All posts in “Plain English series”

Read Schleiermacher, for Barth’s Sake!

I am very pleased to announce that, after a year of intensive study, I have finished my new book, Schleiermacher in Plain English. I am extremely proud of this book. It challenged me more than anything else I’ve written, and I believe it is my best work yet.

But Schleiermacher is an odd choice for most. He is not often celebrated by theologians. In fact, he is often talked about as if he were the “villain” of modern theology. Especially following Barth’s critique, why should anyone read Schleiermacher? Why did I choose to study Barth’s greatest theological adversary?

In spite of his dubious reputation, I found Schleiermacher to be an extremely compelling and interesting theologian. This surprised me. The image Barth led me to hold about him was far different from the one I discovered in his work. In short, I discovered a Schleiermacher wholly unlike the one I was taught.

As Schleiermacher himself said in defense of his dogmatic masterpiece, Christian Faith, “The best that can be of me is that I am not what they take me to be.” 1

Poor old Schleiermacher, the “villain” of modern theology, the favorite punching-bag of theologians, and the best-known-least-understood “heretic” of modern history. Why on Earth should you read him? Simply, for Barth’s sake!

But Barth is undoubtedly to blame for how little theologians engage with Schleiermacher today. He was one of Schleiermacher’s most severe critics. Yet, at the same time, no theologian sang his praises more clearly.

But Barth’s polemic against Schleiermacher was never purely hostile. It had arisen, first and foremost, out of a deep appreciation for the great Berliner. This is why it should not surprise us to read that, in the final year of Barth’s life (1968), he could write:

It may be surprising that I have declared myself to be at odds with Schleiermacher only with reservations: rebus sic stantibus, “for the present,” “until better instructed.” Something like reservation, a genuine uncertainty, may rightly be detected here. The door is in fact not latched. I am actually to the present day not finished with him. […] For have I indeed understood him correctly? Could he not perhaps be understood differently so that I would not have to reject his theology, but might rather be joyfully conscious of proceeding in fundamental agreement with him? 2

In conversation with Terrence Tice, Barth would also praise Schleiermacher, saying, “There has never been a systematician in modern times like Schleiermacher. He knows the beauty of theology. The rest do not.” 3

At the very least, Barth’s relationship with Schleiermacher is more ambiguous than it has often been portrayed.

In my new book, I sought to reevaluate Schleiermacher from the Barthian perspective. Of course, I wanted most of all to understand Schleiermacher on his own terms, but I cannot escape the difficulties reading him as a Barthian entail. So I sought to read him charitably, to find a new appreciation of his work in spite of how frequently his importance is neglected.

What I discovered is that Schleiermacher is one of the most-important, least-studied theologians of modern times. And (to my surprise) I found he is not wholly incongruent with Barth, but that they may even share an essential harmony. They do not end up in the same place, but perhaps they often have traveled down the same path. It is not only important to read Schleiermacher for Schleiermacher’s sake, but it is vital to read him as a Barthian.

I hope my book takes a small step towards a better appreciation of Schleiermacher’s theology. I have benefited greatly by reading him, and it is a shame that he is not often studied with the seriousness he deserves. He is not easy to read (probably even harder than Barth!), but he is worthwhile. I hope my book serves as a re-introduction to Schleiermacher—against the multitude of bad images of him available, I hope my book can present a more charitable portrait of this great theologian.

Pick up a copy of Schleiermacher in Plain English on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and my own webstore. And feel free to contact me for review copies if you are a blogger or journal editor.

Notes:

  1. On the Glaubenslehre, 36. Chico: Scholars Press, 1981.
  2. The Theology of Schleiermacher, 274-5. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1982.
  3. Barth and Schleiermacher, 50. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2010.

The Problem with Apologetics (T. F. Torrance)

T. F. Torrance in Plain EnglishWhat follows is an excerpt from my new book, T. F. Torrance in Plain EnglishHere I draw out the implications of one of Torrance’s primary insights: kata physin, which simply means knowledge in accordance with the reality we come to know. This axiom is the subject of chapter two in my book, and this excerpt follows it in what I call a “sidebar,” which directly addresses the problem with apologetics. Sidebars such as this serve to draw out conclusions from major ideas, and they are therefore useful tools I implement in the book for clarifying ideas. Enjoy!

You can purchase T. F. Torrance in Plain English on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords ($9.99 eBook, $16.95 paperback).


Sidebar: Apologetics

(From T. F. Torrance in Plain English)

After discovering that Torrance’s theology engages natural science, many Christians today might wrongly imagine this means Torrance was an apologist. The truth, however, is that Torrance was actually quite critical of the task of apologetics, and this is the direct result of his dedication to the concept of kata physin. 

If true knowledge of God is knowledge in accordance with God’s nature, then apologetics is a false start because it applies a foreign rationality to God’s nature in the attempt to prove that God exists. By taking a foreign rationality and applying it to God, apologetics tries to prove God as if God were not God, as if God were a man or a star in the sky that might be proven through human rationality. Apologetics, therefore, abstracts God into a philosophical construct, which leads me to wonder: even if apologetics could “prove” God exists, which God would it prove? It is highly unlikely it would be the Christian God and Father of Jesus Christ, and so what then is the point of proving an empty, abstract deity, who is ultimately just a logical construction of our best thoughts?

Naturally, then, Torrance’s primary issue with apologetics is that it contradicts the fundamental axiom of his scientific theology, that true knowledge is knowledge in accordance with the nature of what we seek to know. Apologetics begins with what is rational to humans, and not that which is inherent to God’s own rationality as revealed in Jesus Christ. Human rationality must be disciplined by God’s rationality and not the reverse. God is not the object of human control; we are subject to God’s gracious will to reveal Godself. Torrance writes:

Thus the only kind of evidence for God that will satisfy us is one appropriate to divine nature, appropriate to one who is the ground of His own Being and the Source of all other being, to one whose Being is Spirit and whose nature is love… It is this profoundly simple fact, that knowledge of something and the demonstration of its reality must be in accordance with its nature, that lies behind the formation and deployment of the supreme instrument in all scientific knowledge, the appropriate question. (God and Rationality, 53)

For Torrance, apologetics is a false enterprise because it relies on asking the wrong kind of questions. It attempts to prove an abstract deity with a rationality alien to the given knowledge of God from the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. Where apologetics asks speculatively, “Does God exist?”, theology focuses on Jesus Christ as God’s self-revelation, as the only true point of contact between God and humanity. Theology asks, “Who is this God revealed in Jesus Christ?” The difference is drastic. There is no logical bridge from humanity up into the knowledge of God, yet God has established, in Jesus Christ, a point of contact through Whom we know God. Thus, it is only by God that we come to know God. Torrance writes:

I cannot test whether there is a bad smell about by my ear. I cannot verify the presence of a chemical element in some compound by religious experience. Nor can I demonstrate a proposition in astrophysics by some line of reasoning in aesthetics. All that would obviously be irrational, just as irrational as it would be to put God to the test in some sort of way in which we put nature to the test in carrying through a physical experiment or to demand of Him that He disclose His reality to us through a radar telescope. (Ibid., 93)

The core idea behind kata physin is the notion that every reality has its own intrinsic rationality to know it by. Apologetics ignores this fact by applying a humanistic, philosophical, or an abstractly logical rationality onto the being of God, thus essentially subjecting God to the provability of human hands. In this sense, Torrance might heartily agree with Bonhoeffer’s famous remark, “A God who could be proved by us would be an idol” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Volume 11, 260). When we attempt to prove God by a rationality alien to Godself, we ultimately produce a God fashioned after whichever rationality we implement; that is, God becomes an idol. Apologetics is a fundamentally flawed enterprise, since it fails to acknowledge God’s transcendent otherness. Torrance writes:

The transcendent rationality of God, however, is ultimate and as such can be known only out of itself. If God really is God He confronts us with absolute priority. In the nature of the case, He can be known only on the free ground of His own self-subsistent Being and through the shining of His own uncreated Light. The Truth of God cannot be demonstrated from other ground or derive support from lesser truths for He is the ultimate ground and support of them all… Knowledge of the ultimate rationality of God is reached at the point where our human reason becomes enlightened from beyond the limits of created rationality and where an infinite extension of intelligibility beyond ourselves is disclosed… (God and Rationality, 97)

We cannot illuminate God with human insights any more than we could brighten the moon with a flashlight. The doctrine of justification by grace alone should lead us to recognize God’s provability by grace alone. Works of the intellect cannot prove God without falling back into selfjustification. God is known when God’s uncreated light reaches us from beyond our humanity, enlightening our rationality with the divine rationality of God’s self-revelation. God alone proves Godself if God is proven at all, just as God alone reveals Godself if we have any true knowledge of God’s innermost being.

Finally, Torrance writes about the call for repentance as the call for a new kind of rationality. We are called to embrace God’s logic of God’s Self, not a human logic of God reduced down to our own terms. Repentance implies a turning away from our own rationality to embrace God’s inherent rationality. Thus, Torrance writes:

Michael Polanyi reminds us in his Gifford lectures that we cannot convince others by formal arguments, for so long as we argue within their framework, we can never induce them to abandon it… That applies to theological communication as much as scientific controversy, and yet this is precisely the erroneous line taken so often by apologetics, whether by the theologian or the preacher… The only proper road to take at that point is to persuade those operating from the other frame to look away at the realities we seek to indicate, and to persuade them to take, in face of it, the kind of ‘heuristic’ [personal] step forward which we always have to make in any genuine scientific discovery, for only then will they discern and know for themselves what we are speaking about. That is to say, in theological language, we have to bear witness to the divine Truth, and try to get from others a genuinely open hearing, but if they take the heuristic [personal] step which they must if they are really to know, it will involve on their part a self-critical act in reconstruction of their prior understanding, i.e., what the New Testament calls metanoia [repentance]. (Theology in Reconstruction, 27-8)

We should not attempt to make the process easy for unbelievers, in the sense that we have to down-play the biblical call to repentance. Instead, Torrance thinks we must give witness to the truth of the Gospel without dumbing it down by attempting to remove the inherent offense of the good news. Torrance writes:

That is the real difficulty about the Truth of God as it is in Jesus, not a difficulty about language or history in the last resort, but an offense which reaches its climax in the Cross… The last thing we must ever attempt to do is to eliminate the real difficulties that confront us in the nature of the Truth itself, and so try to make it easy for people to believe and understand—in so doing, we make it next to impossible for them… If there were no offense, we would find nothing new in the Scriptures, hear nothing we could not and have not already been able to tell ourselves. That which challenges us, which calls us in question, is the radically new, the element we are unable to assimilate into what we already know, without a logical reconstruction of all our preconceptions and a repentant re-thinking of what we already claim to know. But that is the element in the Scriptures which makes them the means of bringing the Good News—yet in the nature of the case it is Good News, not of some cheap grace that heals the hurts of God’s people too lightly, but of radical and complete reconciliation to God through the Cross of Jesus Christ. That is the only message that really strikes home to the human heart and meets at last the desperate plight of man. (Ibid., 29)

Torrance’s scientific axiom that we know in truth only in accordance with what we seek to know (kata physin) means the rejection of apologetics as a false start. His scientific theology does not fit within the modern Christian “culture war” against science, but it does offer us a helpful way forward that is faithful to the Gospel and its call for repentance. Instead of diluting the Gospel with reductionistic logic, with mere human sensibilities, we must bear witness to God’s own transcendent rationality and call men and women to repent and know God on God’s terms.

(From T. F. Torrance in Plain English, pages 61-66.)

You can purchase T. F. Torrance in Plain English on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords ($9.99 eBook, $16.95 paperback).

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“T. F. Torrance in Plain English” – Table of Contents

I am very pleased to announced the release of my new book, the second in my “Plain English Series,” T. F. Torrance in Plain English. 

258 pages, $9.99 eBook and $16.95 paperback.

Buy it now on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords!

This book is also now available on my new store page.

About the book

T. F. Torrance was my first “theological love,” and his work ignited in me a passion for studying theology. He was also my introduction to Karl Barth. For both of these reasons I owe Torrance a tremendous debt.

It was a pleasure to return to Torrance after my study of Barth and to re-examine his many profound contributions which had inspired me so greatly when I first took up an interest in theology. His work inspires me no less today then it did then.

Torrance was arguably Barth’s most important student, since he not only wrote two important books on Barth’s theology (Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology and Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian) but was instrumental in putting the Church Dogmatics into English. He was also likely the most important and influential English-speaking Reformed theologian of the 20th century, with a vast range of interests both scholarly and systematic. His engagement with the natural sciences and the philosophy of science is perhaps his most unique contribution, though there are many more important insights such as his doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ, and his profound work on the doctrine of the Trinity.

Without a doubt, Torrance is a significant figure for theology today—an individual worth careful attention both for the professional and the amateur alike.

The book is broken up into nine selected “major ideas” from Torrance’s scientific and evangelical theology. Between these major ideas I include various “sidebar” reflections on issues that naturally arise from these major ideas. I have spelled out all these in detail below. The sidebar chapters worked to answer difficult questions, or to draw out the practical implications of Torrance’s theology.

The book is different from my book on Barth in a number of ways. I struggled perhaps most of all with the structure of the book, since Torrance never produced a “systematic theology” though which he might be neatly summarized. His vast number of essays and books contain such wide interests that it was difficult to concisely summarize him. The book does, however, offer a reading of Torrance that I think is beneficial to introduce the subjects which I have found to be the most helpful in my own study. No attempt at a conclusive survey was made, but I hope it succeeds as an introductory study (which ultimately encourages you to read Torrance for yourself).

With all that said I am very pleased with this book, and I hope it is both helpful and inspiring for you to read.

I was honored and humbled by all of the positive feedback I received from Karl Barth in Plain English, and I hope this book is just as helpful.

Outline


Chapter 1: A “scientific” theology, or “theological science”

Sidebar: Non-dualist thought (cosmological and epistemological dualisms explained)

Chapter 2: Knowledge according to nature (kata physin, Torrance’s chief epistemological axiom). (This chapter also includes a reflection of Torrance’s “stratified” model of knowledge.)

Sidebar: The place of experience in theological knowledge

Sidebar: Apologetics (more properly contra-apologetics)

Chapter 3: A “reformulated” (or “new”) natural theology. (Special attention is given to Barth here.)

Chapter 4: One in being and act (homoousion, or the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

Sidebar: Triune at-one-ment (addressing Christ’s cry of abandonment on the cross).

Sidebar: Election

Chapter 5: The “ground and grammar” of theology (the Trinity)

Sidebar: The Filioque clause

Chapter 6: The twofold agency (mediation) of Christ (the Godward and humanward acts of Christ)

Sidebar: The Bible as witness

Chapter 7: The vicarious humanity of Christ, or Christ’s saving life (with special attention to the sacraments).

Sidebar: Fallen humanity

Chapter 8: Threefold atonement

Sidebar: Universalism and limited atonement (both rejected as “twin heresies”)

Chapter 9: “With Jesus besides God.” Union and participation (Theosis) as the capstone of Torrance’s theology. (Special attention is given to the ascension.)

Sidebar: The resurrection (its nature).

Conclusion: How to preach the Gospel


Total pages: 258 (about 20,000 more words than Karl Barth in Plain English)

Price: $9.99 for eBook, and $16.95 for paperback

Buy it now on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords!

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