Why I Think…Ben Myers Isn’t Quite Right About TF Torrance
Responding to Myers on Torrance
I want to say at the outset that, while Ben and I are by no means entirely in agreement about either Barth or Torrance, there are significant quadrants of agreement. For instance, I think that Ben’s essay on “The Stratification of Knowledge in the Thought of T. F. Torrance” (SJT 61.1, 1-15) does a fine job of treating some important aspects of Torrance’s epistemology. Furthermore, Ben rightly notes early on in his video that the relationship between Barth and Torrance can be hard to parse because Torrance seems to like to give the impression that he and Barth are on the same page. I don’t intend in this essay to give an account of why Torrance and Barth are really on the same page. My assumption is that they are not.
Torrance, as a student of Barth, certainly bears the fingerprints of Barth in his work. Furthermore, I think that there is a case to be made that, in many respects, Torrance and Barth are trying to do similar things. But, they go about doing those things in different ways precisely because they are not the same person. Barth is an end-of-the-19th-century Swiss immersed in German theology, and Torrance is a beginning-of-the-20th-century Scotsman. We ought to expect divergence and difference in emphasis on various points. This I admit. The primary issue that I have with Ben’s account of the relation between Barth and Torrance is that he gives what is, in my opinion, an one-sided reading of Torrance. It is this that I am most interested in correcting (to what small degree I am able). In doing so, I will implicitly argue that Torrance is closer to Barth than Ben allows, but I will not be arguing that they are doing the same things in the same ways. I will also have something to say at the end about being a ‘Barthian.’
Ben organizes his comments about Torrance into three points: (1) incarnational ontology, (2) mediation, and (3) objectivity and realism. I will address these in turn, clarifying what I think Torrance is up to with the concepts and positions to which Ben alludes. Some of this will be repetitive for those who have already read my notes on Ben’s video because I will be more or less lifting some of that text in my description of Ben’s position. The entirety of that description will not be included here, however, so those of you who want to see more of what Ben had to say should refer to those notes, or – of course – to his video.
(1) Incarnational Ontology
At the heart of Myers’ concern in this section is his fear that Torrance’s theology lives, moves, and has its being within what Myers considers to be an outmoded ontology, namely, substance metaphysics. He arrives as this insight through observing that, in Torrance’s theology, the weight seems to fall on Christmas. On Myers’ reading, Torrance conceives of Christ’s work of salvation as God’s penetration of the created order by means of the incarnation which magically fixes the problems of sin and evil. Myers alludes, in this reading, to Torrance’s affection for Athanasios and patristic theology who, Myers presumably thinks, thought of matters in similar terms (I would suggest, however, that a more complicated story about patristic soteriology needs to be told, especially with reference to Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa). There is a divine substance that is perfect and sinless, and a human substance that is not, and the latter is healed by being brought into contact with the former. Thus we get the great soteriological axiom from Gregory Nazianzen, “that which [Christ] has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved” (First letter to Cledonius against Apollinarius; Ep. CI).
Myers is right that this axiom is important for Torrance’s soteriology (and I would like to add that those interested in exploring its role for themselves would do well to begin with page 39 of Torrance’s The Mediation of Christ). Barth, Myers tells us, thinks not in terms of substances brought together where one purifies the other through proximity, but in terms of history and event. It is important that this bit of Myers’ critique be heard at the outset, although I will not debate it extensively. These are really his conclusions, rather than his starting points; his remaining comments about Torrance are ordered in support of this overarching interpretation. But, I will make a few comments.
(a) While it is certainly true that Torrance can sometimes hit the ‘Christmas’ note with great fervor, it is not the case that he does so in a fashion that excludes the import of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection from his saving work. These things are differentiations within a unity for Torrance, and the unity must always be held in mind when discussing the various aspects (for evidence of this, consider the way in which Torrance pairs a discussion of the once-for-all character of the hypostatic union with its continuous character in chapters 3 and 4 of his posthumously published Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ).
(b) Torrance frequently professes a desire to go beyond the dualisms that have heretofore dominated ontology and epistemology. Myers, while recognizing this desire on Torrance’s part, is incredulous. However, I think that we ought to be more charitable to TF on this point. His engagement with the philosophy of science in the 20th century adds layers of complexity to his thought that few theologians are able to penetrate. While it may finally be true that Torrance takes a different path in leaving behind classical metaphysics than does Barth, we ought – I think – give him the benefit of the doubt that he has left, or at least is in the process of leaving, it behind (for one albeit brief example of Torrance declaring in these directions, see page 85 of his posthumously published Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ).
(c) The newly available Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ is further important on the question of whether Torrance is working within classical metaphysics’ substance ontology. While Torrance’s shorter christological treatments, such as The Mediation of Christ, rely perhaps overmuch on this sort of language, this lengthier work makes it clear that at the root of Torrance’s christology is not a metaphysical conception but a deep and fruitful engagement with Scripture. Having read this lengthier treatment, one is able to return to some of the shorter with new eyes. By this point, it is clear that I think the recently and posthumously published christology lectures are important for understanding Torrance. Those who have not yet read the book but want to hear more about it, or those who are interested in further thoughts that I have about it, may wish to consult my lengthy review of the volume forthcoming in the Princeton Theological Review
One of the things about Torrance that feeds Myers’ worries over substance metaphysics is what Torrance has to say about mediation. Myers’ concerns here seem to be twofold. First, he distrusts mediation language because it seems to imply that salvation is something other than the event of Christ that Christ passes on to us in a merely instrumental fashion. Second, Myers seems not to know what to make of Torrance’s discussion of Christ’s session – the continuing intercession of Christ on our behalf even now at the Father’s right hand – although he admits that it is a nice idea as far as it goes. Myers’ worry is that such an idea takes the real action out of Jesus Christ’s incarnate history and reintroduces a metaphysical picture excised from Barth’s thought.
To understand more fully what Torrance is up to in both of these sections, we must remember that while Torrance did learn much from Athanasios and the patristics, he also learned a great deal from Calvin. Both of these points – mediation and session – are Reformed distinctives that were also important for Calvin, and what Calvin had to say about these things is instructive for understanding Torrance. For Calvin, Christ’s work is to fulfill the office of mediator, and this is something of a guiding theme in his Christology. Calling it an ‘office’ is important. Christ in not mediator in the sense of being ontologically mediate. It is true that Christ is both human and divine, but he is not such as a kind of tertium quid, but in the form of totus-totus. He is entirely human, and he is entirely God (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.12.1). This is something with which Barth and Torrance would agree. Furthermore, because Christ’s mediatorship is an office and not an ontological status, it is a task. Christ is the mediator, for Calvin as – I would argue – for Torrance and Barth, insofar as he is the history of reconciliation between God and humanity, the common actualization of the history of God and man. This comes out in Calvin when we consider precisely how it is that Christ fulfils his mediator’s office in achieving reconciliation. How was reconciliation achieved? Christ countered human sin with obedience, satisfied God’s judgment, and paid the penalties for sin (paraphrase, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.12.3). Or, as Calvin lays it out even more clearly elsewhere, “Now someone asks, How has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness…? To this we can in general reply that he has achieved this by the whole course of his obedience…[This is] peculiar to Christ’s death…Yet the remainder of the obedience that he manifested in his life is not excluded” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.16.5). Christ fulfilled his office as mediator by enacting reconciliation between humanity and God through establishing on our human, creaturely side an instance of perfect correspondence (obedience) to God.
I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourselves whether and to what extent Calvin and Barth (especially Barth in §§59-60 of the Church Dogmatics) converge in these matters, though I would suggest that they do to no insignificant extent. For our present purposes, it is enough to recognize that Torrance is up to much the same thing as is Calvin when he employs the concept of mediation. In The Mediation of Christ, for instance, this concept is elaborated in terms of ‘The Vicarious Life and Death of the Mediator’ (39f). In this section, Torrance brings together the patristic emphasis with Calvin’s emphasis thusly:
“From his birth to his death and resurrection on our behalf [Christ] sanctified what he assumed through his own self-consecration as incarnate Son to the Father, and in sanctifying it brought the divine judgment to bear directly upon our human nature both in the holy life he lived and in the holy death he died in atoning and reconciling sacrifice before God. That was a vicarious activity which was brought to its triumphant fulfillment and which received the verdict of the Father’s complete approval in the resurrection of Jesus as God’s beloved Son” (The Mediation of Christ, 41).It is important not to let the language of ‘human nature’ throw us overmuch in this passage. I would suggest that does not indicate reliance upon substance metaphysics precisely because the way in which that nature is corrected is through Christ’s obedience life and death, that is, through a history. The life and death of Jesus Christ carve out a place in history where God and humanity are at one. This obviously has implications for what it means to be human, that is, for our ‘human nature.’
It is perhaps clear by now that Myers’ worry that Torrance understands Christ to mediate something other than himself to us is misplaced. For Torrance, the life and death of Jesus Christ establishes humanity in a new relationship with God. It is the fact of Jesus Christ as mediator, as the one that establishes this new relationship, that is significant. It is this new relationship, established by Christ precisely because actualized in his vicarious obedience, that Christ mediates. In other words, he mediates himself.
There is also an implication of this way of understanding what Torrance means by mediation for Myers’ worry about Torrance's 'incarnational ontology'. Torrance's emphasis on Christ's vicarious humanity makes it clear that the entirety of Christ's life is of vital importance for reconciliation, not merely Christmas. Furthermore, it also establishes that sin is not dealt with by means of some ontological magic, but through the obedient life of Christ that establishes a sphere of reconciliation between God and humanity.
Although my focus in this response is to discuss Torrance, I want to pause here to talk about Barth very briefly. Myers suggests that the concept of mediation with reference to Christ’s work is not to be found in Barth. Of course, Myers means the sort of mediation that he is worried about – Christ as mere instrument mediating something other than himself. But, lest anyone get the idea that the concept is absent from Barth in every way, I want to note that Barth begins 3.1 with a section entitled, “The Glory of the Mediator” (§69). The insight that Barth seems interested in conveying here is that along with the “in” there is a “through” with respect to Christ’s significance. Not only is it true that things take place “in” Christ; it is also true that we participate in these things “through” Christ. Barth lays this out with reference to reconciliation and revelation: “As…reconciliation takes place in Him, its revelation takes place through him” (38-9). Of course, this “through” has an event-like quality itself insofar as it occurs only by means of Jesus Christ’s self-witness in the power of the Holy Spirit, a witness that can only come upon a person from the outside. In this way, the mediation in question is a self-mediation.
I want to touch very briefly on Myers’ second worry, namely, Torrance’s position on Christ’s session. As Myers notes, this concept comes from Hebrews. It also comes from the Apostles’ Creed, which is how it makes it into Calvin (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.16.15-6). Myers’ worry is that, through this conception, all the important work is removed from history and located in eternity, but this is not the point of the doctrine. Rather, it is – in both Calvin and Torrance – a way of talking about the ascension. Where is Christ now? What is he doing? Does what he is doing matter to us? Torrance answers these questions in terms of the munus triplex (Space, Time and Resurrection, 112-22). What we have here is the present-tense mode of Christ’s mediatory activity. The event or history of reconciliation is, because it is God’s event and history, eternal. It is an event and history that is present and pertinent even to us, separated though we are by thousands of years. The doctrine of Christ’s session tries to make sense of how this can be the case. At its core, this doctrine affirms that this event and history that we call Jesus Christ exists even now in eternity with God, and so the reconciliation between God and humanity actualized in that event and history remains.
(3) Objectivity and Realism
Myers’ worry here is, I think, his most accurate. The worry is that Torrance makes truth, and specifically truth about God, immanent to the church. If this were the case, God would cease to remain free in his self-revelation. It looks to Myers like Torrance thinks that truth about God is imprinted on the mind of the church, so that the church’s dogmatic proclamations – as elaborations of this imprinted knowledge – achieve parallel status with Scripture. This is a very valid worry, and Barth spends time in §6 trying to exorcise it. He was a firm opponent of any conception that placed the knowledge of God in the hands of the church or of human beings. It is not something that can be read off of nature or out of the human person’s subjectivity. If Torrance affirmed what Myers attributes to him, it would be a serious problem indeed. Of course, my use of the conditional suggests that I don’t think that Torrance affirms what Myers suggests that he does.
In all honestly, I am surprised that Myers raises it given his treatment of Torrance’s epistemology mentioned at the outset of this response. Myers rightly understands that the ‘tacit’ level of Torrance’s epistemology is one of “personal encounter with Jesus Christ” (Myers, “The Stratification of Knowledge in the Thought of T. F. Torrance,” 6). But, Myers goes on to drop this language of personal encounter in his further elaboration of this epistemological strata. Thus, he emphasizes – both in the article and in his video – language of ‘imprinting,’ which suggests a permanent character. There is, of course, a permanent character, but it is important to understand precisely what sort of permanent character is involved. Torrance everywhere emphasizes the personal nature of the Christian’s relation with God and Christ, and so I would suggest that one must understand Torrance on these matters through an emphasis on personal encounter between God and the Christian or church. This encounter is one that occurs again and again in the power of the Holy Spirit, and thus it is one that is permanent.
There are three comments that I would like to make in support of this suggestion.
(a) To begin, it is important to remember that Torrance was a close personal friend of Michael Polanyi (he was also Polanyi’s intellectual executor for a time). Although Torrance had already travelled a considerable portion of his road in epistemological elaboration before encountering Polanyi, he quickly recognized in Polanyi an ally. Thus, while it is no definitive argument, it is helpful to remember that one of Polanyi’s most significant works is entitled, Personal Knowledge.
(b) The position that Myers attributes to Torrance on these matters sounds very much like the one Torrance attributes to Medieval Catholic theology in his work, Theological Science (78). Of course, Torrance goes on to critique this position in light of the Protestant counterpoint (80).
(c) Although Theological Science appears in Myers’ article, it falls away once he begins speaking specifically about Torrance’s epistemological stratification. This is unfortunate. I would suggest that the following rather lengthy passage from the concluding pages of Theological Science sheds important light on what Torrance has in mind with reference to the intuitive level of the church’s knowledge of God:
“[D]ogmatic statements are not only correlated with God as Subject and correlated with one another in the collective subjectivity of the Church but are directed to Jesus Christ as the centre of their correlation with God and man. However, since the primary Object of dogmatic statements is God in Jesus Christ, it must be remembered that He is Subject not only as God is Subject but as human subject hearing, believing, knowing, loving, worshipping and praising God. Thus here in the Object of dogmatic statements there is already included human subjectivity (i.e. subject-hood), so that it is the human nature of Jesus Christ that becomes the norm that we must use in determining the form of dogmatic statements as they are correlated to the human subject as well as correlated to the divine Subject. Within the perspective thus opened out we may say that dogmatic statements are correlated primarily with this Object-Subject and secondarily with the community of subjects who believe in Him and follow Him. They are statements that go down into and are enunciated out of the ontological structure of the Church as the Body of Christ—yet even here the primary reference of dogmatic statements is to their proper Object, God in His Self-giving in Christ, and only subsidiarily to the Church. It must not be forgotten that the sole Object of dogmatic statements is the Datum of divine Revelation which does not cease to be God’s own Being and Act in His Self-giving, and therefore is not something that passes over into the inner spiritual states of the Church’s experience or into its historical consciousness and subjectivity. Dogmatic statements are not constructs out of the Church’s acts of consciousness nor can they be reached by reading them off the subjective structures of the mind of the Church, for that would imply that the Truth of God is identical with the collective subjectivity of the Church or that the Holy Spirit is the immanent soul and mind of the historical Church impregnating it with the Truth of God. That would imply the identity of dogmas with Dogma, and a view of the Truth in which its essence is determined by its existence in the historical Church, as if the truth of a thing is not that it is what it is in God but only what it becomes in temporal tradition; but behind all this would lie a self-deification of the Church and an identification of its own evolving life with the Life of God. All this forces dogmatics to be a highly critical science in which all theological statements are to be severely tested to determine whether, in their correlation with the subject and in their claim to speak of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, they really do intend God, whether it really is Christ that they mean, and whether they really do distinguish the Holy Spirit from the human spirit. Dogmatics, like the Church itself, stands or falls with sheer respect for the Majesty and Freedom of God in His Word and for the transcendence of His Truth over all our statements about it even when we do our utmost to make them aright (that is dogmatically) in accordance with the rectitude of the Truth itself as it comes to light in our inquiry into the divine Revelation.” (351-2)On Being a Barthian
In the preceding I have not been arguing that Torrance is exactly in line with Barth. Instead, I have been trying to supply an alternate reading of Torrance in contrast with Myers’ reading. In so doing, however, I have been implicitly arguing that Torrance is closer to Barth than Myers has allowed. Still, ‘closer’ does not mean that there are no differences. But I do think that Torrance’s thought was profoundly influenced by Barth’s, and I have been trying to make that a little more obvious than did Myers.
All of this begs the question of what it means to be ‘Barthian’. Implicit in Myers’ discussion is, I think, the assumption that being Barthian means holding doctrinal positions that match up with Barth’s own. Hence, Myers’ discussion proceeds as something of a compare and contrast between Barth and Torrance intended to show where the later departs from the former. At another level, it seems implicit in Myers’ discussion that being Barthian means being a member of what might be called the new Barth scholasticism, a new wave of Barth interpretation – of which Bruce McCormack’s work is perhaps characteristic – that pays a great deal of attention to the influence of Barth’s modern German theological context on his work.
My intent is not to suggest that there is not a time and place where affirming Barth’s doctrinal positions isn’t valuable, nor do I want to make a judgment on the value of this ‘new Barth scholasticism’. In fact, I think that both of these things have value in their own often not insignificant spheres. But, is this what it means to be Barthian? And, if so, would Barth think it a good idea to be Barthian in this way? On the basis of the following quotation, I would suggest that the answer to both of these questions is ‘No’:
“The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, "Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!" - and they laugh about the men who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the angels laugh (Barth, quoted in Robert McAfee Brown, 'Introduction', in George Casalis, Portrait of Karl Barth [Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1963], 3).It seems to me that the only way to be truly ‘Barthian’, in the only positive sense that Barth would recognize, is to turn again – with and as did Barth – to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ as attested in Scripture and listening there to what Jesus Christ’s self-witness in the power of the Holy Spirit might have to say to us in our own time and place. Putting aside all the ways that Barth influenced Torrance, it cannot be denied that Torrance did this. In that sense – perhaps the only sense that really matters – Torrance is a ‘Barthian’ indeed.
Addendum: The language of ‘neo-Orthodoxy’ is often used but little understood. My personal take on it is that it most properly refers to the North American appropriation of European dialectical theology. The early Barth was a member of this dialectical theology movement, but he was certainly not the only member. Emil Brunner is perhaps the next best well known of this group and – in fact – his work had a much wider impact on North American theology in the first half of the 20th century than did Barth’s. As to its theological fingerprint, neo-Orthodoxy was concerned with finding a way to reclaim the patristic and Reformation creeds and confessions for their own time. There certainly was a period when this was also Barth’s program, but it is also true that Barth’s work grew, evolved, and took on other aims and emphases. Finally, neo-Orthodoxy can tend to be more existentialist than Barth finally was. In all these ways, the neo-Orthodox movement must be considered sub-‘Barthian’ in the sense employed by Myers. With reference to Torrance, the only way that he can – in my opinion – be classed as neo-Orthodox is with reference to the point concerning the reclamation of patristic and Reformational orthodoxy. Like Barth, however, Torrance finally did not go about this in a simplistic or flatfooted way.