Serving the World as the Body of Christ: Exploring the First Level of a Scientific Missiology with T.F. Torrance

Continuing my engagement with T.F. Torrance toward what might be called a “scientific” missiology, I move further into the first level in which we come to understand the mission of the church in terms of its historical manifestation, of the story of redemption as it is recounted in Scripture. Central to this story, as Torrance would have it, is the notion of the church as “Body of Christ”, yet the meaning and significance of this can only be comprehended within the entire sweep of the biblical drama. Torrance writes:

The Church does not derive from below but from above, but it does not exist apart from the people that make up its membership or apart from the fellowship they have with the life of God. The Church is a divine creation but in the divine economy it did not come into being automatically with the creation of the world or all at once with the establishment in the world of a human society. The Church was formed in history as God called and entered into communion with His people and in and through them embodied and worked out by mighty acts of grace His purpose of love which He brought at last to its fulfilment in Jesus Christ.

While there is only one people and Church of God throughout all ages from the beginning of creation to the end, there are three stages or phases of its life. It took a preparatory form before the Incarnation as in the covenant mercies of the Body-of-Christ-300x295Father one people was called and separated out as the instrument through which all peoples were to be blessed; it was given a new form in Jesus Christ who gathered up and reconstructed the one people of God in Himself, and poured out His Spirit upon broken and divided humanity that through His atoning life and death and resurrection all men might be reconciled to God and to one another, sharing equally in the life and love of the Father as the new undivided race; but it is yet to take on its final and eternal form when Christ comes again to judge and renew His creation, for then, the Church which now lives in the condition of humiliation and in the ambiguous forms of this age, will be manifested as the new creation without spot or wrinkle, eternally serving and sharing in the glory of God. 

Because Jesus Christ through the Spirit dwells in the midst of the Church on earth, making it His own Body or His earthly and historical form of existence, it already partakes of the eternal life of God that freely flows out through Him to all men. Because its existence is rooted in the sending of the Son by the Father to be the Saviour of the world, the Church lives its divinely given life in history as the servant of Christ sent out by Him to proclaim the Gospel of God’s love to the whole world and to be in itself as the reconciled people of God the provisional form of the new creation.

It is therefore the mission of the Church by the witness of its word and life to bring to all nations and races the message of hope in the darkness and dangers of our times, and to summon them to the obedience of the Gospel, that the love of God in Jesus Christ may be poured out upon them by the Spirit, breaking down all barriers, healing all divisions and gathering them together as one universal flock to meet the coming of the Great Shepherd, the one Lord and Saviour of all. [“The Foundation of the Church”, Scottish Journal of Theology 16, no. 2 (1963): 113-114]

Torrance’s account is succinct and dense, for here it constitutes the introduction and overview to his essay “The Foundation of the Church”. What Torrance goes on to recount is the birth and growth of the church through its three main stages: the church as Israel, the church as the Body of Christ, and the church as the glorified new humanity of God. Torrance denotes the first stage as preparatory, precisely because its goal was the coming of the Savior who would represent and embody the people of God in himself, thereby carrying it through the throes of death and into the glory of resurrection. The entire history of Israel was an ever-deepening union between a holy God and a sinful people, a combustible combination that eventually resulted in a judgment so total that only one Israelite was, so to speak, left standing: Jesus Christ, the One who represented the Many. Yet this One was no mere Israelite, indeed he was also the God of Israel, finally and fully united to humanity in a perfect and indissoluble union.

Thus, it was only after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ in whom the reconciliation of God and humanity was realized that the church could be so united to God through Christ and in the Spirit that it could be called Christ’s “Body”. As this Body, the church is charged, while it awaits the consummation of redemption during the time of Christ’s hiddenness in heaven, with serving as his servant and herald to all the world, announcing the good news of his achievement in the flesh and on the behalf of all people. It is precisely because the church exists and serves as the Body of Christ that it must be and do nothing except which its Head is and does. Hence the need for a scientific missiology: the mission of the church must exclusively derive from and strictly conform to the mission of Christ, yet in a way proper to its dependent and submissive relation as Body.

Now there is still much further work that needs to be done in order to fully define and provide practical direction for the mission of the church, yet this is the essential starting point. The church of the present is the body of Christ, reborn from Israel through the death and resurrection of Christ and united to him by the Spirit, yet still awaiting the consummation of redemption at the parousia of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.

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The Word of God in the Word of Man: Working Out the Evangelical Level of a Scientific Missiology, pt. 1 (with reference to T.F. Torrance)

Last week I posed the question as to the possibility of reading T.F. Torrance’s theology of mission through his construct of the stratified (i.e. layered, multi-dimensional) nature of theological knowledge. In one sense we can say that Torrance’s stratified concept of theological knowledge follows a logic of discovery (or epistemology) rather than a logic of being (or ontology), although in reality the latter precedes the former. In other words, this approach articulates its understanding of the object in question by retracing the steps made from the lowest (experiential) to the highest level. At the highest level, one discovers the ontological basis without which the lower levels would not exist and which deepens the knowledge intuitively apprehended at those levels, yet one cannot arrive at the highest level without first passing through the lower. This twofold movement is reflected in the Trinitarian mission: from the Father through the Son in the Spirit, and then in the Spirit through the Son to the Father. The latter is that with which we experientially begin, and the former is the deeper reality which we discover through theological reflection on the latter.

If that seems a bit complex, it basically means this: we are to submit all of our missional thought and practice to the dictates of the gospel (including both the content of the gospel’s message and the underlying theo-logic that grounds it). As Torrance writes:

…the whole life and work of the Church in history must be subordinated to the content of the Gospel, and criticized and corrected according to its content, the saving person and work of Jesus Christ. If the Church is the Body of Christ, then the torranceyoungChurch must conform to Christ in the whole of its life and work.[1]

So thinking in terms of a stratified missiology must begin at the level of our experience of the gospel itself as it meets us in the witness of the church and the testimony of the Bible. Apart from this witness and our acceptance of it, we would have no missional theology at all. As Torrance explains:

We cannot see Jesus, for He has withdrawn Himself from our sight; and we will not see Him face to face until He comes again—but we can hear His voice speaking to us in the midst of the Church on earth. That is the perpetual miracle of the Bible, for it is the inspired instrument through which the voice of Christ is still to be heard. Jesus Christ was the Word of God made flesh, the still small voice of God embodied in our humanity, and it is that same Word, and that same voice, that is given to the Church in the Bible. It is by that voice that the Church in all ages is called into being, and upon that Word of God that the Church is founded. The Church is, in fact, the Community of the Voice of God, for it is the business of the Church to open the Bible and let the voice of Christ speaking in and through it be heard all over the world. It is the mission of the Church to carry the Bible to all nations, and to plant it in every home in the land, and by preaching and teaching, and the witness of its members, to make the Word of God audible, so that the living Voice of Jesus Christ the Saviour of men may be heard by every man and woman and child….

When we know Jesus Christ today our knowledge … derives from direct personal contact with Him and is based on personal witness about Him. We can have personal knowledge about Jesus Christ, but can we have direct personal encounter with Him and know Him personally for ourselves? Yes we can, and that is the perpetual miracle of the knowledge of Jesus Christ. But this direct personal knowledge of Jesus Christ comes when two things happen; when other people communicate to us a knowledge of Christ, and when at the same time He Himself alive comes to us, using their communication about Him as the means to reveal Himself directly and personally to us…. Because God has become man in one particular person in history, we can only know of Him through personal and historical contact with that person—our knowledge of God in Christ must be personally and historically communicated to us through a human chain of witnesses beginning with the recorded witness of the original disciples. But Jesus uses that historical witness to bring us to Him, and to convey Himself to us directly.

In this very Gospel, for example, it is John who is speaking and bearing witness to Jesus, and I am expounding what John has said, not simply in the light of what I think he said but in the light of what I have learned together with others in the Church of the meaning of the Gospel. I am influenced in my witness by the witness of others in the history of the Church, so that as we meditate upon this passage and seek to listen to its message, we do that “with all saints,” in the communion of the Spirit. But in that very communion it is Jesus Christ Himself alive, acutely and personally near, who speaks to us, and we hear and know Him face to face, invisibly as yet, but nonetheless directly and intimately. That is the perpetual miracle of the Gospel wherever it is preached. It is preached by very fallible human beings, but through their witness and in spite of their mistakes, Christ Himself comes and meets with sinners directly and enters into conversation with them just as He entered into conversation with these disciples at the very beginning of the Gospel….

This also the Gospel has to tell us, therefore: it is not enough that we should encounter Jesus personally for ourselves, meet and know Him and receive from Him all that He has to offer us; it is imperative that we go and find our brothers, our neighbours and our friends, and introduce them to Jesus as well, so that they may believe not because they have heard us speak about Him but because God uses our witness for His supernatural revelation, and as the means whereby there is direct personal encounter with the living Christ.[2]

Torrance’s argument is well summarized by Paul’s words in his first letter to the Thessalonians (1:4-9, ESV):

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.

Here we see Paul saying, in not so many words, exactly what Torrance did. The Thessalonians’ knowledge of God (revealed in Christ and opposed to idols) began with their reception of the gospel preached by Paul and his missionary companions. This evanreception was not a mere change of ideas (as from one philosophy to another) but rather the powerful work of the Holy Spirit evident in the conviction and joy that it produced even in the midst of affliction, a result that transcended any sociological or psychological explanation. As Paul says in 2:13, “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.” They may not have clearly understood the full significance of what was happening to them in their encounter with the gospel, but they grasped, even if only on an intuitive level, that the foolish-sounding message of Paul was actually the power of the God in whose presence no idol can be countenanced any longer. Not only that, but having received the gospel as the word and power of God, they then became imitators of Paul, having been conscripted by the gospel into the service of the same.

So this is ground zero of a scientific missiology. Through the church’s witness, we who were formerly alienated from God in idolatry have come to know him as revealed in Christ and proclaimed in the gospel. When we heard in the “word of man”, we recognized it as the “word of God”. Although we may not have comprehended the exact relation between the two, or even how such a thing could be possible, we consciously entered in the sphere of God’s redemptive mission as we received the word of the gospel in the preaching of the church. As a result, we find ourselves caught up as active participants in the very same mission, transformed from mere hearers of the word into doers of the word committed to sharing and spreading throughout the world our ever-deepening understanding of the gospel of Christ.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, “Introduction to Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises”, in John Calvin, Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958), viii.

[2] T.F. Torrance, When Christ Comes and Comes Again (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 27, 55-56.

A Stratified Knowledge of Mission?: Constructing a Scientific Missiology with T.F. Torrance

One of the most well-known and thoroughly studied of T.F. Torrance’s contributions to theological thought is his commendation of a “scientific” approach to the knowledge of God, i.e. that the theological method ought to be determined by the nature of God as he has revealed himself to us. For Torrance, this comports a “stratified” concept of the knowledge that we acquire in our theological work. In other words, the knowledge of God that we apprehend becomes progressively greater (or higher, as the metaphor suggests) as we penetrate ever further into the depths of God’s self-revelation. Torrance explains:

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Image by Steve Thomason, deepintheburbs.com

[T]he unfolding of the doctrine of the Trinity takes place as it moves from its implicit biblical form to an explicit theological form. We found that doctrinal formulation involves here, as in all areas of scientific knowledge, a stratified structure of several coordinated levels of understanding in which the conceptual content and structure of basic knowledge becomes progressively disclosed to inquiry.

We moved from the ground level of evangelical or biblical knowledge of God as he is revealed to us in the saving activity of his incarnate Son, to a distinctly theological level in an attempt to grasp and give intelligible expression to the unbroken relation in Being and Act between Christ and the Holy Spirit to God the Father, which belongs to the very heart of the Gospel message of God’s redeeming love. This involved a decisive movement of thought, under the guidance of the key insight of the Nicene Creed expressed in the homoousion, from a preconceptual to a conceptual level of understanding which Christian faith takes under the compelling claims of God’s self-revelation and self-communication in the incarnation.

We then moved to a higher theological level devoted to a deepening and refining of the theological concepts and relations operating at the second level, this time with particular help from the notion of perichoresis, in terms of which the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as one Being, three Persons comes to its fullest formulation, yet in such a way that it serves understanding and appreciation of the saving and redemptive message of the Gospel upon which the whole Christian faith is grounded.

In this stratified structure of different epistemological levels, we noted that each level is open to consistent and deeper understanding in the light of the theological concepts and relations operating at the next level, and that the top level, and indeed the whole coordinated structure with it, while open-ended and incomplete in itself, points indefinitely beyond itself to the ineffable, transcendent Mystery of the Holy Trinity. Thus each level serves deeper and fuller understanding of the ground level of evangelical experience and cognition and relates the Trinity to God’s redemptive mission in Christ and in the Holy Spirit, inspiring worship and calling forth from us wonder, thanksgiving, adoration and praise.[1]

My purpose in this post is not to detail what Torrance means by the three levels of knowledge through which we pass in our apprehension of God, even though I realize that the above discussion may be a bit difficult to understand for some. I am more interested in exploring how this concept — which Torrance typically utilizes in relation to the knowledge of God as Trinity — might provide a structure upon which a scientific missiology (i.e. a missiology exclusively derived from the gospel message of God’s saving mission) can be constructed. In other words, does our theology of mission begin with our own experience in encountering and participating in the mission of the church, which we then articulate in terms of the missio Dei, which we ultimately discover is connected to the inner transcendent life of the Triune God himself?

This is not something that Torrance (to my knowledge) ever attempted, yet I think that the potential for using this stratified approach to theological knowledge in the field of missiology is there. In my reading of Torrance, even when he does not specifically say so, he seems to operate within these epistemological levels in virtually every theological task that he undertakes. So in this post I am simply posing the question: is it possible that Torrance’s view of Christian mission — which in turn drove his life’s work as a whole — can be helpfully elucidated in terms of the stratified epistemology with which he expounded the doctrine of the Trinity? It seems to me that the final sentence of the above quote would indicate this possibility.

In future “Reformission Monday” posts, I hope to explore this in further detail.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, The Christian doctrine of God, one being three persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 113.

Every Thought Captive: Why All Theology Must Conform to Christ (with reference to T.F. Torrance)

As expressed in John 1 and Hebrews 1, Jesus Christ is the ultimate and definitive revelation of God because he himself is the Word to which the prophets and apostles, like John the Baptist, were merely witnesses. Thus, when it comes to interpreting Scripture and formulating theology, we cannot start with an approach that we have developed or adopted from sources or philosophies external to this witness. Rather we must allow the form of our interpretive and theological method (and not just the material content!) to be shaped and determined by Christ who must be the Alpha and the Omega of all our thought and speech about God.

I would argue that this approach to Scripture and theology is necessitated by what we read in John 1:14, 18:

JohnM-502x630
“In the Beginning” by Makoto Fujimura

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth…. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

In this passage, the apostle John makes clear that the form of God’s definitive self-revelation is inextricably bound up with its content, because “the Word became flesh” was both the message and the medium. Jesus Christ, the Word enfleshed, did not simply reveal God; he himself was also the God whom he revealed. It would be impossible, therefore, to separate what Christ revealed from the way in which he revealed it, for both were bound up with his incarnate person. Additionally, we must remember that Jesus Christ was not merely the Word of God to humanity, but — precisely as that Word become flesh — he was also humanity receiving and responding to God in perfect faith and obedience. It is in Christ alone that we discover not only the perfect revelation of God, but also the perfect apprehension of that revelation by a human mind, heart, and soul.

As a result, those who seek to apprehend this revelation (interpretation) and then to say what needs to be said on its basis (theology) can do so faithfully only insofar as they refuse to separate what God has joined together: both the message and the means of making it known. Only a methodology that respects this union of form and content by adapting itself to the nature of Jesus Christ will yield the true knowledge of God that both reveals and reconciles. Is this not what Paul meant when he stressed the necessity of taking every thought captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5)?

To conclude, here is an eloquent statement of this by “Christo-logian” par excellence Thomas F. Torrance [Theology in Reconstruction (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1996), pp.129-130]:

Christian knowledge of God arises out of the self-revelation of God in and through Jesus Christ, for in him the Word of God has become man in the midst of man’s estrangement from God, committing himself to human understanding and creating communion between man and God. Biblical and dogmatic theology is the careful unfolding and orderly articulation of this knowledge within the sphere of communion with God, i.e. the sphere of reconciliation into which we are drawn by the activity of his Word, and of the obedience of faith in which all our thinking and speaking is brought into conformity to the self-communication of his Word. The way which God has taken in Jesus Christ to reveal himself and to reconcile us to himself is the way which we have to make our own in all true understanding and thinking and speaking of him.

Theology, therefore, involves a knowledge which is determined and controlled in its content by what is given in Jesus Christ, and operates with a mode of rational activity which corresponds to the nature of the object of this knowledge is Jesus Christ. It is the incarnation of the Word which proscribes to dogmatic theology both its matter and its method, so that whether in its activity as a whole or in the formulation of a doctrine in any part, it is the Christological pattern that will be made to appear. That does not mean that all theology can be reduced to Christology, but because there is t-f-torrance-sketchonly one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus, in the orderly presentation of the doctrines of the Christian faith, every doctrine will be expressed in its inner coherence with Christology at its centre, and in its correspondence to the objective reality of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ who is true God and true Man…

We cannot divine between the so-called form and content, between the human word of revelation and revelation itself, any more than we can divide asunder the human and the divine natures which are united in the one Person of Jesus Christ. The inconfuse, immutabiliter, indivise, inseparabiliter of Chalcedonian Christology apply equally to our understanding of revelation. Revelation is not only act from the side of God but also from the side of man, in the form of the Humanity of Christ which is of the very substance of revelation. The divine form and the human form of revelation must neither be confounded nor be separated. The incarnation means that now revelation is determined and shaped by the Humanity of Christ, that we know of no revelation of the Word of God except that which is given through Christ and in the form of Christ. Jesus Christ is the Truth, Truth as God is Truth, and that same Truth in the form of Man, Truth answering itself, Truth assuming its own true form from the side of man and from within man.

Toward a Kataphysic Missiology: T.F. Torrance on Developing a “Scientific” Approach to the Task of Mission (Reformission Monday)

Reformission Monday is the time when I pause from writing in reformission to reflect on reformission itself. Reformission aims at fulfilling the church’s commission through reformation and renewal, bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to bear on every sphere of human thought, speech, and life. Reformission thus proceeds on the basis of the deep and unbreakable unity between didache and kerygma, between Evangel and evangelism, between message and method, between the Word enfleshed, written, and proclaimed.

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In last week’s Reformission Monday post, I examined how T.F. Torrance, reformissionary par excellence, repudiated the dichotomy often drawn between “theory” and “practice” (which in missiology leads to a separation between the message and the methodology used to deliver it) and sought to reinstate in its place the New Testament emphasis on the intrinsic unity between the didache — the theological teaching of the gospel — and the kerygma — the missional proclamation of the gospel. This post builds on that one and seeks to extend the argument even further. If it is indeed true that, as the Word of God incarnate is both the content and act of revelation in one person, the gospel message and the mode of its missional dissemination are indivisible, then it is also true that the latter must derive exclusively from and conform strictly to the former. Simply put, the message of mission determines the method of mission. This is what I would like to call, appropriating terminology from Torrance, a kataphysic or scientific missiology.

The adjective kataphysic comes from the Greek phrase kata physin which means “according to nature”. Torrance employed this phrase mainly in his work on epistemology and hermeneutics to designate a properly “scientific” approach to these disciplines: not artificial-intelligence-religion-not-goodscientific in the sense of what is commonly understood as the philosophical materialism that informs much of the modern research in the natural sciences, but scientific in the sense of an approach that demonstrates a strict fidelity to the nature of the object of which knowledge is being sought. In other words, a kataphysic (or scientific) method seeks to know any particular object according its own intrinsic logic that is disclosed during the course of investigation rather than by imposing on that object a predetermined framework of rationality. A kataphysic approach attempts to conform itself to the object of inquiry rather than making its object of inquiry conform to itself. For example, we do not seek to know a person like we seek to know a geological formation; as objects of inquiry they are fundamentally different from each other, and thus in order to properly know them we must approach them according to what they are, not according to what we might assume them to be.

Although Torrance did not (to my knowledge) explicitly apply the concept of kata physin to the area of missiology, I am convinced that this is in essence what he did. As demonstration of this, we can consider Torrance’s introduction to his essay “A Study in New Testament Communication”:

It is often claimed that the problem of communicating the Gospel is the major practical problem facing the Church to-day, as it may also be the major theological problem. This concern is a very healthy sign, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that we are part to be so concerned with devising new methods of evangelism as to forget the one factor of supreme importance: the burden of the Gospel itself, that is, to forget that the Gospel is not simply the message of divine love, but the actual way in which God communicates Himself to us in history. No technique that forgets that the Gospel has already been made supremely relevant to sinful humanity in the Incarnation and death of Jesus Christ will ever avail for the communication of the Gospel.[1]

Here Torrance uses the term “Gospel” to indicate more than simply the content of the New Testament’s teaching about Jesus Christ. For Torrance, the “Gospel” also encompasses the saving activity of God that reconciles even as it reveals. This, I think, is fully warranted by what Paul says in Romans 1:16-17 in reference to the fact that the gospel that reveals the saving righteousness of God is also the effectual power of God for salvation. The gospel is revelation that reconciles and reconciliation that reveals, and as such its mode of communication is determined by its content and action.

Torrance unpacks this idea more extensively in another essay entitled “Theological Education Today”:

It must ever be kept in mind that what we are concerned with in theology is the understanding and proclamation of the Gospel that is directed to human need. This involves both the bringing of the Gospel to man and the bringing of man to the Gospel, but in no circumstances can man and his need become the criteria for what the Gospel is or ought to be. We may express this in a more epistemological way by saying that in all knowledge of God we are concerned with the divine Truth and with a human knower. The communication of the Truth must take into account the nature of the receiver, and the mode of communication will be conditioned also by the mode of the reception, but that does not mean that the human knower or receiver may determine the content of the Truth.

On the other hand, the content of the Gospel is found in the Word made flesh, and in the Truth of God which is not only communicated to man but received by man and translated into human life in Jesus Christ. It is the nature of this Man that conditions both the content of the Gospel and the mode of its communication and reception by those to whom he is proclaimed and ministered. In Jesus Christ the Truth of God has already been made relevant to man and his need, and therefore does not need to be
made relevant by us. Because God has already accommodated or adapted his revelation to human t-f-torrancenature and human understanding in Jesus Christ, the closer theological instruction keeps to the humanity of Jesus Christ, the more relevant it is to the humanity of the receiver.

Thus in all theological activity, whether it be in the education of the Ministry or in the teaching of the people, we are concerned with two basic factors: with the nature of the Truth of God as it is in Jesus Christ, and therefore with a mode of communication appropriate to his unique nature; and with the nature of the human receiver, and therefore with a mode of reception appropriate to his human nature. These must never be separated from one another, for in the very nature of the Gospel they belong together, and indeed it is because they do that the Truth of God as it is in Jesus is really Gospel, good news to man in his need.

All true theology is thus intensely practical. That is why all theories purporting to show how the Gospel can be made relevant to man, even modern man, in his need, are by their very nature impossible, for they are substituting an intellectual relation for the practical relation which God himself has established in Jesus Christ. That is the epistemological relevance of justification by grace alone—no works of ours, carnal or mental, can establish a bridge between our understanding and the Truth of God. Knowledge of God is in accordance with his nature, that is in accordance with grace, and therefore takes its rise from God’s action in revealing himself and reconciling us to himself in Jesus Christ. The relation between our statements about God and God himself in his own Truth is not one that we can either forge or describe in statements, but one that we can only allow to happen to us through submitting obediently and gratefully to his saving and revealing acts. Full place for that action must be given in theological knowledge as in evangelical proclamation. Thus unless dogmatic and philosophical theology can be geared into practical theology they are pretty wide of the remark.

Here we see repeated the theme from last week’s post on the missional practicality of theology and the theological nature of our missional practice. This follows, once again, from the nature of the person and work of Christ himself: the saving truth of which the world has need is not merely about Christ but is actually in Christ. This, in turn, underlies the important point that Torrance makes regarding the relevance of the gospel: while we must keep in mind the “nature of the receiver” with whom we share the gospel (here we see kata physin already at work), it is not ultimately the nature of the receivers — the multiplicity of unreached nations, tribes, and tongues — that determines the means that must be used to communicate the gospel to them in a comprehensible way. The relevancy of the gospel and its proper mode of communication is governed by Christ, for he alone is both the saving Word of God to humanity and humanity’s proper reception of that Word.

This is the kataphysic significance of the incarnation to missiology: inasmuch as the truth of the gospel is embodied in the God-human mediator Jesus Christ, not only the content of that gospel but also the necessary mode of its communication is determined by nature of Christ himself. Any missiology that is not scientific, that is not kataphysic in relation to Christ (i.e. not formulated exclusively from and strictly according to the person of Christ himself as God and man indivisibly and inconfusedly united in one person) is doomed to be an irrelevant missiology, irrespective of the seeming wisdom or efficacy or pragmatic value that it might possess. To be truly faithful and fruitful, our missiology must be kataphysic, scientifically expounded and practiced such that it is relevant supremely to Christ who is both the revealer and the revelation of reconciliation between God and humanity.

Again to my knowledge, Torrance does not seem to have extensively developed these seminal insights into a fully-orbed missiology, although they no doubt suffused his thinking and led to, if not a thoroughly elaborated, at least an intuitively practiced theology of mission that provided the primary impetus for all of his labors, whether academic, scientific, ecumenical, dogmatic, pastoral, or otherwise. For this reason, this idea of kataphysic (or scientific) missiology seems to me to be a field of Torrancean theology that is ripe for the harvest, and it is what I hope to continue to work on in weeks to come.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, “A Study in New Testament Communication”, Scottish Journal of Theology, p.298

[2] T.F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction. (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1996), pp.25-27.

The Christological Limits of Our Knowledge of God: Karl Barth on the Primacy of Christ in Theology

Many people are critical of Karl Barth’s insistence on not simply a Christocentric approach to biblical interpretation and theology (something that, as Richard Muller has shown, is pervasive in the Reformed tradition) but a Christo-constricted approach. That is, instead of simply thinking of Christ as the goal (the Christocentric approach), a Christo-constricted approach looks to Christ alone (solus Christus!) as the singularly determinative factor that limits and guides the entire process of interpretation and theology from start to finish, much like the banks of a river limit and guide the water to its proper destination. In this way, a Christ0-constricted approach gives a distinctly Christological shape not merely to Christology but to every aspect of faith and practice.

Now the reason why many people are critical of Barth on this point is precisely because it seems too, for lack of a better term, constricted. That is to say, it appears to impose an arbitrary principle that can distort the interpretation of biblical texts or other doctrinal loci by forcing them to conform to an artificial framework. For his part, however,barth Barth argues the exact opposite; for Barth, it is the non Christo-constricted (even Christocentric) approach that opens the door to any number of interpretive and theological problems. Barth writes:

Our crucial first statement, “that the eternal Word of God chose, sanctified and assumed human nature and existence into oneness with Himself, in order thus, as very God and very man, to become the Word of reconciliation spoken by God to man,” signifies the mystery of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. That is to say, in this statement we describe absolutely the sole point in which New Testament witness originates, and therefore, also, the sole point from which a doctrine of revelation congruous with this witness can originate. We do not look for some higher vantage point from which our statement can derive its meaning, but we start from this point itself. This, of course, we cannot do by our own authority and discretion. We can only make it clear from the Evangelists and apostles what it will mean to start from this point, and then try to make clear what our own starting-point is. But we cannot get “behind” this point. Therefore we cannot derive or prove the statement, in which this point is to be described, from a higher discernment. We can only describe it as a starting-point. Whatever we think or say about it can only be with the aim of describing it again and again as a mystery, i.e., as a starting-point.

If revelation is to be taken seriously as the revelation of God, and not just as an emphatic expression for a discovery which man has made in himself or in his cosmos by his own powers, then in any doctrine of revelation we must deal expressly with the point that constitutes the mystery of revelation, the starting-point of all thought and language about it. At all costs we must make it clear that an ultimate mystery is involved here. It can be contemplated, acknowledged, worshipped and confessed as such, but it cannot be solved, or transformed into a non-mystery. Upon no consideration must it be treated in such a way that the mystery is resolved away. In Christology the limits as well as the goal must be fixed as they are seen to be fixed already in the Evangelists and apostles themselves; i.e., the goal of thought and language must be determined entirely by the unique object in question. But this same object in its uniqueness must also signify for us the boundary beyond which we are not to think or speak. Christology has to consider and to state who Jesus Christ is, who in revelation exercises God’s power over man. But it must avoid doing so in such a way as to presuppose that man may now exercise a power over God. It must state definitely what cannot be stated definitely enough. But even so it must observe its own limits, i.e. the limits of man who has seriously to do with God’s revelation.[1]

Essentially Barth is saying here that far from being an arbitrary or artificial imposition on Scripture, it is Scripture itself which directs us to Christ as the boundary line beyond which we must not cross at any point in our interpretation or theologizing. When we pay close attention to the witness of the New Testament authors, we discover how relentlessly they pointed away from themselves and to Christ as the Word of God enfleshed, as the ultimate and definitive revelation of God to which the law and the prophets were only pointers, as the substance in whose light everything else becomes shadow:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Heb. 1:1-3)

Never in Scripture do we find the authoritative witnesses trying to, as Barth says, “get behind” that which God has spoken in Christ who, as the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his nature, does not merely reveal things about God but reveals God himself in his very own incarnate person. Even to attempt to get behind Christ for another revelation, for another word from God, for something higher and greater, for some principle or system or method, is to insist on going the way that God’s revelation has prohibited to us and trespass on ground that even angels fear to tread. In other words, a Christo-constricted approach to interpretation and theology is not arbitrary or artificial imposition, but the only path left to those who wish to repentantly submit all their thought and speech about God to the actual way he has taken in revealing himself to us in Christ. In Christ, God has clearly established the limits that hedge us in on every side, the boundaries that dictate the way we must take in seeking knowledge of him. Were we to assert our independence by pursuing a knowledge of God outside of these Christological confines, we would be doing nothing less than trying to assert ourselves against God himself. Thus, a Christo-constricted approach is, in the final analysis, simply a matter of obedience.

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[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.124-125

On Lingering Questions and the Nature of Theology

Yesterday I posted a response to one aspect of Kevin Vanhoozer’s critique of Evangelical Calvinism. This was inspired, in large part, by Bobby Grow’s own blog post to which Kevin Vanhoozer commented:

I suppose my lingering question is this: if the Incarnation means that the all humans are elect (because the Son assumes/elects human nature), and if the atoning work of Christ benefits all human beings, and if Jesus’ vicarious humanity includes his faith on my behalf, then it wouldSquare Peg in a Round Hole seem that his saving work is sufficient for all.

The usual response at this point is that I am imposing a Western logico-causal framework onto the discussion, whereas I’m only trying to think clearly!

On my own blog and in reply to what I wrote yesterday, someone who frequently comments here remarked that he too shares Vanhoozer’s question. What I would like to do in this post is not provide an extended answer (something which Bobby has just offered here) but rather to offer a brief (given the length of yesterday’s post!) reflection on the reality of having to live with “lingering questions” in any theological endeavor due to the nature of its subject matter.

 T.F. Torrance writes:

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 Being, before which we ought rather to cover our faces and clap our hands on our mouths, for God is 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 theological sin to think of identifying the trinitarian structures of our thought and speech of God with the constitutive relations in the Being of the Godhead. All true theological concepts and statements inevitably fall far short of the God to whom they refer, so that their inadequacy, as concepts and as statements, to God must be regarded as essential to their truth and precision. The Triune God is more to be adored than expressed.[1]

If we truly take to heart what Torrance says here, we will all acknowledge that, to a certain extent, all of our thinking and speaking about God and his ways and works constitutes a “sacrilegious intrusion” into places where ever angels fear to tread. This is not to say, of course, that our theologizing is inherently sinful; quite the contrary. Nevertheless, it is to say that when we are dealing with the reality of the eternal God in his Triune being and activity, it is inevitable that questions will remain. Many of our unanswered questions, I think, come from the fact that while we can often affirm “that…”,  it is much more difficult to understand “how” or “why”.

I can affirm that God is One and Three, but I don’t know how this can be.

I can affirm that this Triune God created all things ex nihilo, but I can’t explain how he did.

I can affirm that evil entered the good creation of God through the sin of Adam, but I have no idea how or why it happened.

I can affirm that the Word became flesh, one person, two natures, fully God, fully man, but how this can be I cannot begin to fathom.

Similarly, I can affirm that all humanity is elect and represented in the vicarious humanity of Christ, but I cannot give an account for the precise “mechanism” (for lack of a better terms) of how individual human beings come to share subjectively in Christ’s humanity, nor can I comprehend why many will ultimately be damned.

This is not to say that no explanations can or should be attempted. Indeed, as I mentioned above, Bobby Grow has done an excellent job in responding to Vanhoozer’s questions. Rather, it is to say that all of our explanations fall short of the reality which they attempt to describe, and that we have to admit that, in the final analysis, what we understand is far less than what we don’t understand. This is the nature of the subject matter – or better the Subject himself – that is the object of our inquiry in theology.

In summary, many questions will linger, regardless of the particular ‘system’ or ‘school of thought’ or ‘confessional tradition’ that we follow. This is not an excuse, of course, for intellectual laziness. Rather, it is a humble admission of our finitude and incapacity to fully understand the ways and works of God. At the end of the day, all we can do is clap our hands over our mouths, fall on our faces, and worship.

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1980. The ground and grammar of theology, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. pp.166-167.

What is Dialectical Theology in Evangelical Calvinism and Why is it Important?

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Image courtesy of David Hayward

One of the distinguishing marks of Evangelical Calvinism as articulated by Myk Habets and Bobby Grow in Vol. 1 of the same title is that its theological approach can be described as ‘dialectical’ and ‘dialogical’ rather than primarily ‘philosophical’ or ‘analytical.’ For anyone interested in learning about or engaging with Evangelical Calvinism, it is absolutely crucial to understand its dialectical/dialogical aspects lest, as often happens, it is dismissed as incoherent or objections are raised that simply do not follow from its premises. From my own (somewhat limited) experience interacting with people about EC, it seems to me that apart from a biblical hermeneutic and theological methodology that is principially christocentric (i.e. EC attempts to think out everything in strict accordance with how God has revealed himself in Christ), the dialectical/dialogical way of thinking constitutes one of, if not the, primary stumbling block that causes people, especially those schooled in theologies or traditions that favor logically-precise systems, to come to the conclusion that EC is unsatisfactory or incomprehensible.

What I want to do in this post, therefore, is explain, by way of T.F. Torrance and Bruce McCormack, why Evangelical Calvinists follow (not uncritically) the dialectical approach of Karl Barth. It is not because we appreciate Barth (though we do) or because we think a dialectical approach is pragmatically useful (which in many situations it isn’t). Primarily, EC adopts a dialectical/dialogical approach to theology because it is that which seems to be pressed upon us by the nature of the truth into which we are inquiring. T.F. Torrance helpfully explains what this means:

Dialectical thinking indicates the basic reversal that takes place in our thinking as we are confronted by God: we know God or rather are known by God. It is God who speaks, man who hears, and therefore man may only speak of God in obedience to what he hears from God…In Revelation God gives himself to us as the object of our faith and knowledge, but because he remains God and Lord, he does not give himself into our hands, as it were; he does not resign himself to our mastery or our control as if he were a dead object. He remains the living Lord, unqualified in his freedom, whom we can only know in accordance with his acts upon us, by following his movement of grace, and by renouncing on our part any attempt to master him by adapting him to our own schemes of thought or structures of existence; that is, whom we can know only by knowing him out of himself as an objective reality…standing over against us, as the divine Partner and Lord of our knowing of him…

Theological thinking, then, is inescapably dialectical because it must be a thinking by man not from a centre in himself but from a centre in God, and yet never seeks to usurp God’s own standpoint. It is dialogical thinking in which man remains man but in which he meets God, listens to him, answers him, and speaks of him in such a way that at every point he gives God the glory. Because it is dialogical it can only be fragmented on his side, for it does not carry its co-ordinating principle in itself, but derives it from beyond itself in God’s Word…

Dialectical theology stands for the fact that toward the Truth itself all our statements must remain essentially open, in humble acknowledgement of the fact that it is not in our competence to capture the Truth or to enclose it in our formulations, in frank admission that our thinking and speaking of God have their finite boundaries over which they cannot transgress.

In this sense, dialectical thinking is a correlate of justification by grace alone, in its epistemological reference. That is to say, it is a form of thinking which acknowledges that the only legitimate justification or demonstration of Christian truth is that which is in accordance with its nature, as truth and grace of God, and that to seek justification of it on any other ground is to falsify knowing at its very basis. Dialectical thinking is therefore thinking which combines statement and inquiry, for it makes statements not from a vantage point above the truth where it is the master but from a point below it where it never leaves its position of humble inquiry. Hence in dialectical thinking we let our knowledge, our statements, or our theological formulations be called into question by the very God toward whom they point or are directed in inquiry, for he alone is the Truth. Hence theological doctrines or formulations essentially contingent; they do not claim to have the truth in themselves for by their very nature they point beyond themselves to the Truth in God. Dialectical thinking, therefore, as Barth employed it, is to be considered as a form of combining statement and inquiry with the intention of letting the Truth declare itself to us, and therefore it indulges in a deliberate abstention from final judgments lest by breaking off or foreclosing the inquiry we should block our vision of the truth or be tempted to image that we have caught it in the net of our formulations.[1]

What Torrance says here is extremely important. Rather than imposing a framework (logical, philosophical, analytical) on Scripture and forcing it to conform its witness to the Truth which is God himself accordingly, a dialectical/dialogical approach endeavors not only to question the text to exegete its meaning but, first and foremost, to allow the text to question the approach itself and prescribe its own inner logic and coherency. It never views theological statements or systems as complete, as though we could every capture the fullness of who God is in human language, but rather constantly seeks to repentantly submit itself to change and development under the scrutiny of the Word. For this reason, it seeks to offer a faithful response to the Word, not by conforming the Word to its own patterns of thought, but by adapting its patterns of thought to the authority and majesty of the Word. Dialectical theology, in other words, is the approach we must take when we realize that God is God and we are not.

Addressing the age-old debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, Bruce McCormack provides a helpful example of what this looks like in practice:

There is a tension, I want to suggest, that runs through the very heart of the New Testament witness, between those passages that bear witness to the saving intentions of God in setting forth a Mediator and the passages that bear witness to the Final Judgment at the end of time. The first are characterized by a universalism of divine intent; Christ died for all. The second are often (though not exclusively) characterized by particularism, a separation in the Final Judgment of the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25:31-46). Faced with this tension, evangelical exegetes have typically sought to remove it through one of two strategies. “Calvinist” exegesis has taken the eschatological passages as a clear and definite starting point for thought and treated the atonement passages as obscure and requiring careful explanation if they are to be harmonized with the eschatological passages. “Arminian” exegesis, too, has taken the eschatological passages as a clear and definite starting point but regarded the universality of God’s saving intentions as witnessed to in the atonement passages as equally so. So their strategy for harmonizing rests in the introduction of a third factor between God’s intentions and the final outcome – viz. a human will, which God allows to trump His will to save. God wants to save all but cannot because He places too high a priority on human freedom to be willing to impose faith irresistibly. Though these strategies differ, they share two things in common: (1) both presuppose that faith in Jesus Christ is an absolutely necessary condition which must be met if any individual is to be numbered among the eschatologically saved and (2) both presuppose that elimination of the tension is necessary if the New Testament is to retain its authoritative status in Christian theology.

In relation to these two presuppositions of traditional evangelical exegesis, I would like to say that I agree with the first but disagree with the second. I think there are good and sufficient reasons not to eliminate the tension but to allow it to stand…And because I think that to be the case, I also think that both traditional Calvinist and traditional Arminian exegesis misfire – and misfire fire at precisely the same point. Both treat the propositions found in Scripture as standing in a strictly logical relationship to one another, so that any tension that might exist among them must finally be regarded as a contradiction – which would obviously threaten biblical authority. My own view is that the tension I have identified is not rightly understood as a contradiction. Rather, it is a function of the tension between history and eschatology, between time and eternity, between certitudes and mysteries, between what may be said with great definiteness and what must finally be left open-ended and unresolved.[2]

McCormack helps us to see how a dialectical approach to biblical interpretation and theology may just open new vistas in our understanding. Rather than presuppose, as McCormack observes vis-à-vis Calvinist and Arminian exegesis, that the authority of Scripture rests finally on our ability to eliminate any tensions we find, a dialectical approach acknowledges that Scripture speaks as it does for a divinely determined reason, and thus it is to our peril if we try to fit its teaching into a particular logic or system by sanding down its rough edges. It just may be, however, that we could break through some longstanding theological stalemates were we to allow the Word to reveal its own inner rationality, centred on God’s self-revelation in Christ and by the Spirit, and thereby permit it, and not us, to determine the logical forms to which our thinking about its teaching should adhere.

This is how we as Evangelical Calvinists are attempting, however imperfectly, to speak about all the ways and works of God as attested in Scripture. If there is difficulty in understanding us, I would suggest that part of the problem (apart from our own shortcomings!) may stem from a failure to understand the dialectical and dialogical way in which we operate. Until this is clearly grasped, we will likely just end up talking past each other.

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1962. Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1920-1931. London: SCM Press, pp.80, 82-83, 87-88.

[2] McCormack, B.L., 2011. ‘So That He May Be Merciful to All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.229-230.

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.

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.

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[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.