My heart and mind are bursting with enthusiasm today after having two separate sessions with two different groups discussing my book on Grace and its implications for life and ministry. My purpose with these groups is to prove the truthfulness of what Eugene Peterson said to me once, “All theology is experience-able.” This should particularly be the case when dealing with a subject so relevant as Grace, and even more so when intrinsic in the definition of Grace is our participation in the life, love, and activity of God. Today was
proof of the relevance and I look forward to how this will continue to unfold.
My intention is to blog through the book as these conversations in community continue. This will enable others to join in the conversation.
The introduction provides a very brief background to T.F. Torrance, a rationale for a book on his concept of Grace, commentary on T.F.’s reception by the academy and the church, a note on his writing style, and a statement on the methodology and approach which I am taking in the book. The purpose and goal of the book is to translate and exposit Torrance’s theology through the lens of Grace. It, in effect, is a relentless pursuit of what I believe is the core of his thinking and theology, and not only that, the core of the gospel revealed in Christ send by the Father in the power of the Spirit.
The “meat” of the introduction is found in the section titled, “Background to Torrance’s Theology of Grace.” This section brings to light the versions of Grace that Torrance understands himself to be combating.
Rather than going point by point through the material (you can buy and read the book if you want that), I’m going to drop in at a couple places along the way and do a combination of riffing on what Torrance is staying about Grace, and reflecting on the conversations I’ve been having with those who are on the front end of engaging with these ideas.
What if we have misunderstood Grace? What if, even in the Reformation, we have reduced it to something we can understand, manage, and control? Torrance argues that our continual default is to naturalize grace by detaching it from the person and work of Christ. Once Grace is detached from the person of Christ, it gets reduced to something instrumental, controllable, and impersonal. In short, we turn it into a pharmaceutical (my term). We turn it into a pharmaceutical when we treat grace like a supplemental add-on to the Christian life. We say things and hear things said like, “…with the help of God’s grace…” you can do this or that. Grace becomes our energy pill. As a pharmaceutical, the Church and religious activities become the means by which grace is dispensed. We expect that by going to church, reading our bibles, fasting, praying, serving, etc…that we will “get” grace from that experience.
Forget the Catholics whom many Protestants so love to critique, let’s just look at how this plays out in the Protestant world. Here’s a quote from page xxvi in the book:
- “…the same errors and problems which plagued the Church before the Reformation reemerged afterwards; indeed Protestantism has shown an uncanny ability to replicate its own counterpart to nearly every flawed version of Grace which it opposes in Romanism. Torrance targets three particular snares which tend to besiege Protestantism: tendencies towards pietistic subjectivism, impersonal determinism and abstract extrinsicism.”
Pietistic subjectivism: Here we naturalize grace by melding it with common grace. There is a mutuality between God and us and as we do our part and God does his part, progress is made. We essential treat grace as something ‘infused’ into us, so we “grow in sanctification” and we “grow in grace” which is another way of saying, we get more of this thing, like muscle mass. Now grace has become ours, because we’ve worked hard at it, we’ve trained for it. Now it is “natural” to us when prior to our hard work it was not “natural” to us.
Impersonal determinism: Whereas pietistic subjectivism focuses on grace inside of us, impersonal determinism views it from the outside. Here grace is treated as an impersonal force. This is evident in both the theological position of limited atonement and also that of universalism. Each in their own way imposes a deterministic framework upon God’s relation to humans, the former by limiting God’s gift of salvation to a pre-selected group, the later by forcing God’s gift of salvation upon everyone regardless of their own wills.
Abstract extrinsicism: Here grace is reduced to and controlled by legal categories. This is grace on paper, where like an electronic bank transfer, grace is “imputed” to us, but that imputation takes place in ether world of “the cloud” and as such is abstract, distant, and external to us. Grace in this form does not transform the person. It bypasses the person, leaving them in the mire of their sin on an experiential level. Cognitively, we know we are free and forgiven, but experientially we are still left on our own to fend for ourselves – until we die.
In one way or another each of these versions of grace convert “it” into a thing, “thingifying” grace into an instrument or pill that helps us live the Christian life.
Pick up any book on grace today and the assumed premise will be that grace exists as a fix for a problem. How did we get here? In short, we have not listened to Athanasius who sought to teach us that the incarnation did not take place because humans are bad, but because God is good. We have reduced God’s gift of himself to a fix for a problem (humans are bad, sin must be forgiven), rather than recognizing it as God’s gift of himself so that we might participate in his life. (more on this next time)
I think this is where T.F. Torrance can become our best friend in leading us out of the quagmire of moralism, impersonalism, and extrinsicism that contaminates our gospel. And finally, I’d like to think that my book could be particularly helpful there. Here is the thesis as stated on p. xxviii:
- “It is the argument of this book that this self-giving-for-participation movement of triune Grace functions as the presuppositional and allencompassing context materially undergirding and methodologically guiding the formulation of all of Torrance’s theology. Like leaven, Torrance’s concept of Grace permeates the whole and forms the basis upon which all other doctrines have their sustenance.”