Jesus, the Ultimate Question and Questioner for Us: According to Thomas Torrance

As modern and post-modern Christians we are plagued with an impulse, intellectually and socio-culturally, to place the questioner before the object or subject under “question.” In other words in rather Cartesian form we have placed our existence, and thus our rationality and wits before essence, before ‘being’ — as René Descartes was famous for intoning: cogito ergo sum ‘I think therefore I am.’ If we were to reduce modern man and woman to a modus operandi, in regard to a casual, and for some, even an intentional philosophy of life, I can’t think of a better way to frame blackwhitemantegnait than what we find in Cartesianism. The person, in the modern way, is the standard-bearer for creating his or her own reality; once reality is constructed for oneself, then the inquiry process for what life means can begin. But of course this is circular isn’t it? The person serves as the ground of their own reality (even in collectivist and communitarian ways), and once that ground is established, once that context is construed, the modern person can begin the work of establishing their own reasons for being, they can even create a place for God; but of course that ‘place’ is determined to be what it is by the person’s own ‘being’ and not God’s. (sounds like existentialism and idealism in their own ways)

Thomas F. Torrance offers an alternative account for how Christians ought to think about reality in genuinely Christian ways. Contra the ‘modern man’ Torrance identifies the problem as modern people themselves. He would contend that there is no abstract human person, modern or otherwise, but would refer us back to the ancient truth once and for all delivered to the saints in Jesus Christ. He would ask modern persons to look at the cross of Jesus Christ as the indicative of what human beings left to themselves really are; at base. At base, Torrance would contend that persons are contingent beings, who are not only not the Ultimate in their own beings, but that they ecstatically ‘receive’ their being extra nos or from outside of themselves; i.e. that the ground for human ‘being’ is God’s ‘being’ for us in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in His vicarious humanity pro nobis (for us). As such Torrance would ask us to look at the cross of Jesus Christ and call modern and post-modern persons to ponder what God is saying about us through the wisdom of the cross (sofia staurou); that the ground of our ‘beings’ left to themselves in abstraction (i.e. in a ‘Fallen state’) only have one ultimate end: death! Torrance would ask us to repent (metanoia), and understand that God alone has the capacity to serve as the ground of ‘human being’ in the vicarious humanity of His Son, and as such has the capacity to provide the questions – His questions – that are right questions about Him. Torrance would ask us to abandon the Cartesian way, and any other more “sophisticated” ways that terminate upon our abstract selves rather than in God’s concrete self for us in Jesus Christ. Torrance would contend that once we come under the wisdom of the cross that we will finally be in a place to really start doing the work of a Christian disciple; we will be in a place to not only ask the right questions, in echo of God’s questions for us in the Son, but we will be in a place afresh and anew on a daily basis to be interrogated by the wisdom of the cross which reminds us that we are constantly being given over to Christ’s death that His life might also be made manifest in our mortal bodies (II Cor. 4.10). Here’s Torrance in his own words:

That is the way the God of Truth deals with us. He turns to us where we have closed ourselves in him and are imprisoned in our self-will and blindness; he penetrates into our existence and life as one of us in order to open us up from below to the Truth of God and to bring us to acquiesce in the Truth of God. That is Jesus—who stood in our place, the prisoner at the bar interrogated by man and by God, he who plumbed the deepest depth of our questioning of God in order to take it upon himself and receive the counter-questioning of God. Therefore that Man on the Cross, questioned down to the bottom of hell, for our sakes, is the ultimate question that God puts to us.

Unless we recognize that we too are called in question by the Cross, we can neither put our questions to God in truth nor truly hear the answer he provides. Jesus Christ stood in place: that is God’s answer to us. For Jesus stood in our place not to be questioned, but to ask the question in truth as we are unable to, and to give a true and faithful answer to God. He stood in our place and made our ultimate question his own, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ But in taking that question on his lips, he asked it as we cannot, for he altered it from the depths into the cry, ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’

What, then, is the nature of true questioning?

A genuine question is one properly open to the object of inquiry, but a question cannot be open to the object of inquiry if it is foreclosed from behind. Hence to be genuine, a question must allow itself to be called in question; it must be ready for reconstruction in the light of what the inquiry reveals. True questioning involves a backward movement of critical revision of its premises and a forward movement of reformulation of its questions. The further questioning, until real listening becomes possible and judgments are formed under the compulsive power of the objective reality. Genuine questioning is a strenuous form of repentance.

Moreover, behind the questions stands the questioner himself. Every question that is raised has behind it the being of the questioner, and it reacts upon him. Really to ask, we have to put ourselves into our questions. If so, then really to ask, we must allow ourselves to be called into question. The questioner must allow his questions to react critically upon himself, if he is to ask them relentlessly and scientifically.[1]

The modern person cannot go for this, since they are the possessor of their own being; or so they think. As a consequence genuine questions about God and life cannot be asked, only superficial ones can be asked. This all comes back to what the author of Hebrews was so keenly aware of when he wrote: “14 Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” At the very bottom of every modern person there is a fleeting knowledge that at ground ‘death’ is the ultimate for them; but they can’t accept that reality, as such they must continue to assert themselves in the face of that reality, and attempt to hang on to their personal existence, and to existence in general, as the ground of all being, of all reality. Even if said reality is ultimately non-reality, of the sort that can never ask real life questions, because the ground upon which it is situated is sandy-land of its own deluded making.

[1] T.F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), 122-23.

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