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Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth: Their Hook For Me was Predestination, Election and Reprobation

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.[1] – T. F. Torrance

The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom. It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because He is both the electing God and the elected man in One. It is part of the doctrine of God because originally God’s election of man is a predestination not merely of man but of Himself. Its function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God.[2] – Karl Barth

My draw to both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, initially, was singular; they offered an alternative to the doctrine of predestination, inclusive of election and reprobation, that prior to them left me in a dilemma. On the one hand, as an evangelical Free church thinker, as far as I knew in regard to this locus of doctrine I had the typical binary available to me. Either I had to affirm the Arminian understanding of predestination or the classical Calvinist position; but neither of these were ever satisfying. As far as I was concerned they both suffered from lack of biblical evidence and explanation. Sure, yes, there were the superficial readings of Scripture that forced Scripture, in my view, into an artificial flavoring of either one of these two varieties; but at the end of the day the way they read Scripture always seemed overly dogmatic and to engage in imposing philosophical categories upon Scripture, and forcing Scripture to answer questions that it never intended to answer in the first place. Even so, I still always believed that as far as theological categories go, predestination, election&reprobation represented legitimate loci; but the way they were taken to Scripture, meaning the theological ontology and philosophical metaphysics behind their approach to Scripture, did damage not only to Scripture’s teaching, but to the God disclosed in Scripture. All of this left me in a kind of dilemma, and left me open to considering Barth’s and Torrance’s alternative.

What I found in Barth and Torrance was an alternative that still engaged with these theological categories in a kind of full-frontal way, but they did so in a way that allowed Jesus Christ to be regulative of the whole shebang. For Barth the doctrine of the Triune God became the ‘place’ wherein predestination, election&reprobation was given its determination as a reality and a doctrine. He placed Jesus, as the electing God and the elected human at the center of his doctrine of God, and emphasized the centrality of Jesus so deeply in this schema that if anything (relative to attempting to press into this ‘mystery’) it all started to take on sense. There was no longer an abstract conception of God who related to an abstract conception of humanity (i.e. from God), through an abstract apparatus of decrees (i.e. decretum absolutum); what Barth offered was a particular way to think about these ‘classical categories’ that jived very well with what I had gleaned as the central reality of Holy Scripture through my years of Bible reading. For Barth, as for Scripture, Jesus Christ is the key to everything! This was already my conviction prior to ever reading Barth, and maybe this is why I never could give into the classical attempts to articulate this doctrine (e.g. predestination), whether that be by the Arminians or Calvinists.

Torrance, as Barth’s best English speaking student, adopted Barth’s recasting of this doctrine, but as an Athanasian offered his own style and flare to how he went about articulating it. He, like Barth, sees Jesus Christ as the genuine regula fidei (‘rule of faith’) of everything; i.e. Torrance believes that all things theologically must be conditioned Christologically if in fact what is offered even has a chance to count as genuine Christian theology. For Torrance, as the quote I provided from him previously illustrates, the Incarnation, and even more pointedly the homoousion is the primary key for fleshing out a doctrine of predestination, election&reprobation. Jesus Christ, as for Barth, is the One mediator between God and man, as the man Christ Jesus; as such, for Torrance, when we think about this doctrine it can be nothing but focused upon God’s free choice to pre-destine Himself for us (pre-temporally) in the Son, to not be God without us but with us, Immanuel. Since this choice (election) has already been made for us in the Triune life of God, ever before creation, for Torrance there is nothing that can be done about it; it is the objective reality whether we want it to be or not. Because of this ‘election’ God is for us in the humanity of Christ to the point that even if we as humans attempt to deny what He has freely chosen to do for us in Christ, that it can never be undone; the incarnation would have to be undone first, since that hypostatic union and bringing together of consubstantial God with consubstantial humanity in the singular person of Jesus Christ is forever the reality. God has freely chosen and determined to be for us whether we like it or not, and the fact that the eternal Son incarnated, lived a perfect life of obedience in our stead, died, was buried, rose again, ascended, and is coming again creates the type of ‘Gordian Knot’ that simply cannot be undone by anyone; it is a reality sealed with God’s gracious and free election (‘choice’) to be for humanity and not against humanity.

Conclusion

As I’ve sketched all of this out, this is what originally attracted me to Barth and Torrance. Now that I have gotten further into them other points of agreement have come, and I would say this is primarily the case, once again because of their principled commitment to see Jesus Christ intensively central to the whole theological endeavor. Yes, some want to relegate all of this to a kind of existentialist modern move and ‘turn to the subject’ by focusing on a personalist understanding of God; by focusing on Christology rather than Theology Proper. By allowing the transcendence of God to be sublimated by the immanence (‘the nearness’ of God ), and elevating Jesus, and Christology, to a level, that within a proper theological ordering (‘taxis’) of things should not be; at least this is what the detractors to Barth and Torrance so often opine (and they are starting to opine in the open more and more in this regard). But I would contend that this is ironic, particularly since the Bible communicates that the Gospel itself appears as a skandalon, or as a stumbling block to the learned and wise; that it might even appear as foolish and weak if we were to make the Gospel too central to the theological task. But this is ironic isn’t it? Since it is classical Christian theologians who stumble hardest over this very point; i.e. that Christ is the key (and radically so, that’s the part they kick against, i.e. the “radical” part)!

All of that said, at least for me, genuine Christian theology is only the kind wherein Jesus is at the direct and primary center of it all; even in radical ways (Jn. 5.39). Jesus read Holy Scripture—the place where classical theologians rightly want to repose, and see as the principle of what it means to be Protestant theologians of the Word—as if it was all about Him. If we are going to be theologians of the Word then we ought at the very bare minimum attempt to err on the side that sees Jesus’ presence radically present all over the place; in our scriptural exegesis, along with our theological expressions. The hook into all of this, again, for me, was the issue of election&reprobation, predestination. But once you get into Barth and Torrance you realize that the way they attempt to deal with this attempts to do so by taking Jesus’ own view of Holy Scripture as theirs; to take Scripture in almost naïve and prima facie ways and allow tradition and classical Protestant, and even more ancient Christian creeds and confessions, to truly be subordinate to the authority of Holy Scripture as it bears witness to Jesus Christ.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

[2] Karl Barth, CD II/2, 1.

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