Saturday, 20 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.


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