True Theology: Open, Repentant, Humble, Doxological

As I have continued to mull over Muller’s critique of Karl Barth that R. Scott Clark posted on the Heidelblog, I keep returning to the charge that Barth’s works, unlike those of the Protestant scholastics, present “ideas that refuse to achieve closure.” I am not sure why this particular criticism vexes me so. Perhaps because it strikes me as symptomatic of a deep theological hubris that, despite superficial declarations to the contrary (i.e. archetypal vs. ectypal theology), pervades the system and methodology of Muller, Clark, and other scholastic sympathizers. Perhaps it is because I have been learning, in my own study, about the importance of a humble, repentant theology that never becomes triumphalistic in tone (as though it has everything figured out while others do not). Perhaps it is also because a theology that proceeds with the assumption that presenting ideas capable of achieving closure is possible and/or desirable opposes the doxological goal of all human theologizing. That is to say, our theology should not lead us to glory in ourselves, as though the system we have created is either fully realized or superior to all others, but it should lead us rather to fall on our faces in worship, awe, and reverence before the God whom all of our best theological statements can not even begin to adequately describe.

This is why, throughout the history of the church, theologians who, in my opinion, have most profoundly grasped the loftiest heights and the deepest depths of God’s self-revelation in Christ have stressed that absolute necessity of relentlessly maintaining the intrinsic openness, repentance, humility, and doxology of all human thought and speech about God. By way of example, I would like to offer quotations from two such theologians – Athanasius and T.F. Torrance, who press this point with unmistakable clarity. First, Athanasius states in his famous treatise On the Incarnation:

And, in a word, the achievements of the Saviour, resulting from His becoming man, are of such kind and number, that if one should wish to enumerate them, he may be compared to men who gaze at the Athanasiusexpanse of the sea and wish to count its waves. For as one cannot take in the whole of the waves with his eyes, for those which are coming on baffle the sense of him that attempts it; so for him that would take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, it is impossible to take in the whole, even by reckoning them up, as those which go beyond his thought are more than those he thinks he has taken in. Better is it, then, not to aim at speaking of the whole, where one cannot do justice even to a part, but, after mentioning one more, to leave the whole for you to marvel at. For all alike are marvellous, and wherever a man turns his glance, he may behold on that side the divinity of the Word, and be struck with exceeding great awe.[1]

Developing this further is T.F. Torrance who writes:

[T]heological statements about God are essentially Christ-oriented doxological statements of intrinsically open structure just because they derive from and intend the Triune Mystery of God, and therefore resist the kind of logico-rational thinking which appears to offend against the understanding of God as infinitely greater than we can t-f-torrance-sketchconceive and to detract from his sublime ineffability. In other words, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity must be so stated that it is not controlled from behind by a prior conceptual system, such as one finds in scholastic metaphysics, or in an independent and antecedent De Deus Uno, but only in such a way that it reconstructs and transforms the framework of though we bring with us…

When we approach the Trinity of the ineffable God we are on holy ground where the Cherubim and Seraphim hide their faces and theologians must take the shoes off their feet and fall down in wonder, worship and praise before the incomprehensible Majesty of God. That does not simply mean that this is the right way to end up an account of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity but that all our statements about the Trinity from beginning to end must arise out of and remain rooted in a continuity of godly life and worship…That must be the case with our understanding of the whole economy of salvation, while all our devotion and liturgical life must be allowed to have a trinitarian structure. This is what theolgia really is.[2]

Let us be quite frank. To speak like this of God’s inner Being, we cannot but feel to be a sacrilegious intrusion into the inner holy of holies of God’s incomprehensible Mystery, before which we ought rather to cover our faces and clap our hands upon our mouths, for God is utterly ineffable in the transcendence and majesty of his eternal Being. The God whom we have come to know through his infinite condescension in Jesus Christ, we know to be infinitely greater than we can ever conceive, so that it would be sheer presumption and theological sin on our part to identify the trinitarian structures in our thinking and speaking of God with the real constitutive relations in the triune Being-in-Communion of the Godhead. All true theological concepts and statements inevitably fall short of the God to whom they refer, so that, as we have already noted, their fragility and their inadequacy, as concepts and as human statements about God must be regarded as part of the correctness and truthfulness of their reference to God.[3]

What Torrance articulates here in this final paragraph is of utmost importance. Not only is it inadvisable to think that our ideas about God can ever achieve closure, but it is actually “theological sin” for it means that we have, in effect, come to fully equate our theological statements with the ineffable divine reality to which they merely point. Rather, as Torrance avers, it is precisely in “their fragility and their inadequacy” that our theological statements can be said to be truthful, for what could be further from the truth than the notion that our theology has attained such a perfect, or at least sufficient, state that we can consider it to have achieved closure?

True theology, therefore, is open because God is ineffable and transcendent. It is repentant because we are sinful. It is humble because he is God and we are not. And it is doxological, because in the end all we can do is fall on our knees and confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.


[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. On the Incarnation of the Word. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 65–66.

[2] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Trinitarian Perspectives: Toward Doctrinal Agreement. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. pp.101-102.

[3] Torrance, T.F., 1996. The Christian doctrine of God, one being three persons, Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark. p.110.