Geordie Zielger’s: Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F. Torrance. On God’s Freedom and Grace in Creation in Critique of Barth

I am continuing my read through of Geordie Ziegler’s published dissertation published by Fortress Press (thank you Olga for the review copy, and Geordie for having it sent to me) entitled: Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F. Torrance. As I noted previously instead of doing a standalone book review I am going to do a running review and engage with parts of the book that stand out to me along the way; this post represents one of those serial reviews and engagement.

What stood out to me in the following, from Geordie’s research, has to do with Torrance’s appropriation of the concept that God has always been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but that being Creator and even Incarnate is something new for God; something that is associated with God’s grace which is an act for the other generated, as it were, by God’s triune life of eternal love. As you will see, Geordie makes an interesting distinction at this point though, a distinction between how Torrance conceives of God’s grace versus Barth (and this distinction might actually say more about the reading of Barth that Geordie has adopted rather than Barth himself—that’s what I need to find out further). Let me share the quote in full length (a few paragraphs worth), and then I will respond with a bit more push back. Here’s Geordie on TFT and God’s freedom to be gracious:

How: in Freedom

How does God create? While Torrance emphatically asserts that there is an ontological correspondence between the being and activity of God in se and ad extra, this does not detract from his insistence that the ad extra of creation is an utterly new event for God. The acts of God ad extra are acts of God’s will, whereas the activity of God ad intra in the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit are eternal activities of God’s nature. Creation is neither eternal in the way that God is eternal, nor is it necessary. Thus, there is no logical link between creation and generation. Because creation is brought into being by a definite act of God’s will and freedom, it must be affirmed as ex nihilo. God “does not beget out of himself but wonderfully brings into being out of nothing.”133 The newness of the act of creation is in fact an integral element in the logic of Grace.

This means that while God has always been Father, he is not always Creator. Creator is something (and consequently someone) God became. At this juncture, the important point to emphasize in Torrance’s thought is that God’s ontological becoming does not mean ontological change. Ontology is not constituted by or dependent upon soteriology. God’s ontology is such that “without ceasing to be what he eternally is” he is free “to be other than himself, and to bring into being what is entirely different from what he has done before.”134 Because God’s acts are his acts-in-being and his being-in-action, for God to do new acts implies that his being is “always new while always remaining what it ever was and is and ever will be.”135 In this sense, Torrance can affirm with Jüngel, that “[God’s] eternal being is also a divine becoming.”136 Yet for Torrance the language of becoming is not to evoke potential or development, but the overflow of God’s eternal fullness.137 The act of creation does not expand God’s being, for he is life in himself. Yet as life and aliveness, God’s being is also dynamic. Thus for God becoming is fitting, but not necessary; free, yet not arbitrary.

Thus the newness of the act of creation does not imply its strangeness. In all of its non-necessity, creation is entirely fitting. Because it is as the Father that God is Creator, and not visa versa, creation can be understood truly as an act of love. God’s power to create flows from his intrinsic nature as love; the eternal Father freely shares the fullness of his love in fellowship with that which he creates.138 As Father, God is “essentially generative or fruitful in his own Being, and it is because he is inherently productive as Father that God could and did freely become Creator or Source of all being beyond himself.”139 The work of creation “is activated” and “flows freely” out of the Father’s eternal love of the Son, that is, from the life and love of the eternal God. In this sense, creation (and incarnation) cannot be said to be an after-thought. Creation is a free act of God’s will. Thus, the motion of Grace ad extra is fitting to who God is inwardly.140

At this point an important difference between Torrance and Barth arises—one that has significant implications within contemporary theology. While Torrance affirms the fittingness of the motion of Grace ad extra to who God is inwardly, he does not consider Grace per se to be an activity of the immanent Trinity. God in himself is not Grace to himself. Grace itself is not a divine perfection. The Father is not gracious to the Son, nor the Son gracious to the Father, nor is the Spirit the communion of Grace between the Father and the Son. What the triune persons share among themselves in the eternal communion of their life is more appropriately defined as love, not Grace. Grace specifically is that eternal movement within the Trinity turned outward beyond the Trinity. For Torrance, to blur this distinction, and to insist (as Barth does) that Grace as such is one of the divine perfections, is to deny the gospel of Grace itself. Grace by necessity cannot be necessary.[1]

Much to affirm, if not all. But it is the very last clauses (which I’ve emboldened) which I find most striking about what Geordie is getting at. As we can see for the bulk of what Geordie has written, it is pure Torrance description, relative to his Athanasianly influenced theology, but it is how that is then used to offer a substantial critique of Barth (almost in passing) that intrigues me the most about this section. It is interesting to me that Geordie makes this critique in a section entitled “How: in Freedom;” it’s interesting to me because I am positive that the Barthian response, at this juncture, would be to refer precisely to this very reality in God: i.e. his freedom. Indeed, it is by pressing into this idea of God’s Freedom that someone like Bruce McCormack can elevate the doctrine of election in Barth’s theology as constitutive of God as Triune and Creator in the first place (which is what George Hunsinger critiques, and thus serves as the basis for the so called Barth Wars), and at the same time avoid collapsing God’s being into creation as if creation is necessary.

So whether or not we follow McCormack’s reading of Barth, or Hunsinger’s, either way in Barth’s thought itself God’s Freedom as a primal reality, in my view, would allow Barth to escape Geordie’s critique from the Torrancean perspective. Hmm, an interesting conundrum and much to contemplate.

[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 38-9.

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.