Dogma, Dogmas and Dogmatics: As Explained by T.F. Torrance

Thomas F. Torrance, “Karl Barth and the Latin Heresy,” Scottish Journal of Theology 39 (1986): 467-8.
“…Karl Barth sought to develop a distinctive kind of dogmatics in which constant account is taken of the fact that it is none other than the Lord God himself who meets us in Revelation. By his very nature revealed to us in Jesus Christ God encounters us as he who is infinitely greater than we can ever conceive, who transcends all our theological formulations, but who nevertheless actually gives himself as the object of our knowledge in Christ. This is not to say that our knowledge of God is false because it is inadequate to his nature, but rather that inadequacy of this kind belongs to its essential truth in pointing away from itself to the ultimate Truth of God. Hence in order to be really faithful to God as he has revealed himself, dogmatics must build recognition of its own inadequacy into its basic structure. It must never lose sight of the fact that even when God makes himself known to us, his Truth retains its own boundless mystery, majesty and wholeness, in virtue of which it far outreaches the creaturely limits of human thought and speech. This is why Barth felt constrained to draw a clear distinction between dogma and dogmas. In dogma the theologian is concerned with the fundamental Datum of divine Revelation, the one source and norm of all our knowledge of God, to which it points and by which it is judged. Dogma is not itself the Truth of God’s Revelation, but the unformalisable intuitive recognition of it evoked in us by Revelation, and which implicitly exercises a regulative force in all faithful attempts to give our understanding of Revelation explicit formulation in dogmas. In this sense dogma constitutes the informal base upon which all formal accounts of our knowledge of God rest, and from which they cannot be cut off without becoming theologically empty and meaningless. Everything would go wrong, however, if it were thought that dogma could be reduced to explicit formalisation in dogmas, for that would imply that dogmatic formulations of the faith are to be regarded as transcriptions or even constitutions of its essential substance. It was in rejecting any such idea that Karl Barth insisted that dogmatics is the science of dogma, not that science of dogmas.”
If you want to dig around in Barth for the material that Torrance is riffing off of, look in paragraphs 1 and 7 in Church Dogmatics 1.1, and in paragraphs 25-27 in CD 2.1. The CD 1.1 material deals more with dogmatics as a science, and its method, while the CD 2.1 material deals with the knowledge of God.


Anonymous said…
Excelent. It is clear to me that Torrance is an interesting thinker.
One question: if "...dogma constitutes the informal base upon which all formal accounts of our knowledge of God rest, and from which they cannot be cut off without becoming theologically empty and meaningless"; how do I know when my knowledge has been cut off of its base or "dogma"? Is there any clue to be aware of that?
Good question, Luke.

Torrance has this conception such that we always intuitively grasp more than we can conceptually conceive, and that we can conceptually conceive more than we can put into language. So our theological language bears imperfect witness to what we can conceptually conceive of God, which bears imperfect witness to our intuitive knowledge of God, which bears imperfect (because humanly finite as well as because sinful) witness to God's own intra-trinitarian self-knowledge.

So, "Dogma" is the intuitive knowledge of God that arises within us when God encounters us in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. One of the tasks of theology, then, is to critically engage that intuitive knowledge in terms of Scripture, the theological tradition, etc, to unfold from it increasingly faithful conceptualities and language through which to bear witness to it. So, this critical process tries to discern if you're intuitive knowledge is "off base."

But there is another dimension. Because "dogma" arises only from the encounter with God in Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we have to understand the context of Christian worship as reinforcing, giving expression to, and critically shaping such an encounter.

So, you end up with a rigorous and critical theological enterprise in close coordination with the life of Christian worship as both, in their own ways and modes, seek to bear witness God as God encounters us in Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

At least, that is how I would parse TFT on the least that is how I would do it off the cuff and without delving into all the relevant texts. ;-)
Anonymous said…
Thanks WMT. I will check my institution if they have the review where you publish.

Concerning Torrance, although the shape of your whole argumentation is of my taste, I don’t share with your epistemology. In my opinion, intuition is not first than language. What is first is language, and because of that intuitions and concepts are possible. Intuitions and concepts would be nothing without their expressions in words. If somebody tells me “hey, I have a great intuition about God but I can’t put it in words”; what is most likely is he has a great confusion about God. Besides, when Jesus appears to Paul he talks to him and question him in words, not through any kind of intuition. The presence of God in the world is through language, not through intuitions or concepts. And to speak is not to impoverish a supposed higher reality, but is the only medium at our hand to think, to worship and to grasp what this reality may be. There is not another.

God encounters us in language. So, if language appears to be a second hand experience, God would be relegated to a misrepresented or distorted medium. No, God is truly God only in language, so language is a faithful image of reality.
There is some truth to what you mean, but I can't go all the way and make language basic to knowledge. Although language certainly shapes our interaction with the world, it seems to be that there has to be a certain basic i0nteraction with the world if language is to be meaningful. An illustration of this could be the story of Helen Kellar, who only learned the rudiments of speech through tactile engagement and association with water.

Now, what you say about God encountering us in language is correct. But, we cannot simply equate language with God's encounter. Created realities, including language, both reveal and veil God as God encounters us; veiling him precisely in the revealing, and revealing precisely through the veiling. God and the veil cannot be separated, but they can be distinguished, and there is an asymmetry.

Consequently, I highly recommend Torrance's Ground and Grammar of Theology, and his article "The Problem of Theological Statement Today," for an introduction to his epistemology. For a much longer treatment, see Theological Science.
Anonymous said…
Language can veil or unveil not only God, but also any reality. I accept what you say about God and language, as well as language as the shape of our contact with the world. Very acute the suggestion that God and language may be distinguished not separated as they are mutually constituted.

Once I finish the study of Jüngel’s God’s Being, I will approach to Torrance. He seems very interesting.
Anonymous said…
Travis, I come again with the relationship between God and language, as your comments stimulated my imagination. I apologize for the length of my reasoning.

Introduction to your reply
I accept that “there has to be a certain basic interaction with the world if language is to be meaningful”. The case of HK illustrates this, as you well say. She had no spoken language, but she was able to establish communication, she was able to produce some kind of language. The same is to be said about the communication of deaf people. Certainly, they don’t use words; but they produce language; and a very sophisticated one the can be perfectly compared to that of ordinary people. In fact, most of them use to say that they don’t understand how hearing people is able to understand each other, as they only produce such small symbols with their mouth that are almost imperceptible. Contrarily, deaf people use their hands, arms and full body to produce clear and distinctive signs so every one can understand them.

Now, the question is whether this kind of communication constitutes a primitive stage of spoken ordinary language. In my opinion, does not. It may be a primitive stage in the sense that HK had to learn how to speak in her sign language, in the sense that a baby has to learn how to speak. But I don’t think her language was a protolanguage over which our well developed spoken one is settled. Rather, they are two different languages constructed upon a same human nature, which explain and translate in their own way, what they intend to communicate. HK, if she believed in God, had to express that in her language. Obviously, her belief was as authentic and real as the one of a spoken believer.

The pragmatic function of language
But there is a function of language that usually is overlooked in the linguistic analyses: its genetic aspect in the humanization process. The access to language is one of the most important moments in the intrahistory of the human being. On what this incident consists is in moving away the subject from the imminence of the body and its wild impulses. It is what Freud calls “primary repression”. Inserting the subject inside the universal means of language, the individual conquers his “subjectivity” or “interiority”. Therefore, to enter inside language is to accept that “me” is not a mere corporal entity. The language creates a hiatus between “me” and my corporeity and also things. That is why the language not only establishes a relationship with the world and with others, but also is the foundational act of subjectivity. The subject's constitution can be summarized saying that it is the assumption of the own history as long as it is constituted by the word that is addressed to others. This power should not be attributed to any conceptual content of the words, since the little child does not understand theoretical ideas, but only to their pragmatic function.

The theoretical language analyzes and discriminates, without considering the relationship between what is being said and the one that is executing it and the context in that one is acting. On the other hand, the gestural language is the one that articulates presence and understanding; it is the one that articulates the gestural and linguistic common roots of perception and sense. It is the vehicle of a more original language because it overcomes the dichotomy between understanding and perceiving, something that cannot accomplish the theoretical language which, we imagine, it is untied from the corporeity. This speech articulates the “pathic relationship” with the world. It consists of a configuration of space, of temporality and of communication: the constitutional modes of presence. To be captured by the word is to be prisoner of the word that has just been said. In the same way that one can memorize a word, one can also memorize a doubt. A being unable to apprehend with the hand or with the teeth, could neither apprehend anything with the eyes. Therefore, to apprehend, refers to a fundamental mode in which the word has not still been distinguished from the general mode that expresses. The sense and the original configuration of the apprehension are not regional. They bend over in a schema which is rooted in the whole corporeity. It is an original dimension that is always presupposed in all speech … it is a kind of anthropological mortgage

If we want to find and origin to such function, we have to turn to the corporal pragmatic function, much wider and first in the time. Indeed, this function is based on the manner of being of the behavior in general. In this sense, the language is a form of behavior, and as such, it follows its same outline.

God and language
What does it mean God comes to man through language? It does not mean that he comes through a certain theoretical content, as if he endorses human beings with certain general truths. Obviously, he gives some concrete truths, as any responsible speech is to communicate something that is supposed to be true. More important than that is his coming in the pragmatic function, in the constituent aspect of language. We are to be opened or closed to God through this function.

So that the word is an event in Jesus' sense, it is necessary to be taken in this last way. It implies we understand man under a new perspective: he is no longer fixed under a label of "black" or "latin" or "believer". On the contrary, we are to see him as a being open to a trajectory of decisions that will configure his life. The word which enters into man's life induces him to take a decision in the measure in that he is called to understand his total being under the new word. In this sense, in which word and listener are mutually implied, takes place the event of Jesus. The corroboration of the truth in the word, is not then in any place outside language. Only the one who doesn't understand the word in this deep sense may believe that the word is only a kind of subjectivism. But the one who understands it in all its depth, may accept that the word is the only means through which God offers his mercy. Only in his words Jesus offers mercy.

Thanks for keeping the conversation going. My apologies for taking a few days to let your comment through; I didn’t want to put it up until I had time to respond.

In discussing spoken and other language, you write: “Rather, they are two different languages constructed upon a same human nature, which explain and translate in their own way, what they intend to communicate.” I agree. However, what I was trying to indicate by bringing HK into the mix was that it wasn’t until she began to associate actual empirical engagement with the natural world that she was able to develop a means of communication. I take this to indicate that the phenomenon of genuine communication with another human being is only possible on a shared experience of the natural world. Thus, language – whether spoken or otherwise – is a second step predicated upon an initial pre-linguistic engagement with the natural world.

The middle section of your comment, which engages Freud among other things, is not really clear to me, and because that is the case I have no objections, etc, to register.

Your last bit is interesting, but somewhat foreign to me. Are you a Lutheran, by any chance? In any case, it gets at some things that I would want to affirm. However, I would also want to affirm that the verbal aspect of God’s interaction with us is grounded in the ontological aspect, namely, the incarnation. We can describe the incarnation with the illustration of language – Jesus is called Logos by John, for example – but this is only an illustration, and it should not be taken too far.
Anonymous said…
Travis, it is a pleasure to me to maintain a true dialogue about those things I am so interested. I want to thank you for that. Yes; I feel much identified with Luther and the confessant church, especially with Heidegger, Bultmann, Bornkamm, Marxsen, Marlé, etc. But, above all, I feel much identified with Jesus Christ; convinced as I am that the possibility he offers to human existence is important to understand and to think about it.

I believe, as you, that there is a pre linguistic reality upon which language is built. The problem is to establish how this reality previous to language is to be understood or conceptualized. This reality appears through language. You said that language “can veil or unveil God”; and any other created reality. I agree. But the power to veil or unveil is due to language. Without language it would be impossible to access to any reality. Language establishes a hiatus inside reality. Language is not reality, but reality only access to us thanks to the openness language establishes.

I have to re think the middle section. Unfortunately, my English is still not good enough. I am afraid this does not help my arguments.

Is language grounded upon an ontological reality? This depends on how we understand such relationship. If by that you understand an eternal reality, without relation to human being, upon which language is grounded and “translated” into human words, so that language is to be understood as mere copy of that eternal reality, I do not agree. This would drive you to the old scholastic motto who says that truth is “adequatio intellectus et rei”. “Intellectus” would be the subjective index which human presence establishes upon objective reality. To discuss this in depth, would let me very far now. I only say this: the relationship between “intellectus et rei” would be impossible to be completed unless a third term (human consciousness) would reconcile this terms.

This epistemological design, when transposed to God’s relationship to man, brings me to put the accent in another place than the incarnation. I don’t deny that, but to me is a too abstract concept, too far from the average experience and also from the Gospels. To me, the incarnation is a theoretical consequence, necessary if you want, from the message of Jesus and his raising from death.

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