The Individual and the Church: T.F. Torrance and the Reformed Perspective

St. Andrews University

Thomas F. Torrance’s contribution to modern Reformed theology has been, without a doubt, as far reaching as Rahner and Zizioulas (who will be featured next in this series) in their respective traditions. One of Torrance’s primary contributions to Calvin’s view of faith, as aptly noted by Daniel Thimell, was: “to emphasize that human faith is undergirded by the faithfulness of Jesus as God the vicarious believer, who believes for us.” Torrance based this view on the Scriptural portrayal of Jesus as Priest. In Torrance’s own words, Jesus is: “Mediator in such a way that in his incarnate Person he embraces both sides of the mediating relationship.”

For those who are not of the Reformed persuasion, the idea of Christ “believing for us” appears to be a doctrine which annuls any significant role of the individual believer within the community of faith. If even one’s believing is performed by Christ, at what point does the believer enter into the “relationship” as an “other”? In keeping with traditional Reformed theology, Torrance held two seemingly contradictory positions: (a) that salvation is not a cooperative venture, and (b) the importance of human belief in response to the Gospel. And in truth, he was able to maintain the doctrine of total human depravity and dependency on God’s grace for salvation, alongside the belief that the individual’s participation in his or her communion with Christ and the Church was absolutely essential. This is due in part to Torrance’s biblical anthropology.

Torrance embraced a definition of “person” similar to Zizioulas, contending that prior to the Fall, human beings shared an ontological nature similar to Christ in that they were “persons” in the full sense—indivisible in their relation to God, to fellow human beings, and to nature. Humankind’s ontology suffered an incurable spilt from relationship with God on account of the Fall. This split is overcome when human beings are once again placed in Christ by the Holy Spirit; a task which only the Holy Spirit can accomplish. This regaining of the status of “person” is defined by the love imparted by the Holy Spirit, which is shared mutually between the persons (i.e., between God and believer and between fellow believers). Therefore, the individual is not exempt from the participation necessary for community with God and man, but the believer is not the cause of the participation. Torrance’s own word’s here supply needed clarity:

Here the Spirit is to be thought of as acting not only from God towards man but from man towards God by bringing his human relations with God to their proper end in him, and thereby undergirding and upholding man in an enduring ontological relation to God … man is not to be understood from an independent centre in himself but only from above and beyond himself in a transcendental relation to God—and therefore also, of course, in a ‘transcendental’ relation to his fellow-men.

Furthermore, he did not separate the knowledge of God from participation, as Elmer Colyer put it: “For Torrance our knowledge of this God cannot be but a participatory knowledge that is evangelical and doxological.” His view of faith did not allow for a divorce of assensus (mental assent) from fiducia (personal trust in God’s saving grace).

Torrance makes a point to single out the individual and his or her communion with Christ as a primary concern, followed secondarily by the communion shared among believers. This is because, as Torrance maintained: “It is only through vertical participation in Christ that the Church is horizontally a communion of love, a fellowship of reconciliation, a community of the redeemed.” But, the only way for believers to participate deeply in the love of God is to share in the life of the Church. Hence, while the individual’s communion with Christ is of primary concern, in that the “community of the redeemed” presupposes redeemed individuals, communion with Christ becomes a hollow society if His “Body” (the Church) is excluded.

Among all the biblical expressions for the Church, Torrance favored the phrase “the Body of Christ” as the most significant. Aside from it being the most profoundly Christological expression, it gave a subtle, yet unmistakable, emphasis upon Christ as the Possessor of the Church. Torrance explains:

The expression “the Body of Christ” directs us at once to Christ in such a way that we have to lay the emphasis upon “of Christ” and not upon “Body.” That is most important … somehow the Church tends to come in between us and Christ the Lord and that is just what the New Testament never does. The advantage of this expression is that it does not focus our attention upon the Church as a sociological or anthropological magnitude, nor upon the Church as an institution or a process, but upon the Church as the immediate property of Christ … and it reminds us that it is only the Body of which He is the Head, and is therefore to be subject to Him in everything.

If this emphasis is maintained, then the Church community can be seen for what it essentially is—a “communion-in-participation in Christ.” Torrance viewed this participatory communion as the constituting element in the nature of the Church, saying: “This (the Church) is no static reality for it is love in operation … Here it is apparent that the interpenetration of being and mission constitutes the nature of the Church, so that the Church is Church as it participates in the active operation of the divine love.”

Those who are familiar with Calvin’s view of the Church as vera facies (visible), as opposed to the more Lutheran view of larva dei (hidden), can readily detect this emphasis of the “Church visible” in Torrance’s writings. The conformity of the Church with Christ was not strictly externa larva (visible), but is, as Calvin wrote: “grounded in the real and substantial union of the Church with Christ. The new creation has ontological reality here and now in the Church, for … the Church participates in the vivifying flesh of Christ.” That “ontological reality,” Torrance believed, could be observed in the biblical emphasis on the word “Body,” in reference to the Church. To help demonstrate this idea he employed two additional descriptive terms for the Church: soma and pleroma. The Church, he contended, should be understood as an, “ever-widening communion in which the Body (soma) presses out in expansion toward a fullness (pleroma) in the love of God.”

As with Rahner, Thielicke and Zizioulas, much more could be said regarding Torrance’s ecclesiology, as well as his views on the individual Christian. However, for the purposes of this research, brevity holds a slightly higher priority if a final analysis of the main issue is to be rendered within the space allotted.

Sources:


Daniel Thimell, “Torrance’s Doctrine of Faith,” Princeton Theological Review 14, no. 2 (Fall 2008).

Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983).

Thomas F. Torrance. “The Goodness and Dignity of Man in the Christian Tradition,” Modern Theology 4, no. 4 (July 1, 1988). ATLA Religion Database, EBSCOhost (accessed January 30, 2010).

Elmer M. Colyer, “Thomas F Torrance on the Holy Spirit,” Word & World 23, no. 2 (March 1, 2003). ATLA Religion Database, EBSCOhost (accessed January 30, 2010).

 Thomas F. Torrance, “What is the Church?” Ecumenical Review 11, no. 1 (October 1, 1958). ATLA Religion Database, EBSCOhost (accessed January 30, 2010).

Thomas F. Torrance, Royal Priesthood: A Theology of Ordained Ministry (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993).

Thomas F. Torrance, Kingdom and Church: A Study in the Theology of the Reformation (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1956).

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