Some of you may have seen the (short-ish) video that Ben Myers put together for the Theology & Praxis group, entitled Why I Think TF Torrance is Not a Barthian. As someone who reads both Torrance and Barth, I naturally have an opinion about what Ben has put together, and I intend to circulate – one way or another – a response to his video. Indeed, I am looking forward to sitting down with Ben sometime soon (he is currently in Princeton) to have a chat about these things. But, in the meantime, I wanted to provide a service for those of you who may not have time to watch the video and take careful notes. So, what follows are my notes on Ben’s presentation, offered here as a way of encouraging and furthering the conversation.
Ben is right that TF towers over English language Barth interpretation and was a very important and perhaps the primary conduit through which Barth was mediated to the English speaking world. [=As my own insertion, I want to point you to Alister McGrath’s Thomas F. Torrance, An Intellectual Biography, which has a nice section detailing Torrance’s involvement in bring Barth to the English speaking world.]
Ben argues that, if we want to get to what Barth is trying to do, then we have to overcome our “captivity to Torrance by somehow unlearning what we have learned from Torrance.” Torrance often downplays the distance between himself and Barth, and this makes it harder to interpret Barth and also appreciate Torrance in his own right. He is himself an interesting and powerful theologian, but he and Barth are up to different things. So, Why is Torrance not a Barthian? Why is his theological vision fundamentally different from, and at odds with, Barth?
At the root of Torrance’s thought that is the driving engine of everything Torrance does. God saves us by coming into our space-time world, penetrating to the deepest structures of our world, assuming all these things, and healing it. TF draws on Athanasios and Greek patristics; salvation as recapitulation. Entering into the world in order to heal it, and the notion that creation is inherently designed for this. Incarnation and resurrection are not alien invasions but the world’s own internal structures are realized when these things occur.
The real weight in Torrance’s work falls on Christmas; the important thing is the sheer fact of God coming among us. What is not assumed is not healed. TF says a lot of the cross and resurrection, but the emphasis is here. The incarnation is the saving event, and salvation is this deep ontological healing of the created order.
Barth, on the other hand, has nothing like this unless we are reading Barth through the lens of Torrance. It is history, event, and action that drive Barth’s thought. He has no interest in incarnation as God’s penetration into the structures of our world. Barth’s point is that God happens in our midst; the history of God among us is the important thing. There is no magic about the incarnation; it is not something that magically fixes the world. It is that the history of Jesus is the history of God’s decision towards us that achieves reconciliation. Historicized or actualized Chalcedon; replaces the idea of substance with history. We participate with Christ through being included in a common history not through some magical, incarnational connection.
Torrance’s incarnation thought is driven by substances: there is a certain kind of human and divine substances, and Christ mediates between them.
Torrance is big on the concept of mediation in talking about Christ. He even has a notion of Christ’s heavenly mediation at the right hand of the Father. Comes from the letter to Hebrews. Yes, Jesus dies, but the real action takes place later in heaven. The real action is removed from history and transposed to this heavenly world. This may be a nice idea, but it is not a legitimate development of Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation and this reveals a misunderstanding of Barth.
The whole point of Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation is that Jesus Christ does not mediate anything. Christ’s death and resurrection do not achieve something external to himself; he simply is salvation. He is not mediating some other gift, but is the reconciliation between God and humanity. It comes back to Barth’s actualism. There is no mediation because the history of Jesus simply is the event of God’s coming to us. We don’t have substances and extra gifts being mediated. There is no instrumentality about Jesus. For Barth, the focus is on Christ’s death and resurrection.
For Barth, there is no greater eternal backdrop upon which Christ’s death and resurrection is staged. This history is the eternal history. So, when Torrance shifts the emphasis to heavenly mediation, he is doing something different and importing a different metaphysical picture. For Torrance, Ben comments, what is going on behind the historical death and resurrection is some sort of heavenly mediation, some interaction between the persons of the Trinity.
Objectivity and Realism
Torrance’s commitment to objectivity and realism leads him to imagine church history in a particular way. He thinks of it in terms of a doctrinal grammar immanent in the worshiping life of the church. God imprints himself on the church’s mind, and there is something immanent within the church itself that unfolds in the history of doctrinal development. In a certain sense, the church possesses the truth. It is always there, and it is just a matter of allowing it to unfold. So, the Nicene Creed is almost at the level of Scripture; it is nothing new but the church recognizing what was imminent in its own mind. Torrance talks about this as an irreversible event that cannot be revised or critiqued.
Barth never thinks about the church as possessing the church in any way or as something that in its own religiosity is somehow capable of speaking of God. God’s truth is in no sense immanent to the church. Instead, Barth has the event of Jesus Christ which stands at the origin of the church and this event is a critical criterion over-against the church. There is nothing irreversible in the church’s tradition. The church possesses nothing and becomes church only through ongoing dispossession, that is, giving up on trying to be the church. It bears witness to this event that stands over-against the church.
This is all tied up with Torrance’s driver for objectivity and certainty in knowledge, and this is tied up with his incarnational ontology – a grand, sweeping vision of a world that has been penetrated, sanctified and redeemed by God. Torrance’s ontology is an “anthropological transubstantiation” – God becomes human in order to transubstantiate the world, to heal it, to change it from within (magically) through his being.