Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Torrance, Hypostatic Union Pt 4: The Incarnate Word and the written word

Given Torrance's insistence that Jesus Christ is the definitive revelation of God, who mediates divine revelation through the very humanity he assumed in the incarnation, the question may arise as to his understanding of the role of Holy Scripture in the mediation of revelation.

In order to achieve its end in the mediation of revelation, argues Torrance, the Word of God "had to penetrate, domicile itself, and take form within the interpersonal reciprocities of human society and thereby within the address of man to man." The eternal Word of God from above had to operate within the horizontal dimensions of human life in order to continue the speaking and acting that had developed in the community of reciprocity in Old Testament Israel. The ongoing mediation of divine revelation involved the creation of a "nucleus" within the "speaker-hearer" relations around Jesus Christ that would provide the controlling basis wherein the self-witness "of" Christ could become the communal witness "to" Christ, "informed, empowered, and used by Christ's self-witness so that it could take the field as the communicable form of his self-witness in history, i.e., as the specific form intended by Christ for the proclamation of God's word to all men." This took place in a new community of reciprocity, that is, the apostolic foundation of the church and the kerygma which grew out of it, so that the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ reached out into history through the New Testament scriptures that were born within the apostolic community (Torrance, 1982:91, 92).

Torrance argues that the New Testament community of reciprocity that grew up around the incarnate Jesus differs from the community of reciprocity that God created in Old Testament Israel. In the apostolic community, the forms of thought and speech that developed in God's dialogue with ancient Israel were not only fulfilled but "transcended and relativised" by the "final and permanent" forms of the Word of God incarnate in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. In the incarnate Son, there is a profound integration of the Word of God and the word of man which can be neither disrupted nor "discarded like outworn clothing that has served its purpose in the past," for, in Jesus Christ, the "actual form and reality" of God's word are indissolubly bound together (Torrance, 1982:92, 93).

This bears directly on Torrance's understanding of the relation between the written word of God and the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. Torrance (1971:137) writes:

By the Word of God is meant not man's word about God but quite definitely God's own Word as God Himself lives and speaks it ‒ Word as personal mode and activity of God's Being. . . . We do not begin, then, with God alone or with man alone, nor even with God speaking on the one hand and man hearing on the other hand, but with God and man as they are posited together in a movement of creative self-communication by the Word of God.

The hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ is, of course, God and man posited together in the God-humanward movement of creative self-communication in space-time reality. In the hypostatic union, God communicates himself to us without any diminishment in his divine reality as God and without any "cancellation" of his human mode of being (Torrance, 1971:137, 138). Torrance continues in one particularly eloquent passage regarding the Word made flesh:

This is Jesus Christ, the Interpreter and Mediator between man and God, who, as God of God in unqualified deity and Man as man in unqualified humanity, constitutes in the unity of his incarnate Person the divine-human Word, spoken to man from the highest and heard by him in the depths, and spoken to God out of the depths and heard by Him in the highest.

In "the form of sheer humanity in all its lowliness, weakness, and darkness," God's Word has reached us, so that we may make an adequate response to his summoning word. Yet, the humanity of Jesus Christ is not a "dispensable medium" that may be discarded once it has achieved its purpose; rather, the humanity of the Word of God remains the proof that God in his eternal being is "not closed to us," but is the "manifestation of His freedom to unveil Himself to man and share with him His own divine Life" (Torrance, 1971:138, 139).

The actual incarnation of the eternal Word of God once and for all within the contingencies of human existence in the person of Jesus Christ excludes every other way to the Father (Torrance, 1982:88, 89). Torrance continues:

Jesus Christ is the one place on earth and in history where full reciprocity between God and man and man and God has been established in such a way that God's Word and Truth come to us within the undiminished realities of our spatiotemporal existence and we human beings may really hear his Word and meet him face to face.

While the scriptures constitute "the divinely provided and inspired linguistic medium which remains of authoritative and critical significance for the whole history of the church of Jesus Christ," argues Torrance, it is, in fact, the "humanity" of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, that is the "real text" underlying the New Testament scriptures, and "it is his humanity to which they refer and in terms of which they are to be interpreted" (Torrance, 1982:89, 92, 93).

Because the humanity of Jesus Christ is the "real text" underlying them, Torrance argues that the Holy Scriptures cannot be abstracted from the Son of God incarnate in history and made, in themselves, the object of independent investigation, as occurred in post-Reformation Protestant Scholasticism when the words of scripture were elevated to the status of "the truth" and detached from Jesus Christ, who is himself the embodiment of "the Truth." While God continues to make himself known to us through scripture, there is an "asymmetrical" relation between God's self-revelation and the written word through which it is mediated. In Jesus Christ, there is a hypostatic union of divine and human word in his one person; that is, there is an ontological or "first-order" relationship between divine and human word, so that human word of Jesus Christ is the Word of God. In the hypostatic union, there is a relation of ontological "identity" between divine and human factors, so that the divine and human aspects of the incarnate Word of God may not be divided or confused. In the relationship between divine revelation and the language of scripture that grew out of the apostolic community, on the other hand, there is an ontological "difference," or "second-order" relation, in which the human words of scripture are not ontologically identical with the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ; rather, they are contingent upon and controlled by the first-order relation of the hypostatic union in Christ himself. As Torrance notes, "The Holy Scripture is not Jesus Christ incarnate." Just as John the Baptist was not the light that was coming into the world, but, rather, bore witness to that Light (Jn 1:8, 9), the Holy Scripture is not the light, but, rather, bears witness to the Light (Torrance, 1982:93-95; 1986b:470-472). Torrance (1982:95) continues:

[T[he Holy Scriptures are not themselves the real Light that Christ is, but are what they are only as enlightened by him and as they therefore bear witness to him beyond themselves. In no way can the light of the Scriptures substitute for the Light of Christ, for they are entirely subordinate to his Light and are themselves light only as they are lit by his Light. Indeed it may be said that if the Scriptures are treated as having a light inherent in themselves, they are deprived of their true light which they have by reflecting the Light of Christ beyond themselves ‒ and then the light that is in them is turned into a kind of darkness.

As the moon reflects the light of the sun and is not itself the source of that light, so also the scriptures reflect the light of the Son, who is himself the Light that has come into the world (Jn 1:9). Thus, there can be no simple "identification" of the Word and Truth of God with the written word of scripture, for that would bypass Jesus Christ as mediator of revelation and disregard the incarnation. In the incarnation, God makes himself known, not merely propositional truths about himself; the Word and Truth of God are identical with God and remain eternally identical in the incarnate person of the Risen Christ. Thus, the Word and Truth of God cannot be separated from Jesus Christ in such a way as to regard scripture as "truth" in itself considered apart from the incarnate Word (cf. Walker, 2009:lxxxii).

Torrance should not be regarded, however, as holding a "low" view of scripture, as do those who reduce the Bible to little more than mythological projections of human fantasy. To the contrary, Torrance (1982:95) argues that the scriptures of both Old and New Testaments deserve "profound respect and veneration," not for what they are in themselves, but because of the divine revelation mediated to us through them. "That is why," according to Torrance, "we speak of them as 'Holy' Scriptures."

In addition, because the divine reality to which the scriptures point must be "experienced and cognized in the reality it is apart from the words and statements of the Bible," argues Torrance, it is wrong to become "too obsessed with the Bible, as so often happens in the stress that is laid upon its inspiration when our attention is directed to the Bible itself instead of to what it is intended to bear witness." For Torrance, the Bible is used properly "when we attend jointly to the text and the divine realties to which it directs us, yet only in such a way that our attention to the text is subordinated to the realties beyond it" (Torrance, 1982:95, 96). While he argues against an obsession with the Bible, Torrance's commitment to the authority of scripture is evident in his personal life, for he read through the Bible two or three times a year in his daily devotions. To be sure, his language and thought is steeped in the language and thought of scripture, particularly as recorded in the King James Version (Walker, 2009:lxxxiii).

Torrance's view of the relation between scripture and divine revelation is in keeping with a "realist" relation between "sign" or word and that which is "signified" or indicated. Just as signs or words fulfil their semantic function when they focus attention, not on themselves, but on the reality they signify, or to which they point, so the scripture is a "sign" that directs our understanding toward the Word of God which sounds through it or to the Light which shines through it. In the fulfillment of its semantic service, "the Bible effaces itself before the immediacy and compulsion of God's self-revelation, which we experience, certainly through the Bible, but in its own divine reality which is independent of the Bible." As Torrance (1982:96, 97) argues:

There is indeed, then, a two-way relation between divine revelation and the Bible, but it is an asymmetrical relation in which ontological priority and authoritative primacy must be given to divine revelation and not to the Bible. It is the subordination of the Bible to that revelation and the semantic service it fulfils in mediating that revelation to us that give the Bible its singular status in our respect and its decisive authority in our knowledge of God.

Note that Torrance distinguishes between "divine revelation" and the Bible and assigns ontological and authoritative primacy to the former. Because the Word of God is mediated through the Bible, however, Torrance assigns scripture a "singular" status of authoritative respect in the knowledge of God.

In asserting a "realist" relation between sign and that signified, that is, between scripture and the divine reality to which it points, Torrance stands in contradistinction to those constrained by the presuppositions of cosmological or epistemological dualism (e.g., Bultmann and Kant respectively). As a theological realist who takes seriously the biblical description of God's interaction with humanity in historical time and space, Torrance argues that, even if the biblical description of divine interaction is rejected, we are not entitled "to approach the Bible as if it did not mean to speak of such a God, or therefore to interpret its language and statements . . . as if they were not intentionally directed to the activity of such a living, speaking God." The result of such a view, argues Torrance, is a "disinterested" approach to interpretation, wherein the biblical forms of thought and speech are detached from and uncontrolled by the divine reality underlying them, thus allowing the attribution of the particular meaning to scripture that makes them understandable and more palatable in a given cultural situation. If we reject this approach, however, we have to reckon with a living God who creatively interacts with humanity and makes himself known in a "controlling, articulate, and informing way; that is, we have to reckon with the reality of God's self-revelation to mankind in and through the Holy Scriptures." To commit ourselves to the truth of the biblical message, or, more accurately, "to the truth of God's self-revelation mediated through the Bible," is to submit, in trust, to the objective ground of scripture. According to Torrance (1982:99,100):

It is the freely evoked, empirical submission of our minds to the self-evidencing Reality of God, which bears upon us as we listen to the message of the Bible, and which lays upon us as an obligation to recognize, reverence, and assent to it that we may not rationally or in good conscience resist. This external or objective anchoring of our commitment saves that commitment from being subjective or arbitrary, for it binds our faith and understanding to what exists independently of our knowing of it and is universally real and true, and it thereby stakes out the ground for a rigorously scientific approach to interpretation.

Here Torrance implicitly reasserts his commitment to a realist, unitary understanding of the mediation of Christ, wherein knowledge is developed according to the nature of the reality under study. Against Kant's epistemological dualism, Torrance asserts that the word of God mediated to us through Holy Scripture is grounded in an objective reality, one that exists independently of our knowing of it, and whose "truth" is universal and real rather than merely subjective.

Summary & Critique:

Torrance's insistence that divine revelation is mediated to us through the human word of Jesus Christ can better be seen in light of his position on the relation of the written word of God to the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. Torrance distinguishes between Holy Scripture as the word of God and the divine Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. The Bible is not "the word" of God; rather, Jesus Christ is "The Word" of God. According to Torrance, there is an ontological, or "first-order," relationship, between divine Word and the human words spoken by the incarnate Son; that is, the human word of Jesus Christ is ontologically "identical" to divine revelation. In short, the words of Jesus Christ are the words of God. The written word of God that grew out of the apostolic community of faith, on the other hand, stands in a "second-order" relation to the Word of God; that is, the words of scripture are not identical to the Word of God that proceeds from the mouth of Jesus. Thus, there is an "assymetrical" relation between the Word of God revealed in Christ and the written word of God recorded by the apostolic community. Scripture is ontologically different from the incarnate Word in that it reflects that Word rather than constituting it. Scripture is the divinely provided medium through which the Word of God is mediated to us. The humanity of Jesus Christ is the "real text" underlying the written word of God and by which scripture must be understood and interpreted. Thus, ontological priority and authoritative primacy must be given to the divine revelation mediated by the incarnate Word and not to the Bible. In asserting the ontological identity of divine Word and the human word of Jesus Christ, Torrance remains true to his scientific theological method, wherein knowledge of God unfolds as it is disclosed by the nature of the object of inquiry.

In the hypostatic union, divine word and human word are eternally united in the one person of Jesus Christ. The incarnate Word reaches back to and into the heart of God and reaches out and down to us through the Holy Spirit and the written word of scripture. Thus, the truth is identical with Jesus Christ, who is "of one being with the Father." To know this truth is to know God in his triune being, in the person of Jesus Christ. The Word of God is Jesus Christ speaking to us in scripture and communicating himself through it. The Word of God, therefore, may not be abstracted from Jesus Christ, for it is "identical" with him.

In this regard, Torrance argues that the Bible must not be reduced to a collection of propositional truths, abstracted and considered apart from the Word of God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. Rather than regarding the Bible as a static repository of divine truth, Torrance takes a deeper view of scripture, wherein its truth is to be found in the living person of Jesus Christ to whom it points. For Torrance, the "inspiration" of scripture lies in the fact that it is inspired and shaped by the Holy Spirit to be the written word that leads us to Jesus Christ, while it is itself shaped by and patterned around Jesus Christ (cf. Walker, 2009:lxxxi, lxxxii). The Bible is used rightly when the reader attends simultaneously both to the words of the text and to the divine reality to which they point, so that scripture may fulfill its semantic function as "sign" by pointing not to itself but to the independent reality that underlies it. For Torrance, scripture is like a finger pointing at the moon; it is not the moon itself, but the "sign" that points us toward its objective reality.

Torrance's realist position in regard to scripture places him somewhere between fundamentalism, with its insistence on the inerrancy, infallibility, and plenary verbal inspiration of scripture, and liberalism, with its reduction of scripture to the comparatively low status of myth, folklore, or fairy tale. As Torrance (1982b:471, 472) notes, both fundamentalism and liberalism detach the word of God from Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate. Fundamentalism detaches scripture from Jesus Christ by elevating it to the status of an independent, static repository of propositional truth, which can be considered apart from the dynamic Living Truth mediated to us by the Holy Spirit. Liberalism, on the other hand, detaches the word of God from Jesus Christ by reducing it to nothing more than the projections of the human religious consciousness. Rather than elevating scripture to a divine status independent of the realities to which it bears witness, as in fundamentalism, Torrance esteems scripture as the divinely provided medium through which the Word of God is mediated to us by the Holy Spirit. Rather than demythologizing scripture, as in liberalism, Torrance, as a theological realist, is committed to the objective reality to which scripture bears witness. Torrance's position frees us from entanglement in the troublesome web of biblical inerrancy and infallibility and solves many hermeneutical, historical, and scientific problems, for example, those associated with the early chapters of the Book of Genesis. Rather than place our faith in the Bible itself, while attempting to defend it in terms of scientific accuracy and historical factuality, Torrance frees us to look beyond the words of scripture to the divine reality toward which they point and whose presence is communicated to us by the Holy Spirit through the medium of scripture. Moreover, Torrance unburdens us from an attempt to micro-manage the text of scripture, again with the understanding that the individual words of scripture are of secondary importance to the reality that underlies them. As Torrance might argue, the individual words of the text are not "the truth"; Jesus Christ is "The Truth." Rather than a repository of propositional truths to be considered apart from Jesus Christ, scripture is a divinely provided medium through which the Holy Spirit transforms our minds and brings us into a vital relationship with "The Truth" in the incarnate Word of God.


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.

Walker, R.T. 2009. Editor's Introduction. In T.F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (edited by R. Walker). Downers Grove: IVP. 489 pp.


  1. Haven't read it yet, but had to stop and say "Hurray; the new post is here!"

  2. Dear Martin:

    'All Scripture is given by God's breath, and Useful...'

    I always wondered abt this word.

    Thanks, So Much, Bro, I Now Understand, That Jesus Is A Bit More Than Useful!!!

    & that's consistent wt: 'Since childhood you've Known the Holy Scriptures, which Can Make you Wise for Salvation!

    I Love Your Blog, & I keep U in my prayers.

    Deÿ López/Mx

  3. Thank you sir for another wonderful post! Mr. Torrance, by the grace of our King, was able to put things so wonderfully into words. This post in particular was so helpful to me, because our Lord brought me out of bibliolatry and I was not able to put into words the reason, as has Mr. Torrance here(and yourself), and others such as James A. Fowler of! Thank you again so much brother for the hard work.

  4. Thanks (gracias) to you guys for your encouragement. It helps me to keep this blog going.

  5. We Orthodox Lutherans have a definite position in this crucial topic.

    The Incarnate & the Written Word of God are the SAME....infallible, inerrant, living, eternal, DIVINE. Just as the True Body & Blood of Christ ARE Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar -- so also the Written Word of God IS Christ. As St. Martin Luther said, "the ultimate Sacrament is the Word, and the Written & Incarnate Word is Christ Himself". While the visible Elements of Sacraments & of Bibles will cease -- "....the Word of the Lord endureth forever." I Peter 1:25, KJV. Every time we kiss a Bible in the Holy Liturgy or otherwise -- we worship Christ as much as when we kneel before His Body & Blood. If this be Bibliolotry -- make the most of it!


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