Friday 19 December 2008

George Hunsinger: why T. F. Torrance was a Barthian

A guest-post by George Hunsinger (responding to the recent exchange between me, Travis and David – you can find all the links here)

Without attempting to address all the points raised in the recent discussion, I would like to offer the following reflections.

1. There is a difference between theological journalism and theological scholarship. The latter makes measured judgments and works closely with texts. The former traffics in sweeping generalizations and big fuzzy ideas like “substance metaphysics” and “actualistic ontology.” Such notions are of little use for understanding either Torrance or Barth.

2. No theologian in recent times has made a clearer connection than Torrance between the Incarnation and the Cross, and between Christ’s bodily Resurrection and his Ascension. Torrance states repeatedly that the Incarnation is the precondition of the Atonement as completed in the Cross, and that the Cross is the inner fulfillment of the Incarnation. Neither can be had without the other. Moreover, the Cross of Christ, for Torrance, as grounded in the Incarnation, necessarily carries intercessory and vicarious significance for the world’s salvation. Finally, Christ’s Resurrection not only serves uniquely to reveal him as the Incarnate Son, but also to elevate him into eternal life, where he intercedes perpetually for the church and the world until the end of all things.

3. No Reformed theologian since John Owen has had a firmer grasp than Torrance of Christ’s priestly mediation. His contribution here, which I believe surpasses Barth, is of inestimable significance. Barth was arguably less solid than Torrance about how to grant proper centrality to the New Testament’s cultic metaphors – blood, sacrifice, access, intercession, vicarious representation, expiation, etc. – in a way that rightly displaced the forensic metaphors dominant in the West, while still affirming and preserving them. Torrance’s grasp of the eucharist was therefore of greater ecumenical promise than anything in Barth.

4. The mediation of Christ, as understood by Torrance, was essentially an elaboration of passages like this from Barth: “But what does it mean to take the place of man, to be Himself a man, to be born of a woman? It means for Him, too, God’s Son, God Himself, that He came under the Law …, that He stepped into the heart of the inevitable conflict between the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of man. He took this conflict into His own being. He bore it in Himself to the bitter end. He took part in it from both sides. He endured it from both sides. He was not only the God who is offended by man. He was also the man whom God threatens with death, who falls a victim to death in face of God’s judgment. If He really entered into solidarity with us – and that is just what He did do – it meant necessarily that He took upon Himself, in likeness to us, … the ‘flesh of sin’ (Rom 8:3). He shared in the status, constitution and situation of man in which man resists God and cannot stand before Him but must die” (II/1, p. 397). Like Barth, Torrance stressed that there is no system (no ontology) by which such affirmations can be explained. They are either understood out of themselves or not at all.

5. Torrance’s idea about “ontological healing” was an attempt to re-think the doctrine of sanctification. It attempted to place it within the frame of Christ’s incarnational mediation, in which our Lord “took this conflict into his own being” and “took part in it from both sides,” including therefore from the human side. Like Barth, only more so, Torrance explained both our justification and our sanctification by means of Christ’s obedient humanity. For sanctification this meant that regeneration took place in Christ before it took place in us. For Torrance there was one sanctification common to Christ and the church, and it was ours only by virtue of our participation in him (unio mystica).

6. I think Torrance would have done better to describe this regeneration of fallen humanity in Christ by resorting to Calvin’s terms of “mortification” and “vivification.” Instead he used the metaphor of “healing,” taken from Nazianzen’s famous saying that “the unassumed is the unhealed.” Torrance’s proposal was arguably better than the metaphor used to advance it. But his grasp of sanctification’s objective pole as anchored in the Incarnation was simply an elaboration (not a contradiction) of sanctification as developed by Barth. Admittedly the actualistic motif was sharper in Barth than in Torrance, but it was by no means absent from Torrance, and more than actualism is to be found in Barth.

7. Like Hans W. Frei and Eberhard Jüngel, Torrance thought with Barth and beyond Barth, while also sometimes against him. Barth himself had occasion to insist: “Ich bin kein Barthianer!” Torrance shows himself to be a true “Barthian,” because Barth would have had it no other way.


jim Gordon said...

As a Scot still wrestling with the legacy of Torrance, and proud to claim him as one of Scotland's best representative theologians, I find this series of corrective emphases and affirmations true to my own reading of Torrance. And much more succinctly stated than I'd have managed.
I've saved the recently published volume of his dogmatics lectures, Incarnation, for my Christmas read - along with the new biography of Rowan Williams - a non Barthian with an equally sure grasp of the mystery and cnetrality of the Incarnation.

Peace and joy to all your readers, Ben, and thanks for another year of Faith and Theology sustenance.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Hunsinger said:

1. There is a difference between theological journalism and theological scholarship. The latter makes measured judgments and works closely with texts. The former traffics in sweeping generalizations and big fuzzy ideas like “substance metaphysics” and “actualistic ontology.” Such notions are of little use for understanding either Torrance or Barth.

Was this intended as a 'back-handed' rebuke to some of those involved in this recent dialogue around Barth and Torrance?

Anonymous said...

Dear Bobby,

I hope you will take it as a plea to get away from the appeal, increasingly recurrent, to "big fuzzy ideas" in discussing certain theologians' views.

Best regards.

Anonymous said...

“Ich bin kein Barthianer!”

What does that mean in English?

Anonymous said...

bobby g. take it as a friendly nudge to remember that what passes on most blogs is at best theological journalism and let's not fall into that frightful position thinking we are doing anything more than that. It's too easy for people to get on blogs and think what they're doing is actual scholarship. thanks again prof. hunsinger for the gentle reminder.

Pete R.

Anonymous said...

Name a theologian who doesn't use such phrases (on the model of 'substance metaphysics'). Admittedly the better protagonists explain what they mean... but then again that's usually in the essays and books rather than the blogs.
But I do appreciate the blogs for their provocation alongside the wonderful discussion that follows in comment. With this form of theology there is at least a dialog process.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Hunsinger. Many thanks for this post. Your reading here particularly of TF rings true to my own. I would have liked you to engage a little more than you do, however, with the points raised by Ben, Travis and David. Still, could I invite you to unpack a little further your statement that 'regeneration took place in Christ before it took place in us'? It's the nature of the 'before' that I'm seeking some clarification on.

Advent blessings.

Bruce Hamill. You could do with reading some Forsyth! Advent blessings to you too.

Anonymous said...

If, i remember correctly, T.F Torrance points out in some audio lectures that he once remarked to Barth that his theology "had no room for the high priesthood of Christ," to which Barth agreed. The implication was that Barth admitted that Torrance's work in that area did indeed go beyond his, and "that was a good thing."

Anonymous said...

Prof. Hunsinger,

I'm just barely cutting my teeth on Torrance and Barth, so if I ever use this terminology it is only as a mere babe, hoping, at some point, to move on to the 'meat' of conceptuality that such symbols are representing.

If I had the money I would hope to learn such things from people like you (first hand); but until the LORD provides that way, I find such sustenance at the feet of people like Ben, Travis, David et al---with the assumption that they are mediators of 'theological scholarship', both because they are all scholars (in training, or proven), and because they sit directly under folks like you.

Your admonition is well taken, I'll keep trying to be a "formal theologian" that is well pleasing to the LORD---and hope that is good enough.



Anonymous said...

unpack a little further your statement that "regeneration took place in Christ before it took place in us"

Torrance maintained that the Incarnate Son's assumptio carnis involved the assumption of our human nature, not in a neutral sense but in the sense of our fallenness, our "flesh." In other words, Christ made "the status, constitution and situation" of the fallen human race his own.

Torrance interpreted Rom. 8:3 to mean that Christ "condemned sin in the flesh" by bearing God's judgment on sin, for our sakes and in our place, in his own humanity.

However, Christ's human obedience meant not only that he submitted to God's judgment in our place, but that he also brought about the regeneration ("ontological healing") of the very humanity he had assumed, again for our sakes and in our place. Christ was, in this sense, the "firstborn" of the new creation.

The regeneration of the faithful was then understood to take place through their participatio Christi, that is, through their union and communion with Christ. Those who entered into union with Christ by grace through faith were given a share in his regenerate or sanctified humanity. What had been perfected in him was imparted by the Spirit to them, and this spiritual impartation was understood to occur through mystical union with Christ.

He joins himself to us, and us to himself, by means of his body and blood.

Regeneration was therefore vicarious first, and then a matter of union with Christ. It was a matter of internal rather than external relations. Christ and the church were one mystical body. Christ's giving of himself to the church meant, among other things, his imparting to the faithful of the regeneration he had accomplished for them in the flesh. For them it was a matter of participation, not merely of repetition or imitation.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Hunsinger,

although Jason asked the question, I was wondering the same thing; and your response is very very helpful.

Would you mind if I reproduced your comment at my blog (it's the journalist in me ;-) . . . for the benefit of my readers? You really don't know how helpful this response was, thank you!

Anonymous said...

Prof. Hunsinger. Thanks for your response to my question concerning the relationship between the Son's assuming of fallen flesh and the participatio Christi; yet another reminder of TF Torrance's indebtment to Calvin.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Hunsinger,

I went ahead and reproduced some of what you've said here, at my site . . . I hope that was okay. I find all of this so edifying and encouraging, I wish I had been exposed to more of this in my own seminary experience; but better later than never.

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