Torrance: the doctrine of the Trinity

This series explores T.F. Torrance in Plain English wherein author Stephen D. Morrison unpacks nine key ideas in the Christ-centered, Trinitarian theology of Thomas F. Torrance. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6789.  

Last time, we looked at Torrance's key idea that the triune God is one in being (homoousion). This time we'll look at his key idea that the doctrine of the Trinity holds the place of primacy in Christian theology in that, 1) it is the ground and grammar of all theological knowledge, 2) it declares that God is for us, and 3) it includes the doctrine of perichoresis, which declares that both God and humans are beings-in-relationship.

Perichoresis (source unknown)

1) The ground and grammar of theology

Morrison notes that, according to Paul Molnar, the doctrine of the Trinity is for Torrance "the central doctrine around which all other Christian doctrines gravitate and become comprehensible" (p. 106). This means that God is rightly known only in a Trinitarian way. Morrison comments:
God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ defines the nature of God's being in [a trinitarian] way, and therefore, we cannot apply foreign definitions of God's nature to God without falling into error. That is why Torrance often calls the doctrine of the Trinity "the ground and grammar of theology." This is how we must speak of God because it is how God has spoken of Godself in Jesus Christ. (pp. 106-107, emphasis added)
For Torrance, that God is triune (the tri-personal communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is the fundamental truth about God, and thus the doctrine of the Trinity is the basis for all accurate theological thinking. Whereas some theological systems see this doctrine as secondary or even incidental, for Torrance it is fundamental and thus essential. In this understanding, Torrance stands with the Nicene Fathers. Indeed, one of Torrance's great contributions was to call the church back to its foundational Nicene roots, ridding itself of an approach that, quite unfortunately, separates the doctrine of the one God and the doctrine of the Triune God. Morrison comments:
For Westminster [Reformed--Calvinistic] theology, it seems, the Trinity is neither fundamental nor essential, but secondary to a philosophical doctrine of the one God (via an independent natural theology). Westminster theology does not rely wholly on the doctrine of God's Triunity, and if you were forced to remove the Trinity from its documents, they would suffer only a slight revision....
Torrance calls the Church to return to its roots and discover the doctrine of the Trinity as an essential truth for the proclamation of the Gospel, as the ultimate ground and basic grammar of all our talk of God. (pp. 109, 110)
Torrance traces the Westminster error back to what he refers to as "Augustinian dualism," which begins with a doctrine of the one God before considering the doctrine of the Trinity. Its one God doctrine emphasizes philosophical, abstract attributes of God including omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, impassibility and immutability. As Morrison points out, this approach makes the tragic mistake of constructing a doctrine of God "on the basis of human logic and philosophical proofs, instead of depending wholly on Jesus Christ as God's self-revelation" (p. 109).

In contrast to Augustinian dualism, Torrance's doctrine of God has the Trinity as its point of beginning (its ground) and the means (its grammar). Why? Because, for Torrance, God can only be known in a Trinitarian way, Indeed, God must be known "in accordance with his triune nature from the start." Torrance insists that "if we know God, we must know God from the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit" (p. 110, quoting Torrance in The Ground and Grammar of Theology).

Torrance goes on to emphasize that a Trinitarian knowing of God comes to us as a downward movement. God, in grace, reaches down and seizes us---we do not reach up and seize him. Here is how Torrance puts it:
We know God, or rather, as St. Paul puts it, are known by God. We know God only in that we are seized by His reality. It is in response to that divine grasping of us that our human grasping of Him takes place in functional dependence upon Him, as an act of "under-standing." (p. 111, quoting Torrance in God and Rationality)
Here again we see Torrance repudiating an independent natural theology that conceives of God by taking our own highest values and truths and amplifying and projecting them onto what we call "God." With that approach, rather than reaching God, we construct an idol after ourselves (for more about Torrance's view of natural theology see post #2 and post #3 in this series).

As Morrison notes, Torrance believes that we avoid such errors about God only when we are "grasped by God in His self-revelation." For that to happen, we "must repent of our self-made idols by relying solely on the Trinity as the true ground and grammar of our theological knowledge of God" (p. 111).

Torrance reminds us that true knowledge of God comes through God's incarnate Son---a gift of grace that is "more adored than expressed." With this doxological orientation of mind and heart we do theology, as it were, on our knees as an act of worship (p. 112). Morrison elaborates:
Torrance's doctrine of the Trinity is built on a foundation of adoration, not on the reductionistic need to contain God's being with statements. The Trinity is often treated like a mathematical problem to be solved through logical analogies rather than a mystery we tremble before with breathless awe. This is the brilliance of Torrance's Trinitarian theology. (p. 113) 

2) The declaration that God is for us

Torrance was careful to point out that while we should distinguish who God is in God's inner being (the ontological Trinity) from God's external acts (the economic or evangelical Trinity), we must be careful not to separate the two in our thinking. Torrance was careful to emphasize that who the tri-personal God is in God's being is who God is in God's acts. Morrison comments:
[For Torrance] God is not "some abstract impersonal essence, but dynamic personal being, for God is who he is in the Act of his revelation, and his Act is what it is in his Being." The dynamic personal being of God acting for us in the person and work of Jesus Christ makes known God's innermost being. This is why Torrance often called the cross an "open window into the heart of God.... For in refusing to spare his own Son whom he delivered up for us all, God has revealed that he loves us more than he loves himself." (p. 116, quoting Torrance in The Christian Doctrine of God with emphasis added)
Torrance felt justified in making this rather shocking statement due to his understanding that in the Incarnation, God took a genuine risk---the risk of breaking the bond of relationship between the Father and the Son, thus hazarding God's existence as God. Nevertheless, the Triune God, in the Person of the incarnate Son of God, in amazing, selfless love, risked Godself for us all. The Triune God, in the person of the God-man Jesus Christ, took up our sinful humanity (our fallen human nature) and fought through the temptations we face, yet (unlike us) without sin. In doing so, Jesus converted our humanity back to fellowship with God.

3) The doctrine of perichoresis

Torrance understands the stunning work of Jesus Christ on our behalf as a gift from the whole Triune God. Though the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct divine persons, they are not separate. It is their unbroken, intimate triune fellowship "that constitutes God's innermost being, and therefore, each person exists and is defined only in relation to the others" (p. 118).

It is here that Torrance emphasizes the doctrine of perichoresis, which speaks both to the relations of the divine persons as well as to the essential nature of human persons. The word perichoresis, which comes from Greek, suggests the idea of coinherence or coindwelling. The Father, Son and Spirit co-indwell each other, and it is this tri-personal relationship that defines their personhood. Note that the move here is from perichoresis to personhood, not the other way around.

This understanding of God's perichoretic, tri-personal being leads to an understanding of what person means as it pertains to human persons. The relationships we have as persons one to another belong to what we are as persons. Like God, we are beings-in-relationship (or beings-in-communion). Here we see what is perhaps the primary way in which humans have been created in God's image.

Based on the doctrine of perichoresis, Torrance coined the term onto-relations as shorthand for the understanding that "the ontological being of each person is constituted by their relation to the other" (p. 121). This understanding of personhood is a radical departure from the highly individualistic understanding of personhood that is prevalent in our contemporary world.

Understanding that God is being-in-relationship helps us understand what the Bible means in saying that God is love. God's very being is other-giving, other-centered. In love and for love, God turned the love that he is outwardly to humanity. It is Torrance's conviction that to share in the divine love is "the ultimate joy of human beings in union with Jesus Christ" (p. 124).