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)


  1. Good stuff, Martin! Thanks for helping us understand how God has revealed Himself. Our God is certainly patient and painstaking...


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