Wednesday, February 6, 2013

T.F. Torrance: The Womb of the Incarnation, pt 7.

Divine Holiness and Communal Transformation 

In regard to his scientific theology, Torrance finds a basic epistemological principle in the “profound reciprocity” established in the intertwining of revelation and reconciliation in Israel that accords with his fundamental methodological axiom that realties must be known in accordance with their natures. All genuine knowledge, argues Torrance, requires a “cognitive union of the mind with its object,” wherein estrangement and alienation are removed, so that we may know reality only in accordance with its nature. The nature of the object of inquiry determines the “mode of knowing” appropriate to it, as well as the behaviour required toward it. To know God in strict accordance with the divine nature as it is disclosed to us requires an adaptation of our personal relations toward him. “Knowing God requires cognitive union with him in which our whole being is affected by his love and holiness. It is the pure in heart who see God.” For Torrance, we cannot know God without love (Torrance, 1992:25, 26).

Here again we find Torrance’s theological holism. For Torrance there is no “head-heart” dualism; rather, theology must be engaged both rationally and devotionally if we are to truly apprehend the nature of the Object of inquiry. For Torrance, theology is not merely an academic endeavour to be practiced in isolation from communal worship and personal piety; rather, theology and doxology, academics and personal devotion, form a single integrated whole, wherein knowledge of God is developed with the full engagement of both head and heart. As stated above (cf. Chapter Two), Torrance insists that true knowledge of God must be developed within the context of faith and godliness. Similarly, Torrance (1992:26) writes:
To know God and to be holy, to know God and worship, to know God and to be cleansed in mind and soul from anything that may come between people and God, to know God and be committed to him in consecration, love and obedience, go inseparably together. 

As we draw nearer to God, argues Torrance, the more “integrated” our spiritual and physical existence becomes, and the more integrated our spiritual and physical existence becomes, the more we are able to draw nearer to God. Torrance finds this principle at work in the ascetic theology of the patristic era, where stress was laid upon askesis, or “spiritual discipline in mind and life,” to facilitate an understanding of God worthy of him. Torrance sees this principle at work in Israel, wherein “intensifying conflict” and “deepening conformity” with God were being worked out in time and space. The unconditional self-giving of God required an unconditional response on the part of Israel: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev 19:2). By entering “relations of holiness” with God, the foundation and character of Israel’s existence as God’s “peculiar people” were affected in distinctive and idiosyncratic ways (Torrance, 1992:26, 27). Torrance continues:
Israel was the people which became so intimately involved with the holy presence of God that it was completely spoiled for any naturalistic existence as an ordinary nation, but became the means through which God worked out in the midst of the nations a way of reconciliation with himself in which the tensions embedded in man’s alienated existence are resolved and the peace of God is built into the whole of creation. Israel thus became the people impregnated with the promise of shalom for all mankind. 

As Colyer (2001a:62) notes, for Israel to know God, its communal worship, life, and thought had to be cleansed and transformed, so that Israel might be moulded into an appropriate medium of revelation and reconciliation for all humanity. Similarly, Kruger (1989:71, 72) notes that revelation and reconciliation go together as surely as God gives himself to fallen Israel and summons the nation into communion with himself. For Torrance, notes Kruger, the mediation of revelation achieves its end and completes the circle of its own movement in and through reconciliation between God and “carnal” Israel. Likewise, as Chung (2011:6) rightly notes, for Torrance revelation is not merely a business of cognition; it also involves and affects the entire corporate life of the nation. As Chung (2011:8) argues, the “key” to understanding the agonising reciprocity between God and Israel is the realisation that, unless the corporate heart or being of Israel is changed, the people’s innate weakness will “eclipse” the revelation of God and prevent the fulfilment of their role as the corporate medium of divine revelation. Hence, rather than engage Israel in a merely “tangential fashion, rippling the surface of its moral and religious consciousness” (Torrance, 1992:15), the searing light of divine revelation penetrates deep into the depths of Israel’s existence in order to transform the corporate heart of the nation. Not only does the intense reciprocity between God and Israel transform the nation, but also brings forth what Chung (2011:8) describes as “appropriate forms of articulation and a renewed being,” so that the nation may become the “ordained medium of God’s self-revelation.” “The participative response of Israel in her critical self-revision,” notes Chung, “constitutes the movement of human understanding to divine revelation.” Chung’s observation is consistent with Torrance’s scientific theological emphasis on faith, piety, and devotion as essential aspects of the epistemological process. 

From the above, we see that the reshaping and restructuring of Israel’s corporate existence, not only in terms of language and conceptual structures but also in terms of “mind,” “heart,” “soul,” and “being,” is a vital aspect of Torrance’s view of the mediation of revelation and reconciliation. Torrance’s emphasis on the transformation of Israel’s corporate “being” as a result of the nation’s encounter with God reflects not only the two-way movement of revelation and response in Israel but also the inseparability of “knowing and being” in Torrance’s scientific theology (cf. Kruger, 1989:68). Thus, we can confidently assert that, for Torrance, the mediation of revelation and reconciliation in Israel are two aspects of a single, unitary reality that is both epistemological and ontological in character. As will be shown in subsequent Chapters of the present thesis, as in Israel, the mediation of revelation and reconciliation of Jesus Christ is also both epistemological and ontological in character. 

The Covenanted Way of Response 

In electing Israel to be the mediator of revelation and reconciliation, Torrance argues, God knew the people would not be able to fulfil the provisions of the covenant by walking before God in perfect holiness. Nor would Israel be able to worship God in an appropriate way, for the covenant between God and Israel was not a covenant between God and a holy people; it was a covenant of grace between God and a sinful, rebellious people. According to Torrance, the validity of the covenant did not depend on a “contractual” fulfilment of its terms on the part of Israel; rather, it was a “unilateral covenant,” which depended solely for its fulfilment on “the unconditional grace of God and the unrelenting purpose of reconciliation which he had pledged to work out through Israel for all peoples [and therefore] it depended upon a vicarious way of response to the love of God which God himself provided within the covenant.” No matter how rebellious and sinful Israel became, it could not escape the covenant love and faithfulness of God, an aspect of the covenant brought out so poignantly in Hosea. As Torrance notes, the covenant was conditioned only by the “unstinted outflowing love of God in the continuous act of grace, of grace for grace” (Torrance, 1992:27, 28, 74; 2008:46, 47). 

The gracious nature of God’s relationship with Israel becomes more apparent when the covenant is contrasted with a “contract,” as helpfully noted by Kruger (1989:40, 41; cf. Torrance, J., 1970:51ff). Unlike a contract, that is, a “bilateral” agreement that requires fulfilment by both parties to be valid, the covenant God established with Israel was a “unilateral” agreement that depended solely upon the faithfulness of God for its fulfilment. In a unilateral movement of divine grace, God fulfilled the covenant “from both sides,” not only by freely entering into relationship with sinful humanity but also by graciously providing the means whereby sinful humanity could respond to the divine initiative. As Kruger correctly notes, “God filled Israel's hands with His own provision so that Israel could draw near to God in worship and communion. [God] provides what He requires.”                        

As Torrance (1992:73, 74) notes, in his love and mercy, God provided the means whereby weak and beggarly Israel could respond to the love of God, so that the liturgy of atonement might be incorporated into the ongoing life of the people. In an act of sheer grace, God provided Israel the all-important “middle term” between the “polarities of the covenant” (i.e., God and humanity), that is, a “covenanted way of response,” so that the people might respond in a vicarious way to God’s grace. This divinely-prepared way of sacrifice replaced the very best humanity could offer, as in the paradigmatic case of the sacrifice God provided for himself in lieu of Abraham’s offering of Isaac (Gen 22:1ff). As Torrance notes, God graciously and unilaterally provided for his people the means by which they could respond to him as covenant partner, so that Israel could come before God forgiven and sanctified in their covenant partnership and consecrated in their priestly mission to the world as mediator of revelation and reconciliation. Torrance (1960a:16) describes the covenanted way of response as a way “of response to his Will, a way of obedient conformity to His Covenant which He is pleased to accept as from his people in the Covenant.”  

In regard to God’s provision of the means of response to the divine initiative, we believe that Torrance’s concept of the “covenanted way of response” facilitates greater appreciation for divine grace in God’s relations with humanity, as revealed in Israel. As Torrance argues, God’s sovereign commitment to be God for Israel was not dependent on any salutary quality that made Israel worthy of communal relationship with a holy and righteous God; rather, divine graciousness toward Israel was prior to any worthy response by the people. God willingly entered relationship with a stiff-necked, rebellious people, so that he might be their covenant partner. At Sinai, God declared, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex 20:2). Only after he had declared himself their God, did God stipulate the means by which the people were to respond to his covenant love (Ex 20:3ff). God’s covenant commitment to his people was both prior to, and unconditioned by, any appropriate response on the part of Israel; that is, God’s covenant commitment was an act of sheer grace. In the words of Torrance’s younger brother, James, “[T]he indicatives of grace are always prior to the imperatives of law and human obligation” (Torrance, J., 1970:56). 

The covenanted way of response God provided Israel, however, did not imply that Israel’s liturgical sacrifices had any power to undo iniquity or expiate sin. Rather, argues Torrance, the function of the sacrificial system was to bear witness to the fact that, while the Holy One of Israel could not be approached apart from atoning reconciliation, God himself had promised to provide the propitiation for the sin of the people. Noting that the great sacrifice on the Day of Atonement occurred behind the veil in the Holy of Holies, Torrance argues that the hidden, mysterious nature of the ritual teaches us that atonement lies hidden in the mystery of God’s own being, where we are not at liberty to intrude. Yet, the cultic liturgy of sacrifice and offering gave the minds and hearts of the people something to lay hold of, even as it pointed far beyond itself to that which God alone could and would do for his people (Torrance, 1992:36). 

The pattern of the covenanted way of response becomes clear in the establishing of the covenant between God and Israel at Mount Sinai. According to Torrance, the covenant relationship between God and Israel “came to rest upon the twin foundation of the Sinaitic law and the Levitical liturgy, as represented supremely in Moses and Aaron, prophet and priest in essential complementarity and unity” (Torrance, 1956:307). Noting that even in its Sinaitic form, the covenant remains essentially a covenant of grace, Torrance (1996b:194) sees God as providing his people “a way of obedient response to his loving-kindness, a way of cleansing and restoration to fellowship with himself.” He continues:
In spite of their sin God did not give up his people but maintained with them a covenant of grace, in which he allied himself with his creatures as their God and Saviour, and committing himself to them in paternal kindness took them into communion with himself as his dear children.  

The vicarious means by which Israel was to respond to God was elaborated in the ordinances of worship described in the Pentateuch. According to Torrance (1992:74):
Not only the general pattern of the cult but the details of the liturgy were clearly designed to bring home to the people of Israel that they were not to appear before the Face of God with offerings embodying their own self-expression or representing their own naturalistic desires, or with kinds of sacrifices thought up by themselves as means of expiating guilt or propitiating God, for that was how the heathen engaged in worship, as ways of acting upon God and inducing his favour. Thus no unprescribed oblation, no uncovenanted offering, no strange fire, no incense of their own recipe, and no ritual of their own inventing, were to be intruded into their worship of God. 

Here Torrance highlights the “judgement” of grace. God’s gracious provision for Israel of the covenanted way of response carries with it a judgement and a verdict on human offerings to God. The completeness and sufficiency of God’s provision of what he requires renders all human offerings redundant (Kruger, 1989:41). The cultic liturgy was designed to witness to the fact that only God can expiate guilt, forgive sin, and bring about propitiation between himself and his people. Thus, the sacrifices, offerings, and oblations, as well as the priesthood itself, constituted the “vicarious way of covenant response in faith, obedience and worship” which God graciously provide in his steadfast love for his people (Torrance, 1992:74, 75). 

From the above, we argue that Torrance’s discussion of the mediation of reconciliation emphasises the “gracious,” “unilateral,” and “vicarious” nature of the covenanted way of response that God provided Israel, so that a sinful nation could approach a holy God in appropriate and reverent worship. These essential aspects of the mediation of reconciliation in Israel bear directly on Torrance’s understanding of the mediation of Jesus Christ. For Torrance, as Scandrett (2006:33) correctly argues, the covenanted way of response that God provided Israel sets the stage for a true understanding of God’s redemptive acts in history. While the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is “categorically unique,” for Torrance, notes Scandrett, “the Old Testament progressively reveals a pattern of relationship between God and Israel that is ultimately recapitulated and fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.” This “basic hermeneutical assumption,” argues Scandrett, has profound implications for understanding Torrance’s view of the mediation of Jesus Christ in the economy of salvation. In agreement with Scandrett, we note that the “vicarious way of covenant response” God provided Israel will finally be fully realised and faithfully enacted in the incarnate Son of God, who, as both Lamb of God and High Priest, vicariously embodies in his incarnate constitution as God and man joined in atoning reconciliation the covenanted way of response between God and humanity.

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