Friday, January 25, 2013

Torrance: The Womb of the Incarnation, pt 5

The Essential Furniture of the Knowledge of God 

Comment: I regard Torrance’s concept of the “essential furniture of the knowledge of God” as one of the most important aspects of his understanding of Israel as the “womb of the incarnation.” 

Perhaps the most important aspect of the mediation of revelation in Israel is the formulation of permanent structures of thought and speech about God. Because the New Testament Church is built upon the foundation of both the apostles and the prophets, the Hebrew scriptures provided the New Testament writers with the basic structures by which they articulated the Gospel. Thus, argues Torrance, we can only rightly view Jesus in light of the “permanent structures of thought” and “conceptual tools” articulated in the Old Testament, while allowing Jesus to fill out their content and reshape them in mediating his own self-revelation to us through them (Torrance, 1992:17, 18). 

Among the permanent structures of thought bequeathed to us by the Old Testament writers, Torrance (1992:18) lists the following: the Word and Name of God, revelation, mercy, truth, holiness, Messiah, saviour, prophet, priest, king, covenant, sacrifice, reconciliation, redemption, and atonement, as well as the basic patterns of worship set forth in the Psalms. As Torrance (1992:18, 19) notes:
It was indeed in the course of the Old Testament revelation that nearly all the basic concepts we Christians use were hammered out by the Word of God on the anvil of Israel. They constitute the essential furniture of our knowledge of God even in and through Jesus. If the Word of God had become incarnate among us apart from all that, it could not have been graspedJesus himself would have remained a bewildering enigma. It was just because Jesus, born from above as he was, was nevertheless produced through the womb of Israel, mediated to us through the matrix of those conceptual and linguistic patterns, that he could be recognised as Son of God and Saviour and his crucifixion could be interpreted as atoning sacrifice for sin. It was because Jesus mediated his revelation to mankind in that patient, informing way through the history of Israel and within the interpretive framework of its relation with God in salvation and worship, that people were able in that context to know God in Jesus and enter into communion with him, and to proclaim him to the world. 

In “hammering out” his self-revelation on the “anvil of Israel,” God has provided, through the matrix of “conceptual and linguistic” patterns of thought developed in the history of Israel, the “essential furniture” of our knowledge of God, so that we may know Jesus as Son of God and Saviour of the world. According to Torrance (2008:42; cf. 1952:165, 166):
By elaborate religious ritual and carefully framed laws, by rivers of blood from millions of animal sacrifices, by the broken hearts of psalmists and the profoundest agony of the prophets ... God taught the Jews, through centuries and centuries of existence yoked to his word and covenant, until the truth was imprinted upon their conscience and there was burned into their souls the meaning of holiness and righteousness, of sin and uncleanness, of love and mercy and grace, of faithfulness and forgiveness, of justification, atonement, and salvation; the meaning of creation, the kingdom of God, of judgement, death, and at last resurrection; the concept of the Messiah, the suffering servant, and yet prophet, priest and king, and so to the very brink of the gospel. 

In providing the appropriate conceptual and linguistic structures for the mediation of the knowledge of God, however, Kruger (1989:66) rightly calls attention to the important point that God does not merely provide Israel a list of statements about himself, for inevitably these would be interpreted in light of a prior “communal meaning” which was pagan in character (cf. Torrance, 1971:147). Rather than a “theology” of God, Israel would inevitably create what Torrance (1988a:73) refers to as “mythology,” that is, “thinking of God from a centre in the human self and its fantasies.” As Torrance (1971:147, 148) argues, rather than the projection of mythological ideas onto the heavens, the mediation of true knowledge of God requires the revision of old thoughts forms in favour of  “new forms of worship, thought, and expression.” He writes:
Hence through the impact of the Word there were initiated in the tradition of Israel priestly and prophetic movements which entailed critical revision of previous ways of life, worship, and thought in order to break through the barriers of naturalistic and pagan convention that obstructed knowledge of the living God. 

As Kruger (1989:66, 67) notes, here we see again the “two-way movement” of divine revelation and human response, as God breaks through naturalistic and pagan patterns of thought in order to revise the corporate life and worship of Israel. Kruger borrows Thomas Kuhn’s (1970:99ff) words to describe the restructuring of the corporate life, thought, and worship of Israel as a “change of paradigm.” As Kruger rightly argues, for Torrance, the transformation and restructuring of the knowledge of God in Israel “was not simply a matter of fine tuning a basically sufficient or adequate framework, but of a restructuring and transformation of Israel's mind and thought, worship and life, indeed its whole existence, in its constant encounter with the living God in His self-revelation as the human mediator of that revelation.” 

As Torrance (1992:22) argues, throughout the course of the progressive revelation that unfolded throughout God’s ongoing dialogue with Israel, “the Word of God was pressing for fuller realization and obedient expression within the life and mind and literature of Israel.” Through the embodiment of revelation in his historical partnership with Israel, God mediated appropriate structures of thought and speech for understanding the Word of God that were of more than transient value, “for under divine inspiration they were assimilated to the human form of the Word of God, essential to its communication and apprehension.” As Chung (2011:9; cf. Torrance, 1971:148) notes, this continuous “divine pressing” was necessary in order for divine revelation to be “habituated,” or firmly ingrained, in the corporate mind and heart of Israel. Eventually, the mediation of divine revelation in Israel took not only verbal but also written form in the Old Testament texts. For Torrance (1971:148), the Old Testament texts are of crucial importance, because “in and through them men continued to hear God addressing them directly and backing up His Word by the living power and majesty of His divine Person.” Clearly, as Chung (2011:10, 11) rightly notes, the role of scripture in the mediation of revelation in Israel is important for Torrance’s doctrine of mediation and should not be taken lightly.

The revelation mediated by Israel as servant of the Lord (e.g. Is 41:8; 44:1; 45:4) inevitably pointed ahead of itself to the incarnation (cf. Lk 2:32). In the birth of Jesus, notes Torrance, “the whole prehistory of that mediation was gathered up and brought to its consummation in Christ in such a way that while transient, time-conditioned elements fell away, basic, permanent ingredients in God’s revelation to Israel were critically and creatively taken up and built into the intelligible framework of God’s full and final self-revelation to mankind.” Within the matrix of his interrelations with Israel, Jesus Christ, the Jew from Nazareth, stands forth as the “controlling centre” of the personal self-revelation of God to humanity. Nevertheless, though it is Jesus Christ, not Israel, that constitutes the personal self-revelation of God, it is Jesus Christ in Israel, not apart from Israel, that constitutes the “reality” and “substance” of divine self-disclosure. Because Jesus Christ must always be viewed in the nexus of his interrelations with the people of God, Torrance argues, Israel, the servant of the Lord, is included forever within God’s chosen way of mediating knowledge of himself to the world. Because Israel is given a permanent place in the mediation of revelation, the Old Testament must be understood in the light of its fulfilment in Christ, while Jesus, in turn, must be viewed in “the normative framework of basic preconceptions divinely prepared and provided in the Old Testament Scriptures” (Torrance, 1992:22, 23).  

As Chung (2011:6) correctly notes, Torrance attaches great importance to the conceptual and linguistic tools God forged in Israel, for they are crucial to our understanding of the mediation of Jesus Christ. As Kruger (1989:51) notes, the conceptual tools for the mediation of revelation forged in Israel constitute a “hermeneutical” preparation for understanding Jesus Christ and his work. Torrance (2008:44) captures the essential aspects of the mediation of revelation in Israel as follows:
Apart from this Old Testament prehistory and all the biblical revelation through Israel, we would not have the tools to grasp the knowledge of God; apart from the long history of the Jews we would not be able to recognize Jesus as the Son of God; apart from the suffering and agony of Israel we would not understand the cross of Calvary as God’s instrument to atone for sin and to enact once and for all his word of love and pardon and grace. Apart from the covenant forged in sheer grace with undeserving and rebellious Israel, and the unswerving faithfulness of the divine love, we would not be able to understand the mystery of our restoration to union with God in Jesus Christ. Apart from the context of Israel we would not even begin to understand the bewildering enigma of Jesus. The supreme instrument of God for the salvation of the world is Israel, and out of the womb of Israel, Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth. 

To substantiate his argument, Torrance (1992:19) draws attention to various attempts in modern theology to understand Jesus apart from the nexus of his interrelations with ancient Israel. Claiming that we have tried to “gentilise” Jesus by abstracting him from Israel and locating him “within the patterns of our own various cultures,” Torrance argues that, as Albert Schweitzer discovered, “we inevitably lose him.” As Chung (2011:6; 6 n. 16) rightly notes, Torrance’s point is basic but important. When we try to make Jesus “relevant” to modern thought, we, in fact, obscure him, because the tools we are using are not of God’s choosing. As Torrance (1992:19, 20) argues, in “plastering upon the face of Jesus a mask of different gentile features,” we prevent ourselves from seeing and understanding him as who he really is as a Jew, while preventing the Jews from recognising their own Messiah. 

For Torrance, the biblical modes of thought have a “sacrosanctity” because they represent the way God’s revelation has taken shape within the human mind. Apart from the mediation of revelation in Israel, no one could have understood the incarnation and atonement of the Son of God. Hence, to detach Jesus Christ from the mediation of revelation in Old Testament Israel is a “fatal mistake,” Torrance argues, for it is still necessary to be “schooled in Israel” and “disciplined through the Old Testament revelation” in order to apprehend the mediation of revelation of God in Christ (Torrance, 1956:319; 1992:23). As Torrance (2008:44) reminds us, all this is summed up in Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is of the Jews” (Jn 4:22). For Torrance, as Scandrett (2006:37) rightly argues, “Israel and Jesus stand in inextricable relationship to one another.” As Colyer (2001a:66) succinctly and rightly notes, only as we appropriate the prehistory of the mediation of revelation in Israel are we able to understand Jesus Christ.
Next post: Prehistory of the mediation of reconciliation in Israel

References (see previous posts on this subject)

Torrance: The Womb of the Incarnation, pt. 4

Intensification of Conflict 

In addition to the creation of a community of reciprocity (see post "Womb," pt 3, November 2011), another vital aspect of Torrance’s view of the mediation of revelation in Israel is an intensification of the hostility between humanity and God inherent in what the Apostle Paul calls the “carnal mind” (cf. Rom 8:7). Entrusted with the oracles of God, argues Torrance (1992:8), Israel underwent a painful process as the Word of God penetrated into the “depths of Israel’s being and soul.” In the “ever-deepening, spiral movement” of divine revelation, Israel was subjected to “appalling suffering” and broken time and again on the wheel of divine Providence in order to become “pliable” in the service of God’s self-communication to humankind. As Torrance (1992:8) argues, as the “chosen medium” of God’s self-revelation to humanity, Israel “had to suffer above all from God,”
for divine revelation was a fire in the mind and soul and memory of Israel burning away all that was in conflict with God’s holiness, mercy and truth. By its very nature that revelation could not be faithfully appropriated and articulated apart from conflict with deeply ingrained habits of human thought and understanding and without the development of new patterns of thought and understanding and speech as worthy vehicles of its communication. 

In agreement with Torrance (1992:7-9), this is how we must view God’s long, historical dialogue with Israel as recorded in the Old Testament. In Israel, the intense fire of divine revelation steadily burned away false concepts of divinity ingrained in the fallen human mind, facilitating the development of patterns of thought and speech worthy of God. During its long and painful encounter with the living God, Israel became an “oddity” among the nations of the earth, as the Word of God was at work, “preparing the matrix for the mediation of divine revelation,” so that humanity could receive the personal self-communication of God in the incarnate Son.  

As Torrance notes, Israel was not chosen to be the mediator of revelation because of any special religious or moral qualities it possessed; rather, Israel was a recalcitrant and rebellious nation, perhaps the most stiff-necked people under the sun (cf. Ex 34:9). Yet, Israel was brought into an intense and intimate relationship with God unprecedented among the nations. As God drew near to Israel and Israel drew near to God, the innate resistance of the human mind resulting from humanity’s alienation from God intensified, so that, time and again, Israel’s rebellion appears to have been in “inverse proportion” to the grace of God bestowed upon the people. All through its history, notes Torrance, Israel fought against God: the prophets were stoned, God’s messengers abused. As the holy, righteous, and loving character of God was brought to bear upon Israel’s mind and thought in the moral and liturgical institutions of the covenant, Israel vacillated back and forth between committed worship of the true God and idolatrous worship of the local deities of sex and nature. Nevertheless, argues Torrance, God’s love for the people remained unchanged. God refused to be thwarted in his redemptive purpose for mankind, and his very steadfastness of purpose was the reason Israel was broken time and again by the hand of divine providence. As Jesus said, had God chosen any other people, even those of Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented in dust and ashes (Mt 11:21), yet, the Master Potter took the lumpiest, most retractable clay (cf. Jer 18:6) to mould on the wheel of his unflinching redemptive purpose, so that even with the most difficult material, he might show his grace and love for humanity (Torrance, 1992:10; 2008:41, 42). 

The moulding and shaping of Israel into the medium of divine revelation was agonisingly painful, as the Word of God penetrated into the “depths of Israel’s being and soul” (Torrance, 1992:8), “translating” itself “into the flesh of Israel” and reforming the nation’s “life, thought and behaviour” (Torrance, 1996b:145). Intense conflict between God and his chosen people was unavoidable, because the struggle that arose from the adaptation of divine revelation to human thought forms and linguistic concepts demanded the reshaping of “the inner structure of the society” through which revelation would be mediated (cf. Torrance, 1971:147). As Israel encountered God in an unprecedented and intimate way, notes Torrance, “the innate resistance of the human soul and mind resulting from the alienation of man from God” inevitably intensified. If divine revelation was to penetrate and break through the inherent bias against it, the “soul and mind” of Israel had to be turned “inside out,” so that the people became God-centred rather than self-centred. In this regard, Torrance sees an ongoing “love-hate” relationship between Israel and God. The more the Word of God penetrated the depths of Israel’s existence, the more it seemed to burn like a fire, so that the prophets finally cried out in agony. As Torrance argues, “To be the bearer of divine revelation is to suffer, and not only to suffer but to be killed and made alive again, and not only to be made alive but to be continually renewed and refashioned under its creative impact.” Torrance sees parallels between the suffering and revivification of Israel and the passion of Christ, calling Israel’s ongoing, agonising process of dying, rising, and renewal “the pre-history of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in Israel” (Torrance, 1992:10, 11; 2008:50). As Scandrett (2006:46, 47) notes, the physical suffering of Israel and the psychic suffering of the prophets anticipate the suffering of Jesus Christ. 

In regard to the “ever-deepening, spiral movement” (Torrance, 1992:8) of the mediation of revelation in Israel, Scandrett (2006:43, 44) makes two salient observations. He argues that the image of a “spiral” movement demonstrates Torrance’s view of the “progressive” nature of the mediation of revelation in Israel; that is, revelation is moving in a particular direction toward a particular goal. The image appears to indicate that Torrance sees the movement of revelation deepening and narrowing to a particular point in the history of Israel: that is, the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In addition, argues Scandrett, the image reveals Torrance’s regard for the importance of various stages of Israel’s history vis-a-vis the incarnation, indicating that Torrance regards the latter periods of Israel’s history, particularly the period of the prophets, to contain more densely focused thematic material relevant to the incarnation. As Scandrett notes, for Torrance, this indicates that God had intended to communicate himself to humanity from the beginning, and that Israel was chosen as the vehicle by which God would achieve that goal in history. Thus, agreeing with Scandrett, we argue that the “appalling suffering” of Israel was not because God willed the suffering of his people, but their sinfulness and hostility toward divine revelation threatened to disrupt God’s determined purpose that Israel should fulfil its role as the mediator of the knowledge of God on behalf of all humanity. As Scandrett (2006:45) notes, the people of Israel were trapped in an “intensifying cycle of suffering,” caught between the “ever-deepening, spiral movement” of God’s will to reveal himself and their own will to resist that revelation. For Torrance, this “agonized relationship” is “neither accidental nor incidental,” argues Scandrett (2006:50), but establishes the “basic form” for understanding the reconciling work of God in human history. 

The history of God’s interaction with Israel teaches us that divine revelation calls into question “naturalistic” patterns of human thought. If we are to know God in the way he has chosen to reveal himself, argues Torrance, we must allow the sword of truth that pierced Israel to pierce our own hearts, “so that its secret contradiction of God may be laid bare.” We must “go to school with Israel,” sharing its painful transformation of mind and soul, where it was prepared for the final mediation of revelation in Jesus Christ, if we are to break free from our assimilation of worldly thought patterns and be transformed in the renewing of our minds in Christ (cf. Rom 12:2) (Torrance, 1992:12). In arguing that divine revelation in historical Israel calls into question “naturalistic” or pagan concepts of God, Torrance remains faithful to his realist epistemology. Without specifically saying so, in his discussion of the mediation of revelation in Israel, Torrance consistently maintains his fundamental theological assertion that knowledge is developed a posteriori; that is, epistemology follows ontology. In Israel, Torrance sees knowledge of God (epistemology) unfolding according to God’s self-revelation (being), graciously disclosed to humanity within the conditions and limitations of human understanding.

References (see previous posts on this subject)

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