Christ the Center (If Only That Were True)

Anyone with a basic knowledge of T.F. Torrance will find the themes in the following excerpt from the preface to his book Theology in Reconstruction to be familiar territory. In my opinion however, Torrance waxes particularly eloquent here as he distills the importance of a scientific, and thus principially christocentric, approach to theological inquiry. After hearing from Torrance, I will explain my reason for quoting this section:

I have struggled to develop modes of inquiry and exposition that are appropriate to the nature and logic of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. [The essays in this volume] have been written under the conviction that we must allow the divine realities to declare themselves to us, and so allow the basic forms of theological truth t-f-torrance-1946to come to view and impose themselves on our understanding. Theology is the positive science in which we think only in accordance with the nature of the given.

Perhaps the most difficult part of theology is the struggle we have with ourselves, with the habits of mind which we have formed uncritically or have acquired in some other field of knowledge and then seek with an arbitrary self-will to impose upon the subject-matter. We have to remind ourselves unceasingly that in our knowing of God, God always comes first, that in a genuine theology we do not think out of a centre in ourselves but out of a centre in God and his activity in grace toward us…[W]e must beware of subjecting knowledge of God to an alien frame-work by adapting it to the patterns of thought which we rightly develop in our investigation of the world of nature and its contingent existence. Rather must we let our understanding be raised up to what is above so that, human though it is and must remain, it may yet suffer adaption under the impact of God’s self-revelation and acquire new habits of though appropriate to God himself.

Theology of this kind is possible only because God has already condescended to come to us, and has indeed laid hold of our humanity, dwelt in it and adapted it to himself. In Jesus Christ he has translated his divine Word into human form and lifted up our human mind to understand himself. Hence in theological inquiry we are driven back upon Jesus Christ as the proper ground for communion and speech with God. Because he is both the Word of God become Man and Man responding to that Word in utter faithfulness and truth, he is the Way that leads to the Father. It is in him and from him that we derive the basic forms of theological thinking that are appropriate both to divine revelation and human understanding.

We live in an era of sharp theological conflict and yet of genuine advance. ‘Theological solipsism’ (to borrow an apt expression from my brother, J.B. Torrance) is rampant, breeding disagreement – hence the need is all the greater for a rigorous and disciplined inquiry that will not let us think in the way we want to think but only in the way we have to think if we are to do justice to the ‘object’ we are investigating. On the other hand, when we actually engage in a critical and scientific approach to the basic forms of theological thinking and are ready for positive reconstruction in accordance with them, unity and logical simplicity re-emerge, theological disagreements begin to fall away, and a steady advance in coherent understanding takes place in continuity with the whole history of Christian thought.[1]

As I mentioned above, Torrance is particularly eloquent in explaining the essence of his theological method here, and so I don’t think it requires any comment or clarification. What I would like to do – the reason for which I decided to post this today – is press this quote into the service of reinforcing my response to James Cassidy’s article on Van Til’s critique of Barth, specifically with what pertains to Bruce McCormack’s astute observation that the dispute between Barth and Van Til (and those who, like Cassidy, follow suit) is “rooted finally in the fact that Barth’s doctrine of God is Christologically controlled while Van Til’s doctrine of God controls his Christology”.[2] What McCormack means to say is that Van Til began with an a priori notion of God that he believed he could derive from “the natural order” and “the flow of history”.[3] This, of course, is the approach of natural karl-barththeology that, like Thomas Aquinas, begins with the sense data collected through observation of the material world and historical processes and then reasons from that data by negation to arrive at a concept of God. For this reason, natural theology yields essentially what amounts to a mere amplification of created reality and human nature (i.e. we are finite, God must be infinite; we are dependent, God must be self-sufficient, etc.).

As Torrance points out, however, this kind of thinking is fundamentally flawed in that it presumes to be capable of acquiring true knowledge of God prior to and apart from humble submission to the actual way in which God has revealed himself in himself, that is, in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit. It tends to distort true knowledge of who God is in himself by formulating a concept of God determined largely by that which is not God. The disaster that can ensue, and as McCormack contends does ensue in the case of Van Til, is that this natural-theological view of God (which stems from nothing less than human arrogance and rebellion in the presence of the God who speaks) often becomes the Procrustean bed upon which God’s actual self-revelation in Christ is clamped down such that, in effect, human beings usurp the exclusive right and authority of God to determine the form and content of revelation. We end up with a God made in our image rather than a God who conforms us to his image in Christ. The tragedy, of course, is that when such a anthropologized God is held to be the true God, then given the determinative nature of a doctrine of God to theology as a whole, theologians who seek to expound their theology in strict obedient accordance with God’s self-revelation in Christ, such as Barth and Torrance, are accused of being heretics.

This is why it seems that there seems to be, at least right now, little hope for real dialogue with people like James Cassidy who follow Van Til. Darren Sumner (who blogs at Out of Bounds and is a Barth scholar in his own right) added this comment to my response to Cassidy:

I find Van Til’s critique so difficult to engage in any depth because his reading of Barth is flawed in such fundamental ways. It is as if the disputants in these conversations are reading entirely different sources — thus common ground is nearly impossible to secure in order to then make any headway in evaluating Barth’s ideas. Yet Van Til’s followers refuse to be corrected with respect to their presuppositions.

The result? Barth’s followers will either end up stating the same correctives again and again, or (as Barth himself did) stop responding. That, it seems, is where we are at now: each new generation of VTians learn to repeat the same tired reading and the new Barthians learn the refrain, while the older scholars have opted to stop engaging. Rinse and repeat.

I agree with Darren’s assessment. Until Van-Tilians like Cassidy are willing to humbly subject their underlying natural-theological conception of God in repentant submission to Jesus Christ as the only “way, truth, and life” who determines the form and content of all true Christian faith and practice, it seems that they will continue to pass by the glory and beauty of the Christ, and the God revealed in him, that Barth glimpsed and sought to expound like the proverbial ship in the night. To the ironies I pointed out in my response to Cassidy I can add another: if Cassidy indeed follows Van Til in forcing Christology to fit the theological framework established (at least in part) by natural theology, and if, as Torrance says, “in a genuine theology we do not think out of a centre in ourselves but out of a centre in God and his activity in grace toward us” in Christ, then it would seem that contrary to the name of the podcast in which he participates (for an example, click here), Christ is not actually the center. If only he was…

So for the time being, it seems that, in Torrance’s words, these “sharp theological conflicts” will continue, unless Cassidy and company are willing to engage in a “rigorous and disciplined inquiry that will not let us think in the way we want to think but only in the way we have to think if we are to do justice to the ‘object’ we are investigating” – the ‘object’ in this case being, of course, the One who ever and always remains ‘subject’ in all our knowledge of him. Whatever legitimate critiques there are to be made of Barth, this is decidedly not one of them – that he relentlessly endeavoured to repentantly submit all human thought and speech about God to the absolute majesty and incontestable authority of the actual way in which God has chosen to definitively reveal himself once and for all in the person of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Whether Barth was fully successful in this regard can be debated; nevertheless I am convinced that he provides us with an outstanding example of what obedient theology should look like.

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, pp.9-10.

[2] McCormack, B.L., 2011.’Afterword: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p.380.

[3] Ibid.

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