Saturday, April 3, 2010

Torrance: Stratification of the Knowledge of God

It was the application of the homoousion (the Nicene creedal assertion that Jesus is "of one being with the Father," see previous post, Feb 2010) to the incarnate Son (and later the Spirit) that provided the church the "theological key" it needed to unlock the doctrine of the Trinity implicit in the New Testament and given formal articulation at the ecumenical councils of Nicaea and Constantinople (4th C.). As Torrance (1996a:80) notes:

What the homoousion did was to give decisive expression to the truth that God's self-revelation of himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the incarnate economy of salvation was grounded in and derived from God as he is in his own eternal Being and Nature. It was thus at once evangelical and ontological in its purpose and import in asserting firmly that Jesus Christ the incarnate Lord and Saviour who constitutes the very heart of the Gospel is of one and the same Being as God the Father . . .

For Torrance, the Nicene homoousion is the ontological, epistemological, and evangelical link between the economic Trinity and the ontological (immanent) Trinity. Similar to the procedure of scientific inquiry developed by Einstein and others, Torrance posits a "stratification" of the knowledge of God (Torrance, 1980:156-164; 1996a:88-107; cf. Myers, 2008:1-15). As "one of his most striking and original contributions to theological method," this model is an elaborate attempt to demonstrate the importance of a knowledge of the Trinitarian relations of the being of God as the fundamental organising principle of all theology (Myers, 2008:1, 12).

Torrance sees human apprehension of the divine arising through three interrelated levels of knowledge. First is the "evangelical and doxological" level, that is, the knowledge of God that arises from the personal and communal experience of God in the day-to-day life and worship of the community of faith. This is the "tacit level" of implied theology, wherein knowledge of God in his Trinitarian relations is inchoate and precedes conceptual analysis. Quite importantly, this intuitive first-level knowledge forms the basis of all further theological thought and remains the touchstone upon which a more refined conceptualization of the knowledge of God rests (Torrance, 1980:156, 157; 1996a:88-91; Myers, 2008:7). As Torrance (1996a:90) notes, this ground level of evangelical experience and apprehension is the sine qua non of the other levels of doctrinal formulation developed from it.

Second is the "theological" level, a level of 'theoretical organization' that seeks to uncover and give order to the inner connections in reality that form the experiential basis of our knowledge of God in personal and communal encounter with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The second level is the "economic" level, wherein the Trinitarian relations in the economy (oikonomia) of salvation form the object of theological thought. At this level, the inchoate form of the doctrine of the Trinity, latent and implied in the doxological experience of the Father, Son, and Spirit, is given 'explicit' formulation as doctrinal knowledge of the Holy Trinity. The second level, therefore, involves a movement of thought beyond experience to the intelligible relations that undergird experience without themselves being experienced. While this level may appear to employ concepts that are unrelated to ordinary experience, these concepts arise, like theories in natural science, from the experiential level and remain epistemically correlated with it as refinements and extensions of the basic cognitions of the experiential level (Torrance, 1980:157, 169, 170; 1996a:91, 92; Myers, 2008:7, 8).

As we move from the first to the second level of the knowledge of God, we move from an intuitive, experiential grasp of God's reality to a more formal conceptualisation of the intrinsic relations underlying our experience. We have moved from a personal encounter with Jesus Christ to the conceptual understanding that in the incarnate Son we have to do with the real, intelligible reality of God. It is essential to note that in moving from one level to another, we have not moved away from the level of ordinary concrete experience; rather, we have penetrated into a deeper conceptual level that gave rise to our experience in the first place (Myers, 2008:9).

According to Torrance, the movement of thought from the evangelical-doxological level to the theological level is precisely the kind of conceptual movement that allowed the Nicene Fathers to concisely articulate the unity of being and agency in the Father-Son relationship. The all-important concept of the homoousion was developed not as an abstract theological concept but as an attempt to give expression to the concrete reality they had encountered and intuitively grasped at the evangelical-doxological level of communal encounter with Jesus Christ. As Torrance (1996a:93; cf. 1980:159) notes, "Face to face with Jesus Christ their Lord and Saviour they knew that they had to do immediately with God, who had communicated himself to them in Jesus Christ so unreservedly that they knew him to be the very incarnation of God." In order to express the unity of being and act in the Father-Son relation, the Nicene Fathers were compelled to formulate the entirely new concept of the homoousion, a concept that clarifies the fact that in personal and communal encounter with Jesus Christ, we have to do with the ultimate reality of God. Thus, the homoousion expresses the basic but profound evangelical-doxological intuition that God is inherently in himself what he is towards us in Jesus Christ, and that the three-fold pattern of revelation in the economy of salvation is nothing other than a revelation of the eternal, intradivine Trinitarian relations intrinsic to the being of God (Torrance, 1980:159-161; 1996a:93-95; Myers, 2008:8, 9).

The third level in the stratification of the knowledge of God is the "higher theological" and "scientific" level wherein we are concerned to give a theoretical account of the deepest epistemological and ontological structure of the knowledge of God. Concepts formulated at this level constitute the "basic grammar" of theological thought, for here we have to do with the ultimate relations intrinsic to the eternal being of God, which must, therefore, govern and control all true knowledge of God from first to last. The movement from the second to the third level involves a conceptual transition from the economic relations of the Godhead to the relations immanent in God himself (Torrance, 1980:157-159; 1996a:98, 99; Myers, 2008:9). In other words, this is a transition in theological thought from the "economic Trinity" to the "immanent Trinity."

As we move from the economic level (the Trinity ad extra) to the ontological level (the Trinity ad intra), we are "compelled" to acknowledge, under pressure from God's self-communication, that what God is toward us in Jesus Christ, he is inherently and eternally in his own divine being; that is, the eternal being of God (theologia) is not different from what he manifests of himself toward us in the incarnate Son (oikonomia). This epistemic movement of thought from one level to another is grounded in the prior movement of God himself who condescends in love to be one with us in the incarnation of his Son. Thus, the stratification of the knowledge of God is an a posteriori reconstruction of the way in which our knowledge of God arises in redemptive history, particularly in the incarnation (Torrance, 1980:158; 1996a:83).

Reflection on the homoousion of Jesus Christ lifts our thoughts from the level of the economy of salvation to the level of the immanent relations in the eternal being of God, where we reach "the supreme point in the knowledge of God in his internal intelligible personal relations (Torrance, 1996a:102; cf. Myers, 2008:10). This level of conceptualisation requires the use of the term, perichoresis, a refined concept that expresses the complete "mutual indwelling," "mutual containing," or "interpenetration" of the three divine Persons in their immanent coinherent relations as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Perichoresis, or "coinherence," refers to the way in which the divine Persons "mutually dwell in one another and coinhere or inexist in one another while nevertheless remaining other than one another and distinct from one another." Applied to the Trinity, the concept of perichoresis enables us to realize that the coinherent Trinitarian relations revealed in the economy of salvation are not 'temporary' manifestations of the being of God but, rather, are grounded in the intrinsic and "completely reciprocal" relations of the ontological Trinity. As Torrance notes, "In this way, the concept of perichoresis serves to hold powerfully together in the doctrine of the Trinity the identity of the divine Being and the intrinsic unity of the three divine persons" (Torrance, 1996a:102; cf. 1988:305ff; Deddo, 2008:42, 43).

Torrance's stratification model is no mere reductionist attempt to neatly restrict knowledge of God to three levels (Myers, 2008:12). To be sure, to know God in Jesus Christ is to know God himself, for Jesus Christ not only mediates the revelation of God, he is the revelation of God; that is, in his own personal being he is identical with the revelation which he mediates (Torrance, 1988:138; 1992:9). Yet this does not imply that we can fully comprehend God, for God "as God" remains "ultimately ineffable, beyond all created being." God reveals himself as infinitely greater than we can conceive (Torrance, 1988:214). Yet we can apprehend God in our knowing and speaking of him for he is not "closed" to us but grants us true and accurate knowledge of himself in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit (Torrance, 1976:237). The homoousion allows our thought to move beyond the economic Trinity to the immanent or ontological Trinity. Our knowledge of God is, thus, not limited to what God is toward us (God pro nobis) but leaps across the "Kantian gulf" to penetrate into the intrinsic, eternal reality of God in himself. Thus, our knowledge of God is grounded in the inner reality of the unbroken homoousial relation of the Father and the incarnate Son (Seng, 1992:347). Given the homoousion, we can affirm that God himself is the "content of his revelation" in Jesus Christ" (Torrance, 1988:138, 202, 305).

Torrance appears to echo Karl Rahner in his assertion that the economic Trinity and the ontological (immanent) Trinity are "identical," for there is only one divine Reality of God both in his eternal intradivine being and in his saving and revealing activity in historical time and space (Torrance, 1980:158; Rahner, 1997:22; Molnar, 1997:292). The homoousion breaches the centuries-old gap between reason (De Deo Uno) and faith (De Deo Trino) by transcending medieval dualist epistemology to facilitate a realist, unitary doctrine of God (cf. Molnar, 1997:288ff), wherein Christian apprehension of God moves 'from' the evangelical level of our ordinary day-to-day experience with God 'through' what God is and has done for us in his redemptive activity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (the economic Trinity) 'to' what God is antecedently and eternally in his own being as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (the ontological Trinity) (Colyer, 2001a:292, 293).

In regard to the formulation of statements about God in the immanent relations of his eternal being, Torrance (1980:166, 167) wisely and humbly notes, "To speak like this of God's inner Being we cannot but feel to be a sacrilegious intrusion into the inner holy of holies of God's Being, before which we ought rather to cover our faces and clap our hands on our mouths, for God is ineffable in the transcendence and majesty of his eternal Being." Torrance goes on to assert that the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ is infinitely greater than we can ever conceive, so that all theological concepts ultimately fall short of the glory of the God to whom they refer. Notwithstanding the inadequacy of our concepts, however, knowledge of God at the higher theological level does not simply regress into some form of pre-conceptual apophatic or negative contemplation (i.e., "God is not this"), for the inherent rationality of God's self-revelation will not allow it; rather, we are summoned to higher levels of theological thought and speech that are "worthy" of God (cf. Torrance, 1971:170).

The stratified structure of the knowledge of God is "pyramidal" in shape. Beginning at the broad base of ordinary day-to-day experience (level one) scientific theological inquiry advances through levels of increasing rigor and logical economy (simplicity) until it reaches "the ultimate set of a minimum of intelligible relations" which constitute the "ultimate grammar" of the whole structure. As we transition from the second or theological level to the third or higher-theological level, we deepen and simplify the organization of basic concepts developed at the second level. At the third level of the knowledge of God, we develop an "ultimate theoretical structure" characterized by logical economy and simplicity, wherein we use a minimum of conceptual relations to form a unitary basis for simplifying and unifying the whole body of knowledge regarding the reality in question (Torrance, 1980:170-172; cf. Myers, 2008:9, 10). The homoousion and the hypostatic union, concepts developed to describe the relations inherent in Jesus Christ, are examples of logical economy and simplicity. These theological concepts, developed under the impact of God's self-revelation, succinctly capture the interior relations from which a unitary knowledge of God is developed. The homoousion describes the "vertical" aspect of the Father-Son relation, while the hypostatic union captures the "horizontal" aspects of the God-human relationship incarnate in Jesus Christ (cf. Torrance, 1980:172).

Perhaps most important in Torrance's stratification of the knowledge of God is its emphasis on the continuing, vital correlation between the different levels of theological knowledge, so that theological thought at one level never becomes detached from the overall structure. In the transition to the highest level of theological thought, the homoousion remains decisive, for it signifies the unity in the economic Trinitarian relations and the relations immanent in the eternal being of God. Even at the highest level of theological conceptualisation, Jesus Christ remains the focal point of the complex process of theological thought. There is no movement of thought away from God's self-revelation in the incarnate Son into abstract speculation but only a deeper understanding of the divine reality already apprehended experientially and empirically. To be sure, experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ at the evangelical-doxological level may easily lapse into pure subjectivism if it is disconnected from the ontological structures underlying it. On the other hand, the refined concepts of the higher-theological level may devolve into mere abstractions if they are severed from the empirical realities that give rise to them. There must remain, therefore, a cross-level coordination of the levels of stratification so that empirical knowledge of God arising from the economy of salvation remains correlated with the immanent Trinitarian relations of God while a higher, theoretical understanding of these relations remains grounded in empirical experience. In short, theological concepts and empirical correlates must be integrated into a coherent system so that higher levels of formal conceptuality remain grounded in, and coordinated with, the concrete level of evangelical and doxological experience (Myers, 2008:10, 13-15; cf. Torrance, 1996a:82, 83).

As the ontological, epistemological, and evangelical link between the economic and the ontological Trinity, the homoousion stands for the basic insight that there is an absolutely faithful relationship between what God is toward us in the Gospel (oikonomia) and what he is in himself (theologia); that is, what God is toward us in his redemptive activity in the incarnate Son and the Holy Spirit, he is antecedently and eternally in himself (Torrance, 1980:161; 1986a:299; 1996a:83; cf. 1982:37). Through Jesus Christ God reveals himself as he is, "for God is not one thing in Jesus Christ and another thing behind the back of Jesus Christ." The homoousion tells us that the nature, content and event of revelation exist indivisibly in a unitary whole, for God himself 'is' the reality and content of his revelation (Torrance, 1986a:298, 299). In short, inherent in the Nicene homoousion is a two-way movement of epistemic understanding wherein God condescends to reveal himself in Jesus Christ, who is "of one being with the Father"; in turn, the incarnate Son, through the Holy Spirit, guides our thoughts upward to actual knowledge of God in his eternal, intradivine relations. As Torrance (1980:161) notes, "That is what the homoousion expresses so succinctly and decisively."

Torrance's model of the stratification of the knowledge of God allows us to move beyond dualist patterns of thought to a unitary, perichoretic vision of the Triune Godhead held together by the assertion of the unbroken homoousial relation between the Father and the Son (and the Spirit) (cf. Myers. 2008:12). The Nicene assertion of the unity of being and agency in the Father-Son relation (homoousion) is the epistemological and ontological thread that ties together the various levels of the knowledge of God into a unified whole and enables us to organise our knowledge into various levels of thought with fewer and fewer concepts (Torrance, 1985:155; Myers, 2008:12, 13). Torrance's stratification of the knowledge of God is a kind of "Ockham's razor" which enables us to slice away all unnecessary accretions in theological thought and remain true to the fundamental axiom of Torrance's scientific theology that knowledge is guided and governed by the nature of its object (Torrance, 1985:152, 153; Myers, 2008:13).


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