Tuesday, June 30, 2009

T.F. Torrance and the construction of Nicene Orthodoxy (PTT)

Developed originally for the Warfield lecture in 1981, T.F. Torrance's The Trinitarian Faith is a sustained engagement with the thought of the Fathers, shaped by the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed, as a basis for the ancient evangelical faith. Although Torrance claims to be seeking to let the Fathers speak for themselves (p2), there are obvious points where Torrance is beholden to a metanarrative of historical theology which Ayres would probably critique. Further, there is a certain Athanasius-centric thread running through the whole work. Nonetheless, of modern appropriations Torrance's remains vital and significant.

Torrance situates the development of Nicaea, which he views as a critical and decisive moment in theological-ecclesial history, in the dual commitments of faith (in the objective reality of the incarnate Son and the apostolic gospel that follows) and godliness (for doctrine is never divorced from praxis in the Fathers). His characterisation of Graeco-Roman thought as dualistic, and the challenge of Hebraic and Christian thought into that world in Chapter 2 is open to question, but his definitive point about access to the Father is Alexandrian: only God can make God known. Our epistemological foundation is God in Christ. This knowledge is true and accurate as it is according to the nature of the thing known, according to the nature of God as God in Christ. Mt 11:27 is key, as we are given access to the closed circle of interior relations of the Triune God, by the revelation in the incarnation of the Son.

In approaching the creatorship of God, Torrance follows Athanasius in prioritising Father over Creator, but then radically inverts Pr 8:22, by reading the incarnate Christ as the arche of God's economic and soteriological work in time-space (p83). God was not always creator, but always had the capacity of creation, and willed not to exist for himself alone. Torrance makes some specious Hebrew arguments about creation ex nihilo (p95f), but his basic point stands: God alone creates absolutely. More refined, Torrance helpfully points to the distinct yet dependent conception of creation emerging in Athanasius and his heirs. That the creation was distinct secured the gulf between Creator and creation, that it was dependent secured God as absolute being. Between necessity and accidence, the creation is instead contingent. Not only this, it had a rational order and a real freedom.

In chapter 4, he turns explicitly to the Son, though his earlier reflections have shown the centrality of the Son for knowledge of the Father. While Torrance's approach is credo-centric and probably beholden to much to Athanasius' enshrinement of the creed's terminology in his rhetorical polemic, the conceptual framework holds. That Arius' theology threatened the gospel was clear in 325, that the Eusebians' did also had to be worked out (even if Athanasius sneakily called the Ariomaniacs from then on). Torrance correctly identifies the intensely exegetical nature of the controversy, and that homoousios, expressed or not, became a hermeneutical principle that guided Nicene theological endeavours. In Torrance's construal, Nicaea was not about metaphysics, so much as soteriology, not so much a capitulation to Hellenism, but a safeguarding against Hellenistic concepts by reshaping Hellenistic terminology. Torrance shows this by considering the opposite: what is lost without homoousios? The externality of the Son to the Father's being destroys the epistemological ground for knowing God, as well as the soteriological ground for redemption.

In treating of the humanity of Jesus in chapter 5, Torrance focuses again on the soteriological and economic pivot: God became Man in Christ for our sakes. There is an historical necessity to the incarnation. Torrance points in Athanasius to the order: God first, who assumes humanity. Not God in man, but God as man. This means that Christ's humanity is thoroughly personal and vicarious (p151). This further means the Atonement is essentially interior to the life of the Godhead (see Atonement post). It is internal, not external, to God; Christ united himself to our actual existence; and it is about both representation and substitution. Torrance does some work on the biblical language of “ransom, sacrifice, propitiation, expiation, reconciliation” (p168).

Chapter 6 turns to the Holy Spirit, and remains one of the most confusing pieces of theology. In part, the Holy Spirit's functional pointing to the Son tends to obscure theologising about the Spirit. Following Athanasius, the Spirit is image of the Son, and so is imageless himself (p194). The triadic formulae of the NT, along with the baptismal faith of the early church, provided much of the raw material for a faith and a doxological appreciation of the Spirit long before explicit theologising. Torrance's main point of departure in treating the Spirit is Athanasius' Ad Serapion, but also Didymus the Blind. The arguments for the Spirit's divinity follow the basic pattern of those applied for the Son.

Torrance criticises the Cappadocians for locating the cause and source of the Spirit's, and the Son's, being in the person of the Father. This runs the risk of ontologising the persons, and diminishing the commonality of the ousia. Rather, Torrance sees Son and Spirit “ deriv[ing] their distinctive modes of existence and their distinctive properties from the Person of the Father”, not their being (p243). Their being is the being of the Father himself.

Leaving aside The Trinitarian Faith, we can note a few other things about Torrance's appropriation of the Fathers, drawn from Letham's analysis.

Torrance follows Barth in seeing the doctrine of the Trinity as distinctively Christian, so much so that it must characterise and shape all other doctrines. He has an 'onto-relational' concept of the divine persons: the three persons are the one being. This is, from what we have considered elsewhere, a fair reading of the Fathers (against several misreadings we have encountered). Torrance foregrounds homoousion and perichoresis in his trinitarian formulations. In this he is misreading the historical debate though not necessarily its theological content. However, his use of perichoresis with monarchia, that monarchia is not limited to the Father, is shifting from the Cappadocians at the least. How fine a distinction can we make between 'priority' and 'order' in the persons?

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