Friday, January 25, 2013

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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