The Evangelical Calvinist

"The world was made so that Christ might be born."-David Fergusson

How Are Barth and Torrance Different? The Question of ‘NeoOrthodoxy’

Someone asked, on a new Facebook group I just created (Thomas F. Torrance Discussion Group), if and how Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance differed theologically. Two friends of mine in the know responded to this question by highlighting a difference between Barth and Torrance in regard to their usage (Torrance) or not (Barth) and engagement with the natural sciences (as far as barthyoungbringing them into discussion one with the other at both formal and material levels). And I think it is right to focus on this as a difference between Barth and Torrance.

In the past, another question I had about this, was whether or not Karl Barth was Neo-Orthodox, as so many evangelicals and others like to label him. Another ‘friend,’ David Congdon, responded to this question (along with Travis McMaken), and this is what he had to say:


I see you’ve posted Travis’s comment. It’s mostly right, but I would like to specify matters somewhat further. What neoorthodoxy did was to marshal certain ideas from Barth (mainly, divine transcendence, revelation as encounter), abstracted as static, stand-alone propositions, and use them to buttress the project of Christian orthodoxy within the modern era (hence the “new”). Neoorthodoxy is fundamentally ideological, in that it presupposes the validity of something like a Christian orthodox tradition. Having presupposed this tradition as something to be preserved and maintained, it then finds in Barth certain concepts that are useful toward that end. The reason neoorthodoxy is not dialectical theology is that the latter makes no such presupposition; it is in fact the total abolition of ecclesiastical presuppositions. Dialectical theology is a thoroughly destabilizing understanding of the gospel. Neoorthodoxy is basically a species of natural theology, in that it takes for granted something stable and given in the world — in this case, the church. It is therefore no wonder that Barth and Brunner would fall out over that issue.

For these reasons, I demur from Travis on two points. First, existentialism as such is not a constitutive element of neoorthodoxy. It is only existentialism as it is welded to a certain kind of natural theology, as it was in Brunner’s case, but emphatically not in the case of Bultmann. Second, I cannot help but see Torrance as operating within the ambit of neoorthodoxy. He did not engage in natural theology (I agree fully with Travis there), but it seems to me that he takes for granted a kind of ecclesiological givenness in the form of the orthodox tradition. That was precisely the underlying presupposition for his ecumenical work. And, conversely, it is why Barth cared so little about such ecumenical agreements: not because he did not believe in the unity of the church, but because such unity only exists in the person of Christ — and the person of Christ is a reality that does not give itself to ecclesiastical and theological traditions. The saving event of Christ must always be an offense to those theologies that seek to sustain and prop up the tradition of the church. Orthodoxy, as Barth insisted, is only ever an eschatological reality. As such, there is no orthodox faith in history. And therefore there can be no neoorthodox theology.

tommytorranceI actually don’t disagree with, David. I think, in this sense, we could say that Torrance held to a ‘type’ of natural theology,  insofar as David elucidates what that is (relative to the stability of the Church and an ostensible ‘orthodox Faith’).

So this could be a genuine difference between Barth, and Torrance. Barth was radically christocentric in approach, whereas Torrance was radically ecclesiocentric in a Christ conditioned way.





Written by Bobby Grow

July 22, 2015 at 12:41 pm

Posted in Barth, T. F. Torrance

4 Responses

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  1. “Dialectical theology is a thoroughly destabilizing understanding of the gospel. ”

    I don’t know how you can read KD without encountering dialectical theology. Barth never abandoned it.


    Jeff Danleioni

    July 22, 2015 at 1:35 pm

  2. Hi Jeff,

    I’m confused by your comment. Where is the claim made that Barth ever abandoned dialectical theology in the post here? In fact just the opposite is stated.


    Bobby Grow

    July 22, 2015 at 3:50 pm

  3. Now I’m not well read in Torrance, but here’s a thought:

    What if Torrance is operating on a ‘totus christus’ (whole christ) view and sees the life of the Church, inhabited (like the Head) by the Spirit, as Christ on Earth? I know this is an Augustinian position (and we know what he thought about Augustine), but I don’t think it exclusively so.

    Regardless of Torrance, maybe De Lubac might be helpful here. Prior to a Medieval shift, the ‘historical’ & ‘communal’ body of Christ (i.e. Jesus and the Church) were ‘true’, namely ‘seeable’, whereas the eucharist was the presence of God’s body in a ‘mystery’. After the shift, the Eucharist became ‘true’ (through Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics) and the Church became a ‘mystery’.

    Thus all conversation of the Church either fell into a hyper invisibility, which formed either heretics or the cynical, clerical ‘ecclisola in ecclesia’, where the Church was reconceived, essentially into the world; or the Church became unhinged from Christ, a State-sanctioned, numerical or discipline following collective. Usually the two followed from one another. Thus Protestantism had to account for a Church unity that didn’t exist, and subsequently, turned into confessional hegemonies and cultural lineages. This is what Neo-Orthodoxy tried to uphold, and dialectical theology ripped apart. But for both there was no Christ present as a Body on Earth.

    Maybe Torrance is Christocentric, but he has not neglected the Body in his work, and trying to recover a true catholicity that rightly discerns that the People of Christ are truly bound.

    some thoughts,



    July 23, 2015 at 5:39 am

  4. Cal,

    Torrance is pretty Reformed on this front, but of course within his constructive hermeneutic grounded in the vicarious humanity of Christ and homoousion. He would hold that the esse of the Church is in the center of God’s life for us, in Christ. And the distinction then would be between his relation to God for us which he has by nature (as the Son) while ours is a relation mediated through him and his vicarious humanity of grace. But the principled reality would be that the reality of the church as the body is first imaged in Christ’s recreated humanity, and then we participate and witness to that reality by being images of the image in the world by the Spirit.


    Bobby Grow

    July 24, 2015 at 9:13 pm

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