Friday, November 19, 2010

T. F. Torrance Retreat

I had the opportunity to participate in the first annual (probably) T. F. Torrance Retreat this week at the Firbush Retreat Center on Loch Tay (pictured) here in Scotland. It was an absolutely glorious experience. The setting was beautiful, perhaps more so for the horrific weather, the wind and rain beating down on the beautiful lake (loch) and mountains. There were spectacular, if wet and muddy, walks through forests and down by the lake. But more importantly and equally wonderful were the paper and discussion sessions. These were given by scholars and pastors intimately familiar with, and some related to, Torrance and his work. All were fantastic, as were the Q&A sessions due to the makeup of the group of about 25 people, roughly 1/3 doctoral students doing dissertations on Torrance, and the other 2/3 being pastors and professors of theology. Us students were eating up all the anecdotes about Torrance given by those who had personally known him.

As I said, the papers were great. Bob Walker, nephew and student of TFT and organizer of the event, gave three papers:
  • An introduction to the material in Incarnation and Atonement, the two volumes of Christology lectures Torrance gave at New College, University of Edinburgh edited by Bob.
  • Resurrection, Ascension and Eschatology
  • The Holy Spirit: The Completion of Atonement and the Apostolic Foundation of the Church
These papers were all outstanding and faithful restatements of TFT's thinking on each of these topics. The conversation after each was deep and engaging and Bob's extensive knowledge of his uncle's writings and thought was impressive as he interacted with the questions.

David Torrance, younger brother of T. F. and J. B. Torrance and a remarkable theologian and pastor in his own right, gave a paper on the Vicarious Humanity of Jesus and another on The Doctrine of the Church. These were unquestionably the highlight of the week for me, though I really cannot offer much of a helpful summary of either paper beyond what could be guessed by anyone with a knowledge of Torrance theology by the titles. David is very much a pastor with a profound theological mind. That is to say, he is not first a theologian who might be distinguished by a pastoral bent, but a minister of Jesus Christ who has a profound grasp of the inner coherence of God's love in the Gospel and an ability to articulate it in a way that is both intellectually satisfying but more importantly, spiritually potent. I have an ever increasing sense that T. F. Torrance was the same sort of man. Though David did not have the academic career of his brothers or nephews (Iain and Alan in particular), he very well could have, having been offered teaching jobs such as a chair in systematic theology at the University of Edinburgh but turning them down because of his calling to parish ministry. The papers he gave, the Q&A sessions afterward, and a few personal conversations I was able to have with him, all gave me a clear sense of the kind of theologian, or rather minister of the Gospel, I want to be.

Offering balance with a more traditional Calvinist perspective, Andrew McGowan, minister in Inverness and former principal and professor of Reformed Theology at Highland Theological College, gave a paper on Participation in Christ. While agreeing with TFT that Reformed soteriology needs to have a greater stress on the inclusion of the believer in the person and work of Christ than the Westminster Confession gave it, having itself a more exclusively forensic understanding, he then distinguished between four ways of understanding that inclusion: deification in the traditional Eastern Orthodox sense, theosis as differentiated from deification by Myk Habbets in his recently published dissertation (McGowan thinks Habbets characterizes TFT's position inaccurately on this point), participation in Christ as advocated by Julie Canlis, Bruce McCormack, and TFT (McGowan thinking TFT's position is better understood as participation than theosis), and communion with Christ, which McGowan advocates. The conversations that followed were lively. I greatly appreciated McGowan's willingness to be the sole voice of critique of TFT's understandings of election and soteriology as his clear thinking and commitment to his tradition made for a much more interesting discussion than would have been possible without him.

Last but certainly not least was Bruce Ritchie's remarkable paper on the Gospel and the Question of Universalism in Torrance's thought. This one might need its own post. It was intensely interesting. Ritchie acknowledged that Torrance's position here is explicitly and self-consciously inconsistent - Christ has reconciled all humanity to himself through his life, death and resurrection, accomplishing universal atonement, yet people may still end up in hell by rejecting the grace Christ gives them and thus falsifying its work for them. Ritchie told of being a student of Torrance's and hearing him answer the question whether anyone would end up in hell with a clear statement that yes, Scripture clearly teaches that those who deny the Gospel will end up in hell. But then, after gathering his things and preparing to leave the class, he grew a mischievous grin and said the Scripture also said in Revelation 20:14 that in the end death and hell would be destroyed, briskly leaving the room after saying this. Though Torrance apparently left open the possibility of eternal salvation, he didn't press this possibility explicitly in his more well known writings as Barth did at the end of Church Dogmatics IV.3.1 for example. More often he pressed the more clear biblical teaching that hell would be the ultimate destiny awaiting those who cut themselves off from the Gospel by refusing it. Ritchie explored three possible ways of reconciling Torrance's seemingly irreconcilable claims of Christ's universal atonement and the reality of hell for the reprobate. The first two don't really matter as they were dismissed, but the third was a development of one of TFT's most difficult but also most helpful themes, that of the primacy of existence-statements over coherence-statements in their necessary coordination as the church attempts to develop a consistent articulation of the inner logic of the Gospel of Christ as it confronts us in Scripture. When we speak of the mystery of humanity's lingering ability to reject our reconciliation to God in Christ, we come up against an impossible possibility, that is a reality we can speak of in existence-statements (statements that immediately refer to that which is objectively real) but cannot coordinate with our existence-statements about the grace of God through coherence-statements (statements that do not directly refer to objective reality but articulate the pattern by which these external realities are related to one another). Sin, when understood from within the logic of God's grace, has no rationality; it cannot be made sense of or integrated into a logical system. It is like a surd in mathematics, a number that can be expressed but is nevertheless irrational. Thus, the logic of grace does tend toward universalism, but our responsibility is to take in the whole testimony of Scripture, which clearly takes sin and hell seriously. While the task of theology is to seek and articulate the inner coherence of the biblical testimony in Christ, it must not do so at the expense of the biblical testimony itself, running roughshod over certain biblical themes in the interest of building a coherent system based on other biblical themes. This is what universalism does by extending the logic of grace to the point where it has no room to acknowledge the horrible impossible possibility of damnation. But this is also what limited atonement does by so trying to coordinate the reality of hell with the reality of grace that it seeks to make the two logically compatible, which is impossible, but ends up perverting the logic of grace so that God's love is not truly universal, God does not truly love the world (John 3:16) but only "the elect" - here once again the demand for logical consistency trumps Scripture. Like I said, this one might just need its own post.

At any rate, this retreat was a truly glorious experience. The fellowship, praying and taking communion together (rarities in university theology), the setting, the formal and informal conversations, and the spiritual and intellectual stimulation were all invigorating. I hope this is the kind of spiritual community the expansion of Torrance study will multiply.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Happily Ever Tales

My amazingly talented (and beautiful) wife Rachel has started a new blog where she shares her own original children's stories, poems and illustrations, as well as children's book reviews. It is called Happily Ever Tales ( This is a great place to go with your kids and read stories!

Also, for those interested in offering us a little bit of financial support while we're living in Scotland and work on my PhD (which is crazy expensive!), there is a donate button. But feel free to just drop by and check out Rachel's stuff. Its beautiful!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Go Somewhere Else!

I have been characteristically neglectful of the blog here lately. That has been due primarily to being busy writing my dissertation and conference papers (ok, a conference paper). I did attend AAR a few weeks ago and give a paper - I feel like I should give some kind of summary of the conference from my perspective, but I need to divert all brain power to dissertation at present. Here is a great summary from my new friend, Brad East, who very graciously arranged housing for myself a some friends during AAR. My own AAR experience was very tied up with questions about the nature of the Eucharist or Communion. I attended three seminars on the topic and though the paper I gave was on Scripture and had nothing to do with the Eucharist, it came up as a possible analogy for thinking about Scripture in the Q&A. My brain has definitely been spinning on the subject and I think I'm getting closer to a clear position. I will try to write something on this in the next few weeks, but don't hold me to it.

Rather than offer anything interesting of my own right now, I'll indulge in the cheapest kind of blogging I can think of - pointing you to interesting discussion going on elsewhere.
  • The previously mentioned Brad East is having a fascinating discussion over at his blog Resident Theology with "Theologian of Love" Thomas Oord on whether Oord's theological commitment to a the notion that God is "non-coercive all the way down" ought to lead him to a political commitment to pacifism.
  • David Guretzki over at Theomentary says using "incarnational" language about the church is blasphemous, citing a passage from Barth in CD IV.3.2, and I think he is absolutely right.
  • Daniel Kirk at Storied Theology has sparked a conversation way too long to follow, but interesting (and at times infuriating) to scan, by calling for a moratorium on the word "homophobic".