Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Athanasius was no Biblicist": Divine Meaning pt. 5

Chapter 7 and 8 of Thomas F. Torrance's Divine Meaning give what amount to a small book's length introduction to Athanasius's trinitarian theology of revelation and redemption (7) and then apply this theology to theological hermeneutics (8). I want to key in on one particular issue: Torrance locating Athanasius as a biblical interpreter between a Biblicist, or one who takes the meaning of biblical statements from their immediate sense in all cases, and an allegorist, or one who sees all statements of scripture pointing to an eternal truth totally beyond their immediate sense and context.

The trouble with allegorical interpretation of Scripture for Torrance is that it doesn't take history seriously as a medium in which God may reveal Himself. Commenting on Clement of Alexandria's regrettable slide into allegorical interpretation earlier in Divine Meaning, Torrance says "the literal and historical meaning of biblical statements was made to be itself a symbolic reflection of a purely intelligible reality in a timeless world beyond" (177). The problem with this, with relativizing the historical claims of Scripture and forcing them to refer to something other than history, to something completely beyond the created order, is that it destroys the revealing power of God's acts in history, in Israel and Jesus Christ, and leaves us with no epistemological access to God. In Athanasius's theology, however, though God is utterly different from His creation and is therefore not revealed by history as such in a Hegelian way, God has entered into history through His Word/Son becoming incarnate in the man Jesus Christ. This is an historical event, in fact THE historical event that is the supreme focus of the Bible. Therefore, the biblical interpreter must take the historical claims of the Bible seriously - otherwise, we have no real access to knowledge of God.

On the other side, Torrance does want to say that "Athanasius was no Biblicist" (274), that he pushes past the words of Scripture in another way. This is what Torrance calls "depth exegesis" where we do not read the reality of God off the surface of the biblical texts but penetrate through them to the "deeper level" where we have to do with the reality of God Himself. Torrance says, "It is of the utmost importance therefore to penetrate through the words and statements of the Scriptures to their real meaning which is rooted in the Word himself" (238). Does this not fall prey to the same possibilities of distortions as allegorical interpretation? If the problem with allegorical interpretation is that statements aren't seen as meaning what they seem to mean, what is different about depth exegesis? What controls it and keeps it from running into the same speculative conclusions as allegorical interpretation? Torrance's answer is (that Athanasius's answer is) the trinitarian economy of salvation rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ in human history. Thus while allegorical interpretation is ruled out because it refuses to take history seriously, typological exegesis is affirmed because it actually heightens our awareness of the continuity of God's acts of redemption in history, the covenant with Israel in the OT reaching its telos in the history of Jesus Christ in the NT. Thus, while biblical statements are seen through to their true referent, they are not discarded; indeed, they are correlated to their ultimate referent, put in their proper soteriological context, seen through the scope of Christ.

We have already established the problem with allegorical interpretation. Now we can also see the problem with Biblicism from Torrance's perpsective. By not keeping Christ as the center of the Bible's attention, it treats the Bible as a book about virutally everything, allowing surface readings of passages to direct our attention in any of a million directions. But the Bible is really about one thing, God's self-revelation and redemption of all creation in his incarnate Son Jesus Christ. Certainly this is a reality with implications for literally everything, but everything, especially every biblical statement, must find its true meaning in its relation to Christ. We must see through the words and statements not to some timeless idea, but to Christ Himself, the Word made flesh in history and still present among us through the Holy Spirit. Torrance summarizes, "interpretation has to be in accordance both with the words of Scripture and with what has taken place in Jesus Christ, and must be kept within the limits set by the nature of the things signified" (238).


  1. This is just more evidence that Torrance would have loved Edwards. You'll have to let me know if he ever makes any reference to him or if, like most non-Americans, he shows no knowledge of his work.

  2. Why I like TFT, I think his points on "Depth Exegesis" are right on -- which I think is synonymous with his language of inner logic --- which Barth before him speaks of --- which the Reformers before them speak of (inner outer clarity dialectic) --- which proves that TFT is a 'Reformed theologian' after all ;-).

    In my readings of TFT, thus far, no mention of Jonathan Edwards; but I've heard him mention Carl Henry before ;-). Given the breadth of TFT, I cannot imagine that he knew nothing of Edwards though.

  3. I too have not come across anything in TFT on JE. I'll let you know if I ever find something.

  4. No, no mention of Edwards in TFT's writings that I have come across, but there are a number of key parallels which are really interesting.