Review: Beyond Immanence by Alan J. Torrance and Andrew B. Torrance

Book: Beyond Immanence: The Theological Vision of Kierkegaard and Barth by Alan J. Torrance and Andrew B. Torrance

Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2023

Overview: This book proposes and analyzes a Kierkegaard and Barth trajectory (KBT), which challenges immanence theologies that risk domesticating divine revelation by subjecting it to cultural or ideological concerns rather than the intrinsic logic of the incarnation. In contrast, Barth and Kierkegaard are analyzed for how they take seriously the “full magnitude” of the incarnation theologically. In particular, this relates to how both Barth and Kierkegaard were perceptive critics of their own historical versions of “cultural Christianity”—Danish Hegelism or German Kulturprotestantismus. 


I was kindly sent this book over a year ago for review, but regretfully, I have only now had a chance to read it. The book is by Alan J. Torrance and Andrew B. Torrance. Alan is the nephew of T. F. Torrance, and Andrew is Alan’s son. Both teach at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

When I first received the book, I assumed it would simply be a critical comparison of Barth and Kierkegaard’s theology, perhaps with a reception history of sorts, but I soon realized that it is far more ambitious in its scope than that, even while it also does a good job at comparing the two theologians. Alan and Andrew Torrance constructively trace a theological trajectory that both Barth and Kierkegaard establish within their distinct historical contexts, which then allowed them to be significant critics of their historical situation. They consider what such a trajectory might mean for theology and argue that it requires moving “beyond immanence.”

I cannot comment on the book’s interpretation of Kierkegaard. I learned a lot about Kierkegaard from the book, which isn’t difficult since I have only read a few books by the great Danish theologian. But I think the overall approach of pairing Barth with Kierkegaard was a fruitful decision and one that I enjoyed, even if my reading focused on the Barth chapters.

The book argues for a Kierkegaard and Barth trajectory (KBT) that explains the theological basis for how each theologian challenged the cultural and philosophical trends of their time in important ways. In particular, the book looks at Kierkegaard’s critique of the Danish Hegelian theologians and Barth’s of his liberal teachers and German Kulturprotestantismus (cultural Protestantism). The Torrances identify the immanent “assumptions about law, nature, reason, and god” that inform these theologies and describe how Barth and Kierkegaard critique those assumptions.

The conclusion of the book offers a helpful summary of their overall argument:

In conclusion, the KBT presents an account of God and the knowledge of God that recognizes the centrality of the incarnation and the full magnitude of its significance. It also presents us with the unambiguous either-ors that flow from this. To affirm God’s triune self-disclosure in history precludes treating our immanent suppositions, agendas, and conceptualities as foundational—whether these are philosophical or religious, whether they are phenomenological or narratival, and whether they are ethical or sociopolitical. When theology takes place before God and affirms the God-humanward movement of God’s grace, it recognizes the folly and vanity of constructing towers of Babel to help us reach God. It also recognizes that such attempts will foster the confusion that results from our disparate religious, philosophical, political, and ethical languages. In short, human-Godward or Socratic methodologies reflect a de facto repudiation of God’s gracious movement toward us in Jesus Christ. To reject God’s self-presentation, whether actively or passively, whether explicitly or subliminally, will result in our falling back on mythological constructs of our own. 1

A central argument is that both Kierkegaard and Barth share an epistemological commitment to the idea that God’s self-revelation must be interpreted on its own terms (“kata physin” as T. F. Torrance might say) and not according to cultural, philosophical, or idealistic foundations. That is, divine self-disclosure does not require first considering “our immanent suppositions, agendas, and conceptualities as foundational;” instead, KBT takes the incarnation seriously as epistemological grounding. That is, the gospel itself bears its own intrinsic rationality, and that extends not only to how theology is developed from the basis of divine revelation in Jesus Christ but also to how the gospel relates to culture and politics. The Torrances argue this point convincingly, particularly for Barth (though I cannot speak to the accuracy of this reading of Kierkegaard). This approach is, indeed, a unique trajectory present in Barth, and it is a great benefit of this book that it articulates that trajectory well with a firm basis in the texts (and contexts) of both Barth and Kierkegaard (and Barth’s reception of Kierkegaard, which is not always the same thing). It is demonstrated that both theologians are able to perceive the danger in the immanent assumptions of their time and how they go about challenging those assumptions theologically.

So, for Barth, that entails recognizing and criticizing the flawed logic of immanentism, especially as it builds upon natural theology to then reinforce German cultural Protestantism, which eventually led to Nazism and the brutality of fascism. This argument reveals quite well the political importance, for Barth, of rejecting natural theology and his corresponding emphasis on divine revelation in Jesus Christ. That was one of the points I enjoyed most about the book: how the Torrances emphasized the socio-political dimension of Barth’s theology. In that sense, the book demonstrates how an apolitical reading of Barth is a misreading.

Anyone with an interest in either Kierkegaard or Barth, but especially both, would benefit from reading this book. The Torrances leverage their expertise as Barth and Kierkegaard scholars (Alan and Andrew, respectively, though not exclusively), and that expertise shows throughout the book. But it will also be useful for those interested in the epistemological trajectory of both theologians and how it shapes their approach to culture and society, or how such a trajectory might be developed constructively for today. The arguments are well presented and carefully researched, and overall, even if some points might not land as well as others, the book is thoroughly thought-provoking and engaging.

I want to thank William B. Eerdmans for a review copy of this book. I was not obligated to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections. 

Notes:

  1. P. 361.