Tuesday, July 21, 2009

T.F. Torrance on the Church as the Creature of the Word

Thomas F. Torrance, When Christ Comes and Comes Again (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957): 27.
None of the Gospels ever give us the slightest hint about what Jesus looked like. They tell us nothing at all about His appearance, but they do speak about His voice, and they tell us of the amazement of the multitudes who wondered at the gracious words that fell from His lips…When Jesus rose again from the dead, even Mary Magdalene did not recognise Him until Jesus spoke to her by name, and then immediately she recognised Jesus by His voice. We recall also how the two disciples walking to Emmaus on Easter evening did not recognize Jesus when He joined their company, although the words He spoke to them made their hearts burn within them.

That is just how it is today. We cannot see Jesus, for He has withdrawn Himself from our sight; and we will not see Him face to face until He comes again—but we can hear His voice speaking to us in the midst of the Church on earth. That is the perpetual miracle of the Bible, for it is the inspired instrument through which the voice of Christ is still to be heard. Jesus Christ was the Word of God made flesh, the still small voice of God embodied in our humanity, and it is that same Word, and that same voice, that is given to the Church in the Bible. It is by that voice that the Church in all ages is called into being, and upon that Word of God that the Church is founded. The Church is, in fact, the community of the Voice of God, for it is the business of the Church to open the Bible and let the voice of Christ speaking in and through it to be heard all over the world. It is the mission of the Church to carry the Bible to all nations, and to plant it in every home in the land, and by preaching and teaching, and the witness of its members, to make the Word of God audible, so that the living Voice of Jesus Christ the Saviour of men may be heard by every man and woman and child.
This is another absolute gem from good old TFT. Against those who would argue that the church is founded upon the eucharist (Chris will give you more details), TF here argues that the church is a creature of the Word (and, interestingly, doing so by appealing to a passage often claimed in support of the importance of the eucharist to the origins of the church!). It is the risen and living Word of God, Jesus Christ, that calls the church forth from death to life. And, the church is called not only to life, but to a particular kind of life – namely, the life of mission. Furthermore, the church’s mission has a very particular character. It is not a mission to general humanitarian work, to community improvement, or to the combat of suffering – although it is also these things (notice, TF speaks of the church’s mission as inclusive of “the witness of its members,” which I take to refer to their living witness as opposed to their vocal witness). The primary mission of the church is the proclamation or explanation of Scripture to “every man and woman and child.” This runs counter to a picture of the church as a society or culture unto itself which, by the aesthetic power of its attractiveness, seduces unbelievers into its number (a picture one gets even in the chapter on the church as apostolic in Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America). Rather, it is a picture of a church that is engaged in crossing its own boundaries in a constant outward movement that runs parallel to and is impelled by the eternal outward movement of the triune God: the church’s mission is “to carry the Bible to all nations.”

In any case, I offer this simply as another example of how Torrance’s theology remains very lively and fresh even today.

14 comments:

Bobby Grow said...

I like this, of course!

I wonder how Yoder and Torrance would've gotten along?

His bibliocentrism, which flows first from his christocentrism provides for a nice order of knowing --- for w/o the Word, how could we ever know the Logos?

WTM said...

Bobby,

You know I post this TFT stuff just for you, don't you? :-P

I have no idea how TF and Yoder would / did get along. Ask Halden!

Bobby Grow said...

I know, I'm afraid I'm a minority --- although I am a "whiteboy" ;-).

I would ask Halden, but he hardly ever responds back to me (maybe if I became a hipster, pacifist, universalist, etc. I'd have a better chance ;-).

WTM said...

Charachtitures are funny. :-)

Still, Halden - if you're reading this - I read everything you post, and that expands my mind in helpful ways!

Bobby Grow said...

So do I, Halden (read everything you post); I was just trying to have some fun . . . :-)

And I have learned immensley from you. From what you've posted of Yoder, I think he has some brilliant things to say --- edifying --- even if I'm not an Anabaptist.

Dave K said...

"Against those who would argue that the church is founded upon the eucharist (Chris will give you more details), TF here argues that the church is a creature of the Word"

What if the Word is contained in the eucharist? What if the sacrament is the voice of Christ just as opening the bible is?

WTM said...

Dave,

Thanks for stopping by.

Re: your first question. What if the eucharist is only merely a memorial service held periodically by the church? If you want to simply state contrary positions within the ecumenical church, I'm happy to play. :-)

Re: your second question. I certainly don't want to say that the eucharist has no proclamatory aspect. Christ speaks in the eucharist, no doubt. But, I'm a good Reformed boy, so I order the relationship of Word and Sacrament with an emphasis on Word.

What would the sacrament proclaim if it was not accompanied by the Word? Take the road to Emmaus story in question above: sure it was not until the breaking of bread that the disciples recognized Christ for who he was, but would they have been equipped to recognize him in his fullness if he had not first opened Scripture to them?

My position: the Supper is a unique tool given to the church by God as an aspect of its gathering, upbuilding, and sending, and is - as such - subordinate to the Word whose creature the church is.

Bobby Grow said...

Dave K,

What do you mean? Is there no special differentiation between the Word and Sacrament? Certainly Christ is the substance of both, but at least, wouldn't the Word need to be logically prior to the Sacrament? For w/o the Word, how would we know what/who the Sacrament is?

Bobby Grow said...

Just to be clear I was "keying" my comment before I ever read Travis' . . . ;-) (it almost looks like I'm parroting WTM).

Dave K said...

Good points. Thanks for your response both of you. It is a pleasure to stop by. Sorry for my hasty response last time, and (in advance) this time too.

I guess there are 2 dangers with relating word and sacrament:
1. We keep them separate so the sacrament has power without the word.
2. We prioritise one over the other so that the other becomes dispensable.

I like what Luther says about baptism and would say something similar about the Eucharist.

"It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism"

Anyway, while I agree the word is logically prior to the sacrament, I don't think you can allow that thinking to lead you to assume that it is dispensable. I'm sure you wouldn't want to either. And if it is indispensable then I think it is valid to say that the sacrament (not unconnected from the word) forms the church. Which is not to say that the preached word or baptism don't do the same. They all do. I think 1 Cor 10:16-17 supports this.

WTM said...

Dave,

In terms of our respective positive positions, we have much in common. I certainly don't want to dispense with the Supper, nor do I want to separate it from the Word's power. What I do want to do is be clear that its power is that of the Word, such that the Word has priority. In this way, I'm a good Reformed boy and think of the sacraments as "visible words" - powerful aspects of the church's life that contribute to our faith and form us as does the Word, but possessing their efficacy in a derivative sense.

On another note, baptism is my area of research, so I would love a citation for that Luther quote.

Bobby Grow said...

Dave,

I agree with what Travis has said. And further, you're right, I don't wan't to do any dispensing; in fact, I think it is the logical/material priority of the Word that makes these things indissoluble (Word/Sacrament) --- but of course maintaining an inseparably related distinction (notwithstanding any kind of Incarnational analogies ;-).

Dave K said...

Ah well. Seeing as I can't disagree with what either of you have said, I'm stuck as to understand where our slightly different positions come from! Nevermind, perhaps I'll understand better another time.

Luther quote is from his lovely small catechism.

WTM said...

Dave,

I suspect the initial disagreement vs. later discovered material convergence has a lot to do with the overly generalized ways in which various ecclesiological and sacramental positions are commonly taught. It is hard to overcome these things once they are lodged in your brain - I'm constantly working on it.