Monday, November 24, 2008

Ben Myers: Why I Think TF Torrance is Not a Barthian

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?

Incarnational ontology

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.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 5.8-11

1 Peter 5.8-11

[8] Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. [9] Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your fellow believers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. [10] And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. [11] To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.


COMMENTARY: There are a few interesting tidbits in this section. First, Calvin understands the admonition of verse 8 as intended to keep Christians from letting down their guard, or from indulging some of their lesser vices due to the apparent absence of spiritual trouble. Have the breathing space to face these temptations is certainly a welcome thing, but – as Calvin says – “we too often turn peace into sloth” (150).

Here is one of Calvin’s famous ‘as though he had said’ bits: “[Peter] compares the devil to a lion, as though he had said, that he is a savage wild beast. He says that he goes round to devour, in order to rouse us to wariness. He calls him the adversary of the godly, that they might know that they worship God and profess faith in Christ on this condition, that they are to have continual war with the devil, for he does not spare the members who fights with the head” (150). This last phrase caught my attention because it reminds me of boxing, which comes up from time to time here at DET. The devil, like a good boxer, doesn’t just throw punches at his opponent’s head – Christ – but also at his body – the church. While the strategic goal is to take out the head – a knockout – tactics often dictate doing damage to the body.

This quote does raise a more serious question, however, because Calvin seems to introduce a condition to salvation. Those who confess Christ do so on the condition of waging war with the devil. Now, I don’t have the Latin on hand, but it is clear even from this short bit of commentary that Calvin doesn’t understand this ‘condition’ as a precondition for salvation: “all respect to our worthiness and merit is excluded; for that God, by the preaching of the gospel, invites us to himself, it is altogether gratuitous; and it is still a greater grace that he efficaciously touches our hearts so as to lead us to obey his voice” (152).

We now know that the conditional cannot be stated thusly: ‘if one wages war on the devil, then one is saved.’ Of course, this is not how Calvin phrases things either. In keeping with his own construction, we ought to stated it thusly: ‘if one is saved, then one wages war on the devil.’ This is the sort of activity that arises out of one’s union with Christ.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Gregory of Nyssa on Paul and Boxing

Gregory of Nyssa, On the Beatitudes: An English Version with Commentary and Supporting Studies, Proceedings of the Eighth International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa, Paderborn, 14-18 September 1998 (Edited by Hubertus R. Drobner and Albert Viciano; Boston: Brill, 2000), 2.3; 35-6.
It seems to me that not everything that is done gently should be considered equally virtuous, if only softness and slowness are indicated by the word. The gentle is not better in races than the speedy, nor in boxing does the slow-moving win the garland against his opponent. If we run for the prize of our upward calling, Paul advises us to increase our speed, saying, ‘Run so as to win’ (1 Cor 9,24). He himself by constantly greater effort would grasp what lay ahead, purposely forgetting what lay behind (cf. Phil 3,14). As a boxer he was quick, for he could spot his opponent’s move, and, firm in his stance, with hands as weapons, he did not fling the armour in his hands about at something empty and insubstantial, but would catch the vulnerable parts of his adversary as he landed the blows on the body itself. Would you like to understand Paul’s skill as a boxer? – look at the wounds of his opponent, look at the bruises of his adversary, look at the marks of piercing on the loser. And surely you recognize the adversary, the one who does his fighting through the flesh, whom he defeats by boxing, tearing him with the claws of chastity; whose parts he puts to death through hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness (cf. 2 Cor 11,27), to whom he attaches the piercing-marks of the Lord (cf. Gal 6,17), and whom he defeats by running, leaving him behind, so that his view may not be obscured by his opponent running ahead.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 5.5-7

1 Peter 5.5-7

[5] In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourself to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble and oppressed.” [6] Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. [7] Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.


COMMENTARY: The three pages of Calvin’s commentary on these verses are quite fascinating, at least to me, and I will here try to lift up the threat that I see running through it and trying to identify why it intrigues me as best I can.

Calvin begins by commenting on the exhortation that the ‘younger’ are to obey the ‘elder,’ and he argues that this exhortation is made with reference to physical age. Those who have accumulated fewer years are to submit to those who have accumulated more. There is certainly a common-sense plausibility to this reading, but I wonder if it might not be proper to read this more directly in light of the preceding discussion of ecclesial polity. Certainly the polity in question envisages the office of eldership as held by those who are physically elder, in some respect and at least as a general rule. Furthermore, if we really wanted to push things, couldn’t we understand this admonition in terms of spiritual age?

The reason that Calvin reads this as he does, I think, is because he fails to think about these few verses in ecclesiological terms. Rather, his imagination goes to civil polity. Submition is necessary “for if there be no subjection, government is overturned. When they have no authority who ought by right or order of nature to rule, all will immediately because insolently wanton” (147). Calvin’s elevation of physical maturity is coupled to his understanding of what is necessary for a stable society. This civil focus stays with Calvin throughout this section. Mutual submission is necessary, for instance, because “all ranks of society have to defend the whole body” (ibid).

Now, Calvin makes two interesting and related statements. First, he admits that “it was formerly very truly said, that every one has within him the soul of a king. Until, then, the high spirits, with which the nature of men swells, are subdued, no man will give way to another; but, on the contrary, each one, despising others, will claim all things for himself” (148). Second, we find this: “all those who recumb not on God’s providence must necessarily be in constant turmoil and violently assail others” (149). Do these statements bring anything to mind? For me, they scream “Nietzsche!” I have long been convinced that, if Christianity is not true, then one is generally left with something like Nietzsche as an alternative. Calvin seems to agree with me; at the very least, he thinks that Christianity is necessary for the stability of civil society. Otherwise, all people will act as a king unto themselves: “Thou art one who hast unlearned to obey: now shalt thou command!…This is thy most unpardonable obstinacy: thou has the power, and thou wilt not rule” (Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, para. 44).

What we see here in this passage of commentary is, I think, supporting evidence for the picture of Calvin drawn by William Bouwsma. His thesis is that Calvin is torn between two competing impulses: an impulse toward order and an impulse toward freedom. These impulses are driven by competing fears: fear of anarchy (whether of society of or the mind), and fear of being smothered by overly rigid and comprehensive strictures. This internal conflict helps us to understand a very interesting image that Calvin here paints of God: “We are to imagine that God has two hands; the one, which like a hammer beats down and breaks in pieces those who raise up themselves; and the other, which raises up the humble who willingly let down themselves, and is like a firm prop to sustain them” (148). In other words, those who seek to upset civil order are opposed, and those who do not so assert themselves will be sustained against that which may try to oppress them.

Finally, as an unrelated side note aimed at correcting those who think that Calvin’s appeal to God’s providence in the face of suffering is pastoral nonsense, he has this to say about verse 7: “we are not…bidden to cast all our cares on God, as though God wished us to have strong hearts, and to be void of all feeling; but lest fear or anxiety should drive us to impatience” (149).

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Thomas Lynch for All Saints' Day

I seldom do this at DET, and by 'this' I mean throw up a post that is basically a link. But, rules are made to be broken, or so they say. Thomas Lynch - whom I know from his book, "The Undertaking," although he was written other things - is an undertaker, writer, and poet from my native Michigan. We also share Irish descent. In any case, he has written an op-ed for the New York Times to commemorate All Saints' Day, and I highly recommend it to you. Here is a taste:
The dead get buried but we seldom see a grave. Or they are burned, but few folks ever see the fire. Photographs of coffins returned from wars are forbidden, and news coverage of soldiers’ burials is discouraged. Where sex was once private and funerals were public, now sex is everywhere and the dead go to their graves often as not without witness or ritual.