Sunday, September 26, 2010

Torrance, Hypostatic Union pt 3: Epistemology

The hypostatic union of divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ, as articulated at the Council of Chalcedon, has vital implications for the knowledge of God. Prior to a detailed inquiry into the mediation of reconciliation in the person of Jesus Christ, we must first examine the epistemological significance of the hypostatic union. At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked Peter, "Who do you say I am?" (Mt 16:15). In the Torrance theological tradition, the "Who?" question takes priority over the "how?" question. Before we can fully consider the work of atoning reconciliation, we must first understand "Who" Jesus Christ is, for if we ask the wrong question at the beginning, we will never grasp the heart of the gospel (Purves, 2007:24).

An inquiry into the person of Jesus Christ must begin with a non-foundationalist christology. In other words, we do not begin with pre-determined, independently derived epistemological assumptions about the subject of inquiry. For example, we do not allow the epistemological assumptions of the Enlightenment to set the boundaries of our inquiry into the nature of Jesus Christ. We do not begin christological inquiry with questions about the possibility of God entering space-time history; rather, we begin with the fact that he did. Neither do we seek to answer the "Who?" question by reflection on our human experience, but only in terms of God's actual self-revelation in Jesus (Purves, 2007:24, 25, 29).

To begin with the fact of God's intervention in human history, particularly in the incarnation of the eternal Word, is the sine qua non of Torrance's "realist" epistemology. In Torrance's doctrine of the mediation of Christ, "actuality" is always epistemologically and methodologically prior. Knowledge unfolds in accordance with the nature of the object of inquiry as it is revealed in the course of investigation. Christological inquiry, therefore, is conducted on the terms of the divine self-disclosure in Jesus Christ, who is "of one nature" with the Father. In harmony with the Patristic assertion that only God can reveal God, the Torrance tradition asserts that there is no other ground for knowing Jesus outside of Jesus himself; Jesus is self-attesting. The "Who?" question, therefore, is an ontological question, not a phenomenological question. The intent of the question is to discover the Lord who has already revealed himself and claimed us for his own. Thus, theology pursues its questions a posteriori, not a priori. Christological inquiry is pursued after the fact of God's self-revelation in the incarnate Son, not according to a previously determined epistemological necessity established independently of Christ (cf. Purves, 2007:24-26).

In regard to the mediation of revelation and reconciliation, the "work" of Jesus Christ must never be separated from the "person" of Jesus Christ. "How" Jesus Christ provides atoning reconciliation is a direct function of "Who" he is as the incarnate Saviour, who is at once both God and man. As Purves (2007:25) notes, christology is not soteriology: we do not know Christ from his works. To be sure, the christological question is prior to the soteriological question. When we know who Jesus Christ is as God and man, then we may begin to understand what he does and what it means.

In order to understand who Jesus Christ is and how he mediates revelation in his incarnate constitution, we must strive to understand, as much as humanly possible, the relation of humanity and divinity in his one person. To be sure, both the humanity and the deity of Jesus Christ are essential for the mediation of revelation. In his humanity, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, assimilates to himself the hearing and speaking of man so that he might address us within the limitations of human life in a way that we can understand. In his deity, Jesus Christ assures us that his Word of revelation has divine validity, authority, and significance, for it is the very Word of God.

Jesus' Humanity and the Mediation of Revelation

While Torrance puts great emphasis on the divinity of Christ by constituting the Nicene homoousion as the epistemological and ontological linchpin of his doctrine of the mediation of Christ, he does not diminish the importance of the humanity of Christ. For Torrance (2008:185, 186), the humanity of Jesus Christ in its "stark actuality" is also essential for the mediation of revelation. In Jesus Christ, the eternal Word by whom all things were created (John 1:3; Col 1:16) became a creature, a human being, without ceasing to be the eternal Word of God. Therefore, the very "creatureliness" of Jesus constitutes the act of divine revelation in a means accessible to humankind. Because the eternal Word has become temporal, human beings can know eternal truth in creaturely form within the limitations of time. "The historical humanity of Jesus is the guarantee that within the relativities and contingencies of our historical human existence, revelation is reality, and is actuality accessible to us at our level." According to Torrance (1982:84):

Christian theology arises within and is bounded by a triadic relation in which God, man, and world are involved together in a movement of God's personal and creative interaction with man whereby he makes himself known to him within the objectivities and intelligibilities of the empirical world.

It is in God's self-revelation in the ongoing historical dialogue with Israel and, especially, in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, that we come to comprehend divine revelation and the response of man. The self-revelation of God comes directly from the revealing activity of the incarnate Word of God, who "has penetrated the barriers of estrangement, opened it out to the light and understanding of God, and established a two-way connection between God and man in the incarnation . . ." (Torrance, 1982:85, 86; cf. 1971:138). Torrance (1982:88) continues:

In Jesus, God's eternal Word graciously humbled himself to participate in finite being, submitting to its limitations and operating within its struggles and structures, thus fulfilling God's revealing and redeeming purpose for his incarnate life as Man on earth and in history. . . . Thus, in effecting his self-communication to man, the Word of God assimilated the hearing and speaking of man to himself as constitutive ingredients of divine revelation. In him God's articulate self-utterance became speech to man, through the medium of human words, and speaks as man to man, for in him God assumed human speech into union with his own, effecting it as the human expression of the divine Word.

Torrance's argument that, in the Word made flesh, "God's articulate self-utterance became speech to man," is succinctly expressed by Barth: "God himself speaks when this man [the incarnate Word] speaks in human speech" (Barth, 1957c:51).

In keeping with his critical realist epistemology, wherein the human mind is capable of apprehending reality, Torrance (1982:89, 90) argues that the reciprocity between divine speaking and human hearing embodied in the incarnate Word of God arises from the "correlation of the uncreated Word and Rationality of God and the created word and rationality of man." The Word who became incarnate in Jesus Christ is the very Word of God through whom all thing were created and in whom they are unceasingly sustained (Col 1:16, 17). While the eternal Word is independent of what he has created, he is "the free creative source and ground of all finite being." He created the universe out of nothing (ex nihilo) and gave it a contingent reality and order of its own which he preserves and protects, while remaining sovereignly transcendent over it. As Torrance notes, "It was into this created rationality (or logos) that the Word (or Logos) of God entered, assimilating it to himself in the incarnation, in order to become Word of God to man through the medium of human word and rationality and in order to provide from the side of man for an appropriate response in truth and goodness toward God." Torrance (1982:91) continues:

In Jesus Christ, then, the eternal Word of God became man within this world of contingent existence and contingent rationality, sharing to the full the conditions, distinctions, and connections of space and time that characterize the thought and speech of all men, in order to be understandable and communicable as intelligible word to all men.

Without ceasing to be the eternal Word of God, Jesus took within himself earthly, life, action, and speech in such a way "as to constitute it not merely the earthen vessel of the Word of God, but his actual speaking of it to mankind." Torrance (1982:91) continues:

That is to say, within the hypostatic union of divine and human nature that took place in Jesus Christ, there is included a union between uncreated and created rationality and between uncreated and created word, so that it is in the rational form of creaturely human word that Jesus Christ mediates God's word to all mankind.

In regard to Jesus statement, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me" (Jn 14:6), Torrance notes that the Nicene Fathers saw Jesus Christ as the arché or "controlling principle" by which all knowledge of God is tested. The "downright humanity" of Jesus Christ became the "touchstone" of authentic knowledge of God and the understanding of the Christian message. As Torrance argues, by the humanity of Jesus, we have access to the Father, for as a "corporal visible reality," he is the way that leads us back to the Father (Torrance, 1988a:62, 63). Torrance continues:

It is only as our knowledge of God conforms to Jesus Christ that it can be accurate and precise knowledge of God, for Jesus Christ the incarnate Son is the perfect and proportionate image of God, the one Form or Eidos of Godhead, the 'exact seal' . . . in whom the Father imparts to us knowledge of himself as he really is and as he has actually manifested himself.

Torrance follows Athanasius and the Cappadocians in asserting that the incarnate Son of God is not only the image, but also the "very reality of God in his self-communication to us," the "Form and Face" of knowledge of the Father, so that to know Jesus Christ is to know the Father, for "the Person (hypostasis) of the Father is known in the Form of the Son."

The incarnation of the Word of God means that God assumes human form and reveals himself to us within the actual forms of human life in the only way that we can understand. God's ways are not our ways; thus, God does not reveal himself to us in his total otherness; rather, he reveals himself within the conditions of our human and creaturely nature. Because God has become human in the incarnate Word, it is possible for us to know him, not as a result of any innate capacity we possess to know God, but solely on the ground that God is free and able to meet us within the limitations of our creaturely existence. Torrance (2008:192) argues:

There, within human nature, God reveals himself as God in terms of what is not God, in terms of what is man. He speaks to us in a human voice, in human language, and in human thought forms. He assumes the humble form of a servant within the condition of our human nature. He did not assume a form unknown to us, but our actual human form under law, the form of servitude, and so speaks our creaturely and earthly language under all its limitations and imperfections.

Torrance's assertion of the mediation of revelation in the familiar form of "creaturely and earthly language" is in keeping with his critical realist epistemology, with its insistence that the subject matter of scientific theology can actually be known. Against the Kantian bifurcation between the knower and the known, the hypostatic union is the embodiment of a "union" between divine and created word, so that Jesus Christ reveals divine word in human form and, thus, enables divine revelation to be comprehended within the limitations of human thought and speech.


Barth, K. 1957c. Church Dogmatics (vol IV.2) (translated by G.T. Thomson). Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 867 pp.

Purves, A.P. 2007. Who is the Incarnate Saviour of the World? In G. Dawson, ed. An Introduction to Torrance Theology: Discovering the Incarnate Saviour. London: T & T Clark. Ch. 1.

Torrance, T.F. 1971. God and Rationality. London: OUP. 216pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1982. Reality and Evangelical Theology: The Realism of Christian Revelation. (Forward by K.A. Richardson, 1999). Downers Grove, IL: IVP. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster. 174pp.

Torrance, T.F. 2008. Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (edited by R. Walker). Downers Grove: IVP. 371 pp.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff, Martin! Again, we cannot dwell too much upon the awesome implications of the once and forever incarnation of the Son!


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