Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Jesus of History & Faith, Conjoined

I wanted to address something that dovetails with a recent mini-essay that Darren Sumner wrote on Karl Barth's understanding of history and revelation. What I want to do is provide a counter-part post that underscores and articulates Thomas F. Torrance's view on the same subject. If you read Darren's post alongside this post; what you'll notice is that both Torrance and Barth share a very similar understanding on the relationship between how revelation and history work together, and how the former ultimately must be said to condition the latter; and not vice versa. Here is TF Torrance, at length (I will highlight the significance of this relative to the normal ways that Evangelicals and some of the Reformed use history as the foundation for their view of revelation---which is really backwards from a genuinely Christian order of things):

The mystery of Christ is presented to us within history --- that historical involvement is not an accidental characteristic of the mystery but essential to it. That is the problem.
Let us first put it this way, recalling the bi-polarity of our theological knowledge. If God has become man in the historical Jesus, that is an historical event that comes under our historical examination so far as the humanity of Jesus is concerned, but the fact that God became man is an event that cannot be appreciated by ordinary historical science, for here we are concerned with more than simply an historical event, namely, with the act of the eternal God. So far as this event is a fact of nature it can be observed, and so far as it is historical in the sense that other natural events are historical, it can be appreciated as such; but the essential becoming behind it cannot be directly perceived except by an act of perception appropriate to the eternal event. That act of perception appropriate to an eternal act, or divine act, would surely be the pure vision of God, which we do not have in history. Here on earth and in time we do not see directly, face to face, but see only in part, as through a glass enigmatically, in a mystery. We see the eternal or divine act within history, within our fallen world where historical observation is essential. Faith would be better described then as the kind of perception appropriate to perceiving a divine act in history, an eternal act in time. So that faith is appropriate both to the true perception of historical facts, and also to the true perception of God's action in history. Nor is it the way we are given within history to perceive God's acts in history, and that means that faith is the obedience of our minds to the mystery of Christ, who is God and man in the historical Jesus. What is clearly of paramount importance here is the holding together of the historical and the theological in our relation to Christ.

If the two are not held together, we have broken up the given unity in Christ into the historical on the one hand, and the theological on the other, refracting it into elements which we can no longer put together again. We then find that we cannot start from the historical and move to the theological, or from the theological and move to the historical without distortion, and nor can we rediscover the original unity. We can only start from the given, where the historical and the theological are in indissoluble union in Christ. [Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation, 6-7]

So there is no analogy for the incarnation. And for Torrance, the incarnation must be the definitive touchstone for how we start to conceive of a knowledge of God (the Old Testament then is seen as the pre-incarnation of God in Christ); and since there is not human analogy for this reality to be found in the history of history (i.e. God and humanity united in a single person), the only 'foundation' that can be used to justify our belief about God must be given its shape and reality through the given reality of the incarnate Christ---which means, faith.

This means that we cannot start with an abstracted history (like a naked evidentialism) and seek to attach this to the history of Jesus, but the history we have, in itself, of Christ's revelation is the given reality itself; there is nothing else that can be determinate of that, other than the truly and self-determinately free God himself.

*A repost for those who may have not read this, I once posted this not too long ago at my EC (Wordpress) blog.


  1. Hmmmm...great post Bobby! I had read recently read an old critique of Barth on this subject by John Montgomery. Your post cleared up some things I felt Montgomery may not have fully understood.

    I have really been enjoying the Torrance book. One part concerning the human nature of Christ has me puzzled. I think you have written on it previously so I need to do an archive search.

    Once again excellent post. I am very glad I read it

    1. Gojira,

      Great to hear that this has been helpful!

  2. Some good points.

    History can reconstruct events and even sometimes motivations/prompts of it, but it is an act of faith that gives both meaning and deeper answers.

    If we look at Gaius Julius Caesar, we can reconstruct his life. Yet, when he died he was proclaimed a god. No one believes this anymore(I think) but it is a claim that is made in history but unproveable by the discipline of history. But it doesn't mean it is then abstracted from history.

    The same with Jesus of Nazareth. We can see from history that He was born, lived and preached, died and was buried and there is even good evidence that He didn't stay dead. None of that brings us to the point where we, with Peter, answer His question, "Who do you say that I am?". History gives no answer, only by faith do we answer "You are the Christ, the Holy One of God!"

    Good stuff

    1. Hi Cal,

      Good points. Yes, really good evidence that he didn't stay dead! But there are non-Christian historians and scholars who will affirm the historicity of the resurrection and yet reject its significance for them--to your point. We need eyes of faith to see what they can only consider foolishness and weakness.


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