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.

A Disjointed Blog Post on the Ontological and Economic Trinity, Something of a Teaser

I wrote a whole spate of posts when the Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) was happening online; as did others. But I thought I would revisit this issue, although not directly, by engaging with something two contemporary Dutch theologians have written on eternal generation and the doctrine of the Trinity. I would have to say, out of all things theological, the doctrine of the Trinity and Christology (and how that implicates soteriology) get me going the most. So as I read the following from Kooi and Brink my excitement level was piqued which is what is energizing me to write this post.

What they offer here is something that both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance would say amen to; indeed it is the embracing of what Karl Rahner somewhat championed by asserting (and arguing) that the immanent (or ontological) Trinity is the economic Trinity. In other words, who we see revealed by the eternal Son of God in Christ in temporal history is who God is antecedently in always already reality in his inner eternal life in the Divine Monarxia as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a purely non-speculative cataphatic approach to knowledge of God; wherein the concentration on who God is comes within the Athanasian frame which Thomas Torrance adopted for himself as Paul Molnar explicates for us:

Torrance’s view of God the Creator was strictly determined by his Trinitarian theology so that, in order to understand his explication of the doctrine of creation, it is important to realize that his thinking remains structured by Athanasius’ insight that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate”. What this means is not only that, following the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius stressed the centrality of the Father/Son relation for understanding God the Father Almighty who is the Creator, but that he wanted to stress that this same relation must have “primacy over the Creator/creature relation. The latter is to be understood in the light of the former and not vice versa”. Or, to put it another way, “while God is always Father he is not always Creator” and “it is as Father that God is Creator, not vice versa”. . . .[1]

This is rich, and a quote I actually used in my chapter for our first EC book.

You know what? I’m going to simply use this post as a teaser. The quote I want to share from Kooi and Brink is too long for me to transcribe tonight. But just know that its thrust is in keeping with the way Molnar describes Torrance’s Trinitarian theology relative to the relationship between the ontological and economic Trinity. I realize that this post now seems disjointed, but just remember, this is a blog post.

[1] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian Of The Trinity, (Ashgate Publishing Limited, England, 2009), 73.

Doctrine of God: Let There Be No Daylight Between the Being and Persons of God. Kooi and Brink

As I underscored and wrote upon how the Being (ousia) of God has been separated from the Persons (hypostases) of God in many medieval and Post Reformed orthodox treatments of the doctrine of God in my personal chapter for our volume one Evangelical Calvinism book, I am happy to see that Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink do not follow this type of disjunction in their just released Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction. They would be critical then, as I am, of Katherine Sonderegger’s approach and return back to this more classic rendition of developing a doctrine of God; i.e. by starting with God’s oneness and only later getting to his threeness, as if we could think them apart in any meaningful way as Christ[ians]. Here is what Kooi and Brink have to say about this (in extenso):

We join then this recent turn in asserting that the doctrine of God, with the related treatment of the divine attributes, must be approached from the basis of the doctrine of the divine attributes, must be approached from the basis of the doctrine of the divine Trinity. There there can be no misunderstanding that, speaking from a Christian perspective, God can be thought of only as the Trinity; the Christian church confesses no other God than the Father of Jesus Christ in communion with the Holy Spirit. In that sense the doctrine of the Trinity may be regarded as the Christianized version of the doctrine of God. The church does not worship an anonymous Supreme Being but the God who has made a name for himself in Israel and has gotten a face in Jesus Christ. The divine attributes will also have to be viewed and studied from this perspective, for they do not concern—as has often been suggested—a “universal” divine being, but the triune God. This perspective implies, that right from the start, these attributes must be colored and interpreted by God’s sovereign turn toward us human beings in the history of Israel, Jesus Christ, and the Spirit.[1]

And then in small print[2], just following, this Kooi and Brink dig further into the way the being of God has been spoken of in abstraction from his persons,

There are numerous examples in history [sic] of studies that first deal at length with the attributes before getting to the doctrine of the Trinity, but the paradigmatic cases are Thomas Aquinas (STh I.2–26 and 27–43) and Schleiermacher (CF, paras. 170–72); yet he judiciously suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity needs to be constructed anew from the oldest sources). The sharp criticism of Karl Rahner (e.g., in Feiner and Löhrer, MS 2:317–97) on how the theological tradition has split apart the tractates  De Deo trino and De Deo uno (“On the triune God” and “On the one God”) has become famous. But even Berkhof stays with this tradition. Being disappointed with its classical form, he even decided toward the end of his life to incorporate the doctrine of the Trinity in his doctrine of God at all but to deal with it at the end of his treatment of the doctrine of Christ (CF, paras. 19–23 and 38).

In Calvin’s Institutes the attributes receive little attention, and the doctrine of the Trinity much more. Calvin wanted to stay close to the Bible and practical faith and feared the “idle speculations” that would arise if we isolate various elements of the doctrine of God and make them stand alone. His dictum was, “Hence it is obvious, that in seeking God, the most direct path and fittest method is, not to attempt with presumptuous curiosity to pry into his essence, which is rather to be adored than minutely discussed, but to contemplate him in his works, by which he draws near, becomes familiar, and in a manner communicates himself to us” (Inst. 1.5.9). In his own doctrine of God, therefore, Calvin focused to a large extent on the doctrine of the Trinity, which over time he accepted as fully biblical (1.13; see also Letham 2004, 253, 265, 267–68). In the twentieth century many followed Barth’s example by prioritizing the doctrine of the Trinity over a discussion of the divine attributes (e.g. Genderen and Velema, CRD 143–64 and 164–92; see also 135), but few did so as consistently as Wolfhart Pannenberg (ST 1, chap. 6, as sequel to and colored by chap. 5) and Robert Jenson (ST 1, esp. chaps. 4–9 and 13). See above, chapter 2, for the consequences of mixing the Christian doctrine of God with philosophical ideas about God, which became the target of the prominent critics of religion in the nineteenth century.[3]

To continue to press this let me share a quote I used in my chapter from Thomas Torrance; it is an interesting quote, particularly because while agreeing with Kooi and Brink, in the main, Torrance would appear to disagree with their assessment of Calvin. But the primary reason I am sharing this, for our purposes, is simply to reinforce this type of critique relative to the artificial separating of God’s oneness (‘being’) from his threeness (‘persons’). So Torrance,

in the Scots Confession as in John Knox’s Genevan Liturgy, the doctrine of the Trinity is not added on to a prior conception of God—there is no other content but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There was no separation here between the doctrine of the One God (De Deo Uno), and the doctrine of the triune God (De Deo Trino), which had become Roman orthodoxy through the definitive formalisation of Thomas Aquinas. This trinitarian approach was in line with The Little Catechism which Knox brought back from Geneva for the instruction of children in the Kirk. “I believe in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Son and in the Holy Spirit, and look for salvation by no other means.” Within this trinitarian frame the centre of focus in the Confession and Catechism alike is upon Jesus Christ himself, for it is only through him and the Gospel he proclaimed that God’s triune reality is made known, but attention is also given to the Holy Spirit. Here once again we have a different starting point from other Reformation Confessions. Whereas they have a believing anthropocentric starting point, such as in the Heidelberg Catechism, this is quite strongly theocentric and trinitarian. Even in Calvin’s Institute, which follows the fourfold pattern in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the doctrine of the Trinity is given in the thirteenth chapter within the section on the doctrine of God the Creator. Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, however, understandably followed the order of the Apostles’ Creed. The trinitarian teaching in the Scots Confession was by no means limited to the first article for it is found throughout woven into the doctrinal content of subsequent articles.[4]

You might be wondering why this is important, at this point; it has to do with the topic of a recent post of mine on apophatic versus cataphatic theology. When theologies start with the oneness or ‘being of God’ over against the threeness or ‘persons of God’ they are typically taking the apophatic approach to knowing God. They are starting with a discursive rather than concrete way to God; using philosophical categories that conceive of Godness prior to being confronted by that in the definitional reality of His own Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It potentially gives us a God, the approach under critique in this post, that is abstract and personally removed from his creation; who is not easily understood as a ‘relational’ and dynamic God.

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 78-9.

[2] The small print is a stylistic move used throughout Kooi’s and Brink’s Christian Dogmatics with the purpose of providing more detailed analyses of various loci. It is reminiscent of how Karl Barth used his footnote sections (his “small print”) to accomplish the same thing.

[3] Kooi and Brink, Christian Dogmatics, 79.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 3–4 cited by Bobby Grow, “Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis?: Either Through Christ or Through Nature,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 110.

Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans: God’s Triune Love in Christ Even Reaches into Hell

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]Thomas F. Torrance

With Barth I hold that through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and his glorious resurrection from the grave the human situation has been irrevocably altered. The powers of sin, death, and hell have been decisively vanquished, though they continue to resist the advance of the kingdom of God through the power of the lie. All people of, irrespective of their moral and spiritual state, are claimed for the kingdom, but only some respond in faith and obedience. Christ has reconciled and justified the whole human race but in principle (de jure), not in fact (de facto) except for those who believe. All are heirs to the kingdom, but not all become members of the church of Christ. The treasure in the field is there for all, but only those benefit who give up everything to attain it (Mt 13:44). The gates of the prison in which we find ourselves are now open, but only those who rise up and walk through these gates to freedom are truly free. . . . Predestination is not something finalized in the past but something realized in the present and consummated in the future. We can resist and deny our predestination, but we cannot permanently thwart the stream of God’s irresistable grace. We will ultimately be brought into submission, though not necessarily into salvation. Yet predestination means life even though we may choose death. Predestination does not necessarily eventuate in fellowship with Christ, but it does mean that every person is brought into inescapable relatedness to Christ.[2]Donald Bloesch

It is the tension, the dialectical paradox communicated in the sentiments presented both by T.F. Torrance and Donald Bloesch that I find inescapable relative to the reality and implication of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ (Logos ensarkos). As Karl Barth might say the ‘humanity of God’ is such that because of his great love he was willing to be the humbled God that we might be the exalted humanity in Jesus Christ. It is this reality that Torrance and Bloesch find so compelling, and what they cannot shake in regard to the eternal reach of the Incarnation; a reach and always already event in Jesus Christ that reaches into hell itself. It reaches so far that it snatches each of us out of the fire, at least for all ‘who will’ by the Holy Spirit and out of the vicarious yes for us in Jesus’ mediatorial repose before the Father. And yet, as Torrance and Bloesch both note, not all people will ultimately repent and turn to what is theirs in Christ; the election of God. Even so, God’s reach remains. Humanity cannot escape God’s presence, they cannot escape the orientation of God’s love for them in Jesus Christ; even if that is ultimately the bench of their judgment. What remains though, is that even for those who choose to live in their sub-human state, eternally separated from God in themselves, God has chosen to never be fully separated from them in Christ; even if that means he’s their Judge. Indeed, he is the Judge Judged for them, for us, but for those who won’t; they continue and will continue to stand on the shadow side of the cross and grave of God in Jesus Christ. Yet God’s love in Christ remains all pervasive, for even if we make our bed in hell he is there according to the Psalmist.

What I am trying to emphasize is God’s love; it remains, somehow, mysteriously so, in the cavernous waste lands of hell itself. Does this mean there is a way out of that waste land for those who find themselves there in the eschaton? Not according to Scripture. But what the theo-drama of God’s triune life requires is that all of this be chastened by the fact that God is eternally and personally triune love in his inner-life. It is this life from whence he freely chose to so identify with his creation, with humanity, that he tied his Godness to it; he freely chose to not be God without us but with us, Immanuel. This holds true for all humanity, even if the many choose to repudiate what God is for them, he will never repudiate who he has become for them in Christ. It is this reality that tempers even hell. It is deeply mysterious; the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (‘fearful and fascinating mystery’). It is hard to fathom exactly how this can be so, but it is.

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

[2] Donald Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior & Lord, 169.

 

Knowing God: Martin Luther, Karl Barth, and Thomas Torrance. Theologia Crucis against Analogia Entis

Knowing God, it is what we as Christians all desire; we want to not only know Him, but know that we have a more sure way of knowing God. In the history of the church and ideas there have been multiple ways to try and tackle this. There have been mystical (Platonic) types of attempts at this; there have been chain-of-being attempts at this (Thomism) wherein humans are able to work martinluthermiddleagethemselves back to their final source of causation (God) and know God through the analogy and point of contact between Him as Infinite cause over against us as finite causes (indeed effects of His cause) [think analogia entis]; and another way was simply by understanding that words as symbols within a Covenant relation between God and humanity become the source for knowing God in an authoritative way (Nominalism).

It was this latter convention for knowing God that drove the thinking of the spitfire, the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther. He repudiated the chain-of-being way, and yet was much more circumspect and concrete than the mystical way would allow for (although influences from this approach are present within the makeup of Luther’s overall attitude and approach to thinking God). As a result, Luther focused on what he called theologia crucis (theology of the cross) not analogia entis (analogy of being)—analogia entis was what gave the Roman Catholic church its authority in a hierarchical scheme for knowing God and mediating knowledge of God (as representative of Christ on earth [i.e. the Papal office] the medieval Roman Catholic church of Luther’s day was a step above [in the chain of being between God and humanity] the laity and regular people, as such they held the keys to knowledge of God). Luther’s appropriation of nominalism (theologically, not philosophically) is what allowed him to forward his idea on a theology of the cross over against the analogy of being (or also what Luther referred to as the theologia gloriae ‘theology of glory’); it cut the link between an analogy to be found in human beings vis-à-vis God. For Luther’s theology of the cross the only way for us to know God was to be found in God’s Self-revelation, which meant the words of Holy Scripture, and more radically the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ on the cross (where Deus absconditus becomes Deus revelatus ‘the hiddeness of God becomes the revealedness of God’).

Richard Muller has written this of Luther:

One of the elements of late medieval Scotist and nominalist theology that had a profound impact on Luther was its denial of any analogy between God and man and its consequent recognition of the impossibility of formulating a rational metaphysic concerning God. All knowledge of God must rest on authoritative testimony, primarily on that of Scripture. Luther not only denied any recourse of theology to an analogia entis between God and man and insisted on the necessity of scriptural revelation, but also argued, in the light of his denial of human merit and his sense of the immediacy of Christ as revealer and savior, against any rational theologia gloriae that claimed to describe God as he is in himself and proposed that our earthly theology be a theologia crucis, conformed to the pattern of God’s revelation in Christ….[1]

Theology of the cross could later correlate to what some have called a theology of crisis (what we find in someone like Jurgen Möltmann, and even in the early Karl Barth). God is known as we meet Him at the cross over and again; as we are depleted of our resources and thrown on the mercy of His resources revealed to us as He freely and graciously met and meets with us through the cross of His dearly beloved Son. The cross is where God’s power and reality is revealed as: God humbled and humanity exalted in the unio personalis (the singular person), Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul was one of the foremost and earliest theologians of the cross, this typifies the attitude that a theologian of the cross thinks and lives from:

Brothers and sisters, we don’t want you to be unaware of the troubles that we went through in Asia. We were weighed down with a load of suffering that was so far beyond our strength that we were afraid we might not survive. It certainly seemed to us as if we had gotten the death penalty. This was so that we would have confidence in God, who raises the dead, instead of ourselves. 10 God rescued us from a terrible death, and he will rescue us. We have set our hope on him that he will rescue us again, 11 since you are helping with your prayer for us. Then many people can thank God on our behalf for the gift that was given to us through the prayers of many people.[2]

Closing Remarks

It is interesting, because when we think of the nominalist/Scotist types of dispositions that Luther had it would seem at odds with the realist/Thomist ones that we find in the theologies of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. I think what brings them together constructively is their (i.e. Luther’s, Barth’s, Torrance’s) focuses on a theology of the Word. Barth and Torrance, it can be said, have an a posteriori approach to thinking God; i.e. from God’s Self-revelation in Christ back up to the ontological God (so a chain-of-being way of thinking, but instead of a this chain taking link from a general conception of human being back up to God’s being, it takes link from God’s being given and revealed in Jesus Christ as a center of God’s life). I think if Luther was around when Barth and Torrance came on the scene he would approve of this kind of christologically conditioned chain-of-being thinking, because it takes the christological focus of Luther’s theology of the cross and of the Word and understands that the Covenant between God and humanity that provides genuine knowledge of God is found nowhere else but in theanthropos, the Godman, Jesus Christ. Barth and Torrance actually take the insights that Martin Luther’s via positiva ‘positive way’ (kataphatic) of doing theology emphasizes while at the same time plundering the Thomist way of knowing God non-metaphysically (as it were) from God’s reality given in Jesus Christ. What Barth and Torrance don’t take over, and now in alignment with Luther, is the Thomist chain-of-being separation of cause and effect when it comes to the person and work of Jesus Christ. This might be where Luther, Barth, and Torrance are most closely aligned; for Luther, when we see Jesus, we see God / for Barth and Torrance when we see Jesus, we see God.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 223-24.

[2] II Corinthians 1:8-11, Common English Bible.

God’s Personal, Dynamic and Relational Being: His Ousia is Parousia. Thomas Torrance’s Hebraic Model for Thinking God

The ‘being’ (ousia) of God is largely, is hugely important when it comes to differentiating what we are doing in Evangelical Calvinism versus classical (Federal) Calvinism. If you peruse my blog you might find that addressing this point is something of a theme by now. In order to keep in theme I thought I would post another post that engages with what I would claim, despite those who protest this, that Post Reformed orthodox theology operates from a Pure Being theology and doctrine of God. In other words, even though folks like Richard Muller argue otherwise, it is very hard to see how this just is not the case. What Pure Being theology (like that produced by appropriating classical philosophy with Christian theology i.e. Aristotle et al.) gives us is a God who must engage with his creation through impersonal decrees; he must somehow keep himself untouched by his creation. We end up with an impersonal God who engages with us through laws and decrees, and not with the personal touch we might expect a God who is Triune love to engage his creation with. Here is how Richard Muller argues this:

Etienne Gilson makes the very pointed remark, in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, that the great source and starting-point of all medieval discussion of the being and essence of God is not Greek philosophy in general or Aristotle in particular, but Moses—in Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” Nor ought we to attribute the use of Exodus 3:14 as a reference to the being of God as a result of ignorance of Hebrew and dependence on the sum qui sum of the Latin Vulgate. We read, for example, in the Guide for the Perplexed of Moses Maimonides,

God taught Moses how to teach them and how to establish amongst them the belief in the existence of Himself, namely, by saying Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, a name derived from the verb hayah in the sense of “existing,” for the verb hayahdenotes “to be,” and in Hebrew no difference is made between verbs “to be” and “to exist.” The principle point in this phrase is that the same word which denotes “existence” is repeated as an attribute…. This is, therefore, the expression of the idea that God exists, but not in the ordinary sense of the term; or, in other words, He is “existing being which is the existing Being,” that is to say, the Being whose existence is absolute.

Of the Holy Name, Maimonides adds, “the tetragrammaton … is not an appellative; it does not imply anything except his existence. Absolute existence includes the idea of eternity, i.e., the necessity of existence.” The point must be made, with respect to Gilson’s remarks, that however much the classical philosophical heritage influenced scholastic formulation, the form that the influence took and, indeed, the medieval interpretation of the classical sources, was in large measure determined by biblical exegesis—and that, granting the Greek philosophical sources of medieval Jewish and Christian conceptions of God, those sources, taken by themselves, do not by themselves account for either the theology or the metaphysics of the medieval thinkers.

We must take exception to often-uttered claims that descriptions of God in terms of “substance” and “essence” lead ineluctably “to the unfruitful abstractions of the conception of God in Greek philosophy,” or that language such as that of Aquinas concerning God as “supremely existent” (maximè ens) is a “Grecian” as opposed, presumably, to a “religious conception of God.” Such claims assume, first, that discussion of the divine essence is a fundamentally Greek enterprise (if Gilson and Maimonides are correct, it is not) — and second, quite arbitrarily, that abstraction is both characteristically Greek and quite “unfruitful” and, in addition, is somehow divorced from the “religious conception of God.” We ought not to accept any of these comments uncritically, nor ought we to suppose that the medieval development of concepts of God as willing, as thinking, as loving, and as, by nature, spirit (none of which are without “religious” implication), can be severed in a facile manner from the issue of the divine being or essence.[1]

Okay, so we see Muller among many of his contemporaries claiming that the classic Reformed were just doing good biblical exegesis and not borrowing their conceptual apparatus from the Greek philosophers. But when you actually read Reformed theology, particularly in the 16th and 17 centuries, and even now as that gets repristinated in the 21st century, it makes you wonder how Muller et al. can claim what they do.

As an alternative T.F. Torrance highlights the role that the Hebraic mind and categories played in early ecumenical thinking when it came to conceiving of God by way of his Self-naming to his covenant people. This is ironic, really, because Torrance is addressing the same tetragrammaton context that Muller is; yet they arrive at totally different conclusions. Here is what Torrance has to say in this regard:

I have been directing considerable attention Hebraic way of understanding I am or ἐγώ εἰμί of God to which the Early Church so often appealed in seeking to understand the Being or οὐσία of God, for it is very different from the static metaphysical notion of essence or substance found in the Greek philosophical tradition. The Being of God, known only in the fellowship created through his personal self-naming, self-affirming and self-giving to his people, is the living dynamic Being (zwsa kai energhtikh οὐσία) of God’s redeeming presence to them, with them and for them. It is to be understood not simply in terms of the self-grounded Being of God, but as the Being of God for others with whom he seeks and creates fellowship, although that is to be regarded as flowing freely from the ground and will of his own transcendent Self-Being. While the Being of God is not to be understood as constituted by his relation to others, the free outward flowing of his Being in gratuitous love toward and for others reveals to us something of the inmost nature of God’s Being, as at once transcendent and immanent — God in the highest and God with us and for us, the divine ousia being understood as parousia and the divine parousia being understood as ousia. Hence it may be said that the Being of God is to be understood as essentially personal, dynamic and relational Being. The real meaning of the Being or I am of God becomes clear in the two-way fellowship he freely establishes with his people as their Lord and Saviour, for it has to do with the saving will or self-determination of God in his love and grace to be with them as their God as well as his determination of them to be with him as his redeemed children.[2]

There is a deep personalism informing the type of Trinitarian conception of God’s Being that Torrance describes and develops for us. Not of the existentialist type that so many classical theologians worry about today, particularly when it comes to modern theology in general, or maybe even Barth and Torrance in particular. The personalism that Torrance pushes us into is informed by what we find the ecumenical Patristic theologians working with; one that is oriented from the type of Hebraic mode of thought that Torrance alerts us to. A personalism that is truly relational insofar as that relationship is defined by God in his inner and eternal life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit which we are then included within by way of God’s gracious and free choice to be for us and with us which allows us to be eternally within him in the Son, Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

While much of this might sound academic, it really isn’t. It has profoundly pastoral and practical implications for someone’s daily spirituality. Who we think God is determines everything else downstream, even how we live before and with God. Who God is will impact what it means to be creatures in the image of God; it will determine the way we understand grace and what it means to have grace in the conversation of our Christian lives; both in the church and outside of it. These are not merely academic platitudes; they are real life and significant issues for every single Christian and non-Christian alike. How we understand God, and who we understand him to be, and from whence find basis for that will determine everything else.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Divine Essence and Attributes, Volume Three.  The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 50-1.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 123-24.

Some Thoughts on Salvation and Grace from T.F. Torrance

Those who are justified by grace, by faith in Christ, are the only ones who really know that they are lost sinners, apart from Christ, but those who have not received Christ’s forgiveness and the verdict it entails upon their humanity are the ones who regard themselves as able to justify themselves. Similarly, those who have come to know the mystery of Christ as true God and true man are the only ones who really know that they themselves are in ignorance, and that by themselves, by their own capacities, they cannot know the mystery. But those who have not received Jesus Christ, who have avoided the mystery. But those who have not received Jesus Christ, who have avoided the mystery and therefore have not come to know it, are those who think they can understand how God and man can come together. Both the sinner who is forgiven by Christ and the man or woman who has come to see the face of God in the face of Christ, know that they can never master or dominate the mystery of Christ in their hearts, but can only acknowledge it gladly with wonder and thankfulness, and seek to understand  the mystery out of itself, that is, seek to let it declare itself  to them, seek to let themselves be told by the mystery what it is. They will acknowledge that this is a mystery that is not conceivable in ordinary human thought — it is a miracle. And if they know something of this miracle they will know that even their knowing of it is a very wonderful thing, that it is an act of God. They know the mystery by faith, in the power of the Spirit, but not by themselves alone. It is a gift of God. That belongs to the very content of the doctrine of the virgin birth and its significance for our knowing of Christ.[1]

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, 87-88.

 

Ascension Day Theology by way of Thomas Torrance and John Knox

As Christians we often think about the theology of cross, and the hope of the resurrection (as we should!); but often what gets lost is a theology of the Ascension, and what that means for both now, and the future. Colossians 2, and the language of pleroma, or the plenitude of God’s fullness embodied in Christ dovetails with this, and the primacy of Christ’s life for creation as we are lead into chapter two from chapter one of Colossians, starting in verse 15. Without the ascension we would have no hope of salvation, no assurance of salvation, no High Priestly praying for us by Jesus, and no hope for final and bodily consummation. So the ascension, beyond just signifying that Jesus is above all, and beyond being the means by which he left this earth for the eyewitnesses to see, provides for us a multitude of other hopes and assurances; that without which, we would be a pitiable mass. Here is how Thomas Torrance makes this significant in a discussion he is providing for how ascension functioned in the theology of Scottish reformer, John Knox:

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Knox laid unusually strong emphasis on the ascension of Jesus Christ in the self-same body which was born of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified, dead and buried and which rose again, and very rightly. It is one of the most neglected doctrines of the Faith. Ascension is not just an addendum to the story of Jesus, a ringing down of the curtain on his earthly life, but it is one of the great essential salvation events. The ascension of the Lord Jesus is the inauguration of the Kingdom of God over the whole creation, but as centred in Christ it is the Kingdom of Christ. What did the ascension do?

(1) It was the completion of the Incarnation event. He who descended also ascended. The very same body which had been born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, and died and was buried, ascended into heaven, for the accomplishment of all things. Thus the saving work of Christ reaches up into eternity, into the ultimate mystery of God.

(2) The union of God and man in Christ was assumed into the immediate presence of God the Father on his throne — there Christ wears our human life, and it is in our name that he is there at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, standing in for us.

(3) In our name and for our comfort he ascended to take possession of his Kingdom, to inaugurate it and enlarge it. There he is given and receives all power in heaven and on earth — there the crucified Christ sits at the right hand of power and glory.

(4) The Heavenly Session of Christ speaks of the fact that he ever lives to make intercession for us as our Advocate and High Priest and only Mediator, and prays and intercedes for us. This is the teaching of the Epistle of Hebrews, and plays a central role in Knox’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

(5) In his ascension Christ opened the heavens into which we may appear in him before the throne of the Father’s mercy. Christ’s ascension is the ground of our comfort and assurance. It is the ascended Christ who sends us his Spirit, the Comforter. Thus the full meaning of the ascension is to be discerned in relation to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. It is in this light that the Church of Christ is to be understood, as ‘the blessed society which we the members have with our Head and only Mediator Christ Jesus, whom we confess and avow to be the Messiah promised, the only Head of his Kirk, our just Lawgiver, our only High Priest, Advocate and Mediator.

Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 21-2.

We need this perspective more than ever! We need to know that Jesus is Lord, that history is his-story, and that the chaos of this world has already been reordered (I say by faith) by the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus is Lord, that is what his session at the right hand of the Father asserts, in a loud trumpeting way; in such a way that we ought to be quiet before Him as he sits upon his throne.

I am really burdened right now about what is going on in the Christian church, and in culture at large. My guess is that Jesus is about to step off of his throne only to finally come and announce, by sight, that he indeed is King of kings and Lord of lords; and to set to rights what the world has set to wrongs.

Language About God’s Life: How Language Ought to Be Transformed By God’s Self-Revelation in Theological Discourse

As Trinitarians Christians often, and rightly, refer to the inner reality of God’s singular life as his ousia or ‘being.’ The fear might be that Christians might be imposing Hellenistic (i.e. classical Greek philosophical) categories onto God thus morphing him into an tertium quid, or even worse something completely alien to who he actually is. This is the critique I often bring against classical Calvinists in their deployment of Aristotle to articulate their Pure Being theology relative to the Christian God;[1] I don’t think they are successful in allowing the Revelation to determine the language’s shape; I think they carry over too much of the Aristotelian philosophical implications in their endeavor to give grammar to articulating God for human understanding. As such, I think they eschew everything else downstream; i.e. whether that be in the area of doctrine of creation, theory of revelation, theory of history, doctrine of Scripture, soteriology, so on and so forth.

Us Evangelical Calvinists, like classical Calvinists (and other iterations of classical theists), also use the Hellenic language of ‘being’ and ‘persons’ (hypostases), among other expressions. But unlike—and here I’ll just keep picking on the classical Calvinists—the classical Calvinists, or as Richard Muller calls it, the “Christian Aristotelians,”[2] we follow Athanasius’s style and mode in regard to allowing the antecedent and ontological reality of God’s life to give shape and reify the Hellenic language of ‘being’ and ‘persons’; our intention is to allow God’s Self-revelation to retext the Hellenic language in such a way that the language’s meaning itself becomes brand new (recreated even) because of the new context it finds itself in (since context determines meaning anyway). Thomas Torrance explains how this worked out in the Athansian mode:

Athanasius much preferred to use verbs rather than nouns when speaking of God as the mighty living and acting God, for abstract terms or substantives seemed to him (as indeed to the biblical writers) to be inappropriate in speaking about the dynamic Nature of God, or in expressing who God is who makes himself known to us in his mighty acts of deliverance and salvation. For Athanasius, here as elsewhere, the precise meaning of theological terms is to be found in their actual use under the transforming impact of divine revelation. This is how he believed that the words ousia and hypostasis were used at the Council of Nicaea, not in the abstract Greek sense but in a concrete personal sense governed by God’s self-revelation in the incarnation. He preferred a functional and flexible use of language in which the meaning of words varied in accordance with the nature of the realities intended and with the general scope of thought or discourse at the time. Hence he retained the freedom to vary the sense of the words he used in different contexts, and declined to be committed to a fixed formalisation of any specific theological term for all context which might have violated his semantic principle that terms are not prior to realities but realities come first and terms second. This intention is nowhere more evident than in his cautious and differential use of human terms to speak of the Being of God or the Subsistence of Persons in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.[3]

Us Evangelical Calvinists go with TF Torrance and Athanasius; particularly when it comes to the idea that the reality precedes and thus should be allowed to control the terminology in its context and sense.

If you ever wonder how Evangelical Calvinists can use the language of ‘being’ and ‘persons’ and not fall prey to the same temptations as the Christian Aristotelians, refer to this post.

One more important point in closing: If we get our doctrine of God wrong (which includes very much so how we employ theological language), then everything else following will be eschewed. This is why Evangelical Calvinists place such emphasis on our Trinitarian Doctrine of God as the ground and grammar of everything.

[1] See this post.

[2] See Richard Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 45, 62, 107, 121, 132, 140, 150, 367, 545, 553.

[3] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 117-18.

Thomas F. Torrance, Reformed Theologian par excellence

Don’t get me wrong, I love that T.F. Torrance’s theology is being celebrated and devoured by many; that there are many ways into his theology—whether that be academically or popularly. But in some ways I sense that Torrance is often taken out of context; that his situatedness as a Reformed theologian is not appreciated like it should be. As such, when and if this happens, much of the weight and significance of Torrance’s theology can be lost. Just like any theologian Torrance was a product of his time, context, and circumstances. As a theologian and leader in the Church of Scotland (i.e. Reformed) he served as a representative and churchman from a certain theological orientation and predisposition; he operated as a Reformed theologian—even in his ecumenical and catholic activity in his discussions with the Eastern Orthodox.

Torrance was confessional. Torrance emphasized the primacy of God’s grace in Christ. Torrance emphasized God’s sovereignty given shape as it was in and from the Triune life of God as love. Torrance held to the unilateral move of God in salvation. Torrance held to the idea that God pre-destinates (albeit in reference to His own life to be for us in the election of His Son, Jesus Christ). Torrance forwarded a supralapsarian double predestination of election and reprobation (albeit grounded in Christ as both elect and reprobate for us/humanity). Torrance wrote books like Scottish Theology, which surveyed the theologies of many non-Westminsterian Reformed theologians in the Scottish Kirk; and The School of Faith, a book where he lays out a decisively Reformed orientation to things as he works out and explicates the implicates of various Reformed confessions and creeds.

There is more that we could appeal to to illustrate Torrance’s Reformed identity, but this ought to do for now. Why does this matter? Because in much of Torrance’s theology he is responding to something, and someone[s]. Along with his brother James, Thomas’s theology was in response to the Federal theology given its most heightened expression at the Westminster Assembly. Torrance used the material of his Trinitarian and Christologically oriented theology, within the context of his scientific/kata-physin approach, to correct the errors of classical Calvinism and Reformed theology in general. Errors that he would contend depersonalized God, and thus depersonalized God’s salvation in Christ.

There is much in Torrance that is rich and available that doesn’t need to pay too much attention to his Reformed theology, per se. In other words, folks can simply grab onto certain threads of his theology (i.e. Trinitarian, relational, etc.), and go no further; and they will be blessed, no doubt. But again, I think the weight of what Torrance has to offer is only fully appreciated when understood from within the context of his Reformed identity. Just think about the corrective, from that perspective, he has to offer to the resurgence of Reformed theology in the 21st century (i.e. the so called Young, Restless, and Reformed et al.). In North America we are inundated with just one expression of what Reformed theology entails, and that is highly unfortunate. Torrance’s theology, I would argue, even more than Barth’s in some ways, has the capacity to meet classical Calvinism, and its resurgence, and offer an alternative to people that will be more fruitful for them spiritually and in other ways. Torrance’s theology, indeed, has the Reformed rigor people apparently are thirsty for, but of course, his is a theology that is grounded in his rich Trinitarian theology with its Christological focus on grace, salvation, etc. Torrance’s theology has deep continuity with Church history, historical theology, and the rich intellectual heritage that people are thirsty for; which is why they are turning to classical Calvinism in the droves. This is, of course, what we in Evangelical Calvinism are still seeking to point out to people; that the Reformed faith is deep and wide, and Thomas Torrance is a teacher within that tradition who has many riches to offer them. Riches that will benefit them from time and into eternity.

I want to see Torrance’s theology appreciated by all, because I think it actually can be revolutionary for some people’s walks with Jesus Christ. I want to see the resurgence of classical Calvinism tampered down, and marginalized, insofar as I believe if internalized, it will not set people on a good trajectory, spiritually speaking. I would also like to see those who attempt to abstract the good trinitarian theology from TF Torrance, to bear in mind that Torrance was a Reformed theologian par excellence; and that appreciating his context, in that way, will only enhance the richness that he has to offer in regard to the material theological places he provides for in his theological corpus.

Rant over.