Colyer on Torrance: the error of dualism

Elmer Colyer
In How to Read T.F. Torrance, Elmer Colyer addresses what theologian Tom Torrance says about two forms of dualism that, unfortunately, shape the theology of many Christians:
Torrance believes that the church has had to struggle repeatedly with the problem of dualism.... Dualism connotes the division of reality into two incompatible or independent domains. Torrance's repudiation of cosmological and epistemological dualism is decisive for grasping his understanding of the mediation of Christ...(pp57-8).

Cosmological dualism

This form of dualism asserts a disconnection between God and the world (cosmos) - an idea that arose in the early church out of Greco-Roman philosophy. It then emerged in the middle ages based on a Newtonian cosmology, yielding a deistic view of God. Sadly, this dualism remains common in our time (think of Bette Midler singing about the God who is "watching us from a distance"). Those holding this viewpoint tend to dismiss as merely symbolic those scriptures that speak of God as personally and actively involved in the world (p58).

In contrast, Tom Torrance had a "realist" cosmological perspective, understanding that God is directly and personally involved with his creation (while remaining distinct from it). According to Torrance, "revelation is the living God entering history, interacting with humanity and providing real and redemptive self-communication" (p59). Indeed, God is Emanuel (God- with-us). He decidedly is not "watching from a distance." There is no cosmological dualism when it comes to the relating of the triune God with his creation.

Epistemological dualism

This form of dualism asserts that the reality of God and of the cosmos cannot be known in themselves, but only in how they appear to us (the knower).
[Note: epistimology is the study of knowledge and has to do with understanding how knowledge is created and disseminated.]
In contrast, Torrance takes a "realist" epistemology, "in which reality discloses itself to human knowing in such a way that the human subject is capable of real understanding, both of the created world and of God" (p59). For Torrance, this real knowledge is available to us as we actively respond to "the self-presentation of reality in the appropriate manner" (p60).

When it comes to real knowledge of God, it is the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, who is God's appropriate, accessible and very real self-presentation. In this revelation of God to humanity, there is no hiddeness--no epistemological dualism of any sort. Torrance famously put it this way: "There is no other God hidden behind the back of Jesus." God really is like Jesus, as Jesus himself attested: "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9).

The mediation of Christ

Torrance's rejection of these dualisms is bound up with his understanding that Jesus Christ, the unique God-man, serves as the one mediator. As divine, he mediates from God to humanity; as human, he mediates from humanity to God. Colyer (who quotes Torrance), comments:
God has interacted with humanity in history, within the creaturely conditions of the created world of space and time. God has revealed himself to humanity in Israel and in Jesus Christ. Yet, "If we are to know [God] and speak about him in a way that is appropriate to him, we need to have fitting modes of thought and speech, adequate conceptual forms and structures, and indeed reverent and worthy habits of worship and behavior governing our approach to him" [quoted from Torrance's The Mediation of Christ, p6]. This means that for human beings to know God, they require not only a self-revelation from God but also suitable forms of thought and speech, an active and appropriate human response, a communal reciprocity where God's reconciling self-revelation is actualized and mediated within the conditions of our creaturely existence (p60).

Reality in Christ

As Torrance asserts elsewhere, God has indeed revealed himself, and Jesus is both the "ground and grammar" of that revelation. This revelation is not merely a word sent from God at a distance (from "on high"), but God-with-us, revealing himself to us as he actually is in the person and work of his incarnate Son--the Word of God made flesh--our Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:14).

In the light of the person and work of Christ, these dualisms are exposed as nothing more than mythologies arising from the darkness of our fallen imaginations. The reality--the truth--is that in Christ, God is seen for who he really is; and we are seen for who we really are.

To know Christ is to know that humanity has been reconciled to God--included in his triune love and life. In and through Jesus, God is with us, for us and knowable by us. Any theology that posits otherwise is false--it has lost sight of the reality of Jesus Christ.