Defending Barth and Torrance from the Charge of Incoherence: Contra Robert Letham and Others

Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance are both, and often accused of being incoherent in their material theological positions and conclusions. Robert Letham most recently has made this charge against Thomas Torrance in particular (and it might as well have been against Karl Barth as well). Letham writes against Torrance:

… It is simply incoherent for Torrance to say what he says about the definitive justification and reconciliation for all people and yet to deny universal salvation. Moreover, if it is possible for people to reject Christ and what he has done, it cannot be definitive and effective for them and cannot have been complete in Christ’s person. It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis.[1]

What seriously bothers me about such claims is that people like Robert Letham, Roger Olson (who thinks us Evangelical Calvinists are incoherent for the same kinds of reasons), et al. totally fail to appreciate and take Barth and Torrance on their stated terms. It is not as if Barth or Torrance have not provided extended treatments of their terms and prolegomena and approach to things, theological; they have! And so for the rest of this post (and it will turn out to be a long post because of this, but I want to have this available online for whenever I hear that Barth and Torrance are incoherent) I will be quoting George Hunsinger at length on Karl Barth; and Hunsinger will be explaining why Barth (and think Torrance as well, for his own related reasons) is not in fact incoherent while those who are making the claim of incoherence in fact are the ones who are incoherent relative to the particular categories of Scripture and God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ. So here we go:


Testing for Incoherence Within the Framework of the Chalcedonian Pattern

The coherentist mode of testing, as it emerged in the survey of rationalism, also plays a decisive role in Barth’s justification of his position on double agency. Directly and indirectly, therefore, it serves to justify his reliance on the conceptions of miracle and mystery in that position. On the exegetical or hermeneutical premise that the terms of the Chalcedonian pattern are rooted in the biblical testimony regarding how divine and human agency are related, the mode of doctrinal testing proceeds as follows. The Chalcedonian pattern is used to specify counterpositions that would be doctrinally incoherent (and also incoherent with scripture). “Without separation or division” means that no independent human autonomy can be posited in relation to God. “Without confusion or change” means that not divine determinism or monism can be posited in relation to humanity. Finally, “complete in deity and complete in humanity” means that no symmetrical relationship can be posited between divine and human actions (or better, none that is not asymmetrical). It also means that the two cannot be posited as ultimately identical. Taken together, these considerations mean that, if the foregoing conditions are to be met, no nonmiraculous and nonmysterious conception is possible. The charge of incoherence (as previously defined) thereby reveals itself to be abstract, in the sense that it does not adequately take all the necessary factors into account. It does not work inductively from the subject matter (as attested by scripture)–as the motif of particularism would prescribe. Instead, it starts from general considerations such as formal logic and applies them to certain isolated aspects of the more “concrete” position. At the same time, the charge may well have implicated itself, wittingly or unwittingly, in one of the rejected couterpositions.

Without Separation or Division: Against Independent Human Autonomy

No independent human autonomy, Barth argues, may be posited in relation to God. The idea of an independent human autonomy posits the kind of illicit “determinism” that Barth finds to be characteristic of Pelagian barthand semi-Pelagian positions counter to his own. The actuality of human autonomy or freedom or self-determination (and so on) is, it is important to see, not in question. What is in question is the condition for the possibility of human autonomy, freedom, and self-determination. The Pelagian position finds this condition to be entirely inherent in human nature as created by divine grace, whereas the semi-Pelagian position finds it to be only partially inherent in human nature. The Pelagian sees no need, whereas the semi-Pelagian sees some need, for the special operation of divine grace, if the human creature is to act freely in fellowship with God (I/1, 199-200; II/1, 562-63). Neither position survives Barth’s coherentist form of testing, for neither is seen to do justice either to the radicality of sin or to the finitude of the creature. The same basic inadequacy can be restated with reference to other doctrinal beliefs, and these are actually thought to be the more fundamental. Christologically, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the cross of Christ (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the necessity of the mediation of Christ (as it overcomes not only sin, but the finitude of the creature, by exalting the creature to eternal life). Theologically, moreover, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the divine righteousness (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the divine majesty (as it discloses the essence of creaturely finitude).

In discussing the question of double agency, it is most often the radicality of sin and the majesty of God to which coherentist appeal adverts (although the other beliefs do not cease to be presupposed, of course, and are sometimes invoked). The radicality of sin, as already documented on more than one occasion, is regarded as meaning that we have “completely lost the capacity for God” (I/1, 238). The majesty of God, on the other hand, is characteristically conceived in terms of the “conditioned” and the “unconditioned.” “The creature which conditions God is no longer God’s creature, and the God who is conditioned by the creature is no longer God” (II/1, 580). Or again: “Grace would not be grace if it were not free, but were conditioned by a reciprocal achievement on the part of the one to whom it is addressed” (I/1, 45). Or again: “Grace cannot be called forth or constrained by any claim or merit, by any existing or future condition, on the part of the creature…. Both in its being and in its operation its necessity is in itself” (II/2, 19). That God’s grace is absolutely free in relation to the creature, ant that the creature can in no way condition God, is as axiomatic in Barth’s theology as he believes it to be axiomatic in scripture. Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism both fail, because they posit a creature who by nature conditions God, and a God who by nature can be and is conditioned by the creature. What is worse, these counterpositions do so even in the face of the radicality of sin. They are therefore judged to be incoherent from the standpoint of doctrinal testing. “What takes place in the covenant of grace takes place wholly for the human creature. A creatura mediatrix gratiarum or even corredemptrix is a self-contradiction” (I/1, 45).

torranceyoungBarth’s position over against these counterpositions may be briefly restated. The actuality of human freedom is affirmed (and by no means denied). But the condition for its possibility in relation to God is found not at all in human nature itself, but entirely in divine grace. In the event of human fellowship autonomy is not at all independent. It is entirely subsequent to and dependent on grace. The missing capacity for freedom in fellowship with God is given and received as a gift–“not as a supernatural quality, but as a capacity which is actual only as it is used, which is not in any sense magical, but absolutely free and natural in its exercise” (III/1, 128). In and through him it is called by grace “out of nothingness into being, out of death into life.” The event of grace on which the capacity for freedom completely depends is thereby a miracle and a mystery. But in and with this complete dependence, it is “real in the way in which creation generally can be in its relationship to the Creator.” Human freedom in all its reality is “encompassed,” “established,” “delimited,” and “determined” by divine grace (II/1, 128). The “mystery of human autonomy” is clearly not “an autonomous mystery” (II/2, 194). It is rather included within “the one divine mystery.” It is, that is to say, included within “the mystery of grace,” within “the mystery of God’s triumphant affirmation and love.” Only in this sense (but certainly in this sense) is it included within “the mystery of God’s omnipotence.” The reality of human freedom takes place, therefore, not as “the second point in an ellipse” (the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian counterpositions), but as “the circumference around one central point of which it is the repetition and confirmation” (II/2, 194). Divine grace and human freedom stand, in other words, in a conceptually asymmetrical relationship rather than in one of conceptual interdependence.

The features of this argument may also be stated in terms of the various motifs. The reality of fellowship is in question by way of the problem of double agency (personalism). The mode of testing for incoherence takes place in terms of the remaining web of doctrinal beliefs (rationalism). The bestowal, by grace, of freedom for fellowship with God is described as a miraculous event (actualism). This event also takes place in such a way that divine omnipotence and human freedom coexist in mutual love and freedom as the mystery of God with humanity and of humanity with God (particularism). Furthermore, the miracle and the mystery of the event are said to be dependent upon and mediated through the saving person and work of Jesus Christ (objectivism). The counterpositions (Pelgianism and semi-Pelagianism) are shown to be incoherent at essential points with the presupposed web of doctrinal beliefs (especially “the radicality of sin” and “the majesty of God”), whereas the position in question is shown in fact to be coherent with it in the mode of miracle and mystery (rationalism, actualism, particularism). Since the web of presupposed beliefs is taken to be in accord with scripture, it follows (granted the assumption) that the challenged position is also in accord with scripture, and that the proposed counterpositions are not (although this could and would need to be argued also on independent exegetical grounds) (realism). Thus all six motifs are in force in one way or another in the mode of testing for the possible coherence or incoherence of the challenged belief.[2]


[1] Robert Letham, The Triune God, Incarnation, and Definite Atonement in edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 454. When Letham writes of Torrance: ‘…It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis….’ What he is referring to is this in Torrance’s writings:

 The rationalism of both universalism and limited atonement. Here we see that man’s proud reason insists in pushing through its own partial insight into the death of the cross to its logical conclusion, and so the great mystery of the atonement is subjected to the rationalism of human thought. That is just as true of the universalist as it is of those who hold limited atonement for in both cases they have not yet bowed their reason before the cross of Christ. (Atonement, 187-88)

 And this:

 (i) Christ’s death for all is an inescapable reality. We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity — that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact — nothing can undo it. That means that God has taken the great positive decision for man, the decision of love translated into fact. But because the work and the person of Christ are one, that finished work is identical with the self-giving of God to all humanity which he extends to everyone in the living Christ. God does not withhold himself from any one, but he gives himself to all whether they will or not — even if they will not have him, he gives himself to them, for he has once and for all given himself, and therefore the giving of himself in the cross when opposed by the will of man inevitably opposes that will of man and is its judgement. As we saw, it is the positive will of God in loving humanity that becomes humanity’s judgement when they refuse it. (Thomas F. Torrance,Atonement, 188-89)

What Letham, as others, fails to appreciate is the very point that Hunsinger (above and below) highlights about Barth’s approach; primarily having to do with the ‘radicality of sin’, and thinking from the grammar and mystery of the Incarnation itself. Torrance, as Letham asserts, is not merely making an ‘assertion,’ but in fact has his assertion squarely grounded within Christian, historical, and constructive theological proposals that are both robust and cogent within a coherent framework of thought. Hunsinger, I believe, defeats Letham’s (and other’s) charge of incoherence against Torrance, and by relation Karl Barth; and for the very reasons that Hunsinger registers in his clarification and defense of Karl Barth. The irony is that Barth and Torrance, if understood through classical patterns of Christian theological engagement are seen to be the coherent ones while those who are critiquing them are the ones who end up being incoherent by engaging abstract patterns of thought that are foreign to the mysterious Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It is not that mystery is being appealed to in abstraction by either Barth or Torrance, instead the parameters of thought for both of them is chastened and cordoned off by the mystery of God en sarkos (‘in the flesh’); and any Christian intelligibility must be thought from within this center, and not a center of our own active intellectual making.

[2] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 195-98 nook version. 


17 thoughts on “Defending Barth and Torrance from the Charge of Incoherence: Contra Robert Letham and Others

  1. Hi Bobby,
    Thanks again for this post of yours. It touches upon my own abiding questions towards Barth and Torrance, in spite of my deep appreciation to their writings. I can understand the reason of your opposition against ‘external’ criteria of coherence or rationality. But in my opinion the alternative you give, has some serious drawbacks as well.
    It seems to me that your post leads to this question: is it possible to disagree with the Barth/Torrance position without being blamed for being untrue to the incarnation as God’s Self Revelation. Or, put somewhat differently, it seems that the Barth/Torrance position is now made virtually identical with God’s Self Revelation. If Barth and Torrance are claimed to think ‘from the grammar and mystery of the Incarnation itself’, then it seems quite impossible to disagree with them, without becoming untrue to the Gospel itself. But that seems to me quite a claim…


  2. Interesting and helpful. Thanks.

    I used to be a stanch 5 pointer. These are all good points but for me they complicate what is a fairly simple issue. Bruce Ware was helpful for me. Just as Beza Calvinists are making accusations of semi-pelagianism, the real charge should be that they are proponents of eternal justification.

    Is this too simplistic? …

    Christ died for all men, but sovereignly saves those the Father gave to Him. Both elect and reprobate are in the same position prior to regeneration (only ocurring for the elect). They are each rejecting the actual work that Christ has done for them, as there is no eternal justification. The reprobate needs God’s prior act of regeneration and the giving of faith to be saved, but is still responsible for their continued rejection of the gift of Christ. This is why the double payment argument by Calvinists (I am four point, previously 5 point) does not work. It’s double payment for everyone prior to God’s saving act. (Again, if we are to avoid eternal justification). Christ died for all men. Those the Father gives Him are His. It’s still a tension that needs holding, and one more in line with the character of God.


  3. @Arjen,

    I don’t think your questions naturally need to flow from what I’ve provided above from Hunsinger. In fact my only real point in posting this was to provide clarification for how Barth and/or Torrance are not incoherent against the charge that they are; which is much less minimal than what you are suggesting is required by implication. I personally like the way Barth and Torrance think, esp. by way of methodology — which is open, and there is allowance for nuance. Barth and Torrance don’t even agree, per se, on the Incarnation at some material points; so I really don’t think your question fully appreciates that reality. We all have to decide, at some point, who we are impressed by; I am impressed by Barth and Torrance in general, because they keep things open and not closed in re to trying to talk about the ineffable God. They use the Incarnation as their cipher for things, and I see good reason for doing so in Scripture itself Jn 1.18/Jn 5.39. So for me it is less about a Torrance and Barth gospel, and more about a way to talk about the Gospel that allows for the ineffable God to not be shutdown (by prior philosphical conceptions), and instead left open. So I really don’t think the claim is audacious as you make it sound.


  4. David,

    Yeah, I don’t agree with you. We are not advocating Amyrauldianism, or 4 point Calvinism, or hypothetical universalism etc. I would suggest, in lieu of buying our book, or Scottish Theology by Torrance, that you peruse my category of Evangelical Calvinism in my sidebar here at the blog. Check out my EC Themes and Thesis pages up top, here at the blog, and maybe that will help you grasp where we are coming from better.

    Unfortunately I don’t have the time to try and explain all of this in one moment here. I have spent hours and hours trying to do that through the blog, book, etc. And so it will take you time to work through all of that as well. Suffice it to say, we are coming from a completely different starting point than classical Calvinism or Arminianism comes from (even 4 point Calvinism). We repudiate the kind of substance metaphysics (classical theism) that funds the classical binary inherent between Calvinism and ARminianism or even Rose Calvinism; and so we are coming from a different place. 🙂

    peace, David.


  5. Hi Bobby,
    Thanks for your reply. I know I was pushing it a bit to the limit, but to me it seems (in the end at least) a natural question. My question at least. I know that Torrance took pains to think his position through in its epistemic and scientific consequences. But your post is initiated by the Letham-quote. Letham might fail to do justice to Torrance’s theological positon. I don’t know. If so, he should be criticized for that. But his question still seems perfectly reasonable to me: is Torrance really coherent in this regard? I can’t tell. But only saying that he doesn’t take Torrance (or Barth) on his stated terms or doesn’t appreciate them simply won’t do. It obstructs the possibility of a genuine conversation, according to me.


  6. Arjen,

    If Letham does not engage with a basic explanation of how Torrance and/or Barth are not incoherent–and he doesn’t–and then he forces Torrance and Barth to fit into what TFT would call logico-causal deductive reasoning, and then concludes that Barth and TFT are incoherent based on his presuppositions (because they don’t fit into his paradigm of what it means to be theologically coherent); then who is closing down the conversation? Letham or Torrance?! Letham’s and other’s reasoning is circular. Of course TFT is going to be incoherent if someone is using the wrong optics to try and understand what he is communicating. That is just plain ridiculous, and not worth the time. I get tired of hearing these classic Reformed types claiming that TFT and Barth were incoherent, when this is simply not the case! And to make such a claim, as I just noted, is to caricature and thus shut down any meaningful conversation before it can ever get started!


  7. And Arjen,

    I’m sorry if I’ve come back at you too strongly; it is just that I’ve hear over and again, recently, that Barth and Torrance are both incoherent — and the basis upon which these critiques are made are pretty much fallacious and evidence a lack of care in truly attempting to understand both Barth’s and TFT’s approaches, respectively. So my contention with this post was pretty minimal from my perspective; I was simply hoping to illustrate how it is that Barth, in point of fact, is indeed not incoherent (and by way of relation, neither is TFT). I am not trying to make a maximal argument or even suggestion that the way Barth and/or Torrance provide grammar for articulating the Gospel is univocal with the Gospel; even if I think it is, in general, the best on offer :-).


  8. Hi Bobby,
    No offence taken. I realized once more, that our contexts are quite different. I took the opportunity to re-read some parts of TFT’s Theological Science. His interaction with the revolution in natural science is intriguing. His account of medieval and reformed scholasticism however is outdated. The ‘Calvin against the calvinist’ approach can’t be substantiated in the light of recent research. However, that doesn’t mean a drawback into Tulip-Calvinism, because that is a quite recent construction of calvinism that has nothing at all to do with the complex, but intruiging world of reformed theology.
    So, I appreciate TFT in many ways, but remain sceptical in certain respects. Thanks anyway for coming back once more! Keep blogging!


  9. Arjen wrote:

    His account of medieval and reformed scholasticism however is outdated. The ‘Calvin against the calvinist’ approach can’t be substantiated in the light of recent research.

    That’s quite the triumphalistic assertion! My training for my MA involved work and mentorship by a someone who is a theological historian, and in the areas of Puritan Calvinism and medieval theology in particular. Your assertion only has teeth if Muller’s theses are right. But if they can be disputed, and they can be, and have been; then your assertion is just that. So I don’t agree, at all, with you. But you can choose to follow Muller & co., many do. Muller has some good insights, about Calvinism not being able to be reduced to Calvin; but as far as I can see that’s about all of the good that Muller offers. I have crazy amounts of posts about Muller on my blog here, and they deal with the very kind of triumphal attitude you just evinced in re to Torrance. The thing about TFT’s critique, though, largely, is that it isn’t contingent upon getting the history right, per se (even though I don’t think he gets it wrong, totally!); his critique has to do with material theological points, and points that Muller, Scott Clark, Carl Trueman, and others can’t cope with (there’s my triumphal assertion).

    Thanks, Arjen.


  10. Hi Bobby,
    I knew that was quite a triumphalistic remark. I simply couldn’t stand the tempation… 😉 But I was hardly referring to Muller or Trueman. In the Netherlands there has been a lot of research into Reformed Scholasticism by Willem van Asselt and Antoon Vos. Their research changed my views indeed.
    But…, that is not to say there is nothing to learn from TFT (his ‘Kingdom and Church’ is excellent), nor is it to say that we should now regard Calvin as being completely on a par with the reformed scholastics. The story is more complex, according to me, with continuity (which TFT sometimes underestimated) and discontinuity (which Muller and others sometimes tend to wipe away).


  11. Arjen,

    I’ve read Willem van Asselt’s edited book (and I think Vos is involved with that as well) Scholasticism Reformed, in fact I quote from an essay in that volume in order to demonstrate how what we are doing as Evangelical Calvinists is more true to the historic Calvinist mode than what is being undertaken by folks like Muller, Clark, et al here in the States. This post:

    By the way, Muller and Trueman both contributed to that book in honor of van Asselt; but that notwithstanding, there were still plenty of good essays in that vol. 😉 .


  12. Bobby,
    Interesting post you wrote, I’d missed it apparently a year ago. But I believe we are in agreement at last ;-). I share the conclusions of that post of yours.
    And yes, I’m still working on my PhD project about Calvin’s sermons on the Lord’s Supper. But my time has been very limited in the past two years, and accordingly real progress has been stagnating. But the workload seems to change a bit by now. Let’s hope so.


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