Christ alone that shows us that all that we are and have done even as believers is called in question.

This is a typically Protestant thing to say, but Torrance goes further. Tying together ‘natural goodness’ (which has ontological implications) and ‘natural knowing’ (which is the epistemic side of Torrance’s gloss), Torrance shows how the entire being of man is called into question by the radical nature of justification:

Justification by the Grace of Christ alone calls in question not only all natural goodness but all natural knowledge. Natural knowledge is as much the work of the flesh as natural goodness; it is a work of the natural man.

It is at this point that Karl Barth has made such an immense contribution to the Reformation. We cannot separate knowing and being for they belong to the same man, and it is the whole man, with his knowing and his acting, with the whole of his being, who is called in question by Justification. Justification puts us in the right and truth of God and therefore tells us that we are in untruth.

Justification thus calls into question, by placing  us’in the right’, as it were (perhaps N.T. Wright is lurking in the shadows here), the whole man. The sole ground of justification, for Torrance and the Scots Confession, is Christ, and this serves as a polemic against both Roman Catholic and liberal Protestant theology:

But the Scots Confession laid the axe to the root of any such movement when it insisted that we have to spoil ourselves even of our own regeneration and sanctification as well as justification. What is “axed” so radically was the notion of “co-redemption” which in our day has again become so rampant, not only in the Roman Church, but in Liberal and Evangelical Protestantism, e.g., the emphasis upon existential decision as the means whereby we “make real” for ourselves the kerygma [proclamation] of the New Testament, which means that in the last resort our salvation depends upon our own personal or existential decision. That is the exact antithesis of the Reformed doctrine of election, which rests salvation upon the prior and objective decision of God in Christ. It is Justification by Grace alone that guards the Gospel from corruption by “Evangelicals,” “Liberals,” and Romans alike.

Moving from the ontological angle to he epistemological angle, Torrance reiterates his brand of realism in theological epistemology within the context of justification. The only means of verification of our faith, the only ground for our knowledge of salvation, is Christ:

If we translate the word “justification” by the word “verification,” we can see the startling relevance of this to modern theological and philosophical discussions. Justification by Grace alone tells us that verification of our faith or knowledge on any other grounds or out of any other source, than Jesus Christ, is to be set aside.

Justification has an epistemological as well as an ethical reference—epistemologically it insists that the only legitimate demonstration of Christian truth is that which is in accordance with its nature, which is Grace, and that to seek justification of it on any other ground is not only fundamentally false in itself but to falsify the Gospel at its very basis.

But apart from the contemporary debate on “verification,” Justification means that at every point in our theological inquiry we have to let our knowledge, our theology, our formulations, our statements, be called into question by the very Christ toward whom they point, for He alone is the Truth.

Torrance is operating with his realist epistemology here, where the truth of statements does not lie within themselves but rather to that which they point. In this case, theological  and doctrinal statements don’t have their ‘own truth’ but point to the Truth of God. A consequence of this is that any attempt to argue or claim that theological statements are, in and of themselves true, is a form of self-justification. This Torrance sees as a kind of sinful boasting:

Far from seeking justification on the ground of our “orthodoxy,” we can only serve the Truth faithfully if we point away from ourselves and our statements to Christ Himself, and direct all eyes to Him alone. He who boasts of orthodoxy thus sins against Justification by Christ alone, for he justifies himself by appeal to his own beliefs or his own formulations of belief and thereby does despite to the Truth and Grace of Christ. Once a Church begins to boast of its “orthodoxy” it begins to fall from Grace.

From here Torrance sets his sights on tradition. Justification calls into question all tradition – Torrance’s move here has a Kantian feel, in that his deployment of justification translates to a self-critical limit. Under the force of justification by grace alone, the condition of the possibility for doctrinal statements is that they have to able to be questioned and even rethough against the Truth:

Justification here meant that faith is determined by the objective Word of God as its ultimate authority, and so it was freed from the shackles of every lesser authority, for devotion to the Truth of the Word (the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth) inculcated a readiness to rethink all preconceptions and to put all traditional ideas to the test face to face with the Word.

It is crucial to note that Torrance is not advocating for a rejection of tradition – even a cursory reading shows his reliance on tradition, especially the Patristic writers. What Torrance is doing, however, is showing a willingness to remove tradition from its place as both a norm of theological knowledge and a theological hermenutic, and subject it to criticism in the face of the Truth to which the tradition’s doctrinal formulations point:

In other words, sheer attachment to the Word of God as the real object of knowledge meant detachment from all other sources and norms of knowledge, and the demand that all traditional ideas and notions had to be tested at the bar of the Word. That did not mean that tradition was to be despised, but that it was to be subjected to the criticism of the Word and the Spirit, and corrected through conformity to Jesus Christ.

Torrance’s reading of the Confession has brought us a good ways away from a plain reading of the text. As was noted above, the term doctrine of justification itself is never mentioned, and the term ‘justification’ is mentioned only once in connection with Christ’s resurrection. Is Torrance exegeting the Confession responsibly? While there is a good deal of force behind his reading, the evidence is slim that this is how the Confession was read. While article twenty does go into some detail about the authority of councils (which obviously would fall under tradition), there is a strained feeling to Torrance’s interpretation, especially in the face of Torrance’s own enormous reliance on tradition in his dogmatic work. Having said that, however, there remains a good deal to learn from Torrance regarding the nature of dogmatic formulations and their authority within the church:

Far from seeking justification on the ground of our “orthodoxy,” we can only serve the Truth faithfully if we point away from ourselves and our statements to Christ Himself, and direct all eyes to Him alone. He who boasts of orthodoxy thus sins against Justification by Christ alone, for he justifies himself by appeal to his own beliefs or his own formulations of belief and thereby does despite to the Truth and Grace of Christ. Once a Church begins to boast of its “orthodoxy” it begins to fall from Grace.

It is high time we asked again whether the Word of God really does have free course amongst us and whether it is not after all bound and fettered by the traditions of men. The tragedy, apparently, is that the very structures of our Churches represent the fossilization of traditions that have grown up by practice and procedure, have become so hardened in self-justification that even the Word of God can hardly crack them open. There is scarcely a Church that claims to be ecclesia reformata [church reformed] that can truthfully claim to be semper reformanda [always reformed].

3 thoughts on “A Confession Against Tradition: T.F. Torrance and the Role of Justification in the Scottish Confession of Faith

  1. cal July 19, 2016 / 5:30 pm

    I like Torrance a lot. I think he represents a translation Barthian into a responsible, ecclesial, setting, and not as Barth many times appears in the academy, void of any real, lively, community of faith.

    Anyway, I’m bothered with Torrance’s reading of the Reformation’s insistence on justification as a wedge between liberals and Rome. He seems to eviscerate the concern to think about the division between Christ’s Person and work objectively and its presence in an individual Human person, or community, subjectively. Yet, when confronted with whether or not his formulation leads to Universalism, he responds with damnation as a ‘surd’. In other words, Torrance won’t say universalism but with an “I don’t know”. Perhaps it’s wrong to be anxious over that, but it’s that concern Rome sought to address through monasticism, the sacramental circuit etc etc. and even Reformers, very quickly, tried to appreciate, understand, and integrate. Thus we have the historical outworking of experimental Puritanism, Pietism, Evangelicalism.

    To me, it seems that Torrance fails to appreciate a very Human concern of growth and development that, perhaps, he misses by being consumed in his own project. It’s understandable, but if taken to heart, I see many who void the heart of Christ from their lives, except in doctrinal boxes stored in the intellect. While I’d never want to live in Medieval Europe, the flood of secularism or millenial fusion of church and state (culminating in features of the 30 Years War) are the outcome of an unfocused, state-led, Protestantisms against a shattered Roman Catholicism, equally state-manipulated.

    Torrance has been criticized as a creative, but unable, handled of the Patristics (usually by Eastern Orthodox). I don’t know enough to confirm or deny such accusations, but I am not sure he’s an apt historian to appreciate the flow of ideas within history adequately to take him too seriously (though we should take him seriously as a church father and theologian).



    • Joshua July 20, 2016 / 2:12 am

      His abilities as an historian are worthy of criticism, but then again, he never claims to be doing history.


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