Continuing the Conversation on TF Torrance and Barth

After I wrote my response to Ben Myers (Why I Think…Ben Myers Isn’t Quite Right About TF Torrance) and before I posted it, I sent it to a few friends so that they could help me catch typos and suggest improvements. As will come to no surprise to regular readers of DET, one of those friends was David Congdon (Fire and Rose). David and I have had numerous conversations in the past about how Torrance and Barth relate, and I was greatly desirous of his input. My hopes were not disappointed.

In the interest of continuing the conversation about Torrance and Barth, I have decided (with David’s permission) to post a very slightly redacted form of our e-mail exchange here on DET, in the hopes that it may help to clarify things further. So, without further ado, I leave you to the correspondence:

DWC to WTM, December 7th

1. All of this is helpful and well-done. The ending section on being a "Barthian" is probably the best, with the section on mediation a close second.

2. The weakest section was your first on "incarnational ontology." First, it is highly suspect -- from my point of view -- to use Torrance's posthumously published early lectures as the hermeneutical key for his later published works. There are just so many problems with this maneuver. Ben was really placing the mature Barth in conversation with the mature Torrance, and it's not convincing to appeal to early lectures...

3. To say that Torrance views Christmas as part of a unity with the cross and resurrection is really not to say anything at all -- of course that's the case! The point is where the emphasis is placed. Torrance, like the Greek patristics, notably Cyril, places that emphasis on the incarnation as the event in which the divine life is united with creaturely life. Like Cyril, the cross is a necessary corollary of the incarnation, but the incarnation is what makes the cross what it is. I would say, along with Ben, that the history of Christ's obedience does not follow from the incarnation but is the incarnation. The continuous nature of the incarnation for Torrance is a development from the fact that the two natures are united in Christ's entry into the world. For Torrance, like Cyril, the Logos acts in and through the human nature assumed in the incarnation. But that's just not the case for the later Barth. There is no "divine nature" and "human nature" prior to Jesus Christ's life history. That's why Barth can write in CD III/2 that the human creature
"does not first have a kind of nature in which he is then addressed by God. He does not have something different and earlier and more intrinsic, a deeper stratum or more original substance of being . . . He is a being which is summoned by the Word of God and to that extent historical, grounded in the history inaugurated by the Word." (CD III/2, 150)
Barth says the same in IV/1-2 regarding the divine and human dimensions of Christ's history. There is nothing prior to that history. There are no ontological substances joined together in the incarnation; there is only a history which defines what it means to be divine and what it means to be human...

4. Conspicuously missing from your defense of Torrance is Ben's criticism of the concept of "ontological healing." This is a crucial point, both in Ben's criticism and in Torrance's theology. This is really the heart of the matter, in my opinion, since soteriology determines christology for both Barth and Torrance. You really can't have ontological healing in Barth, simply because (as I already stated) there is no ontic stuff to be healed. There is only an actualized relationship to God defined by the doctrine of justification.

5. As an example of what I've been saying, see the following from The Mediation of Christ:
"We must think of Jesus as stepping into the relation between the faithfulness of God and the actual unfaithfulness of human beings, actualising the faithfulness of God and restoring the faithfulness [of] human beings by grounding it in the incarnate medium of his own faithfulness so that it answers perfectly to the divine faithfulness. Thus Jesus steps into the actual situation where we are summoned to have faith in God, to believe and trust in him, and he acts in our place and in our stead from within the depths of our unfaithfulness and provides us freely with a faithfulness in which we may share."
Most of this is just fine, except the key statement in the middle: "... grounding it in the incarnate medium ..." The Barth of CD IV has no incarnate medium. Your discussion of mediation is generally very helpful, but it's not exactly right to define Ben's worry regarding mediation by saying that, for Torrance, "salvation is something other than the event of Christ" or that Christ "mediate[s] something other than himself to us." The problem is actually that for Torrance the "human nature" or "incarnate medium" mediates something outside of itself. That is, for Torrance, the human essence brings us the divine life -- a life that is identical with the Logos (and thus with Jesus Christ understood from a certain perspective), but remains other than the humanity of Jesus itself.

6. You've given a very Barthian reading of Torrance -- stressing the Christ's life of obedience, though this is certainly not the dominant theme in Torrance's work. You've also suggested that we "give [Torrance] the benefit of the doubt that he has left, or at least is in the process of leaving, [classical metaphysics] behind." For Ben, we can't give anyone the benefit of the doubt, including Barth. They have to show that this is indeed what has been accomplished. When you suggest that Torrance relies "perhaps overmuch on this sort of language," the classical metaphysical sort, it makes it seem that the whole debate is only semantic in nature. But that's just not the case. It's more than semantic; there are real differences at stake.

7. Finally, regarding the addendum, I think Barth was quite a bit more existentialist than people give him credit for being, probably even more than the neo-Orthodox types. But that's a personal interest of mine.

WTM to DWC, December 8th

(1) I'm glad I ended with the best stuff! :-)

(2) Fair enough, but I think the Incarnation lectures are important because they finally reveal to us the more robust christology that Torrance was presupposing when he thought and wrote about Christ and other topics. The force of your objection is further lessened by the fact that TFT himself began work on bringing them to publication, so they are not something that he wanted to suppress.

(3) …I would only reiterate that I don't want to make TFT identical to KB, but I only want to bring him closer to Barth than Ben seemed willing to allow.

(4) You are right: I could have said more about this. However, I do have a line in the mediation section about how reconciliation works for Torrance not through 'ontological magic' but through Christ's vicarious history. This would be part of my reply if pushed on this point - the vicarious humanity business is, I think, the more fundamental point for Torrance. Another line of reply would be to discuss what Torrance means when he talks ontology. Torrance's ontology is very relational - a thing is what it is with respect to its relations (‘onto-relations’, in his parlance). So, a notion like 'ontological healing' can only finally be a restoration of relationships. But, it would take me a lot more work to write on this than I was willing to do for this response.

(5) Again, as I said in reply to your #3, I don't want TF to be exactly like Barth, only closer than Ben allowed. Further, this 'incarnate medium' bit can be read in a hard or soft way. Even if Jesus Christ is the common actualization of two histories - divine and human - we can never forget that there are two histories here. We still have a 'two natures' Christology in the sense that there are these two aspects of the single agent. Further still, I don't think that the human aspect for Torrance mediates something outside of itself precisely because I think that Torrance's vicarious humanity stuff has its roots in Calvin's notion of Christ meriting a fully human righteousness through which we are saved. What we are given a share in is this humanity as it exists in perfect correspondence to God; we are not given a share in the divine essence, but in the divine life insofar as that life is actualized in Jesus Christ.

(6) By now you must certainly know that I DO think that Christ's vicarious obedience IS the main theme in Torrance. My point vis-à-vis Ben is this: Ben says that Barth and Torrance are up to fundamentally different things; I think they are up to similar things but go about it in different ways. There are real significant points at stake in the semantics, but it is also the case that precisely how someone says something is often fixated upon instead of precisely what they are trying to do with the language.

(7) Yes, Barth is existentialist in his own way, but he also 'passed through' the school of Kierkegaard. The neo-Orthodox types never got through it; they kind of hung out there. :-)


Anonymous said…
Hey Travis,

I thought that since you are interested in Torrance's "vicarious" piece, you should read some work by a former professor of mine: he learned under Torrance, and has devoted a big share of his career to this point on working out the implications of Torrance's "vicarious humanity." Here is one place to starte looking:
Anonymous said…
1. "Early lectures"? These lectures were part of the introductory sequence that Torrance taught for many years at New College - and as Bob Walker indicates, TF's own editing of the material involved formal, not material changes.
2. Barth does propound "ontic healing": Jesus Christ is "an ontological declaration about their own [human] being." Of course, it is crucial to let Barth himself define this "ontological declaration." In the same way, surely we should let TF define his terms? In this regard, "incarnate medium" ought not be interpreted apart from "of his own faithfulness" - surely a dynamic relationship and not "stuff"?

While it surely was unhelpful for scholars to assume that Barth and Torrance said exactly the same thing, it is just as unhelpful when Torrance is treated as a one-dimensional foil for use in the current Barth controversies.

Those lectures were from the 1970s, which is well before the major works of the 1990s that TFT is most known for today. In particular, they predate the "turn" to ecumenical dialogue that TF instigated in relation to the Orthodox Church. I would argue that there, in fact, material differences. At the very least, differences in emphasis, which quickly become material in nature.

You're right that Barth has a kind of "ontic healing," but it's of a very different sort. I don't think anyone would really dispute this point. Barth only brings in the ontic dimension insofar as it follows from the judicial aspect of Christ's work of reconciliation. For Torrance, because he is working in conversation with the Greek patristic soteriologies, the emphasis on the ontic has independent significance in a way that it doesn't for Barth. If you were to lay out various doctrines of the atonement according to three major types -- ontological, judicial, and moral -- TFT would fall in the first and Barth in the second, though Barth's is able to incorporate the best of the ontological and moral theories.
Anonymous said…

What is a "material difference" and how is it different from a "difference"?

The Uninitiated
"Material" refers to matters of content; "formal" refers to matters of organization and structure.
Anonymous said…

I have to concur with your response to David on #2. Torrance himself said shortly before his death in 2007, when the editing of Walker was almost complete, that he was very pleased with the results and the accuracy. I think that it is likely that his lectures are the "substance" of his mature thought. I thought that your point that these lectures were "presupposed" by TFT in his writings is a good point. I understand David's concern in giving a posthumous work such weight in understanding a theologian, but it appears that we have unique circumstances here that allow for us to do so.


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