The Christian Perspective (by T.F. Torrance)

This post explores "The Christian Perspective," -- chapter 2 of T.F. Torrance's book "The Christian Doctrine of God. One Being Three Persons." This post was written by Torrance scholar Travis M. Stevick for a session of the T.F. Torrance Reading Group.

In chapter 1 ("Introduction") of The Christian Doctrine of God, Torrance makes several epistemological observations that will be important as we look at chapter 2, which begins with the key perspective that authentic knowledge of God must always be, at bottom, the result of revelation, rather than logic or mere empirical observation within our creaturely world. Torrance explains that this revelation comes primarily through Jesus, understood within the context of ancient Israel (a key point that he unpacks in The Mediation of Christ). While this insight has distinctly theological and distinctly Christian roots, once grasped it can be applied outside that field into other areas of study. This insight is the root of Torrance’s crucial take on the theology-science dialogue. For Torrance, it is not merely that theologians should be aware of and conversant in scientific work and progress, it is also that science benefits from dialogue with theology. Indeed, it could be argued that, when directing our attention to the best of contemporary science, Torrance is not seeking inspiration from them as much as seeking to be reminded of what Christian theologians should already know, that the object of our study ought to dictate the terms in which we know it.

Toward the bottom of page 15, Torrance cites John Calvin and remarks 

In other words, in "the Holy Trinity" we have to do with God himself, not just modal ways of thinking about God, for the One true God is actually and intrinsically Triune and cannot be truly conceived otherwise. 

I cannot help but think that this is both a stating of a realist perspective over and against Modalism, but it also makes it clear that we have more complete access to God than would be implied in a “modal” thinking. That is to say, we are not restricted to wondering what God might or could be like. We are, throughout this whole book, dealing with the concrete actuality of God, not mere divine possibility.

On page 16, Torrance states that 

it belongs to the essence of the Gospel that God has come among us and become one with us in such a reconciling and miraculous way as to demolish the barriers of our creaturely distance and estrangement from him, and has spoken to us directly and intimately about himself in Jesus Christ his beloved Son. 

In this statement we have epistemology, hermeneutics, and all manner of scientific convictions overlapping. This key theological conviction is why the title of this chapter, “The Christian Perspective” matters and why it is distinguishable from reasonable alternative titles. To say, “The Christian Perspective” cannot simply be equated with “The Biblical Perspective.”

We do not start from tradition, from science, from philosophy, nor even from the Bible considered merely as a text that has no need of interpretation. Rather we begin with Jesus. Note the marvelous summary paragraph on page 17, that begins: “The specifically Christian doctrine of God…” The practical implications of Torrance’s Christocentricity are laid out clearly.

On page 18, Torrance lays out a Pneumatological principle: 

How could the Spirit pour the love of God into our hearts, how could the Spirit mediate Christ to us, and how could Christ be present to us in the Spirit, if the Spirit were not himself divine like the Father and the Son and of one and the same being (homoousios) with them? 

This quotation, leading into the next sections of the chapter, express a Torrancean perspective that is not always as clear as one might like (although perhaps clearer in this book than elsewhere): Trinitarian convictions are impressed upon the church through the brute facts of the gospel.

Chapter 2 is followed by one on biblical considerations. This seems to be because we (the church) did not start with scripture and then deduce the Trinity. Rather, we encountered the Trinity and then searched the scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, to see if that conviction was consistent and defensible in their light. Sometimes Torrance obscures this deep concrete perspective, though I don’t think he wanted to. For example, in The Trinitarian Faith, Torrance arranges his work after the pattern of the Creed (and the baptismal formula it is based on) rather than the Pauline benediction from 2 Corinthians 13.

Presenting issues in this way has the clear advantage of clearly stating a Trinitarian conviction already attained. However, putting the weight on this way of presenting issues tends to obscure the concrete character of the doctrine and reinforces the perspective of so many in the church, that the Trinity is not crucial to our faith and is a conundrum to be solved rather than the beauty of the gospel. To put this in other words, using the baptismal formula as our framework stresses ontological convictions while using the Pauline benediction stresses epistemological ones (that is, it prioritizes how we came to know the Trinity). This becomes clearer later in this book when Torrance talks about the “levels” of our knowing.

The remainder of chapter 2 is divided into three sections, each of which lays out a critical observation that must be grasped if the material content of the rest of the book is to be grasped. The first of these deals with the fact that the revelation of God in Jesus is not something we could have told ourselves but breaks in on us from beyond ourselves. This insight is a repeated theme in Torrance’s epistemology. Perhaps most extensive is in his long chapter on “existence statements” and “coherence statements” in Theological Science.

Toward the end of the last full paragraph on page 19, Torrance says, 

Far less may it [the radically new] be assimilated into man’s familiar world of meaning and be brought into line with the framework of its commonly accepted truths, for the radically new conception of God proclaimed in the Gospel calls for a complete transformation of man’s outlook in terms of a new divine order which cannot be derived from or inferred from anything conceived by man before. 

This alludes to something like Thomas S. Kuhn’s “paradigm shifts” and issues surrounding the “incommensurability” discussed by Paul Feyerabend.

Torrance says this on page 20: 

Those early Christian theologians were, therefore, surely right when they insisted that we may acquire knowledge of something quite new or hitherto unknown, not through processes of explicit reasoning, important as they may be within the brackets of what is already known, but only through an ontological act of recognition and assent which cannot be further analyzed, and which arises compulsorily in our minds as we allow what is new to authenticate itself to us in its own reality and to disclose itself to us in its intrinsic significance and strength. 

This quote represents a significant intersection with Michael Polanyi’s thought and the tacit dimension of our thinking facilitated by an “encounter’ with reality. It also is a clear expression of what Torrance calls “the truth of being,” especially in his various interactions with Anselm’s De Veritate. The major discussions on this work within Torrances books are in Reality and Evangelical Theology, 126–37; and Reality and Scientific Theology, 143–47.

Note this sentence on page 21: “God reveals himself through himself, and what God communicates to us is not something of himself but his very self, true God from true God.” This expresses, in a late work by Torrance, the key insight that Ronald Thiemann missed when engaging with Theological Science.

The main point of the second subsection of chapter 2 is that, in Christ, we not only have a key revelation of God, but that it must be understood as being the exclusive and final (in the sense of ultimate) word from God to human beings. This is, ultimately, the reason we do not and cannot have an open canon of scripture like we see in other groups, such as the Mormons. There is not, and cannot be, further books that bear witness to Jesus in the same way. Unless there is another collection of texts that bear witness, not only to Jesus, but the entirety of his Israelite context and his impact on the subsequent church, there can be no addition to scripture. Even if there were such texts, we know either nothing of them, and so they are not affirmed by the early church, or else they are explicitly rejected by them.

If Torrance’s claim was not true, we would be forced to ask, “What would a second Jesus look like?” This is crucial in certain ministry settings since some people, at least among the populace, sometimes wonder if the church might miss a second incarnation. It is worth naming the insight of this question, even if it comes from a place of inadequate theology. The church has all too often behaved so contrary to the Spirit of Christ that we might not recognize Jesus if we encounterd him.

On pages 23-24, Torrance refers to an insight of Fermat and is applying it in a self-consciously theological way. The most clear reference to this insight is in The Ground and Grammar of Theology: 

Let me explain that claim by referring to the exclusiveness of natural law, which nevertheless has a universal range of applicability. According to Fermat's principle, a beam of light takes the minimum of time or the shortest path between two points, whatever medium it passes through. Similarly, in the formulation of a natural law the selection of one possibility as the real one thereby disqualiies the others as impossible or as unentertainable. So it is with the road God himself has taken in revealing himself to us in Jesus Christ, for once actualized in the incarnation, that reality calls into question other possibilities and makes them really impossible for us. Thus, in his concrete singularity Jesus Christ occupies for us the place of a ‘natural law’ in the Christian faith. (p. 108)

The main point of the third subsection of chapter 2 is that the Trinity cannot be divided and that, while we can apprehend God, we cannot comprehend God. This apprehension is spelled out at the top of p. 26: "Thus it may be said that the whole doctrine of the Trinity is implicit in and unfolded from knowledge of Christ…” T.F. makes a similar claim in The Ground and Grammar of Theology, 160-161:. 

As the epitomized expression of that fact [that in our relations with Christ, we have to do with the ultimate reality of God], the homoousion is the ontological and epistemological linchpin of Christian theology.  With it, everything hangs together; without it, everything ultimately falls apart.

At the bottom of page 26 into page 27, Torrance summarizes what he sees to be one of the most important insights from Clerk Maxwell for our thinking. Newton and others saw the world as made up of particles and those particles were, as such, more important than the relations between them. What Clerk Maxwell and others have shown us is that, if we get our perspective of the world wrong at the very first step, it actually prevents us from seeing what is really there before us.