Book Review: ‘The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh: The Eucharistic Theology of Thomas F. Torrance’, by Robert J. Stamps

The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh: The Eucharistic Theology of Thomas F. Torrance, by Robert J. Stamps, Wipf And Stock, 352 pp. $41.00

In this volume, Robert Stamps attempts a systematic exposition of T.F. Torrance’s sacramental theology. This had to have been a daunting task, given the massive number of footnotes from both well-known and very obscure writings by Torrance on the topic of the sacraments. This is probably one of the strengths of the book: the sources are handled superbly, and even folks who are somewhat familiar with Torrance are bound to read something of his they haven’t seen before here. This could almost serve as a primer for Reformed sacramental theology in general, since Calvin (and to a lesser extent Luther and Roman Catholicism) is a prominent conversation and at times sparring partner. It’s safe to say that I learned a good deal not only of Torrance but of Calvin’s understanding of the sacrament here.

Stamps’s study is divided into five chapters, each dealing with a different topic. The first is an expostion of Torrance’s theology and theological epistemology in general, the second deals with Torrance’s understanding of symbolism and analogy, the third with the (christological) ground of the sacrament, the fourth with the presence of Christ within the sacrament, and the final chapter offers a substantial amount of constructive criticism of Torrance’s sacramental theology.

The first chapter will cover a good deal of ground familiar to readers of Torrance: the Incarnation, the hypostatic union, knowledge of God through the Word and the Holy Spirit, God’s self-revelation, and the lack of unmediated knowledge of God had by man. There isn’t much new here as far as content goes, though Stamps spent some time on the systematic ordering of the knowledge of God which was an interesting subject. Most important, however, was Stamps’s examination of Torrance’s rejection of a ‘sacramental universe’, which is firmly opposed to what he took to be the underlying presupposition of such a view – an ‘inherent correspondence’ between God and creation. Over against this Torrance argues for a ‘covenanted correspondence’, where, following Barth (or at least Barthian themes) there is a relation between God and the world not based on inherent correspondence but God’s free, covenantal decision to interact with the world.

The second chapter was denser than the first and delved deeply into Torrance’s thoughts on realism, symbolism, analogy, knowledge and images. The villain here is Augustinianism/Kantianism (though Kant himself is not cited nor is any relevant Kant scholarship – Kantianism is just sort of assumed without actual discussion. Augustine himself doesn’t fare much better, as citations are few and far between and are usually in the context of secondary sources), which Torrance sees as ‘…relegating the sacraments merely to sign-symbols among a whole universe of these’, (p. 63). Torrance does affirm a species of analogy, though he grounds his analogy not in an inherent likeness between creation and God since he denies the kind of ‘ontological continuity’ that would be a condition of the possibility of such an analogy. For Torrance, the analogy is one of grace – God chooses to communicate himself to man through the created order as an act of grace. Torrance also sees the sacrament as an analogy which points beyond itself to what Christ has done.

The third chapter deals with what Stamps calls the ‘objective christological ground’ for the sacrament as well as the actual effect of the sacrament – in other words, what it is and what it does. There are a number of themes here which Stamps covers: the action of the sacrament as the action of what Christ has accomplished, the mediation of Christ, union with Christ and Christ’s human response vicariously made for us all factor into Torrance’s thought here.

The fourth chapter focuses on the question of Christ’s actual presence within the sacrament. This is the longest and most in-depth chapter, and for my money is the real meat of the book. Torrance, depending on how charitably one reads him, is either very nuanced or very muddled here, as he wishes to affirm a ‘real presence’ without an actual, physical presence. The whole Christ (totus christus) is truly present to us – but here Torrance invokes the extra calvinisticum in order to be able to say that the Word truly is present to us, without being physically present. Stamps’s examination of the extra in both Calvin and Torrance is masterful here. Crucial as well for Torrance is the work of the Spirit and the ecclesiological setting of the sacrament. For Torrance, the worship and prayers of the church are ‘echoes’ of Christ’s worship in heaven. The church worships and prays as it is informed by the Holy Spirit, and in effect prays ‘after’ Christ.

The final chapter is composed of critical questions, and it’s this final chapter that proved to be the most enjoyable. Stamps raises and answers some penetrating objections regarding Torrance’s doctrine of God, which Stamps sees as relying (contrary to what Torrance himself may have thought) on Augustinian foundations, and as a genealogy/critique of Torrance it’s fairly incisive, to my mind anyway. Stamps also questions the extent to which Torrance allows for individual, personal, human  responses/prayers when Christ vicariously responds ‘for us’ to such a degree as Torrance thinks. This was another penetrating question, because while Torrance would argue that this wasn’t the case, Stamps points out that Torrance suggests ‘an exact correspondence’ between the prayers of the church and the prayers of Christ, which suggests a negation of individual creaturehood. Perhaps the most interesting critical question to me, however, was that Torrance’s sacramental theology devalues the role of the Spirit to the point where the Spirit can hardly be considered to be a person due to the extent to what Torrance calls ‘the supremacy of Christology’ in his theology.

All in all, this is a well-sourced, heavily footnoted and in-depth examination of a topic in Torrance which is more scattered than, say, the doctrine of God or the Trinity. Stamps has put in an immense amount of work in systematizing Torrance’s theology here, and as a study of Torrance and sacramental theology in general, this is a solid piece of work. While each chapter is quality, the final chapter where critical questions are raised is the most valuable, with the second to last chapter being the next most important.

I do have some quibbles with this volume, however, generally having more to do with style than content. Navigation can be hard, given that there isn’t much in the way of chapter conclusions or sub-headings. For a book of this size this is a handicap (especially since there isn’t a subject index). There is also a lot of ground that is re-trod in the book, and this repetition doesn’t lend itself to easy navigation either. Some of the earlier chapters feel a bit stiff, as if Stamps hadn’t warmed up fully – by the final two chapters, however, it feels as though he found his groove, since these are the two best chapters in the book.

Having said all this, I highly recommend this volume for any students of T.F. Torrance and sacramental theology in general.

**NOTE** I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review which in no way guaranteed a positive review

 

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