Light of Faith - Aquinas

I came across a fascinating passage in Thomas Aquinas’ Compendium Theologiae wherein he discusses the “defects” in the humanity of Christ’s flesh, prior to his resurrection and glorification. Yes, defects. De defectibus assumptis a Christo. Immediately this had me thinking about T. F. Torrance’s emphasis on the “fallen” humanity assumed by the Son in becoming flesh. Is there common ground here between Thomas and Thomas?

Let us look at the Scotsman first and then the Italian.


Torrance on the Fallen Human Nature of Christ

Thomas F. Torrance is well-known for advocating that the Son assumed the flesh of fallen humanity, that is, a “fallen flesh.” For example, he writes in his Edinburgh lectures:

But are we to think of this flesh which he became as our flesh? Are we to think of it as describing some neutral human nature and existence, or as describing our actual human nature and existence in the bondage and estrangement of humanity fallen from God and under the divine judgment? [Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, p. 61]

For Torrance, if the humanity assumed by the Son is not our fallen humanity, then our fallen humanity is “untouched” by the work of Christ (ibid., 62). He then quotes Gregory Nazianzen’s formula, “the unassumed is the unredeemed.” The flesh which Christ healed was a corrupted flesh, and this is the wondrous “great exchange” where he took our infirmities and we take his regal health. This is a basic pattern in the theology of the early fathers, according to Torrance:

Patristic theology, especially as we see it expounded in the great Athanasius, makes a great deal of the fact that he who knew no sin became sin for us, exchanging his riches for our poverty, his eternal life for our mortality. Thus Christ took from Mary a corruptible and mortal body in order that he might take our sin, judge and condemn it in the flesh, and so assume our human nature as we have it in the fallen world that he might heal, sanctify and redeem it. [Ibid.]

In a powerful way, Torrance connects this with the obedience of the Son in his earthly devotion to the Father. This obedience in the flesh “was not light or sham obedience.” He continues, “It was agonisingly real in our flesh of sin: ‘he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross,’ [Phil 2.8] and ‘he learned obedience through what he suffered’ [Heb 5.8]. …His obedience was a battle. The temptations make that abundantly clear” (Ibid., 64).

I do not see a problem with any of this, though I am aware of others who have criticized Torrance (and Barth) on this matter. Torrance is, of course, firm in his belief that Christ’s humanity is not sinful, albeit fallen. Christ’s humanity is necessarily not sinful or else the condemnation of sin in his flesh could not have been achieved. Torrance writes, “His taking of our flesh of sin was a sinless action, which means that Jesus does not do in the flesh of sin what we do, namely, sin, but it also means that by remaining holy and sinless in our flesh, he condemned sin in the flesh he assumed and judged it by his very sinlessness” (Ibid., 63). His holiness triumphs over the falleness from within — by condemning sin in the flesh.

Does it make sense to say “fallen but not sinful”? That is an obvious objection to Torrance’s usage of the term,”fallen,” for Christ’s human nature. But Torrance is making distinctions in the type of defects in Christ’s fallen humanity versus our fallen humanity.

The defects which the Son assumed in our humanity needs to be parsed carefully. Precisely what defects did the Son assume in his becoming flesh? The Son did not assume the defects of a sinful will, but he did assume the defects of a cursed, suffering, and dying flesh, which invariably presses upon a fully human will (e.g., temptations of Christ). It is this latter sense in which Christ bore a “fallen” human nature. And this is what I see Thomas Aquinas saying in his Compendium Theologiae.


Saint Thomas Aquinas on the Caro of the Incarnatio

I am perhaps venturing too far here, without adequate gear. I have not compared this section in the Compendium to any corresponding material in his two Summas, nor have I consulted any secondary sources on the issue. But let’s go ahead anyway.

In chapter 226, Thomas is discussing the satisfaction necessarily rendered by humanity in order to be redeemed. “No punishment undergone by any man could suffice to liberate the whole human race. …God alone is of infinite dignity and so He alone, in the flesh assumed by Him could adequately satisfy for man, as has already been noted [Cf. chap. 200]” (Light of Faith: The Compendium of Theology, trans. Cyril Vollert, S.J., 284). This is all very Anselmic, and we need not detain ourselves with a comparison of the different set-up here to that of Torrance.

For our purposes, the following material is relevant to our question of whether — or, in what way — the Son assumed a fallen humanity. This excerpt is kinda lengthy but necessarily so:

…Christ ought not to have assumed those defects which separate man from God, such as privation of grace, ignorance, and the like, although they are punishment for sin. Defects of this kind would but render Him less apt for offering satisfaction. Indeed, to be the author of man’s salvation, He had to possess fullness of grace and wisdom, as we pointed out above [Cf. chap. 213]. Yet, since man by sinning was placed under the necessity of dying and of being subjected to suffering in body and soul, Christ wished to assume the same kind of defects, so that by undergoing death for men He might redeem the human race.

Defects of this kind are common to Christ and to us. Nevertheless they are found in Christ otherwise than in us. For, as we have remarked, such defects are the punishment of the first sin [Cf. chap. 193]. Since we contract Original Sin through our vitiated origin, we are in consequence said to have contracted these defects. But Christ did not contract any stain in virtue of His origin. He accepted the defects in question of His own free will. Hence we should not say that He contracted these defects, but rather that he assumed them for that is contracted (contrahitur) which is necessarily drawn along with (cum trahitur) some other things. …Therefore in Him they were not contracted but were voluntarily assumed.

Yet, since our bodies are subject to the aforesaid defects in punishment for sin — for prior to sin we were immune from them — Christ, so far as He assumed such defects in His flesh is rightly deemed to have borne the likeness of sin, as the Apostle says in Romans 8:3: “God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Hence Christ’s very passibility or suffering is called sin by the Apostle, when he adds that God “hath condemned sin in the flesh,” and observes in Romans 6:10: “In that He died to sin, He died once.” For the same reason the Apostle uses an even more astonishing expression in Galatians 3:13, saying that Christ was “made a curse for us.” This is also why Christ is said to have assumed one of our obligations (that of punishment) in order to relieve us of our double burden, namely, sin and punishment.

…Again, since He came chiefly to restore human nature, He fittingly assumed those defects that are found universally in nature.

[Ibid., 285-287. I am using Vollert’s translation. Also see Richard Regan’s translation in Compendium of Theology.]

So, to answer our question in the title of this post: yes, Christ assumed our fallen human nature. Aquinas does not use the term, “fallen,” and he may have objected to doing so. But he does make clear that the Son assumed our “defects,” his preferred term. These defects are common with the defects of general fallen humanity, though Christ does not assume every defect. The Son does not assume those defects that would render his sacrifice unacceptable. He does not sin. He is not separated from God through any privation of grace. He remains holy. Likewise for Torrance, Christ remains holy and pure, thereby overcoming the power of sin.

This is not to say that Torrance and Aquinas are identical in how they are framing this. As I already alluded, Aquinas favors “satisfaction” for how Christ undoes the curse, whereas Torrance favors an ontological undoing of fallen nature in Christ, in which we partake by the Spirit in union with Christ glorified. These are probably not mutually exclusive, however, especially if we take-in the whole scope of these two theologians’ writings.

Differences aside, I think there is some interesting common ground here.

Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

Jordan Cooper posted a brief guide to Lutheran systematic theology texts, which gave me the bright idea of doing the same! Cooper’s list is limited to conservative Lutheran texts. I will do the same for Reformed, but with a slightly broader range of options in the (constantly-debated) Reformed identity.


Reformed Theology, R. Michael Allen. This is the Reformed entry in T&T Clark’s “Doing Theology” series. I can do no better than quote John Webster’s blurb on the back cover: “Clear, calm and illuminating, this book offers a loving and generous commendation of the classical Reformed tradition of doctrine and spiritual practice.”

Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century, ed. Arthur Cochrane. The French Confession, the Scots Confession, the Belgic Confession, and many more. The appendix includes the Heidelberg Catechism and the Barmen Declaration.


Holiness and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, John Webster. Deceptively short, these two volumes will teach you how to think like a Reformed theologian, with all of the right instincts and necessary subtly.

On the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God, Ulrich Zwingli. This is one of my favorite Reformation treatises. The volume includes Bullinger’s Of The Holy Catholic Church.

Commentary on Hebrews, John Calvin. Because it’s Calvin and because it’s Hebrews — enough said.

An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, Auguste Lecerf. I recently revisited this volume, and I was thoroughly impressed once again. Lecerf was a French Reformed theologian, who followed closely to Calvin and Bavinck. In 2009, I did a blog series on Lecerf: “The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics.”

Christian Foundations, Donald Bloesch. This is Bloesch’s seven-volume systematic theology. Even though the number of volumes may be intimidating, this is a rather accessible ST. Bloesch’s heart was always for the church, strengthening her members with solid theology.

The Christian Doctrine of GodThe Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, and The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Emil Brunner. This is Brunner’s three-volume Dogmatics series. Brunner’s theology is guided by a personalist metaphysics, which he taught as uniquely derived from Scripture.


The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin. There are a couple options for Calvin’s final Latin edition from 1559. The McNeil edition, with Ford Lewis Battles translating, is the most commonly cited among scholars. The older Beveridge translation is still a favorite among many, now in a nice one-volume edition from Hendrickson, with new typeset. I sometimes prefer the Beveridge translation (or even the older John Allen translation), though I typically use Battles.

The Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, John Calvin. Shorter and more accessible, this is worth considering. It is Robert White’s new translation of Calvin’s first French edition of his Institutes. I have read portions of it, and I am very impressed by the clarity of White’s translation. Of course, I have not compared it to the French, and there is also McKee’s translation to consider.

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Francis Turretin. The final master theologian at the Genevan academy, founded by Calvin. Turretin is the culmination of Reformed Orthodoxy, through all of its battles against Remonstrants and Catholics and Socinians and other rascals. “Elenctic” means “serving to refute.” This was the standard theology text at Old Princeton, used by Charles Hodge, before Princeton got lazy and dropped Latin.

Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck. Written in Dutch in the early years of the 20th century, it took long enough for this to get translated into English! Bavinck presents a masterful synthesis of the scholastic Reformed tradition. Throughout, he frequently makes contrasts with the mainline liberalism of the 19th century, especially Hegel. Compared to either Calvin or Barth, Bavinck’s exegesis can be rather thin — but that is my only complaint.

Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth. You can spend your whole life reading Barth, and you will still be repeatedly stunned at this achievement. Alongside the tireless devotion of his secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, Barth labored lovingly in this marvel of devotion to God and his church.

Studies in Dogmatics, G. C. Berkouwer. I love Berkouwer! In the English translation, this amounts to fourteen volumes. I own all of them in hardback, because a blessed soul was selling the set for a great price. Berkouwer is always a studious and fair student of theology.

Foundations of Dogmatics, Otto Weber. For reasons unknown to me, Weber’s Foundations is scarcely ever referenced in contemporary theological writing. It was translated by Darrell Guder (Fuller, PTS) and published by Eerdmans. The reason for its neglect is perhaps, in part, due to its incredible density and technical skill. Moreover, since Weber is usually lumped with Barth, people prefer to just read Barth, who wrote more than enough for the average student to consume. Nonetheless, Weber is impressive and worth consulting.

Incarnation and Atonement, T. F. Torrance. These are Torrance’s dogmatics lectures from Edinburgh. The latter volume is now only in paperback, as far as I can tell, unless you buy used. Torrance is, in many vital respects, a disciple of Barth, with whom he studied in Basel; but, he also has his own interests and expertise. Torrance’s range of competence is astonishing: from patristics to physics.


Notable Mentions

Dogmatic Theology, William G. T. Shedd. This is my favorite ST from an American Calvinist in the 19th century. He reminds me of Bavinck — clear and precise prose — though it is not quite as wide-ranging as Bavinck’s ST or as engaged with liberal modernity.

The Christian Faith, Michael Horton. Alongside his four-volume Covenant series, beginning with Covenant and Eschatology, Horton has made some impressive contributions to Reformed theology in America. Among those who are revitalizing Reformed scholasticism of the 17th century, Horton is the best and most accessible. He treats his opponents fairly and charitably.

Remythologizing Theology, Kevin Vanhoozer. Vanhoozer is a Presbyterian theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. As I have told others, he is probably the best American theologian right now. This volume is his first foray into real dogmatics, after several years of impressive writing in hermeneutics and epistemology. Welcome to theology proper, Professor Vanhoozer!


Image above: Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

Not impressed by liberal theology

Not impressed by liberal theology

Are you tired, run-down, listless? Do you poop out at parties? Well, I’ve got the inspiration you need! A couple of fellow bloggers have posted several audio lectures by T. F. Torrance and Karl Barth, delivered at Princeton Seminary and provided by Princeton for free:

Thomas F. Torrance Audio Lectures

Karl Barth 1962 Warfield Lectures

The Barth lectures are from his only visit to the states and are available in print: the much-beloved Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. The audio for Barth’s American lectures are already available in a 1963 vinyl LP set, now published as a CD set by Wipf and Stock. A friend of mine gave me the audio files to this, so I have briefly compared the two sets of audio.

There are a few differences. The audio quality is a little clearer on the LP/CD set; the Princeton audio is a bit muffled but still clear enough. More importantly, the LP/CD set includes all five lectures published in Evangelical Theology (chapters 1-5), whereas the Princeton audio (above) has four lectures. It is missing “The Word” lecture, which is chapter 2 in the book. Otherwise, the content for the four appears to be identical, but the Q/A is different. Also, the Princeton set has the audio for “Karl Barth Meets the Students of Princeton Seminary.” So, my guess is that the LP/CD set is the audio from the University of Chicago, since Barth gave the same lectures at both places…and he also visited Union Seminary in Richmond, VA, but I don’t know if he gave the same lectures there (probably so). Anyway, I thought that some of y’all may be interested in knowing the differences between the two sets of audio. Feel free to offer any corrections in the comments.

Hans Martensen with Dannebrog Grand Cross, awarded in 1867 for 30 years as bishop of the diocese of Zealand


De omnibus dubitandum est.

Everything must be doubted.

Hans Martensen popularized this Latin expression in his lectures on philosophy, and it carried over into the debates of the day within Hegelian circles. According to Jon Stewart, Martensen developed a genealogy of modern philosophy that began with Descartes’ radical doubt (see p. 238ff.). De omnibus dubitandum est. This inauguration of modern philosophy received its final maturation and systematization in Hegel’s philosophy. So, Hegel agreed in substance with this principle of skepticism as the foundation for modern knowing. But…

That doesn’t strike me as really what Hegel was doing, however indebted he was to Descartes’ subjectivism, leading toward the internalizing of metaphysical realities. (Thus, for Hegel, dogmas are symbols, not realities.) Anyway, back to Stewart’s fascinating study. Stewart disagrees with Martensen’s reading of Hegel on this point, and he is probably right. But it is Martensen’s interpretation of Hegel that has been the dominant reading of Kierkegaard’s work, Johannes Climacus Or, De Omnibus Dubitandum Est. Yet, if Stewart is right, then that reading of this text, now published with Philosophical Fragments, is wrong.

Kierkegaard’s character, Johannes Climacus, is an eager young man, attending university lectures on philosophy, hearing about the modern principle of De omnibus dubitandum est. He then applies it throughout his life — doubting everything. The work is a satire. Climacus’ project of radical doubt is reduced to absurdity. Most interpreters have assumed that Kierkegaard is satirizing Hegel, but Stewart makes a strong case that it is Martensen in fact that Kierkegaard is satirizing. Kierkegaard was attacking the Hegelianism of Martensen and not Hegel himself, which is demonstrated by the striking similarities between Martensen’s lectures and Kierkegaard’s satire.

But, and here is the really interesting bit, Martensen rejects the principle of De omnibus dubitandum est, in the clearest of terms, in his systematic theology, Christian Dogmatics. I will provide the excerpt below. Martensen is arguing that the Christian principle of Credo ut intelligam is fundamentally at odds with De omnibus dubitandum est. He is developing some of his earlier thoughts in the volume, which I have previously provided: “Theology begins with certainty.” And for those who have read T. F. Torrance, you will detect some close similarities.

Earlier in his study, Stewart discusses how Martensen was “never a full-fledged devotee of Hegelianism” and that he repudiates ever being a Hegelian in his autobiography (Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered, p. 63). Stewart then provides a brief analysis of how Martensen departed from Hegel, such as belief in a personal God. Yet, in Stewart’s analysis of Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus, Martensen is portrayed as a rather thorough Hegelian, in agreement with Hegel’s skeptical starting point, albeit not a wholly accurate representation of Hegel. So, that is where I am left confused. If Martensen’s lectures are so Hegelian, then why is his Christian Dogmatics so critical of Hegel at key points, which (once again) Stewart himself recognizes earlier in his study.

The solution may simply be that Martensen changed his evaluation of Hegel throughout his career. Indeed, Stewart states that “the issue of how Hegelian he was after the entire course of his intellectual development remains open” (ibid.). It does seem clear that Martensen admired Hegel for his repudiation of Schleiermacher’s attack on speculative reason, and this criticism of Schleiermacher remains in Martensen’s dogmatics. Yet, even while Martensen is anxious to maintain the objectivity and integrity of the Christian faith, he repeatedly repudiates the pantheism he detects in Hegel and the wider trends in the theology of his day.

In opposition to this pantheism and metaphysical anti-realism, Martensen proposes a speculative personalism, which I can only characterize as a combination of Hegel and Emil Brunner! Seriously. To my mind, that is awesome! And that is why I am enjoying Martensen so much, even when I hesitate on certain details.

The excerpt from Martensen is below, where he distinguishes between doubt as a metaphysical a priori and doubt as a dialectical tool. He repudiates the former and affirms the latter, which is (as stated above) similar to Torrance, who basically got it from Barth.


For human knowledge, all independence is conditioned by dependence; all self-activity, all intellectus activus, is conditioned on susceptibility, on intellectus passivus. The false gnosis which will not believe in order to know, denies not only the creatureship of man, but also his sinfulness and need of redemption. For it is only through regeneration that the human mind, darkened by sin, can be lifted up to that stage of life and existence, at which it can have a correct view of divine and human things. But regeneration expresses itself in faith. The assertion of Christians, that faith is the mother of knowledge, is substantially confirmed by the analogy of all other spheres of human knowledge; for all human knowledge has its root in an immediate perception of the object. And, as it is useless for one who lacks hearing to talk about music; as it is useless for one who has no sense for colours to develop a theory of colour, the same holds true respecting the cognition of sacred things. “The Strasburg minster,” says Steftens, “and the Cologne cathedral, tower up high into the air, and yet, like Herculaneum and Pompeii, they have been to whole generations buried, and men have not seen them, because they lacked the faculty.” And so, we may add, there are whole generations who have not seen, and do not see, the Christian Church in history, although it is like a city on a hill. They have no eye for it because they have no faith.


By its “credo ut intelligam” Christian dogmatics is distinguished from that form of knowledge which starts with the proposition, “de omnibus dubitantum est,” so far, namely, as this proposition means that thought must cut itself loose from all presuppositions and start oft’ on a voyage of discovery, in order to find truth, be the truth what it may. In Christian knowledge the motive power is not doubt, but faith. Yet we may allow the existence of a sceptical element in Christian theology, if we use the expression to denote the critical and dialectic impulse contained in faith. Since faith finds itself in a world of sinfulness, of falsehood, and error; and since the church has the world not only out of itself, but in itself, faith must have a tendency to criticise, to try the spirits whether they are of God, to test whether the church and Christianity coincide, to test itself in order to assure itself of its own genuineness. And, since faith is also a cognition (§ 8), it must have a dialectical impulse to make clear to itself the antitheses involved in its own trains of thought. Christian faith is very different from artless credulity; and what has been said in recommendation of childlike and simple faith must be understood cum grano salis; for true simplicity of faith requires one to try the spirits and to try one’s self. Accordingly, Luther had doubts respecting ecclesiastical traditions and respecting the genuineness of his own monastic Christianity; and the different periods of the history of the church show that church teachers who were distinguished alike for the simplicity and the heroic strength of their faith, felt an impulse to make their faith clear to themselves by means of the sharpest dialectics. From the earliest ages of the Church this critical tendency has manifested itself in the sharp line of separation drawn between the proper doctrines of Christianity and heretical elements. This procedure necessarily, in every case, gave occasion to a dialectic examination of the particular points in question; for to draw a distinction between orthodoxy and heresy must surely be impossible, unless we test each individual doctrine by our view of the essence of Christianity; and test our view of the essence of Christianity by its harmonious conformity with the entire chain of Christian conceptions. In this sense, taking it as critical and dialectic, we may concede the presence of an element of scepticism in dogmatic theology; to a certain extent we must doubt, not merely in order to know aright, but also to believe aright. But if we break loose from the foundation of faith, if we become regardless of the vital interest we have in Christianity, if we cast aside its fundamental idea instead of seeking to correct our view of it, and to understand it more completely, and set up our scepticism as an independent source of truth, we shall fall, as the history of Protestantism plainly illustrates, into Rationalism with its all-dissolving criticism and empty dialectics.

Observations. — It frequently occurs that thorough-going doubt relative to the foundations of Christianity becomes the means of leading the soul to a living conviction of its truth; important, however, as may be the influence of such doubt, not only in a religious and moral, but even in a scientific respect, it has nothing whatever to do with dogmatic theology as such. One who entertains doubt as to the very basis of Christianity cannot feel an interest in dogmatic theology; for his sole enquiry is δος μοι που στω [give me the place to stand]; a demand which must be substantially satisfied ere strictly dogmatic investigations can begin.

§ 32.

The proposition — credo ut intelligam — to which we have just given prominence in opposition to every form of autonomic Rationalism, is not to be taken either in the scholastic sense or in that of the theology now commonly designated the “Theology of Feeling.” The scholastic divines fell very soon into a mechanical view thereof; for they drew the substance of their faith without any sort of critical examination from the creeds prevailing in the church, and started with preliminary principles which totally lacked an inner reality answering to their outward form. The mystics, and more recently Schleiermacher, struck into a path directly opposite to that pursued by the scholastics :—they viewed faith as an inner vital principle, and constituted religious feeling the guide and pioneer of religious knowledge. In consequence, however, of the mystics misapprehending the nature of revelation, and Schleiermacher’s defining dogmatic theology as a description of religious states and experiences, both of them fell into a new error, relatively to the “credo ut intelligam.” Dogmatic theology became in their hands a mere doctrine concerning the nature of a religious man, or of piety, instead of being a doctrine of the nature of God and His revelation; it treated rather of man’s need of Christianity and his experience of its workings in his soul, than of Christianity itself, in its eternal truth and its claim to be accepted as such by men. Thus defined, it relates simply to the subjective ordo salutis; whilst the facts of revelation, the pillars and foundations of the truth, are left to be accepted and moulded, agreeably to the particular ideas and needs of individual believers. If the full significance of faith as an inner vital principle is to be recognized, it must be considered not merely as the experience of the practical workings of Christianity, but also as the intellectual organ, or the contemplative eye, for the domain of revelation. This latter aspect is recognized by speculative mystics and theosophists (like Joseph Böhme), who teach that faith itself involves a vision. And although they, in their turn, fell into an error, the error of attaching too slight importance to the historical, attention was called in a profound manner to the objective religious relation of faith. Taking for granted therefore the relation to an objective historical revelation, we define dogmatic theology, not primarily as the science of ” the believer” (the proper and only place for treating fully of the ” Christian Believer,” his character, life, and the roots thereof, is Christian Ethics); but as the science or doctrine of faith (fides quce creditur), not primarily as a system of pious emotions, but as the science of the truths of the Christian Faith; not primarily as a description of the states of pious souls, but as a development of the believing view of revelation. We are aware, indeed,—and many illustrations of the fact might be adduced from the history of speculation, both in former and modem times,—that the demand for such an objective mode of consideration has frequently led to revelation being treated in a purely theoretical spirit by men totally destitute of religious experience; has given rise to an intellectualism which paid no regard to the practical aspects of Christianity: but this is by no means necessarily involved in the idea of a knowledge which, besides being the knowledge of religion, is itself religious. Whilst we cannot regard feeling as a principle of knowledge :—for the proper and only principle of knowledge is the idea, the thought of the divine wisdom ;—we must maintain it to be a condition. The idea, which is the true principle of knowledge in matters of faith, can never arise save in a man that is actually religious; and our intellectual eye grows dim the moment it ceases to draw nourishment from the heart; it becomes like the lamp of the foolish virgins which went out for lack of oil. On this ground the profoundest thinkers of the middle ages justly demanded that Scholasticism should be united with mysticism, that the intellectus should not be without affectus.

[Christian Dogmatics, pp. 59-62]


Image: Hans Martensen with the Dannebrog Grand Cross, awarded in 1867 for 30 years of service as bishop of the diocese of Zealand, Denmark.

In light of Sarah Coakley’s recent Gifford Lectures, I’ve been reflecting once again on the proper way to formulate the relation between natural and revealed theology. In particular, I am rather committed to Barth’s project of subsisting the doctrine of creation within the doctrine of the covenant (which is to say, within the doctrine of God). Thus, as Barth formulates this in the beginning of his doctrine of creation (CD III.1), creation is the external basis of the covenant, and the covenant is the internal basis of creation.

This means that there is such a thing as a natural theology, just not the sort that dominated either classical Christian theism or Protestant liberalism. The importance of this (and the importance of CD III) is that we are able to move beyond a merely existential theologia crucis that overly emphasizes the eschatological side of the creation-redemption dialectic.

Moreover, in regard to the concerns of Professor Coakley, this means that theology can give proper attention to creation as it presents itself to us (and to scientists). The natural world is a legitimate material field for theological formulations. Revealed theology provides the structure in which natural theology is given the right terms and conditions for its advancement, and (in turn) natural theology provides the material for those terms. There is a correlation in this reciprocity between revealed and natural theology, not a crude accommodation of one to the other. T. F. Torrance aptly expresses this correlation for how “we must advance through and beyond Barth” (not against Barth):

If we are to take as seriously as Barth himself did the relation between the incarnation and the creation in God’s creative and redemptive interaction with the world, then a closer relation must be established between natural theology and revealed theology. Karl Barth rightly attacked traditional natural theology as constituting an independent conceptual system on its own, and therefore as constituting the prior and prescriptive framework within which revealed theology could only be distorted and misinterpreted. He attacked it on a double ground:

(1) from the actual content of positive knowledge of God which called in question prescriptive forms derived from ground on which actual knowledge of God did not arise — the effect of that he held, was to split the concept of God into two, evidenced by the sharp division in mediaeval theology between the tractate on the one God and the tractate on the triune God;

(2) and also from the side of rigorous scientific method which will not allow such a bifurcation between prior epistemological structure and empirical content.

But for these same reasons, which presuppose a rejection of deistic and epistemological dualism, the theoretic and empirical components of our knowledge of God in and through the space-time structures of the creation must be brought together. There is a close parallel here to the advance of physics in its relation to geometry, as Einstein has expounded it. Euclidean geometry was pursued as an independent theoretic system, antecedent to physics, but that has proved an idealisation which falsifies our understanding of the real world when applied to it. But with the discovery of the four-dimensional geometries of space and time, geometry is brought into the heart of physics and pursued in indissoluble union with it. There it becomes, as Einstein said, a kind of natural science, for its structure changes, but it remains geometry and constituted in that organic relation with physics its epistemological structure. Similarly, I would argue, natural theology must be brought within the heart of positive theology, where of course its structure will change, for then physical statements and theological statement will be intimately correlated. This means that positive theology will change also, for it will have to be pursued in indissoluble relation with the space-time structures of the creation, which in a different way are explored by natural science.

[Thomas F. Torrance, “Newton, Einstein, and Scientific Theology,” in Transformation & Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998), 281-282.]


From a fan of the blog

January 27, 2011

Once in a while you get an entertaining comment like this one, from my review of Robert Letham’s book on the Westminster Assembly:

This Torrancian drivel is pathetic. Get over Torrance and his second-rate, second-hand neo-neo-orthodoxy. Union with Christ is a modern Centraldogma used to judge the WA according to the standards of a small number of vaguely Barthian Scots who can’t distinguish history from theology. If you want to take on Muller, man up, read some Latin, and publish something besides these whiney, self-congratulating blogs. Pathetic! Moreover, scholastic in this context means academic, with all the positive, negative, and neutral connotations of today’s term. Get a life, neo-Amyraldians.

Bobby, I know you loved that one!

I’m reading Letham’s The Westminster Assembly. As other reviewers have noted, the book is full of great information, including two excellent excursuses: on the imputation of Adam’s guilt and on the covenant of works. In both areas, Letham details how the Reformed tradition developed these two lines in protology, but neither are necessary for the Reformed faith (that’s my conclusion; Letham mostly sticks to the history). Neither were found — at least, not explicitly — in the earliest Reformed churchmen, and, even when both gained prominence in the 17th century, Reformed churchmen in good standing can be found in the opposition. On such matters, Letham criticizes some of the Princetonians for anachronistic readings of the Westminster Assembly: projecting backwards certain “conclusions” which were then still in development and still heavily disputed. On this, I commend Letham for his careful historical reconstruction and appropriate amount of nuance concerning the precise language being used.

However, when it comes to Letham’s criticism of Thomas F. Torrance, I’m not nearly as impressed, to say the least. Letham is not happy with Torrance’s judgment, in Scottish Theology and elsewhere, that the Westminster divines neglected the theme of “union with Christ,” as found in Calvin and the early Scottish reformers. Letham’s argument — and only argument — against this criticism is that, while the Confession indeed lacks any statement on union with Christ, the Larger Catechism (questions 65-90) gives ample attention to this theme, thus “destroying” Torrance’s thesis. The number of times that Letham repeats himself, on this point, is a bit excessive:

[Torrance] argues that the Confession did not follow the lead of Calvin and the 1560 Scots Confession in holding justification and union with Christ inseparably together. But while this may be true, Torrance ignores the Larger Catechism, where this connection is clear. This also evaporates his contention that the Confession’s ordo salutis is medieval, with a series of steps leading to union with Christ, a reversal of Calvin’s teaching on union with Christ as the source of his benefits. The Confession, he insists, does not demonstrate the spiritual freshness and freedom of the Scots Confession. The earlier evangelical Calvinism was here replaced by a more legalistic variety of theology. …Torrance gives little attention to the historical context…. He does not pay attention to the whole theological output of the Assembly, but is fixated on the Confession. [pp. 106-7]

T. F. Torrance castigates the Assembly for what he considers to be a medieval conception of the ordo salutis, with various stages of grace leading to union with Christ. Superficially, it mights seem so, since there is no chapter on union with Christ in the Confession, nor is union with Christ significant in the discussion of the elements of salvation. However, Torrance’s thesis is shattered by Larger Catechism 65-90, where all of God’s grace is said to be found in union and communion with Christ. The two documents need to be taken together, for their lines of approach are different but complementary. [pp. 242-3]

T. F. Torrance accuses the Assembly of departing from Calvin’s teaching and that of the Scottish Reformation, in which justification is held inseparably with union with Christ. But he fails to consider LC 65-90. It is astonishing that such a careful and meticulous scholar should be so neglected on a matter that is so close to home. [p. 269]

When we turn to the Larger Catechism, we see a different, but entirely congruous, picture. Whereas in the Confession justification is the first of the blessings of salvation, followed by adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and assurance, the Catechism treats them all as aspects of our union and communion with Christ in grace and glory (65-90). …Union with Christ is no more incompatible with forensic justification than justification is incompatible with sanctification. This undermines Torrance’s caricature of Westminster as conveying a harsh legal view of God and salvation, which, we argued, requires him to ignore the Larger Catechism. [pp. 273, 275]

So, what are we to make of this? First, it should be noted that Letham concedes Torrance’s assessment of the Confession, insofar as it lacks union with Christ, but Letham doesn’t think that this is important since the Larger Catechism bears this out. Am I the only one who thinks this is strange? The Confession is surely the more important of the two documents, and, regardless, a major inadequacy in the one cannot be “made up for” in the other. At best, we have to say that the Confession fails where the LC succeeds. Thus, Torrance’s point remains: the Confession is an inadequate and misleading statement of the Reformed faith, given its priorities for decretal and federal categories instead of union as a pervasive hermeneutic. As for the LC, while union is indeed present, it does not really obviate the concerns of Torrance (and others) that union has not been thoroughly worked through all the contingencies of the Reformed faith, especially the union through Christ’s homoousion, which Letham entirely ignores.

Letham is correct that union is present in the LC, and, yes, I will agree that Torrance should have recognized this fact (though his criticism of the Confession remains). Question 65 states, “The members of the invisible church by Christ enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory,” and question 66 states, “The union which the elect have with Christ is the work of God’s grace, whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband, which is done in their effectual calling.” And, importantly, question 69 states, “The communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ is their partaking of the virtue of his mediation, in their justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever else, in this life, manifests their union with him.” Likewise, questions 82 and 83 come back to the theme of union/communion with Christ. Thus, Letham can say that the intervening questions on justification and sanctification are framed by union with Christ. However, the LC lacks any extensive treatment of the decrees/election, as found in the Confession (probably because the LC is a catechism, with a pastoral focus, and the Confession of Faith is a confession, with a doctrinal focus). This is a crucial point, because this is precisely where Torrance’s criticisms, related to union and causation, are aimed. Perhaps Torrance ignored the LC because it had no bearing on his concerns about the doctrine of election. Letham fails to recognize this point.

I would still recommend Letham’s The Westminster Assembly, but it is unnecessarily marred by (1) Letham’s failure to really deal with Torrance’s concerns about a doctrine of union with Christ that extends from Christ’s homoousion and (2) by his failure to recognize the limitations of the Larger Catechism in regard to Torrance’s critique of the Assembly’s doctrine of election. This shallow handling of Torrance is a real shame, since Letham has already demonstrated his ability to capably handle Torrance (and Barth) in his book on the Trinity.

So, Jason has posted the link for a video of Alan Torrance on the Incarnation, grace, and godly living. The video is done by a denomination that I’ve never heard of: Grace Communion International, formerly known as The Worldwide Church of God, which I had also never heard of. It turns out that they were a fairly wacky denomination but then became orthodox by studying and affirming the doctrine of the Trinity and the evangelical doctrine of Atonement. They are now a member of the National Association of Evangelicals. Pretty awesome.

Just as awesome: they have several videos of top-notch theologians talking about a wide variety of topics, but almost all the discussions are related to the Trinity and the Incarnation and how this affects everything. I highly enjoyed this interview with Dr. Elmer Colyer, expert on T. F. Torrance, talking about predestination. Colyer is a very articulate defender of the Barth-Torrance line on the doctrine of Election.

“Realism” defined

January 27, 2009


The following is T. F. Torrance’s elucidation of the term, “realism.” It works as a very good definition. Don’t let the “Torrance-speak” throw you off: e.g., “a break in the semantic relation” just means “an untruth” or “telling falsely.”


The contrast between realism and idealism, implied in the use of either term, evidently has its source in the distinction we make between subject and object, idea and reality, or sign and thing signified. This is a natural operation of the human mind, for it belongs to the essence of rational behavior that we can distinguish ourselves as knowing subjects from the objects of our knowledge, and can employ ideas or words to refer to or signify realities independent of them. Normally our attention in knowing, speaking, listening, or reading is not focused upon the ideas or words we use, far less upon ourselves, but upon the realities they signify or indicate beyond themselves. Hence in our regular communication with one another we use and interpret signs in the light of their objective reference. Thus the natural operation of the human mind would appear to be realist.

We use these distinctions, then, between subject and object, idea and reality, or sign and thing signified, naturally and unreflectingly, and only turn a critical eye upon them when something arises to obscure signification, such as a break in the semantic relation. Much now depends upon where the emphasis falls, upon the signifying pole or the objective pole of the semantic relation, that is, upon idea or reality, upon sign or thing signified.

…we shall use the term [realism], not in an attenuated dialectical sense merely in contrast to idealism, nominalism, or conventionalism, but to describe the orientation in thought that obtains in semantics, science, or theology on the basis of a nondualist or unitary relation between the empirical and theoretical ingredients in the structure of the real world and in our knowledge of it. This is an epistemic orientation of the two-way relation between the subject and object poles of thought and speech, in which ontological primacy and control are naturally accorded to reality over all our conceiving and speaking of it. It is worth noting that it was a realist orientation of this kind which Greek patristic theology, especially from the third to the sixth century, struggled hard to acquire and which it built into the foundations of classical theology. [Ditto for relativity theory in 20th century science.]

Thomas F. Torrance, Reality and Evangelical Theology, pp. 58-60.

Introducing T. F. Torrance

January 21, 2009

Thomas Torrance

For those not familiar with Thomas F. Torrance and his unique contribution to dogmatics, here’s a little introduction. I will utilize excerpts from his 1981 lectures delivered at Fuller Theological Seminary, “The Realist Basis of Evangelical Theology,” published as Reality and Evangelical Theology (Wipf & Stock, reprint edition, 2003).


Torrance was the son of Scottish missionaries serving in China, where he was born in 1913 († 2007). His academic training included Edinburgh, Oxford, and eventually Basel (Switzerland) where he studied under Karl Barth. Barth’s influence is often noted and debated, but it should in no wise detract from his credentials as a significant theologian in his own right, traversing academic terrain scarcely touched by Barth. In particular, Torrance canvassed the difficult field of advanced theoretical physics with a boldness gained by a steady confidence in the Lordship of Christ over all of our thinking, or, in short, over all of reality. The Christocentrism running throughout Barth’s Church Dogmatics (which T.F.T. edited) is taken, with Torrance, into all of creation. For those, like me, who like to harp on about the sectarian thought patterns in (much of) evangelical thinking, Thomas Torrance is a gift.

Reason and Reality

It is interesting to note how Torrance understands “rationality.” He doesn’t have a formalized understanding of “what is rational” in the sense of laws intrisic to reason, as if “thinking” could be taken by itself and considered purely, apart from its “object,” the world. No, it is more simple than that: “Man acts rationally only under the complusion of reality and its intrinsic order…” (p. 26). In other words, you are being rational to the extent that your mind is impressed by the governance of the world. If you are telling rightly of existence, you are thinking rightly. In science, this is done, and progressively so, by an openness to reality, such that the “out there” is the absolute towards which our thinking is related (=relative). When science forgets its relativity, it no longer allows nature the absolute claim it rightly has. If nature does not have this absolute claim, then our own thinking (subjectivity) substitutes for the absolute; science then becomes a plaything of the postmodern linguists. Thus, it is imperative that science recognize the relativity of its formulas, not in order that science become “relativistic” but that it become ever more “objectivistic.” The “relativism” of common parlance is ruled out (if not entirely) by the fact that the objective referent in science contains a rationality of its own, independent of our own reasoning. But, the independence of the objective referent does not disallow the dependence of the subjective referrer. As dependent, the referrer can never be cut off entirely without at once losing his or her ability to make any claims to rationality at all, given, once again, the defintion of reason as a disclosure of reality. Thus, the move to absolute skepticism must include a claim to absurdity on the part of the skeptic, i.e., a claim to never know that one knows something. However, if our starting principle is that it is the world and not merely our thoughts that we are dealing with, then an authentic relativism can never wholly collapse into subjectivism.

God and Reality

Torrance sees a parallel between this realist requirement for scientific knowledge and the realism required by Christian dogmatics:

“The more we know of the universe today, the more we find that we have to do with states of affairs governed by an inherent rationality which is always and everywhere utterly reliable and which, while commanding our respect and rational assent, retains a mysterious transcendence over all our understanding and knowledge of it. Thus while our science is pursued in passionate commitment to the objective reality of the universe and under the compelling claims of its intrinsic rationality upon our minds and is dedicated to the task of making contact with reality and grasping it in the depth of that rationality, this does not mean that we are ever able by our science to capture that reality within our conceptual structures and theoretical formalizations. The very reality we grasp is possessed of a rationality of such an indefinite range that it outstrips all that we can think or say, conceive or formulate, about it.” (p. 12)

And thus we have a common epistemological principle in theology:

“How much more should a realism of this kind characterize theological inquiry and doctrinal formulation! Here we have to reckon above all with the unique Reality and transcendent Rationality of the Lord God who created the universe out of nothing and gave it a contingent reality in utter differentiation from his own and a contingent rationality in continuous dependence on his own. By its very nature the self-revelation of this God summons us to acknowledge the absolute priority of God’s Word over all the media of its communication and reception, and over all understanding and interpretation of its Truth. The Word and Truth of God reach us and address us on their own free ground and on their own authority, for they cannot be understood, interpreted, far less assessed for what they are, on any other standard besides themselves. Hence in all our response to God’s Word and in all formulation of divine Truth we are summoned to let God retain his own reality, majesty, and authority over against us. In divine revelation we have to do with a Word of God which is what it is as Word of God in its own reality independent of our recognition of it, and we have to do with a Truth of God which is what it is as Truth of God before we come to know it to be true. That means that in all our response to God’s self-revelation as it is mediated to us in space and time through the Holy Scriptures we must seek to understand and interpret it in accordance with its intrinsic requirements and under the constraint of the truth which bears upon our minds in and through it, and not in accordance with requirements of thought which we bring to it or under the constraint of rigid habits of belief which we retain at the back of our minds irrespective of what we may experience beyond ourselves.” (p. 13)

Thus, dogmatics is a science, wherein God is the objective referent (albeit a free Subject) and our theological formulations, whether Chalcedonian or Dordtian, are the subjective referrers. Given the relativity of the latter, it is critical for the Church to never close itself within its particular formulae. The “form” that we give God can never be the true Form that is God himself. The classic example for Torrance of science closing itself, content with its subjectivities, is the dominance of Newtonian science for generations, which was unable to account for the reality of the universe as it forced itself upon a new generation of scientists in the last century, namely with Einstein and Planck. The parallel examples in Christian doctrine include, e.g., the sacramental and ecclesial theology of the medieval Church and the predestinarian schemes of the Reformed churches — all representative, for Torrance, of a theology untethered to its object, Jesus Christ. (Of course, T.F.T. blames Augustine for much of this.) The endurance of Greek patristic thought — Christ as true God and true man — is its utter realist claim, that the God we have (=revealed)  in the man Jesus Christ is the one true God of Israel, whole and entire.


There’s much more to be said about Torrance’s work, but I think the above points are the most fundamental to understanding his mission. Like Barth, Torrance ever retained the immense unity of his thought, following the ramifications as far as he could.