Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F.Torrance: ‘Pre-Reformation Interiorized and Commodified Versions of Grace’ or Grace as a Thing

I will be doing a series of posts on Geordie Ziegler’s book published by Fortress Press entitled Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F. Torrance; the foreword is by Geordie’s doktorvater, John Webster. Indeed, this book represents the work Geordie did for his PhD dissertation at the University of Aberdeen; the fruits of his labor will be what we engage with and review as we work through his book. Geordie has become a personal friend (meaning face-to-face in the flesh), and as an Associate Pastor at the church we attend in Vancouver, WA: Columbia Presbyterian Church (PCUSA – of the evangelical sort). I would like to thank Olga Lobasenko at FP for forwarding me Geordie’s book. Instead of doing a formal review the series of posts I do engaging with Geordie’s book should be seen as my review and promotion of his book.

In this first installment let’s do some engaging with Geordie’s Introduction to his book; it’s a loaded Introduction with some meaty theological foreshadowing towards what the reader should be looking to anticipate. After Webster’s foreword, Geordie gets right into his introduction; he briefly covers the background of Torrance scholarship—so as to problematize things a bit—Torrance’s reception and style; the methodology and approach of his Geordie’s way into Torrance’s theology; background into the theology of Torrance’s conception of grace; so on and so forth.

Let me quickly highlight something (since I just got called for work), this is something that originally piqued my interest in regard to Torrance; it has to do with grace and its conception as a substance or a thing. My first introduction to this came not from Torrance, but from Ron Frost as we studied historical theology, particularly medieval theology, and how grace in Tridentine and then later in Post Reformed orthodoxy was thought of as a thing; as a substance. Here’s how Geordie describes grace in Torrance’s theology, particularly as Torrance critiqued grace as a ‘thing’ in the history (at length):

Pre-Reformation Interiorized and Commodified Versions of Grace

Nearly twenty years after the publication of his doctoral thesis we find Torrance repeating essentially the same critiques, yet now the target has broadened from the Apostolic Fathers per se, to the historical foundations which undergird and affect the whole Church of the West—Protestant as well as Roman Catholic.57 The fundamental error has not changed in that the basic ailment continues to be the detachment of Grace and the Spirit from the person and work of Christ.58 Once this detachment took hold, Grace and the Spirit collapsed into one another in what Torrance calls “spiritual grace”—that is, independent naturalized principles of pneumatic potency which could be interiorized and commodified.

The gap which this created between this world and the divine realm came to be filled by the Church and her clergy: the Church, as the mystical body of Christ herself endowed with the divine power of Grace; and her clergy, through the Grace causally conferred by virtue of ordination, who mediated divine Grace in what was effectively an ecclesiastical form of semi-Pelagianism. The Church emerged as a continuous extension of the incarnation, mediating the Grace which was entrusted to her and thus functioning as the divinely endowed bridge leading humanity across from nature to supernature.

Within this framework, Grace came to be understood as a thing to be ministered through legal definition and control,59 which required means for its administration.60 Torrance suggests that to the degree that Grace becomes impersonalized as a force, cause, potency or principle, it is likewise indefensibly susceptible to being used, acquired, achieved and earned. The legalistic expression of Grace resulted in a multitude of definitions and formulae for various applications and cases so that Grace would be properly dispensed. Whether the results can authentically be traced to Augustine is not important for our purposes.61 What matters is that eventually Grace became paired with merit in such a way that Roman theology came to differentiate between “external and internal Grace,” “actual and habitual Grace,” “the Grace of operation and the Grace of co-operation,” “sufficient Grace and efficacious Grace,” and the like.62 Torrance notes that the intention was simply to distinguish between Grace that is given and Grace that is actualized. However, the net effect was instead a distinction between free Grace and conditional Grace, for they introduced an element of co-operation and even co-redemption into the Creator-creature relation.63

The pietistic mystical commodification of Grace led to a notion of Grace which inheres in the human soul and affects even the physical human being. As Grace actualizing itself within the human creature, “created Grace” or “ontological Grace” elevates the creature to the “higher ontological order” of a “supernatural existence.”64 In this regard, Torrance finds particular fault with Basil’s suggestion that Grace is a transferrable quality from human to human, such that “human souls who have Grace conferred on them by the Spirit may themselves emit Grace to others.”65 This clearly indicates a “weakening of the doctrine of grace,” in which Grace itself is detached from God’s self-giving and replaced by a notion of mutuality between the creature and God—“and with it all the Arian and Pelagian notions of created grace and merited grace that go along with it.”66 In that last resort Torrance remarks, “Roman theology appeared to be subordinated to a philosophical ontology,” and “a consistent system of ideas tended to displace real and historical conversation with the living God.”67[1]

Geordie’s next section, just following this one is entitled: Post-Reformation Return to Grace. He is right to note this, particularly as he is simply attempting to elucidate Torrance’s own genealogy of how grace and its conception unfolded in the history. But what Geordie also underscores in Torrance’s critique and development of the history on grace is that pretty quickly following this desire to return to a truly personal and dynamic understanding of grace, the post reformed orthodox re-adopted this ‘commodified’ understanding of grace and plunged the Western Christian Protestant world right back into the morass the magisterial reformation was seeking to save and reform the church from.

I have written at great length on this idea of grace being a ‘thing’, in the past. So I am excited to see, through Geordie’s concentrated development of grace in the theology of Thomas Torrance, how the critique and development of grace as a truly Trinitarian reality can be advanced further for the edification of the church of Jesus Christ.

More to come …

 

[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F. Torrance (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), xxiv-xxvi.

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2 thoughts on “Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F.Torrance: ‘Pre-Reformation Interiorized and Commodified Versions of Grace’ or Grace as a Thing

  1. Hey Bobby,
    Excited you are doing this and look forward to your reflections as you go on!
    I’d love to read some of your posts about Grace as a “thing” and see how you’ve filled in some of the details that i didn’t get to include in my book!
    Geordie

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  2. Cool, Geordie! And thanks for having it sent to me. I have a trove of posts on that topic actually; I’ll have to try and find some and I’ll link them here in this comment thread. But it was this reality that opened things up for me, coming to realize that this is how grace was usually conceived, way back in 2002 in seminary. If I hadn’t been exposed to that I never would have been open to Barth or Torrance.

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