Knowing the Infallible God as Fallible Humans in Always Reforming Moods in Stratified and Doxological Ways

We are all fallen human beings, even after we’ve been redeemed and participate in the grace of God in Jesus Christ (simul iustus et peccator). So when we as Christians attempt to think of or speak of God (or do theology) we always do so from a fallible broken position—this is what the Reformed archetypal and ectypal identifications for modes of knowing God are supposed to signify.

I think, if anything, our fallible status as creatures coram Deo ought to have a humiliating affect; such that we constantly recognize our fallible articulations of God’s infallible reality, and thus keep shattered-peoplepressing on, by the Holy Spirit, to attempt to proximate nostra theologia (our theology) closer and closer to God’s reality. This, as Kurt Anders Richardson develops, is part of the rationale and import of the reformed principle of semper reformandum (‘always reforming’). It isn’t that no genuine knowledge of God can be known—to the contrary—it is because of God’s gracious accommodation to us in Christ, and His Self-exegesis therein, that we know we can keep realistically pressing higher and farther in our attempts to move towards the unity of the faith (Ephesians 4) once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). In this vein, Richardson writes this:

To take Scripture as infallible does not mean that the reception of its communications takes place infallibly. Indeed, for those who acknowledge it, the very principle of semper reformandum means by definition that no formulation or act of the church or the believer can be infallible. “Ever reforming” means the full embrace of theological and missiological fallibility as the truth about our believing and ecclesial condition, everywhere, at all times, for everyone. Something akin to Karl Popper’s principle of falsifiability is at work in the history of theology when on attends strictly to the nature of theology as a human work. In this case, the falsifiability of doctrine does not mean that the truth of doctrine is dispensed with if a particular theological formulation has been falsified. Indeed, the very reason that doctrine is being constantly worked on is that the truth to which it refers has successfully won commitment over time. Falsifiability is a way of accounting for the modification of doctrinal formulation such that the core truths endure, while comprehension and application of them achieve greater success. Indeed, there is reflected a kind of “failing toward success.” But all of this takes place under divine grace.[1]

As evangelical Calvinists we are highly committed to this reality; i.e. the idea we have never arrived, particularly because of our simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and sinner) status. We are people always on the way, but as evangelical Calvinists, along with one of our favorites, Thomas Torrance, we recognize that we are not on the way in abstraction, but on the way in the One who is the Way, Truth, and Life, Jesus Christ.

It is because we have been reoriented and joined to God through the medial humanity of Jesus Christ that we can have a critically realistic hope of actually thinking from the One who has arrived for us; but at the same time realizing that we live in this in-between time. So we walk by faith not sight, and we recognize that there is a hopeful correspondence between God’s thoughts and our thought’s mediated to us in Jesus Christ; we think God from there, from this analogia fidei (analogy of faith, from the faith of Christ for us).

It is this constant growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ wherein something like T Torrance’s so called stratified knowledge of God arose from. Ben Myers describes this mode of knowing, in Torrance’s theology, for us:

Thomas F. Torrance’s model of the stratification of knowledge is one of his most striking and original contributions to theological method. Torrance’s model offers an account of the way formal theological knowledge emerges from our intutive and pre-conceptual grasp of God’s reality as it is manifest in Jesus Christ. It presents a vision of theological progression, in which our knowledge moves towards an ever more refined and more unified conceptualisation of the reality of God, while remaining closely coordinated with the concrete level of personal and experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ. According to this model, our thought rises to higher levels of theological conceptualisation only as we penetrate more deeply into the reality of Jesus Christ. From the ground level of personal experience to the highest level of theological reflection, Jesus Christ thus remains central. Through a sustained concentration on him and on his homoousial union with God, we are able to achieve a formal account of the underlying trinitarian relations immanent in God’s own eternal being, which constitute the ultimate grammar of all theological discourse.[2]

It is because we are fallible, precisely because, that we are so dependent upon the faith of Christ for us. Lest God graciously accommodated Himself to us in Christ we of all people would remain hopeless. It is this evangelical meeting of God in Christ where Torrance’s stratified knowledge of God is so enriching. God meets us where we are in Christ, inverts the natural paradigm for knowing god from ourselves to Him, and instead by grace breaks into our humanity and allows us to think God in ever increasing ways from the evangel into the inner recesses of His Triune life.

Richardson is right to draw our attention to the reasons why we should ‘always be reforming,’ and Torrance helps thicken that by pointing us to the frame from whence that can most fruitfully take place. We are not abstract human beings thinking from below to up, but we are concretely human by participating in and from God’s humanity for us in Jesus Christ. This is where reformation has happened first, in the hypostatic union of God and humanity in Christ; this is the nexus where we ever increasingly press forward in our knowledge of God as we think God from a center in Himself, Jesus Christ. Semper reformandum!

[1] Kurt Anders Richardson, Reading Karl Barth: New Directions For North American Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), 95.

[2] Benjamin Myers, “The Stratification of knowledge in the thought of T. F. Torrance,” SJT 61 (1): 1-15 (2008) Printed in the United Kingdom © 2008 Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd doi: 10.1017/S003693060700381X.

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5 comments

  1. Epistemic humility and epistemic relativism are important to good theologizing.

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  2. What do you mean by “epistemic relativism?” I can go with you on epistemic humility, but not clear on what you mean in regard to the latter.

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  3. I’m grabbing that term from Andrew Wright, Christianity and Critical Realism (2013). Whereas epistemic humility is (generally) taken to refer to one’s attitude or vigor in holding their beliefs, epistemic relativism is more a statement of the actual structure of knowing; for Wright, it “asserts that our knowledge of reality is limited and contingent” (9). You and I seem to mean something very close to each other by the two terms. I just draw a little distinction between the two.

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  4. I understood what you meant by humility, but wasn’t sure how you were attempting to use relativism. Sounds more like analytic theology talk, but I can appreciate the distinction.

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  5. Fair enough. I find it helpful for now at least.

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