Deep within his Big Paul Book, N.T. Wright (foot)notes his disagreement with the classic Reformed doctrine of the active and passive obedience of Christ. More precisely: it’s not so much that he disagrees with the fact that Christ was both actively and passively obedient – this is to my mind beyond dispute – but rather that he disagrees with Christ’s active obedience as something which merits righteousness which is then reckoned, credited or imputed to believers. Actually, even more precision is called for here, because Wright doesn’t especially really disagree with the idea that believers are reckoned to be righteous (this is, again, not really disputable). What he disagrees with is how that conclusion is reached, which, for the classic Reformed, is the imputation of Christ’s active obedience.
Perhaps the sharpest way to phrase a major difference between Barth and Torrance on the Trinity is that Torrance had no place for the subordination that Barth built into his doctrine of the Trinity. This is, of course, not news to readers of Barth: his understanding of the eternal subordination of the Son is one of the key distinctions of his theology. Torrance resisted this subordinationism on the grounds that Barth had read elements of the economy into the immanent Trinity, and set out to correct Barth on this point. The plainest way to state the differences between the two here is this: Barth follows the Cappodicians in assigning (for lack of a better term) monarchy (or principle of Godhead) to the Father alone, while Torrance follows Athanasius in assigning monarchy to the Trinity as a whole. Indeed, for Torrance, this just is the definition of monarchy, ‘the one ultimate principle of Godhead, in which all three divine Persons share equally, for the whole indivisible Being of God belongs to each of them as it belongs to all of them’ (Torrance, Trinitarian Perpsectives, p. 112) Continue reading
T.F. Torrance followed his mentor Karl Barth in a strident rejection of natural theology as a factor in man’s knowledge of God. While both affirmed that both God and the world he created are perceptible or apprehensible, the way that they affirmed it was a marked departure from how it had been classically conceived. Torrance, in particular, spent a good deal of time working through classical natural theology, both its roots and its consequences, and though he was appreciative of it, he was for the most part quite critical of what he took to be serious problems inherent within it. For Torrance, natural theology as a way of arriving at a knowledge of God via abstracting from sensory experience was destined to die the same death as empiricism and logical positivism. Torrance held that the idea of that scientific knowledge proceeds via the abstraction from sensory or observational data (what Sellars might call ‘observation reports) was roughly equivalent to classical natural theology and so the same weaknesses in empiricism were weaknesses in classical natural theology. Continue reading
‘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.
One of the things I’ve picked up on in reading Barth and Torrance is that some of the most interesting aspects of their work lies in the areas where they parted ways. Perhaps the place where this departure is sharpest is on the issue of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and the implications this has for a doctrine of God as a whole (I’ve discussed the human aspect of Christ’s eternal obedience before here, and this has bearing on the topic at hand). What I find most striking, however, is the force with which both present their arguments and reasons – there are good and solid theological reasons for following either Barth or Torrance on this.
There is a common song that is sung in modern theology, a song with two main themes: (1) that Christ assumed a fallen human nature, and (2) Karl Barth is in large part to blame (or thank) for this. This song has become something of an orthodoxy in contemporary theology and has largely gone unquestioned. Torrance picked up this theme and ran with it, citing Gregory’s famous ‘the unassumed is the unhealed’ maxim every chance he got. I want to suggest in this post, however, that Barth did not, in fact argue that Christ assumed a fallen human nature (FHN), and that this fact placed on more coherent (as well as orthodox) grounds than Torrance as far as christology goes. Continue reading
‘T.F. Torrance and Eastern Orthodoxy: Theology in Reconciliation‘, eds. Matthew Baker and Todd Speidell
Wipf & Stock, 360 pp. $33.60
With any luck, if you’re reading this blog, T.F. Torrance doesn’t need any introduction, but I’ll do a quick one anyway. Torrance was, quite simply, ‘the man’. That should suffice, I think.
Torrance’s proficiency in church history, philosophy, science and theology is well known, but if there was one thing that stands out about him, it’s his ecumenical work, and it’s that particular aspect of his accomplishments with which I am least familiar, so for me, this was a quite a fun learning experience.
This is an important volume, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a collection of substantial, critical, appreciative and respectful engagement. There has been lots of engagement with Torrance, but to have a single book with so much engagement is, to me pretty significant. Second, it’s critical. While it’s appreciative, it points out some serious issues in Torrance, ranging from theological to scientific. For my money, it’s this aspect that is the most important, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.
‘If I may be allowed to speak personally for a moment, I find the presence and being of God bearing upon my experience and thought so powerfully that I cannot but be convinced of His overwhelming reality and rationality. To doubt the existence of God would be an act of sheer irrationality, for it would mean that my reason had become unhinged from its bond with real being. Yet in knowing God I am deeply aware that my relation to him has been damaged, that disorder has resulted in my mind, and that it is I who obstruct knowledge of God by getting in between Him and myself as it were. But I am also aware that His presence presses unrelentingly upon me through the disorder of my mind, for He will not let Himself be thwarted by it, challenging and repairing it, and requiring of me on my part to yield my thoughts to His healing and controlling revelation.’ (T.F. Torrance)
‘…the witness of Jesus Christ to himself is none other than that which the Scriptures deliver to us and which comes to us by no other way than by the Word of the Scriptures. We are first concerned with a book which we find in the secular sphere. It must be read and interpreted. It will be read with all the help possible from historical and philosophical criticism. Even the believer has to do this with care and scholarship. Occasionally we have to deal with a problematic situation; perhaps we have to preach about a text, which we know from scholarly criticism was never spoken by Jesus. In the exegesis of Scripture we find ourselves on thin ice. One can never stand firm at one point, but must move about the whole of the Bible. As we move from one place to another we are like a man crossing a river covered in ice floes, who does not remain standing on one particular piece of ice, but jumps from one to another…’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Christ the Center’, p. 73)
I was always intrigued by this passage. It takes seriously historical criticism, one of the four-letter words of theology – but the interesting bit for me is the bolded part. I really wondered what he meant by that. Typically theology involves a methodology which takes various biblical passages as axioms from which to build on and establish various propositions – it makes sense to build a theology that way. Solid foundations, and all that. The bolded passage seems to go against a pretty good method of theology – I can easily imagine people balking at such notions.
Then, however, I read this:
‘Here again we find a way of open inquiry that refuses to operate logico-deductively from fixed principia or traditional authorities, whether they are ecclesiastical or biblical, but insists on keeping close to the actual ground of faith and experience. In recognition of the fact that faith itself does not rest on biblical, far less on ecclesiastical, authority as such but on the truth mediated through the Bible and the Church, Anselm proposed a way of inquiry which methodologically sets aside even biblical statements regarded as formal premises, or which passes through them to the solid truth (solida veritas) on which they rest, in order that the mind may be brought directly under the compulsion of the truth and the impress of its rationality. Even in Christology itself Anselm declined to treat Christ as a formal premiss or a propositional basis for logical operation, but setting him aside in that role, and with constant prayer for divine illumination, he found a way of probing into the heart of Christological knowledge and elucidating its inner logic so that faith in Christ and knowledge of God through him could be shown to rest directly on the rationality of the truth incarnate in Christ.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 88-89)
There’s a lot more in the following passages, but that’s the critical point for the present (I’ll likely continue to go through the following passages in the near future). Torrance nails exactly what Bonhoeffer was cryptically saying – later on Torrance goes on to talk about fluid axioms in the Christological thought of Kierkegaard, and I have to say that such a concept fits perfectly with what Bonhoeffer was driving at. I’ll be so bold as to say that the above quoted passages are exactly the kind of method that should be used exclusively in theology, for the following reasons.
In Christ, Truth has entered history and become incarnate – which means that we can’t know it in a detached, impersonal way (which is what solid-axiomatic theological methods do, even if it’s unintentional or unbeknownst to the theologian doing so). Truth, having become historical and incarnate must, has therefore become personal, and as such, must be known personally. It cannot be known via detached, impersonal inquiry. Torrance later goes on to set mysticism at the fore of the theologians’ inquiry – personal, intimate, mystical communion with God.
This is a method I’ve picked up in a lot in becoming acquainted with theology – Pascal, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard (as well as a host of theologians from the Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic traditions) all operated in this way and all achieved brilliant, creative results. It’s a method that needs to be picked up more in theology.
The following quote was originally read here: http://dogmatics.wordpress.com/2009/01/27/realism-defined/
‘The contrast between realism and idealism, implied in the use of either term, evidently has its source in the distinction we make between subject and object, idea and reality, or sign and thing signified. This is a natural operation of the human mind, for it belongs to the essence of rational behavior that we can distinguish ourselves as knowing subjects from the objects of our knowledge, and can employ ideas or words to refer to or signify realities independent of them. Normally our attention in knowing, speaking, listening, or reading is not focused upon the ideas or words we use, far less upon ourselves, but upon the realities they signify or indicate beyond themselves. Hence in our regular communication with one another we use and interpret signs in the light of their objective reference. Thus the natural operation of the human mind would appear to be realist.
We use these distinctions, then, between subject and object, idea and reality, or sign and thing signified, naturally and unreflectingly, and only turn a critical eye upon them when something arises to obscure signification, such as a break in the semantic relation. Much now depends upon where the emphasis falls, upon the signifying pole or the objective pole of the semantic relation, that is, upon idea or reality, upon sign or thing signified.
…we shall use the term [realism], not in an attenuated dialectical sense merely in contrast to idealism, nominalism, or conventionalism, but to describe the orientation in thought that obtains in semantics, science, or theology on the basis of a nondualist or unitary relation between the empirical and theoretical ingredients in the structure of the real world and in our knowledge of it. This is an epistemic orientation of the two-way relation between the subject and object poles of thought and speech, in which ontological primacy and control are naturally accorded to reality over all our conceiving and speaking of it. It is worth noting that it was a realist orientation of this kind which Greek patristic theology, especially from the third to the sixth century, struggled hard to acquire and which it built into the foundations of classical theology. [Ditto for relativity theory in 20th century science.] (Thomas F. Torrance, Reality and Evangelical Theology, pp. 58-60.)