Torrance Against Annihilationism or Evangelical Conditionalism, Not to Mention Christian Universalisms

Not too long ago here at the blog I wrote some posts on annihilationism or what some call evangelical conditionalism; the idea being that there is not an eternal hell, instead when someone dies outside of Christ, ultimately, their existence and being is dis-integrated by its un-hinging from the eternal life of God. There are some interesting implications surrounding this; and the folks at ReThinking Hell (proponents of annihilationism) want to present the implications they see in a way that is grounded in biblical exegesis and reality. Indeed, as orthodox Christians, who wouldn’t want to ground their thinking about this issue in the reality of the biblical witness? But as is typical there is always more to the story, never less, than just quoting bible passages, or doing word studies; indeed, there is always an inner-theological reality that allows Scripture to presume what it does in its occasional teachings.

As I originally opined on this issue what I stated was that there was a need to think about this issue from a theological exegetical point of view, such that the Dogmatic loci have the opportunity to supply the necessary pressure for biblical exegesis to have the sort of fully rounded elucidation that it ought to have when dealing with this particular teaching among every other biblical teaching. What I suggested originally was that at base annihilationism has to do with the way a theological anthropology is detailed, and how that gets developed vis-à-vis a doctrine of election/reprobation. When it comes to these particular loci my go to theologians are of course Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance (not to mention their reliance on Athanasius when it comes to these themes). What I suggest is that if we understand all human being to be grounded in Christ’s vicarious humanity—which is what Barth’s and Torrance’s reformulated doctrine of election details—if we see human ontology grounded in Christ’s election to become human for us, then human being has an ec-static source that is not contingent upon itself, but upon God (insofar as the Son’s humanity is given enhypostatic particularity through his being as the eternal Logos in the triune life). If this is so, then human being, even if that being refuses to acknowledge its reality by repentance and coming into full union with its reality in Christ, is held together for all eternity just as sure as the humanity of Christ is of the indestructible sort (Hebrews). Some might take this to mean that universalism then is the conclusion; versus annihilationism. But Torrance explicitly rejects that conclusion, and simply lives in the tension of the biblical witness. He works out of the implications of the Incarnation, and at the same time, dialectically allows Scripture’s teaching to chasten thinking that might lead us to think that all human being will ultimately experience eternal life simply because its ontological ground is in the humanity of Jesus Christ. Torrance repudiates these sorts of logico-causal/necessitarian conclusions just as Einstein rejected mechanical conclusions about the cosmos based upon the reality of relativity in the time-space continuum.

Geordie Ziegler helps to elucidate what we have been thinking about above and helps to reinforce my suggestions in regard to hell, election, and annihilationism in the theology of Thomas Torrance. Ziegler writes:

Because God is committed to his creature, human beings are bound eternally in an “existential relation to God.” Accordingly, Torrance rejects equating God’s final judgment with annihilation. In an effort to root final judgment and reprobation biblically, he develops the Old Testament concepts of the curse of God and sheol. In being cursed, the reprobate are given up to their own uncleanness, separated from the face of God and banished from creation into “outer darkness.” But, fundamentally, this is “a banishment to their own denial of their being in God.” It is the confirmation of their choice to exist outside of the covenant of God, as those who do not belong to it. Whereas sheol, as Torrance expounds it, is this state of existence “in darkness behind God’s back . . . in man’s self-chosen perversity and blindness.” Sheol is a kind of suspended darkness, that already casts its shadow over all sinners as their self-chosen destiny, yet awaits God’s final acts of judgment. The curse then is God’s ultimate and final judgment in which those who cast themselves upon God’s wrath and judgment will be justified; and those who choose to remain in their alienation will be utterly banished. Torrance describes hell as “the chasm that separates man from God in the very existence of sinful man,” who is conditioned and determined by sin and guilt. Hell is not an abstract place, nor is it the no-thing of nothingness. Hell is the personal and concrete existence of the human being in alienation from God. It is the sinner choosing isolation from God’s love. As such, the alienation of hell is always a possibility—for both the living as well as for the living dead. For those whose “ultimate reaction” is to deny God’s claim upon them, they will bear the pain of a continued existence of “utter and final judgement within existential relation to God.” God gives sinners the freedom to deny his claim upon them, yet his claim remains nonetheless.[1]

The key to understanding this contra annihiliationism is to recognize that human being, all of human being’s perduring is encompassed by the reality that God’s humanity is humanity, and as such humanity can never be eradicated, none of it, by virtue of this. In other words, if the humanity of God stands behind the back, as it were, of the humanity of all instances of humanity (this gets us into another quagmire in regard to dealing with a concern about positing a metaphysical humanity, which we will have to engage later) then humanity, even if it spiritually fails to submit to its reality in Christ, nonetheless will endure through all the æon’s of time to come (for all eternity). As far as Torrance’s (and Barth’s) doctrine of election, and attending theological anthropology vis-à-vis redemption, leading to Christian universalism: this need not be the conclusion precisely at the point that Scripture itself delimits this as a viable conclusion in regard to the experience of eternal life in Christ. In other words, people can reject what in fact stands over them, their very life in Christ. Some might think this then leads to the binary of Calvinism and Arminianism, as far as so called ‘free-will,’ but that’s only if we believe that the theological paradigm and theory of causation that classical Calvinism and Arminianism are embedded within, are the only ways to think about a relation inhering between God and his creation. But that’s not the only way to think about such things.

[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 176-77.


An [onto]Relational Rather than Metaphysical Doctrine of Sin: An Altar-Call for Metaphysics

One reason I am continuously enamored with Thomas Torrance (and have been for years now) is because he has this knack for being able to mediate, well, between various periods and lexicons of ecclesial ideational development; in other words, he is a constructive theologian and Church Dogmatician par excellence. He is able to bring various voices into conversation, and allow those voices (and periods) to help in-form and cross-pollinate in such a way that what is produced are emphases, that I think!, best proximate the Gospel’s reality and various implications. Take for example his doctrine of sin: because of his commitment to what he calls onto-relationality, that is the being and personalizing constituting reality of God’s inner-Triune-life as not only the ground of who he is in himself, but as that is shared in its over-pouring reality as he freely chooses to create beings in his image (an act of grace) in the imago Christi, Torrance’s theological methodology (prolegomenon) becomes one that is less metaphysical, and instead one that is focused on [onto] relationality. What this means is that Torrance’s terms, even if he converses with the school or ancient theological lexicons, get reified or re-oriented by his focus on the Triune life and the relationality and personalization he sees co-inhering therein.

With the above sketch, in regard to Torrance’s theological method, Trinitarian as it is, person-constituting as it is, this does things further down the line as we get into the development of his other loci (or doctrines). Again, take his doctrine of sin; Torrance thinks sin not in terms of a static metaphysical given, but instead in terms of relational organic dynamism—viz. in terms of how Torrance sees sin in the concrete vis-à-vis its grounding and amplification in relation to grace and God’s life of grace given in Christ. In other words, much like Barth in this instance, Torrance sees sin’s definition only given reality as it is understood from within the reality of grace; and its attempt to thwart God’s goodness and loveliness therein. Geordie Ziegler helps us to appreciate this with greater development as he writes:

Torrance views sin as profoundly and irreducibly personal and relational. As such, his interests lie in sin’s actual existence within the dynamic and personal life-relation that creatures have with God, not in historical questions regarding original sin as an inherent hereditary or fatalistic determinate of our nature. His concerns are the concrete consequences of sin and how sin is manifested in human beings as “an active perversity”: a “positive contradiction,” which “maintains itself in an active opposition.”

Torrance would concur with McFarland, who states that original sin does not refer to an act but to “the ground of all our acts apart from the transforming power of grace.” Original sin represents a profound dis-orientation of our life-relation in communion with God. What separates human creatures from God is that men and women have turned their face away from God; and it is this turning away, this separation, which causes “intrinsic damage” to our nature and irreversibly and inextricably locates us as “fallen.” It is in this context that terms such as “total depravity” and “original sin” have their meaning. A “constitutive change” has taken place which involves the whole person and in which the whole person is involved. By turning away from our Maker, the mirror image which we were created to be is literally “de-faced.” We have a “sinning being” and therefore all repeat our original sin. Isolated acts of sin “are but the outward manifestation of this perversion at the very roots of human being.” Torrance’s relational ontology makes it entirely compatible both with a doctrine of theosis and one of healing from sin.

Descriptively, Torrance frequently uses the metaphorical language of distance to depict the destructive and tragic effects of sin. The fact of the incarnation itself reveals that humanity is “far away from” and “cut off from” God. Yet, it would be a mistake to construe this distance metaphysically. Rather, “the distance between man and God is due to the nearness of God! That distance is a moral one.” For Torrance, to describe human beings as alienated and estranged from both God and themselves is to speak of an incompatibility of immanence. That is, it indicates the profound “antagonism between God’s holy will of love and our sin.” This difference is exposed in bold relief at the coming near of God in Jesus Christ. “Sin presupposes the nearness of God.” It is the distance of differentness, the “clash of wills,” the gap created by opposing desires and the incompatibility of loves between the human creature and the central reality of their existence—namely, their life-unity with the Creator. Thus, when Torrance defines sin as the motion contrary to Grace, he is not setting sin up as Grace’s opposite (for that would be impossible); he is exposing both the personal nature and the utter emptiness of sin. Sin is not sin against an impersonal law, but is a crime against Grace itself—against God’s loving, holy will and being. Consequently, Torrance refuses to allow moralistic categories to drive his description of human fallenness. Sin ‘is not sin simply because it is against love or goodness or even against man but because it is ultimately against God himself.”[1]

Given Torrance’s disposition to think in onto-relational terms what we are presented with is an onto-theo-logical doctrine of sin. As such the emphasis, prior to this development, on an understanding of salvation/justification itself that is grounded not in a forensic framework (as we get in Federal theology’s Covenant of Works/Grace), but as corollary, or as protasis, we get a soteriology that focuses on humanity’s relationship/fellowship with the living God. It’s not that the forensic/juridical is completely elided; it’s just that the theoretical framework for developing a doctrine of justification/sanctification is not generated by a commitment to a conception of God that is rooted in an improperly evangelized metaphysic (what we get in the classical theisms that inadequately pay attention to the Trinitarian personalization that is the co-inhering reality of who God is as the ultimate koinonial/fellowship of persons in perichoretic relation and simple oneness [de Deo uno]).  These relational categories are often lacking in what we find being retrieved by many classical theists today.

Hopefully this helps, at the very least, illustrate how Torrance operates as a constructive theologian par excellence. Torrance ends up giving us a focus on what some might call the existentialism of modern theology’s emphasis, while reifying that emphasis under ontological and relational categories supplied by his engagement with some of the Patristic and Eastern theologians. This is what makes Torrance and Evangelical Calvinism’s appropriation of Torrance’s themes rather unique; and I think highly needed and fruitful for the 21st century church who is seeking out ways to be most faithful to the Evangel’s reality while at the same time seeking to do so in the most catholic and orthodox of ways. I offer Torrance’s doctrine of sin, through Ziegler’s development, up to you as a case study in point.

[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 169-71.

God’s Triune Life as Grace: In Contrast to Latin Theologies of the Catholic and Protestant Varieties

Where was I? Oh yeah, about a third of the way through my friend Geordie Ziegler’s book Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F. Torrance. I’ve had Geordie’s book for probably a couple of years now, and I’m supposed to write a review for it. Well I’m continuing on, and the review is forthcoming. I’ve already done a few posts engaging with Geordie’s book, and this will be another one. I will just say that Geordie has done a wonderful job in exposing what comprises TFT’s theology; particularly as Geordie’s thesis focuses on the Trinitarian nature of Torrance’s prolegomena, and the way that grace is embodied and acted out in the very Triune relations.

In this post I am going to offer a long quote from Geordie where he is discussing how Torrance refers to grace in homoousial terms. This might seem striking to the uninitiated, but Torrance offers a personalist understanding of orthodox Reformed theology—in contrast to the school theology of late mediaevalism and post Reformed orthodoxy that he is reifying in Christ concentrated mode—as such TFT does not think of grace in the scholastic frame as created grace. We won’t venture further into the details of so called ‘created grace’ (which we find in Thomas Aquinas, and carried over in some of the post Reformed orthodox), but it is contrary to this, and from a more ‘Eastern’ approach that Torrance develops his understanding of grace in a personalist Triune frame. As you read Ziegler’s development remember this prior context.

Here is Ziegler at length (I don’t like to offer quotes without length, have you noticed?):

First, in asserting the homoousion of Grace, Torrance is highlighting and clarifying two key aspects of Grace: (1) Grace is intensely personal and implacably objective. In an unpublished response to his critics, Torrance explains the movement of his thought in more detail:

What [the Reformers] did, then, was to apply the homoousion also to the acts of God, to revelation and grace, and to insist that what we have in the Word is God speaking personally, and what we have in grace is not something detachable from God, some sort of created grace or Arian entity, but very God of very God. They emphasized that the Word of God is God speaking Himself to us, that the Grace of God is total, God giving Himself unreservedly to us. This created in the most intense way personal relationships on the one hand—destroying the impersonalism and the objectivism of mediaeval theology—and yet emphasized the implacable objectivity of God on the other hand, for it is the sheer majesty of His Being, His ultimate Self-giving that we encounter in His Word and Grace.

For Torrance, Grace is the personal self−giving of the Triune God through Christ and the Spirit, by which creatures are given to share in the Father−Son relation. Grace is not a nebulous divine ‘good will,’ but has real content: “for what God communicates to us in his grace is none other than himself. The Gift and the Giver are one.” The application of the homoousion to Grace is to recognize Grace as “the one indivisible self-giving of God in Christ.” Grace is not therefore something abstract, an impersonal force, or a generalized divine favor; nor is it a generic term for the gratuitous character of all God’s gifts. Grace is irreducibly personal; in fact, Grace has a name. Torrance writes,

Grace is not something that can be detached from God and made to inhere in creaturely being as ‘created grace’; nor is it something that can be proliferated in many forms; nor is it something that we can have more or less of, as if grace could be construed in quantitive terms. This is the Reformation doctrine of tota gratia. Grace is whole and indivisible because it is identical with the personal self−giving of God to us in his Son. It is identical with Jesus Christ. Thus it would be just as wrong to speak of many graces as many Christs, or of sacramental grace as of a sacramental Christ, or of created grace as of a created Christ.

While Grace is not to be generalized, it cannot be delegated to just one member of the Trinity’s activity either, for that would reduce it to a purely economic and instrumental function. Thus as we have observed and argued throughout Torrance roots Grace in “the living relations of the Persons of the Holy Trinity”; which in freedom and love issue forth through the missions as a movement from the Father, through the Son in the Spirit, and which return in the Spirit through the Son to the Father. Thus,

Between its going forth from God and its coming out upon the creature grace at no point ceases to be what it is within the Trinity, in order to become what it was not, some impersonal entity or causality. Grace can never be regarded in an instrumental sense, for from beginning to end in grace God is immediately present and active as living Agent.

Torrance will not abide any break between the being of God and his activity, for that would involve the trading of impersonal instrumentalities for real relations of communion.

Practically speaking, the recognition that Grace is irreducibly personal and objective and raises strong objections to the “impersonal determinism” of some Protestant doctrines of election. By construing the operation of Grace according to some notion of causality, “the sui generis movement of grace” is converted into “causal terms,” which “can then appear to be only quite arbitrary.” Equally problematic in Torrance’s estimation is the Augustinian notion of irresistible Grace. He suggests that the doctrine deleteriously introduced an internal connection between Grace and cause, which made way for the more general view of Grace “as a divine mode of causation at work in the universe.” Torrance argues that at least partially the development of the notion of irresistible Grace is an anthropomorphic projection of pragmatism upon the Divine: God uses Grace to administrate his salvific agenda for humankind and in that way God’s use of Grace mirrors human means of Grace.[1]

For an elaboration on the discussion orbiting around grace as created, uncreated, and the like refer to my friend and fellow blogger, Fr Aidan Kimel’s post which engages with how grace has functioned for the big three traditions in Christendom: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. As you read Kimel’s post what you’ll recognize, after reading what I just shared from Geordie, is that Torrance’s approach clearly is in-formed by the Eastern trad (if we want to speak cleanly like that). But Torrance’s theology and logic of grace, as Ziegler develops it (and Geordie follows TFT to a T), even counters some of the things that Aidan shares in his post with reference to Augustine (as we see particularly in the last paragraph of the Ziegler quote).

What I want to press is really one thing: As Evangelical Calvinists we are less concerned with where the conceptual matter comes from—in regard to the various trads of the church—and more concerned with the fiduciary nature of the theological material and development itself. As such, when we think of God’s Triune life as a movement of dynamic grace, as he moves in and among Godself, and from there moves out for us, we think this is the right way to think precisely because it coheres and inheres so well with the reality of the Evangel itself. In other words, the God we encounter in Christ, as Athanasius is so prone to emphasize, is a God who is unity of being, which antecedes his will be done; the God we meet mediated through the God-man, Jesus Christ, is always and eternally already the Son of the Father. We don’t meet God as the Creator, first; not as Christians. We come to call God, LORD!, by the Spirit. It is in this onto-relation, as the reality of God’s inner-life, that the sheep come to know their God’s voice. It is in the dynamic of being-in-relation; the subject-in-being relationship (Torrance’s ‘onto-relation’) that has always already been the eternal reality of the Father-Son-Holy Spirit, and then this shared reality in his movement outward (humanward) towards us that we might move towards him in the Godward movement of his life for us in Christ.

You won’t find these emphases and foci in classical Reformed theology, of the Latin sort, precisely because of the type of voluntarist, on the one hand, and Thomist commitments, on the other hand that help fund the way they think of a God-world relation and what that does to concepts like grace in soteriological frame. This assertion will have to suffice for now, but you can peruse my various blog posts or two edited books for further development and substantiation of this thesis. What I do want to leave with is that Evangelical Calvinism works from the sort of conceptual matter that we see Geordie developing in his work on Torrance’s theology of grace.


[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 132-34. I copy and pasted Ziegler’s quote from a PDF copy I have, as such his emphases and italicizes were negated in that process.

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.