Introduction to T.F. Torrance's theology (part 4): Theological Concepts

This post concludes a series exploring T.F. Torrance in Recollection and Reappraisal by Bruce Ritchie. For other posts in the series, click a number: 12, 3.

Last time, we looked at Torrance's theological method, which he refers to as theological science. This time we'll conclude the series by looking at several of T.F.'s theological concepts. Though understanding Torrance is a challenge, his teachings become clearer when these concepts are grasped. The first one picks up where we concluded last time:

1. Approach theology as a scientific discipline 

We begin with T.F.'s core conviction that, rightly practiced, theology is an objective scientific discipline, meaning that "it allows its object (God) to determine the appropriate mode of enquiry" (p. 83). Ritchie comments on his personal awakening to this important principle:

Once I understood... so much else fell into place. To think scientifically is to think in accordance with the nature of the object. To think otherwise is to introduce a fatal disjunction between knowing and the object known...between mind and reality. (p. 84)

As Ritchie notes, T.F. applied this principle by focusing on a positive knowledge of God and his ways. How is it possible that we have such knowledge? T.F. answered by pointing out that the God of the Bible is a God who speaks, and "in that speaking... creates the very possibility of a knowledge of himself" (p. 84). In other words, only God can reveal God, and that he has done through the Word of God, both Living and written. Through Jesus, the Living Word, we know what God is really like--we know God as he truly is. We allow the "object" (God) to define himself, which he has done in Christ.

"Time," artist unknown (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

2. Adapt new patterns of thinking

In explicating his theology in a scientific way, T.F. frequently utilizes concepts derived from modern science, physics in particular. Those concepts have to do with imaging fundamental realities that are difficult to conceptualize. Modern physics does this by utilizing radically new structures--images of thought--shifting from Euclidian-Newtonian thought structures where space and time are thought of in accordance with a container-box structure, to a structure that is radically relational and integrated. This new way of conceptualizing the physical cosmos came to science through Maxwell, Einstein and Bohr, who had a significant impact on T.F.'s thinking. As Ritchie notes, T.F. came to understand that
theology required not only a new methodology but also a new way of conceptualizing and new structures of thought in order to cope with the transcendent nature of its subject matter.... In class Torrance stated, "We cannot be good theologians unless we give up thinking in images." And underscoring this, he added, "The Greeks thought with their eyes [but] the Hebrews thought with their ears [because they took the second of the Ten Commandments seriously]. We are dominated by the Greek way. Hence, when we think about what we hear, we immediately put it into a visual pattern. Hence, we miss God so much because his mode is Word. We must learn to think auditively. (p. 85)

T.F. understood that both science and theology (scientific theology) are only rightly understood through the use of imageless relations. In physics this means thinking in terms of Field Theory, Relativity Theory and Quantum Theory, where old thought patters of Newtonian mechanics are replaced by "the concept of a space-time continuum which is itself formed and affected by the events which occur 'within' it" (p. 86). Thinking in terms of imageless relations within scientific theology means viewing God in accordance with triune inter-relationships (perichoresis). For T.F., the Trinity is the "ground and grammar" of correct theology--both God's being and God's act:

It is the inter-relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit which provides the conceptual foundation for understanding all of the acts of God.... God as Father, Son, and Spirit, in their inter-relationship with one another is involved in every act of God, with the logic of triunity driving itself into every corner of theological thought, and affecting the way in which we describe everything that God is, everything that God says, and everything that God does. In a true trinitarian theology, both form and content are controlled and informed by the triune nature of God. (pp. 86-87, emphasis added)      

T.F. thus emphasized the importance of thinking "theo-logically" from a center in God and in accordance with the logic of the triune God. Doing so stretches human language to a breaking point since human language is inescapably anthropomorphic (human-centered).

3. Keep the importance of Israel in mind

T.F. frequently emphasized the relation of Christ's mission to God's covenant with Israel. As he states in Atonement, the Son of God, "comes into the situation prepared for him in Israel" and that he "acts both critically and creatively in fulfillment of the Old Testament patterns of understanding and worship provided within the covenant" (p. 95). Indeed, "the importance of Israel--within the covenant purposes of God--was woven into Torrance's entire theology" (p 96). Ritchie comments further:
Given Torrance's consistent emphasis on Israel, it is unsurprising that, in designating the incarnation as foundational to all Christian theology Torrance described Jesus not simply as man and God, but as "Man of Israel, and the Lord God." Jesus is not any man. Nor is Jesus only a representational man. He is Man of Israel. And, in being Man of Israel, he is the one in whom God's covenant is fulfilled. (p. 96)

4. Understand that Jesus is the gospel

As Ritchie notes, T.F. was tireless in pointing out that God alone saves us, redeems us and cleanses us:

God cleanses us in Christ, not just by providing what is necessary for our salvation, but by himself directly and personally doing and being what is necessary. When God came to Israel in Jesus Christ, Israel was challenged to recognize the full implications of truths long rooted in their faith, and to take the resultant Gospel joyfully to the world....

What this means is that the consistent theme of the Bible, through both the Old and the New Testaments, is: "God is himself the Gospel." That was why Tom Torrance affirmed so strongly the theological unity of the whole of the Bible. It is the God of Israel in person who saves and redeems. And what Christian faith affirms is that what God provides, becomes, and does, in being the Gospel, he provides, becomes, and does in the person of Jesus Christ. As such, Jesus is the Gospel. (p. 97, bold face added).

Ritchie then comments on how Jesus is the Gospel:

For Torrance, the whole life of Jesus was an act of increasing solidarity with sinners. Jesus took into himself the wretched, fallen, brokenness of humanity, from the moment of his conception in the womb of Mary until the bearing of human sin reached its climax at Calvary. And so, for Torrance, reconciliation was an event cut into the very flesh of Christ not just an announcement of an eternal spiritual truth. (p. 116)

Ritchie notes how T.F.'s teacher Karl Barth, understood this concept: 

Christianity is not an idea; however noble such an idea may be.... Christianity is a name. The name is Jesus Christ.... Christianity IS the Person of Jesus Christ in his being and his act.... Christian faith is not an idea or a concept. Christianity is Jesus Christ. Everything centers on his person. It is utterly inadequate to understand Jesus as just a teacher, or as an example or as a guru of religious experience. Instead Jesus is himself revelation and reconciliation in his very being. He is the Gospel by being so in his person. It was this theology which fed into Torrance's own thinking, enriching every aspect of Torrance's faith. (pp. 123, 124, emphasis added)   

4. Understand that Jesus is our salvation

As Ritchie explains, Torrance emphasized that "Jesus was not just an agent who did something to accomplish salvation for us. Instead, Jesus was, and is, salvation in his own person" (p. 125, emphasis added). In asserting this concept, T.F. was emphasizing that the incarnation must be incorporated into our understanding of the atonement. Said another way, for Torrance, atonement is incarnation, incarnation is atonement. As Ritchie notes, Torrance taught that "Jesus acted vicariously throughout his life actively creating a new humanity, which through his resurrection would become our humanity, and would become our salvation, through our union with him" (p. 126-137).

5. View justification as ontological

In contrast with forensic models of justification in which sinners are merely accounted as righteous in a legal sense, T.F. stated that "in Christ sinners are not just declared righteous, but are made righteous" (p. 133). Ritchie comments:

Torrance was convinced that justification involves more than simply a legal declaration that God now regards reconciled sinners as righteous in Christ, though such a legal declaration is always part of justification, but as its outcome not its mechanism. Torrance was adamant that we are made righteous in Christ. Something ontological occurs. Not just something legal. In Space, Time and Incarnation, he wrote, "Justification is not only a declaratory act, but an actualization of what is declared." He continued, "Justification becomes not only the non-imputation of sins but the clothing of the sinner with the righteousness of Christ." (p. 133, bold face added).

6. Emphasize Christ's vicarious humanity

Ritchie goes on to explain that our ontology is altered (i.e. we are justified, made righteous), not through our own efforts (which always fall short) but through the obedience of Christ on our behalf in his vicarious humanity. Ritchie comments:

Torrance insisted that the obedience of Christ throughout his life on earth... was truly and fully vicarious on our behalf. It was not simply part of Christ's own righteousness as a man: a righteousness which he took to the cross as the sinless lamb of God; and a righteousness which became part of him as the Last Adam, our new representative head. For Torrance, more was involved. For Torrance, Christ obeyed in our place, fulfilled the law in our place, worshipped and prayed in our place, and even believed in our place; and, crucially, he did this in a manner in which he as not simply forging a righteousness for himself--even on our behalf as the Last Adam--but was forging our righteousness as if we were the ones doing so ourselves. And so, he himself, became our prayer, our oblation, our worship, our faith, our perfect answer to God the Father. (pp. 139-140)

For Tom Torrance... Christ "in our place" involves a... radical vicarious substitution, in which Christ truly becomes what we are, and, in him, we truly become what he is, as he lives on our behalf the life we have failed to live before God. Crucially, that prefect obedience which he offers to the Father in our place, truly becomes our obedience. And so, for Torrance, Christ acted in our place, not just as our legal substitute, but in a manner which affects us ontologically. We truly become obedient sons and daughters of God in him. (pp. 141-142, bold face added).

7. Understand that Christ assumed our fallen humanity 

What Jesus accomplished for us vicariously, occurred because as our representative and substitute, the eternal Son of God became, via the incarnation, what we are. Ritchie comments: 
Torrance argued, passionately and strongly... that in the incarnation Christ assumed a fallen humanity rather than a perfect humanity. Torrance's argument was: if Christ is to save us, then he must become what we actually are, which is fallen humanity. Consequently, Christ assumed Adam's fallen and broken humanity, rather than Adam's pre-fallen and perfect humanity. (p. 162)

As Mediator between God and humanity, Christ had to assume a fallen humanity, because it was in that state that humankind now exists. Ritchie comments on Torrance's theo-logic on this point:

The core logic behind Torrance's interpretation of [Nazianzus' statement that the unassumed is the unredeemed]... was simple. If the incarnation is necessary for atonement, and if atonement involves more than simply a forensic/legal process, then, in his Incarnation, Christ had to take to himself the very humanity which needs salvation, and not an idealized humanity which is not the actual humanity which sinful men and woman share. (pp. 163-164)

8. Have a Christological understanding of time 

Torrance's understanding of eschatology ("last things") was grounded in a Christological understanding of time itself. Ritchie comments:
For Torrance, the ultimate coming of Jesus Christ was not to be thought of simply as a future event--though Torrance was clear that there will be a final Parousia. Nor was that ultimate coming to be understood as something realized and having already occurred.... Nor was it to be interpreted as a timeless principle.... Instead, for Torrance, the ultimate coming of Jesus Christ occurs historically in his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension, in which, and through which, the first-fruits of the new and permanent created order have been established. Torrance also insisted that such a new and reconstituted order includes a recreated space-time which now overarches all of time, past, and present, and which, through the ascension, has been driven into every corner of history. As such, both retrospectively and prospectively, this recreated space-time is the sole ground upon which existence itself has depended ever since the entrance of sin and evil plunged the whole cosmos into a privation of existence. (pp. 198-199)

As Ritchie notes, this understanding of space-time involves three of Torrance's key propositions: 

  1. Space-time is not a container within which events take place: rather, events themselves create and mold space-time.
  2. Space-time is brought into being through the establishment of a covenant relationship between Creator and the creation.
  3. Space-time, established by the covenant, has been shattered by the entrance of sin and evil: consequently, men and women now live in a time and space of grace brought into being in the person of Jesus Christ through the triumph of his death, resurrection and ascension. (pp. 199-200)

 Ritchie comments on some of the implications of these propositions:

What this means--and again our language is ill-fitted to express such realities--is that the Son of God was able to become flesh in the womb of Mary at a moment in historical time, only because of what would be actualized at Calvary and on Easter Day. The very "time" in which each of these events took place was itself created within his resurrection triumph. The constituent principle of the person of Jesus Christ is his becoming sin and his being raised in glory. He is who he is because of that event. As such, it was that event which "made room" for the historical time when Mary heard the angel's voice. It was that which made room" for the historical time when she carried Christ in her womb. All the years of grace, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, from Adam to the Last Trumpet, are "made room for," and created in, the person of the crucified, risen and ascended Lord....

In Jesus Christ time is redeemed and recreated. Hence, all time and all history exist as a function of that resurrection victory. All history depends for its existence on the death and resurrection of Easter. It is there that time and space are forged and given substance. Consequently, the incarnation did not make the atonement possible as a future event in time. Instead, it was "new time," established in Christ's new humanity of the resurrection, and bent backwards and forwards from that first Easter, which enabled the historical time of Bethlehem and of Calvary to be possible. This is why Bethlehem is ontologically dependent upon, and rooted in, the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus Christ. (pp. 207-208) 


With his rather mind-blowing view of time, we conclude our tour through Ritchie's recollection and reappraisal of T.F.'s writings. Ritchie covers much more than this brief series has had room to mention. I urge you to read the book for yourself. In addition to covering many of T.F.'s teachings, Ritchie shares wonderful anecdotes from his time as T.F.'s student.