Trinitarian grace (part 1)

This post begins a series overviewing the book Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T. F. Torrance by Geordie W. Ziegler.

Due to complexity of thought and technical language, the writings of Thomas F. Torrance are, for many, difficult to understand. Geordie Ziegler's goal for Trinitarian Grace and Participation is to help readers see beyond these obstacles to the core of Torrance's teaching -- that core being the grace of God in Christ. As Ziegler emphasizes, Torrance (TFT, hereinafter) saw grace as the "interior logic" of all doctrines of the historic Christian faith:
Grace for Torrance is nothing less than the self-giving of God for our salvation. This self-giving of God is an activity of the whole Trinity which moves from the Father through the Son in the Spirit, and in the Spirit through the Son to the Father. The ultimate purpose of this motion of Grace is fellowship with human creatures and the redemption of the whole created order. (loc. 156)
[Throughout this series, loc. refers to the location of the quote in the Kindle edition of the book.]

Grace Communion Seminary president Gary Deddo (at left) interviewing Ziegler.
For a video of the interview click here

As Ziegler notes, TFT's understanding of grace is based largely on the apostle Paul's use of the Greek word charis to describe God's self-giving in Jesus Christ through the cross in both a primary sense and an applied sense. In the latter, grace has to do with how God acts upon people in an intensely personal way---as personal as Christ himself, who is the grace of God. This personal interaction of Christ, by the Spirit, yields personal transformation in the lives of believers.

Unfortunately, in much Christian teaching down the centuries, this understanding of grace was lost. Grace began to be seen, not in Paul's dynamic, relational terms, but as a mere substance or force (power) by which God then assists believers. The results of this misunderstanding were many:
  • Living toward God, rather than from God. 
  • Living in accordance with imperatives of law, rather than indicatives of gospel.  
  • Reducing Christ's, dynamic constraining love to static rules and precepts.
  • Focusing preaching on law and obedience, and reward and punishment.
  • Seeing grace as a commodity given to the care of the church, which then dispenses grace.
For TFT, perhaps the most damaging misunderstanding/misuse of grace was in separating grace and the Spirit from the person and work of Jesus Christ. As a result, grace and the Spirit collapsed into one another and a gap between the world and the divine realm opened, with the church and its clergy filling the gap by dispensing grace. The result was that grace began to be seen as a thing to be ministered through legal definition and control, and thus something to be earned (merited).

Thankfully, the Protestant Reformation rejected many of these false notions about grace, restoring to theology an understanding of grace as "a real living relationship with the triune God" (loc 317). For TFT, key here was the reformers' insight that grace is an indivisible whole and a living reality that must be understood through the doctrine of the homoousion. In that way, grace is rightly understood as "the one indivisible self-giving of God in Christ" (loc. 317).

Unfortunately, much that the reformers understood about grace, has been lost in the contemporary church as old errors were replicated. Ziegler comments:
It was not long before the Reformed return to Grace suffered its own "fall from Grace": Grace transmuted from its proper setting as the gift of the self-giving of God in Christ and Spirit was unwittingly co-opted for humanistic and pietistic purposes. Torrance assigns responsibility for these specious forms of "Protestant subjectivist pietism" to a tangled multiplicity of sources: "notions of common Grace, Arminian notions of Grace, and the blending of "the Grace of the Spirit" with the graciousness of the godly or the infused sanctification that the Westminster theology is so infected with." (loc. 331) 
These misunderstandings reduced grace to a subcategory of justification, becoming "strongly identified with the forensic language of acquittal and the extrinsic model of imputation (loc 331). TFT's life-long goal was to rescue the doctrine grace from these misunderstandings, placing it back on the foundation of the biblical teaching that grace has to do with the divine life and love. Accordingly, Ziegler has written his book to make TFT's dynamic, Trinitarian view of grace clear:
It is the argument of this book that this self-giving-for-participation movement of triune Grace functions as the presuppositional and all-encompassing context materially undergirding and methodologically guiding the formulation of all of Torrance's theology. Like leaven, Torrance's concept of Grace permeates the whole and forms the basis upon which all other doctrines have their sustenance. (loc. 344)
Thankfully, in the final two decades of the 20th century, there was a massive shift in English-language theology, whereby "trinitarian doctrine came to be considered not a problem but a resource" (loc. 344). TFT was an important part of this shift from the 1950s forward, seeing the doctrine of the Trinity as a reality around which all else must find its center. TFT comments:
It is not just that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity must be accorded primacy over all the other doctrines, but that properly understood it is the nerve and center of them all, configures them all, and is so deeply integrated with them that when they are held apart from the doctrine of the Trinity they are seriously defective in truth and become malformed. (loc. 353)
Torrance sought to restore the Nicene faith in the church. In that effort he engaged with the Ancient Creeds and other writings of the great church councils, and conversed with theologians of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Through that work, TFT came to the profound understanding of the central place of grace in the Nicene faith. But as we have noted already, TFT observed that in the Nicene, apostolic faith, grace has a particular definition that is markedly different than the definition propounded in much ancient and contemporary teaching. As Ziegler notes,
for Torrance, Grace is the self-giving of the life and love of God (a self-giving which arises out of God's own eternal fullness as Father, Son and Spirit), so that his creation might share in a creaturely way the koinonia of the triune life. (loc. 611)
As this series proceeds, we'll learn more about TFT's doctrine of grace, including how grace is given through the Son and the Spirit in the economy of salvation.