Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Righteousness Requirement?

One thing you come up against quite a bit in Torrance's theology is the idea that revelation and reconciliation go hand in had. That is, one cannot be said to know God who is not drawn by Christ into conformity with his perfect obedience and love of the Father. Knowledge and holiness affect each other.

I'm not sure how others take this, but I think its awesome, and therefore true. What is interesting is when he applies this to biblical interpretation. I mentioned this briefly in point 4 of the Divine Meaning pt. 1 post, but I wanted to return to it and see what anyone else thinks about it. To allow Torrance to speak for himself,, "The Word of God comes to us in the Bible and can be heard as such only within our experience of God's saving activity in the Lord Jesus Christ" (p. 9). This implies, and Torrance makes this explicit in regards to theology in general in The Mediation of Christ, that a wicked, unrepentant person will be unable to mentally understand the gospel, let alone live according to it, no matter how much training they have had in biblical interpretation.

Any thoughts on this? It seems both healthy and dangerous to me. Healthy in that it locates the revealing power of God in the Word that became flesh and is living and active, rather than in the Word that became text and can parsed and argued until kingdom come with no increase in understanding. It seems dangerous on the other hand in that it may allow for spiritualized, subjective interpretations under the supposed authority of some direct personal revelation anyone might claim to have. Torrance is keenly aware of this danger and guards against it by marrying this need for "our experience of God's saving activity" with the need for an objective "scientific hermeneutic" that gives our understanding of the gospel some objectivity. I guess I just always saw the Bible and even our ability to understand it rightly as a universally objective given that enabled the possibility of subjectively experiencing God's saving activity. Thinking about it, though, Torrance really isn't introducing a subjectivity into biblical interpretation, but saying both that the objectively human word of scripture must be approached by a scientific hermeneutic and the objectively divine Word speaking through the Bible must be approached by what Torrance elsewhere calls the inner objectivity of the Spirit enabling faithful hearing, for the Bible as a unity of human word and divine Word to be rightly understood.


  1. I think the key word is "know."

    True biblical knowledge is always applied, relational, expriential, heart knowledge. It's never knowledge simply in the sense of intellectual comprehension.

    Adam "knew" his wife, and she conceived. This event is a crucial model (Eph. 5) for the knowledge of Christ for His people.
    The Good Shepherd "knows" his own, and they "know" Him (John 10:14).
    And conversely, Jesus will say to the lost, "I never knew you; depart from me" (Matt. 7:23).

    It goes without saying that in the sense of intellectual comprehension, omniscient Jesus knows every person, both believer and unbeliever, equally well. He knows them completely, absolutely, and flawlessly.

    Yet at the same time, He doesn't know and has never known the lost person. The "knowledge" in question is obviously not primarily intellectual. It's intimate and relational. (This also is why God talks about forgetting people, as in Hosea 4:6.)

    Furthermore, the knowledge of God's people for their Savior is of the same kind and follows the same model as His knowledge for them.(see John 10:14 above). Thus, in John 17:3 the very definition of eternal life is "to know . . . the only True God, and Jesus Christ whom [He] ha[s] sent." This is again clearly not primarily intellectual knowledge--it's relational.

    So one indeed can know the Gospel without knowing it. One can know the Scriptures without knowing them. One can know all about God without knowing Him. "The devils also believe, and tremble." (See the end of James 2, generally) It all depends on what you mean when you use the word "know."

    I would disagree, then, with the statement you made above that "a wicked, unrepentant person will be unable to mentally understand the gospel" because I think the statement is based on an unclear or incorrect definition of knowledge.

    Mental understanding of and assent to biblical truth, which are founded on a clear reading of the text itself, is possible for the unbeliever. Cultural background and intellectual acumen can go a long way in filling a person with such intellectual knowledge of (and appreciation for) the Gospel.

    But such "knowledge" is quite different from an illuminated embrace of the truth and of the Savior, which is true spiritual knowledge. That is a gift of God's Spirit that coincides with regeneration.

  2. Hey David, great to hear from you.

    On one level, I think the distinction you're drawing is legitimate, but I think you push it too far. Your position assumes that that which in man must be redeemed and renewed by Christ (his affection for God, obedience to His will, morality, etc) does not include his intellect. I'm not sure such a sharp seperation can be drawn between personal and intellectual knowledge. If the whole of man is fallen (the meaning of the doctrine of total depravity), then every part of him needs redemption in order to know God in any way.

    Now, of course a non-believer can read "Jesus wept" and interpret that accurately as an objective fact, but what Torrance has in mind is the interpretation of the whole of Scripture, that unity of who God is and what He has done in human history to redeem His creation to which all of scripture points. At that level, I do think there is a theological and anthropological problem in suggesting that man in his fallen and unredeemed state can mentally grasp the nature of God and His gospel without yielding in obedience to it. For sure, one knows enough to be guilty, but that does not mean that he fully intellectually grasps that which he rejects and therefore stands guilty.

    I defintely agree with your first statement that "True biblical knowledge is always applied, relational, expriential, heart knowledge." But I challenge the notion that there is any other kind of actual knowledge of God or the gospel.

    I don't think I'm embracing the Socratic notion that to know the good is to do the good, but maybe trying to modify it from the abstract conception of good to the personal conception of God: to truly know God is to yeild to Him, which I know you agree with. I would then expand that notion to say that to correctly know (even in the restricted mental sense) the things of God, His nature and His gospel, is only possible when they are known in knowing Him. Is this making sense?

  3. Does your thesis imply that every person who demonstrates a firm intellectual grasp of the Gospel is actually saved?

  4. More that a truly firm intellectual grasp of the gospel, in which one truly knows something of God, is not possible apart from salvation. The thesis is that intellectual and personal knowledge are distinguishable but not entirely separable.

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  6. Is "a truly firm intellectual grasp of the gospel" demonstrable or testable in the same way a firm intellectual grasp of English grammar or photosynthesis is demonstrable and testable?

  7. I'll answer with an extended quote from T. F. Torrance. In it, I think he fairly well validates your claim that all true biblical knowledge is personal knowledge, but he also ties personal and intellectual knowledge together:

    All genuine knowledge involves a cognitive union of the mind with its object, and calls for the removal of any estrangement or alienation that may obstruct or distort it. This is a principle that applies to all spheres of knowledge, and not simply to our knowledge of God. I have sometimes argued that a person can be a good scientist or mathematician without being morally upright. All of us, I suppose, are aware of scientists or mathematicians who are not morally good people, and perhaps some who are quite immoral or depraved. A number of years ago, when I ventured to say to a group of scientists, mathematicians and theologians that while an immoral person could be a good mathematician he could not be a good theologian, an eminent mathematician, Professor Gonseth, objected. He insisted that a good mathematician had to be dedicated to integrity and rigour which could not but affect his whole character. In fact he claimed that mathematics induced what he called 'a sanctity of the mind'. That was certainly true in his case, and in the case of many others to whom we might refer, not to speak of outstanding people like Pascal, Clerk Maxwell, or Einstein.

    Nevertheless, it is largely true that in mathematics, where we are concerned with impersonal or abstract truth, our personal being is relatively unaffected. That is not the case in our relations with other persons which are mutually modifying. In fact we are not really able to know other people except in so far as we enter into reciprocal relations with them through which we ourselves are affected, that is, in friendship. If it is a fundamental principle that we may know something only in accordance with its nature, then we may know it only as we allow its nature to prescribe to us the mode of knowing appropriate to it and to determine for us the way in which we must consciously behave toward it. Personal beings require from us, therefore, personal modes of knowledge and behaviour, that is the kind of knowledge that comes through a rapprochement or communion of minds characterised by mutual respect, trust and love. It cannot be otherwise with our knowledge of God. If we are really to know God in accordance with his nature as he discloses himself to us, we require to be adapted in our knowing and personal relations toward him - that is why we cannot know God without love, and if we are estranged without being reconciled to him. Knowing God requires cognitive union with him in which our whole being is affected by his love and holiness. It is the pure in heart who see God.

    ...The closer people draw near to God, the more integrated their spiritual and physical existence becomes, and the more integrated their spiritual and physical existence becomes, the closer they may draw near to God in mind and being in ways that are worthy of him.

  8. I want to make a push for clarity.

    1) You said: "If the whole of man is fallen (the meaning of the doctrine of total depravity), then every part of him needs redemption in order to know God in any way."

    You are arguing on the basic of logical necessity here ("If . . . then . . ."), but the conclusion you come to (at least as it's stated) is clearly unbiblical. Paul says of the unregenerate: "That which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse" (Rom 1:19-20).

    I'm not sure what you meant, but you said, "every part of [man] needs redemption in order to know God in any way." From the passage, it is clearly possible to know God in some way without redemption. Furthermore, I don't follow the logical necessity of redeeming "every part" of a person for him or her to know God. (A deaf man with unredeemed ears (Rom 8:23, see below) can still know God.) I urge clarity of statement because either I'm having trouble following you or you're saying unbiblical things.

    2) You said: "A truly firm intellectual grasp of the gospel, in which one truly knows something of God . . ."

    You imply a distinction here between a "truly firm intellectual grasp" and an only apparently firm intellectual grasp. You also imply a distinction between true knowledge of God and only apparent knowledge.

    Such a distinction seems to me to fit with the biblical teaching about knowledge that I described in my first post.

    But in other places you speak in the most absolute terms (impossible for the unredeemed "to know God in any way") as if there's no point in trying to make distinctions between kinds of knowledge.

    I need clarification. Is it that there's a kind of apparent intellectual knowledge of God that an unbeliever can have that isn't true intellectual knowledge, or is it that an unbeliever can have no intellectual knowledge of God whatsoever?

    Two more quick points:

    A) You've been speaking of redemption as if it happens all at once ("every part of him needs redemption in order to know God in any way"). Yet the Scripture teaches that the redeption of our bodies is yet future: "we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body" (Rom 8:23). I would think that that coming bodily transformation would include our brains and intellects.

    B) The flavor of the Torrance quote is strangely logical . . . in an a-biblical sort of way. His money paragraph (the 2nd long one) runs this way:

    "If it is a fundamental principle that . . ."
    Logical presupposition

    "Then we may know . . ."
    Logical corollary

    "[Therefore] personal beings require . . ." Logical conclusion

    From this logical train of thought he then extrapolates more weighty conclusions:

    "It cannot be otherwise with our knowledge of God."

    I am suspicious of this kind of approach. How we know God must be defined by the Scriptures. Again, I haven't read Torrance, and I don't mean to imply that he doesn't care about the Scriptures.

    I mention it because it stuck out to me and because I see the same tendency in your own arguments. (See number 1 above.)

    I'm enjoying the discussion, Adam.
    And I still can't get over the fact that we're having it. About five conversations ago it was B. B. Bridges, burning bags of poo in front of a Subaru, and "she's twenty-seven feet around."

    Wow. I'm laughing just thinking about it.

  9. Clarity. Yes, I see you're point. The "in any way" part of the sentence you quoted was unhelpful. No, just wrong. Let me make another attempt (in two posts - I'm just freaking wordy!):

    1) It is not just the will that must be restored by God before a person can begin to know God rightly; the intellect must be repaired. Paul calls us to have our minds renewed in Romans 12. I don't think the earlier passage from Romans 1 you quoted provides for the possibility of an accurate understanding of who God is apart from redemption. Paul is giving a summary narrative of how it came to be that humans live in ignorance of God and thus incur His wrath, the point being that its their fault, not God's; they (those who suppress the truth - v. 18) exchanged God for idols (23), the Truth for a lie (25). This is cannot be seen as the unregenerate having an accurate intellectual grasp of God or His actions.

    I take your point about a restored physical condition not being required to understand God's nature and action, Jesus' numerous physical healings in conjunction with forgiveness and our hope of incorruptible bodies notwithstanding. However, I can't help feeling that my profound morbid obesity gets a little in the way of a truly pious intellect.

    2) Yeah, I definitely burped out some incoherent distinctions/non-distinctions there. The distinction you made in your first post, as I said earlier, is basically legitimate. I'll reattempt to modify it to make too legitimate to quitimate. I want to say that the intellectual and personal dimensions of one's knowledge of God run parallel. A person's personal and intellectual knowledge of God are affected side by side as he/she is drawn by God into a saving union with Him in Christ. So, whatever degree of intellectual knowledge of God is attainable in man's fallen state (I take it as your position to say that it is sizable if not equal to the redeemed), he/she is equally capable of some level of personal knowledge in that same state. Whatever can be said of such knowledge in either sense, I take it that it can just as well be described as a lack of knowledge or ignorance, as Paul calls the Athenian's knowledge of God as they worship Him through idols. I suppose you're right to say that categorically denying all possibility of knowledge of God for the unregenerate is unbiblical vis-a-vis Romans 1; yes, I suppose idolatry does amount to some kind of intellectual (and personal!) knowledge, but it might as well be called ignorance.

    A) This point is well taken. Again, let me attempt to clarify. While I maintain that only the kind of knowledge that is best called ignorance is possible in man's unregenerate state, full intellectual comprehension of God is never possible for any but God Himself, and the full measure of what may be gained by us humans is only hinted at in the moment of conversion. But, that first act of conversion, namely repentance, is a quantum leap in both personal and intellectual knowledge. In that moment one goes from having virtually nothing to having something small, but real and significant. Its nature is to grow and go on growing. So no, we don't get it all at once, but we begin all at once and every part of us (yes even the body, as we move toward participation in Christ's bodily death so that we can share in his bodily resurrection in an incorruptible body) is affected by the actualization of our union with Christ having thus begun by the power of the Spirit.

  10. (...continued from an earlier theo-shredding)

    B) Torrance is getting this picture of our knowledge of God from scripture. I encourage you to pick up his The Mediation of Christ. Its fairly short and serves as a great introduction to his thought. In it, he begins by exegeting the history of Israel. He demonstrates exactly the process he describes here as having happened in Israel's history. Read it; I swear it will change the way you read the OT.

    To attempt to re-say the point being driven at here, the personal knowledge (being drawn by God into fellowship with Him, being personally known by Him, knowing that we are being thus known, and seeking after Him and His will with our whole lives) that is central to the meaning of salvation has a transformative effect on our minds that creates the possibility and actuality of a new intellectual understanding of who God is (Trinity, understood not merely in a mathematic way [God is three and one] or nominal way [God is Father, Son and Spirit] but in such a way that reforms the foundations of our thinking according to God's trinitarian nature) and what God has done (the economy of salvation in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit) that was not previously possible.

    I'm seriously enjoying this conversation as well. You're helping to sharpen me. And, ah yes, B. B. Bridges. Wasn't he a famous NT scholar at Princeton?