TF Torrance on Calvin

Being officially out of coursework, I'm such a glutton for punishment that I am nevertheless auditing a seminar on John Calvin this semester offered by George Hunsinger. So, I thought I would throw this up as kind of a kick-off to the semester.

I wish that I had more to say about this extensive quote I’m about to show you, whether comments of criticism, clarification, construction, or addition. But, the fact is that I don’t quite yet know what to do with the notions that TFT relates here. Some of them resonate, and some of them chafe. There are certainly things that I would want to criticize, clarify, use to construct further positions, or add. For instance, some of the dichotomies that TFT sets up for how Calvin ought to be understood seem a little forced, that is, there are certainly other options for viewing Calvin than those offered here. But, TFT’s vision of Calvin here is so much a whole that I want to be very careful before beginning to pick it apart. It is one of those things that one needs to sit with a while. In any case, I invite you to join me in contemplating what TFT has to tell us about Calvin.
Thomas F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church (Wipf & Stock, 1996): 1.91-3:

“All Calvin’s teaching and preaching have to do with salvation through union with Christ in His death and resurrection. That is very clear in the Institutes in which the central message is worked out more and more clearly and fully from book to book, and is given most magnificent form in book four. In the history of theology Calvin represents the movement to bring the doctrine of the Person of Christ into the centre. In that he stood consciously in the tradition of Augustine and Bernard (the two fathers he cites more frequently than any others) in their emphasis upon personal Christological truth, but in Calvin it is more biblical, more dynamic and eschatological, than mystical – and certainly much less individualistic that it was in Bernard. Calvin, for example, would have nothing to do with Bernard’s notion that the individual soul is the Bride of Christ. It is of the whole Church that we must speak in this way, and union with Christ is essentially the corporate union between Christ and the Church as His Body.

“It is around this doctrine of union with Christ, then, that Calvin builds his doctrine of faith, of the Church as the living Body of Christ, and his doctrines of the Christian life, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Apart from union with Christ, Calvin says, all that Christ did for us in His Incarnation, death, and resurrection, would be unavailing. An examination of the structure of the Institutes makes it clear that this forms the main substance of his theology, and that the idea of predestination is not given a central place. Predestination or election is important, but Calvin speaks about it as a rule in connection with certain controversies (notably with Castellio and Pighius) but never as a basic doctrine in itself – except in so far as Christ is Himself the Beloved Son and the mirror of our election. And so right in the heart of his Christology Calvin devotes a small chapter to that fact, the really central point of election…Rather, then, does Calvin give predestination a place on the circumference of his theology, where it acted like a protecting wall for the central emphases of grace and adoption or sonship in Christ…

“Nothing has done more harm to Calvinism than the invention and perpetuation of the myth that Calvin’s theology was a severely logical structure. That notion grew up on French soil and was perpetuated by the great succession of Calvinist Schoolmen on the Continent, eminently in Holland. Modern research, however, makes it indubitably clear that Calvin’s whole theology was formulated in a very definite reaction against the arid logical schematisms into which the doctrines of the Church had been thrust by “the frigid doctors of the Sorbonne”, as he called them, and that again and again he was content to leave the ends of his theological thinking loose for the precise reason that theology runs out always to the point of wonder where we can only clap our hands on our mouth and remember that we are humble creatures. The whole inner substance of Calvin’s teaching…enshrines mystery and resists rationalistic schematization – so that it is a great disservice to interpret him as above all a logician.

“That is not to say that his theology is not amazingly consistent; as it is. It is consistency, however, that derives not from formal logic but from the thoroughness with which he stated his theology in terms of the analogy of Christ. In his prefatory letter to the King of France, in the 1559 edition of the Institutes, Calvin pointed out that, following the Apostle Paul, Christian theology must operate with the analogy of faith, and that when doctrine is tested by this its victory is secure. By the analogy of faith Calvin meant both that all doctrine must be based upon the exegetical study of Holy Scripture in which Scriptural passages are interpreted in terms of each other, and more basically, that all doctrines are to be thought out thoroughly in terms of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, for example, in regard to repentance, which was such an important issue at the Reformation, while the Roman Schoolmen divided repentance into three parts, contrition, confession, and satisfaction, Calvin, following the analogy of faith in Jesus Christ, showed that repentance has two essential parts, mortification and vivification, corresponding to the death and resurrection of Christ. It was in carrying that Christological analogy through all the doctrines of the faith that Calvin achieved such an astonishing consistency, but it is consistency determined not by logical relation or by some kind of Calvinist philosophy (so-called), but by the principle of Christological analogy – i.e. Christology applied to the whole of our life and work and thought.”


Matthew Frost said…
Much akin to Barth, or vice versa, where so often we mistake the sincere and driven thematic thoroughness of the theologian for some sense of logical schematization. Theology fits together, and the goal is comprehensibility as an aid to credibility (apart from the inevitable polemic and apologetic motives), but in both cases I think TFT has hit on the ways in which the massive and interwoven expositions arise from the material instead of being imposed upon them.
Bobby Grow said…
Travis, excellent, thank you!
Unknown said…
Indeed, he was a broad-minded, creative, and restless exegete, very much unlike many of his scholastic grandchildren!
Kenneth said…
The latest edition of IJST 11.4 has some interesting articles on union with Christ in Calvin's theology and I wonder if the contributors there would agree that union places predestination on the circumference of his theology

Mmmm, not sure about, although the absence of predestinarian central dogma type stuff is refreshingly absent in TFT here

"Predestination or election is important, but Calvin speaks about it as a rule in connection with certain controversies (notably with Castellio and Pighius) but never as a basic doctrine in itself – except in so far as Christ is Himself the Beloved Son and the mirror of our election."

Calvin never speaks of election as a basic doctrine in itself?? Surely this is the kindest of interpretations, Calvin read wishfully through a Barthian lens?
Jim said…

Best wishes on your multi-dimensional journey.

I’m spectacularly incompetent to evaluate Torrance evaluating Calving evaluating union with Christ. Though I’ve read both too much and too little of these two.

A little of my ignorance on display. Torrance confirms my bias in a roundabout way, that is, that many of the lineages of confessional theologies are simple sets of correlated understandings. Depravity is correlated to election is correlated to atonement is correlated to - and so on. I don’t have a horse in this race. Because I judge both Calvinism and its chief antagonists over-argued. Another matter. Otherwise irrelevant.

My point is not to settle hoary theological word-shaving questions. It’s far simpler. Because these correlated understandings are engineered as a human filagree, these engineered systems operate under a simple engineering axiom, namely, these theologies display an exponential increase in complexity for each linear increase in working parts. The working parts - TULIP. So they say. The tightly engineered relationships between the elements (TULIP) present the appearance (false as it is) of an inevitable logic. Even an irreducibly complex logic. With each working part as necessary to the overall complexity of this engineered schema as all the rest. The cumulative force of this contrivance can make unwitting readers think that theology is as logically axiomatic as Euclid’s geometry. Take a vital theorem away. And all the derived principles fall apart.

So when readers like Torrance come to understand that these systematic schemas are merely correlated understandings and not logically required modal/formal necessities of some irresistible axiomatic logic, then readers can have a bit of fun. By playing on just one element (or correlate). By isolating on a single correlate in yet another faux analytic exercise. Like isolating on just one variable in an algebraic equation to solve all other variables. Reducing to one – seems to solve complexity issues. Among other problems. For Torrence, this single variable is union with Christ. I’m not suggesting this mode of reasoning is formally, necessarily wrong. Or that it can be necessarily wrong. This form of reasoning of isolating on one ingredient may or may not be inherently suspect.

There is no reason why the next prodigy (or prodigal) reader cannot read Calvin and isolate on any other element in Calvin’s “system” of merely correlated understandings. Because these are only - engineered correlated understandings - after all.

Simple reductions like Torrance’s (or make up your own) give the appearance of dismantling the complexity problems inherent in the engineering of increased complexity (see above). For the sake of heuristic simplicity.

Is this a virtue? A vice?

That’s up to you.

As for me, I’m feeling uncomfortably expansive. And I guess I needed an outlet. And a bench check. Because I’m reading Gerald Schroeder’s metaphysical theological mesh. Benchmarked off of his rabbinic open theism, his background in physics, and his insistence on a central premise for theology, that is, returning to the Singularity of the Divine Name - “I will be that which I will be” - another singularity or single-element synthesis that promises simplicity. A simple singularity (not unlike Torrence’s). That devolves into nuclear complexity. Faster than biologists can name new species. Alas, for systematics. I guess I’m just weary.
Thanks to everyone for stopping by - sorry I've been late getting into the conversation.

Kenneth, I think you are right that this is a rather rosy read of Calvin in some respects.

Jim, I think your description of the dynamics involved is very interesting. It is, however, only part of the story. Hopefully theologians are interested not only in tweaking and reconfiguring the 'systems' of their predecessors, but primary in listening to the biblical text. Calvin certainly did this (and I think TFT did too), and that is one of the reasons why his theology can be read in so many different directions - namely, Scripture can tend to move in different directions; it is polyvalent rather than univocal.
Jim said…


And thanks for letting me play and color somewhat outside of your theological lines.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to rivet down a minor prequel to what I had in mind. If this is too off-topic, too weird, too much a forbidden fruit-salad mixture of empirical science with theology – then please do not post this non-sense. Which in part is a copy and paste of my pestering of the good patience of Bob MacDonald on a related thread over on his fascinating and playful blog.

And since you’re a Princetonian self-admitted-glutton for punishment (can anything good come out of Princeton?), I’ll just thank you in advance for this worthy exchange.

Though you’ll be the judge of its worthiness!

My part-Quaker predisposition for seeing the priority of the Spirit of God as authoritative over anything textual and written does not prevent me from affirming the historical accident of the Apostles’ Creed. Nor from affirming the authority of the holy writ under properly Inspired readings, I know too well the history of the tropes and the real deaths and persecutions suffered by Quakers for this none-too-subtle heresy. I’m not here to argue. Reformed and Quaker ways (at least first generation Quaker ways) in the Way converge on the horizon of the necessity of Spiritual reading. This is my bias. Discount this as my ignorance speaking.

To your textual ideas. I note that Polkinghorne recently added his two-cents on his method of scriptural redaction. Or maybe this is his Bayesian prior: "The Bible is more of a laboratory notebook than a literal history."

Polkinghorne at:

Which further confirms my bias that theological concepts and categories can be empirically derived.

The not-so tricky part. I think I would generate no controversy with Polkinghorne in adding that our self-report presents in our lab notebooks (empirical derivations of theological concepts) injecting unavoidable subjectivity. See next.

The modestly-tricky part. Controversy likely begins with textualists if we deny or ignore that our self-reports in empirically derived theology can involve us in fraud in the form of our hiding from the Spirit (as if we can really get away with this). Which fraud only means that theological expressions under such fraudulent conditions are normative rhetoric. “Search ye the scriptures ... but fail to come to Me.”

The inveterately-tricky part. This fraud on our part further includes our un-inspired parroting of biblical verse. I do not subscribe to post-modern all-inclusive blather no matter how many times David Tracy had me read Lyotard or the rantings of social constructivists. Only under extreme duress will my lying Cretan nature involuntarily admit that Derrida taught me a trivial fraction about the mystical (i.e., violent) foundations of legal hermeneutics. But there are far better sources for this insight. Like the Crucifixion. So count it too modern or too un-spiritual or just outright heretical for me to say – that for us to say that this-or-that exists independently of our observations (and we can say this in empirical theology no less in empirical science) requires that this-or-that be defined, which definition means that observers and the-observed become entangled. This entanglement means only that our knowledge is theory-laden. No less so in theology. Whether empirical. Or textual.

Our theory-ladenness too is known by the Spirit. Which is why our hope is not in text alone.

Like I said, if this is too inane, delete and destroy.

Otherwise, thanks again in advance for letting me color a little outside of your theological lines. And lineage.



Well, then! That's all very interesting, if a bit of a cataract.

I confess that I don't really know what theology as "empirical" would look like. What I assume you mean is theology as the fruit of unmediated encounter with the Spirit, with Scripture and tradition as artifacts of such encounter. In a sense, I believe this is true; in a sense, I don't. I believe in mediated encounter - the encounter (Spirit) must be there, but this encounter does not occur apart from a medium (Scripture, fundamentally although not exclusively). This is my position for 2 reasons: (1) a notion of unmediated encounter is just too mystical for me (such an encountered can't be called empirical in a simple sense b/c there is no public verification / falsification possible; at least on my position one has arguments on the basis of Scripture and tradition); (2) because that is what I think the 'laboratory logs' strongly suggest.

Still, its fun to have you around and stirring the waters. :-)
Jim said…

“Still, its fun to have you around and stirring the waters. :-)”

It sure as heck doesn’t look fun! How could “Der Evangelische Theologe” have become so morbid, lately?

Was it my breath? Or my bad breath of life-lessees in something I said?

WTM, please know that I mean the following in all affection. Besides being the jerk that I am (because I will be what I will be). And bored. So let’s make something up. And play.

Besides, I did shut up here on your blog for several days. To let the play, play. But since it’s played out hereabouts, I’ll play my ply a little more, on not-quite so sly a pitch – for my beloved empirical theology!

I’ve read your very good rejoinder. And I agree. I agree more than my pestering question might portray.

But thou tellest me, oh vaulted and valued (or is it undervalued?) Princetonian! – tellest thou me, just what text did Abimelech exegete – and with just what delicate and oh-so polite exegetical “method,” that is, when king Abimelech dids’t learn by mighty and oh-so-sore experience, that:

“But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, ‘Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married’” (Gen 20:3)?

I know thee, that well ye hearest in highest halls of Princeton, that therefore wisest hermeneutical proverb, effectively from thine professors, saying unto thee – “Behold WTM, you are a dead man!” – and that because, my dearest WTM, thou hast chosen the wrong-dest hermeneutical principles for thine loving exegesis!

And if that's not true, then there's nothing better than a rumor. And rumor has it where I studied (University Chicago) that irenic Princetonians are worthy of this phrase all the time – “Behold you are a dead man!”

Please! Don’t redact. And please, don’t eclipse my question in an eclipse of biblical narrative (that this is “Abraham’s” composite story) Take the text at face value. If it has a face. Or a value!

I say thee, that Abimelech learnt a mighty and sore and blistering lesson – “Behold, you are a dead man!” – confirmed only by the empiricist-of-theology mighty method, of confirming in hard, and cold, and yea, rather deadly – empirical fact – just who the hell’s-wife belonged to whom!

Reckon me that!

To your Torrence terrorizing Calvin: who was in better “union” with God (text-independently): Abraham? - or Abimelech?

Are you still stirring?


You certainly are keeping things interesting. I don’t think that I can decipher your every allusion and turn of phrase, but I think I get the main challenge: explain how Abimalech seems to know something directly from God in this passage while taking the passage at face value. Simple – God told him.

It is a very different question, however, whether such direct communication between God’s Spirit and a human – supposing it happens, as the text would lead us to believe – ought to serve as the basis and / or norm of theology. This it is not, nor is it something your passage supports.

Granted that such communication occurs, it can very well be valuable, etc. However, it is subordinate to Scripture precisely because it has pleased God to give us this record of his activity by which to identify and understand his ongoing activity. Of course, all God’s activity – past, present, and future – will form a whole and be in agreement, since it would be silly to think that God contradicts himself. That’s why we need theology – to get at how it all fits together.

Anyway, I doubt this will convince you. I find that it is exceedingly hard to convince an argumentative interlocutor. But, one can always hope to win over an onlooker…
Jim said…

A good reply. I’m sorry. And I apologize to you that my faux and blathering challenges outside of the narrow focus on the text injected an argumentative tone into my otherwise valid question. I personally wasn’t trying to be argumentative nor advocacy oriented in the more narrow and concentrated focus regarding that limited text concerning Abimelech. I see no need to be argumentative about a personal bias which I can state as a single and simple sentence. God speaks. The further elaboration of this theme is better given by Jaroslav Pelikan. And hundreds of others in various way.

If the following response from me is acceptable, and not a distraction from your central focus and interest on your blog, then I’ll offer this response. With a more limited focus. Hopefully stripped of my other distracting noise.

If this response does not further your focus, or is of no interest to you, then please do not post it.

Torrance summarizes Calvin using a technique. That technique is a central unifying theme. In this case, union with Christ. I’m aware that union with Christ as a central theme is not necessarily simple. It’s certainly not as simple as that phrase - union with Christ - sounds at face value, nor at first glance. I’m sure you know that the concept and experience of union with Christ has a long and fractal pedigree in the history of Christian literature. The available textual and testimonial material on union with Christ could sustain many valid and interesting PhD degrees, ad infinitum. It occupies uncounted popular volumes.

My opinion on the adequacy and fidelity of Torrence on Calvin is beside the point. I wanted to explore the possibility of yet a different organizing theme for the scripture, namely, the theme of union with Christ through the direct experiences we have with Christ. And by “explore,” I mean put my bias aside. And explore anew. And not advocate my bias. This organizing theme involves absolutely no necessity of denying the scripture as normative. Nor denying the scripture as a normative base for what further creeds you might hold dear.

And I agree with you that the text about Abimelech is not a normative propositional justification for direct experience with God. That text has no normative value for my experience. Nor would I teach that text as normative for other people in the various churches where I have taught in the past (including two Reformed ones), nor where still continue to teach today. In fact, that text has value only as a larger part of any theological casuistry (your casuistry, or mine) or other theological scheme that we hold. That text has no independent nor intrinsic value apart from the larger theories by which we organize it.

So this is not about the normative value of scripture. Nor the normative value of doctrine. A reader could make all the necessary stipulations to your normative values, and still say that the normative source (scripture) teaches the ubiquity of Christ generating direct experiences with people outside of the normative tradition, as is illustrated by Abimelech. The issue is not whether the scriptures are normative. The issue is what the norm teaches about the experiences of those who do not yet fit neatly and nicely into the pre-packaged full set of theological judgments that you have.

It would be a most peculiar reading of a normative source to deny the Agency which that norm asserts.

My personal bias has been checked. By Torrence. And despite my judgment that Torrence is wrong on Calvin. Torrence checked a part of my bias despite his other errors, namely, because the normative value of the scriptures can adequately be summarized under the rubric of union with Christ (even if this was not Calvin’s position), so long as other factors get built into that union.

Again, if this is nor relevant to your purposes and goals, please do not post this, and we'll just leave it here.



I gain greater clarity about what you are on about with each new comment you post. It seems to me that what you want to affirm is that Christians (and perhaps others; not directly germane) have direct experience of God by means of the Holy Spirit. Further, you don’t want such experience to be eclipsed by a dry or un-lively dependence on Scripture alone.

With reference to this way of putting matters, I couldn’t agree more. In fact, Torrance and Calvin would agree too. For instance, Torrance always grounds faith on the corporate experience of Christ that the church has in worship, and Calvin everywhere states that Scripture in and of itself is worthless without the testimony of the Spirit to confirm its authority and illuminate the ways in which it points us to Christ. Indeed, both Torrance and Calvin want to stress the union that believes have with Christ through the Holy Spirit.

So, if I am right in identifying precisely what it is that you want to drive home, there would seem to be little disagreement.
Bobby Grow said…
I think you're right, Travis ;-)!

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