Thursday, October 15, 2009

Divine Meaning pt. 4

This time around, TFT goes after Clement of Alexandria. Torrance has a surprisingly balanced view of Clement (pictured), crediting him for contributing to the development of both a "scientific" approach to biblical hermeneutics (which Torrance likes) and "gnostic" approach to scripture dividing the plain historical reading from the mystical meaning, resting on an epistemological dualism between the sensible world and the intelligible word (which Torrance likes not so much).

This chapter was sizable and I don't want to spend a lot of time on it because the same themes keep coming into play. The contribution Clement makes to the history of hermeneutics that Torrance approves of are described in much the same way as Torrance's treatment of Clement's contemporary, Irenaeus. The deficiencies are comparable (and, Torrance argues, somewhat attributable) to Philo, an earlier fellow Alexandrian. Thus, I'll make some comments on the chapter, and then I'll springboard to some reflections of mine on what Torrance has done here.

First, Clement (in Torrance's description) understands faith to be "a divine power deriving from the force of the truth itself" (131). It originates in the encounter of the Word, creating in us "the new eye, the new ear, and the new heart which we need to apprehend what is given." In short, faith is neither blind nor depending on some prior knowledge; it is the establishment of an entirely new knowledge on the basis of God's revealed Truth. Clement then proceeds in terms of Aristotelian logic by employing faith as a first principle on which we can then build a scientific knowledge of God, calling into question presuppositions derived from sources other than the revealed truth known through faith. (Though faith is called into being by God's Word, it is not done so irresistibly. Torrance highlights Clement's awareness that faith "has a voluntary relation to the truth", claiming that "we are persuaded and not just compelled to believe" 133.)

What really struck me and knocked me on my donkey here is when Torrance begins to describe Clement's distinction between theology (the science that begins with faith in the way just described) and natural science and philosophy. This paragraph is worth quoting in its entirety:
The reality with which philosophy or science is concerned is passive, whereas the reality that gives rise to theology is active and dynamic. This means that in faith we have to do with a self-operating wisdom mediated to us through the Word. Faith is the strength and power of the truth , or a grace from God. Hence in interpreting the truth we have to do with a truth that interprets itself. The primary reason for this difference is that God himself is the truth of theological knowledge, God in his Word and Son revealing himself and saving us, God who is known only by his own power. (135)
There isn't much in this paragraph that I hadn't previously read in Torrance elsewhere and in Barth, but that very first sentence made something click in a new way. Let me briefly describe my former understanding of God's Word as I picked it up somewhere between church, Christian school and Bible college: after Israel got everything wrong by focusing on law, Christ came and made a way for us to be saved through by grace through faith. God has given us His Word (ie, the Bible) to tell us about this. He has also given us His Spirit to help us understand what the Word says. This understanding sees the Word as an external object which is basically passive, while the Spirit is active internally helping me to understand what I read when I pick up my Bible.

The distinction Torrance (via Clement) draws here shatters that picture. God's Word is not like a fossil that lays passively as the scientist approaches it to study it. If we take the prologue to John's gospel seriously, we must understand the Word of God in a radically personal way; "the Word became flesh". Since the Word is the risen and ever-living Lord, He is actively seeking to impart knowledge to us human beings. This is certainly done only through the historical Jesus Christ as attested by the prophets and apostles of the Old and New Testaments, but my reading of those fixed texts (though in the power of the Spirit) cannot be all we mean when we speak of approaching the Word of God; we encounter the risen Christ, the living and active Word of God in those texts. To put it another way, when I read the (passive) Bible, I encounter the (active) Word of God, (actively) pressing upon me, calling me to repent of my pride and ignorance and yield to Him, while at the same moment the Holy Spirit quickens my spirit, internally enabling me to say "Yes!" to God's Word addressed to me. Thus the Word and the Spirit work in tandem, the Word in an external objectivity and the Spirit in what Torrance has elsewhere called an "inward objectivity" (rather than subjectivity) leading people to knowledge of the Father.

This kind of trinitarian understanding of God's Word (aka Barth's understanding as furthered by Torrance) is a helpful corrective to many aspects of Evangelical theology, particularly its doctrine of Scripture. The Bible is God's Word in that it testifies to the eternal/incarnate Word of God, but we are led into trouble if we aren't careful in how we talk about scripture - the Word is a person of the triune Godhead; we cannot speak of the Bible as a person of the triune Godhead, but we can speak of it as divinely inspired servant of the eternal triune Lord and testimony to God's work of creation and redemption within human history.


  1. Thank you for these posts, adam. They water my mind in a dry land.

  2. Adam,

    Excellent post! I like the way TFT unpacks his bibliology over Barth . . . even if there is an inseparable relation between the two.

    The ideas that TFT unfolds here, resonate and clarify what the author of Hebrews is getting at in 4.12 . . . the notion of God as object/subject of theology in Christ by the Spirit is what has persuaded me (in part) away from the old dualism and into the dynamic of studying theology from both "within" God's life in Christ (Jn 1.18).

    Thank you!

  3. Good stuff!

    What do you think of the idea that Scripture is the "word of God" (lowercase), or "revelation" only in a secondary and derivative sense? It seems important to me to keep Christ at the center whenever we talk about the revealing and communicative work of God. But might one take that too far and end up with a too-weak doctrine of biblical inspiration?

  4. Btw,

    I'm a "Californian" (Long Beach) living in the Pac NW ;-).


    That's my concern as well.

  5. Darren, I can't see having a weak doctrine of biblical inspiration being the result of keeping Christ too much at the center of our thinking about God's self communication, unless we our thinking about Christ is somehow ahistorical. If we get Christ right, then that has to pour over into ecclesiology and sacrament, and this is where our doctrine of biblical inspiration has to take place, I think: in the context of ecclesiology and sacrament. Evangelicalism's history of failure in these areas is largely to blame for its often problematic (hyper-inerrantist/quasi-dictationist) doctrine of scripture.

  6. Bobby, I have to say, I don't think TFT is often as explicit as Barth about his doctrine of scripture. When Torrance does squarely address himself to it, which I find rare, I like what he has to say more than Barth, he just doesn't seem to feel obligated to set his whole position out clearly as (it seems to me in the little I've read) Barth does. I'm hoping my doctoral thesis will be able to bring together the various bits across his corpus where he does say stuff together into a coherent whole.

  7. Adam,

    Thank you, yes I agree. That's why I think your research and doctoral studies is a very worthy endeavor . . . I'll be excited to see what you come up with! Do you have any essays out in theo journals I could look up (or that you could email me ;-)?

    Good point on Darren's question, as well!