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The obedience of the Son in the theology of Karl Barth and of Thomas F. Torrance

  • Paul D. Molnar (a1)


Both Thomas F. Torrance and Karl Barth speak of the obedience of the Son as a condescension of the Son to become incarnate for our sakes. Thus there is wide agreement between them with regard to both the doctrines of atonement and the Trinity. Yet, despite the fact that Barth never wavered in his rejection of subordinationism and modalism and always affirmed the freedom of God's love, he also claimed that there ‘is in God Himself an above and a below, a prius and a posterius, a superiority and a subordination’,1 while Torrance unequivocally refused to read elements of the economy, such as the ideas of super and subordination and a before or after, back into the immanent Trinity. By comparing the thinking of Barth and Torrance on this issue, I hope to show why I think Barth illegitimately read back elements of the economy into the immanent Trinity, thus creating confusion where clarity would help us see that what God does for us in the economy is and remains an act of free grace which becomes obscured when any sort of hierarchy is introduced into the Trinity.

Both theologians thoroughly agree that what God is towards us in the economy, he is eternally in himself and what he is eternally in himself, he is towards us in the economy. But, there is a difference between them over how to interpret this insight, since Barth thinks super and subordination should be ascribed to the immanent Trinity. While Torrance, like Barth, will argue that the incarnation and Christ's mediatorial activity fall ‘within the life of God’, he also insists that the incarnation cannot in any way be confused with the generation of the Son from the Father in eternity. Barth would agree; yet this important distinction becomes fuzzy when he ascribes subordination and obedience to the eternal Son as a basis for his actions ad extra.

This article will develop in four sections. First, I will discuss the obedience of the Son as condescension for Torrance and Barth. Second, I will consider the implications of the Extra Calvinisticum for each theologian's view of the obedience of the Son and of the Trinity. Third, I will explore how each theologian attempts to avoid subordinationism and modalism indicating the problems which arise in Barth's thinking in connection with these views. Fourth, I will compare Torrance and Barth, showing that Torrance more consistently maintains God's freedom and love by not reading back elements of the economy into the life of the immanent Trinity.



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1 Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics, 4 vols. in 13 pts. (hereafter CD). vol. IV, pt. 1, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, trans. Bromiley, G. W., ed. Bromiley, G. W. and Torrance, T. F. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1974), pp. 200–1.

2 See CD, IV/1, 168ff.

3 Torrance, Thomas F., Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Walker, Robert T. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), p. 114.

4 Torrance, Thomas F., Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, ed. Walker, Robert T. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p. 70. See also Torrance, Incarnation, p. 115.

5 Torrance, Thomas F., Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), p. 344.

7 Thus, ‘the significance of the cross . . . lies in the fact that the person of Christ is the one who sheds his blood for our sin – it lies in the identity of his person and work . . . The cross is the outworking of a divine decision that constitutes the person of the mediator himself in the incarnation.’ Torrance, Incarnation, p. 108.

8 Torrance, Thomas F., The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), p. 153.

9 In Space, Time, and Resurrection (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998) Torrance insists that apart from the resurrection we could not say that we truly know God the Father in his own ultimate being and reality (pp. 71–3).

10 See e.g. Space, Time and Resurrection, pp. 53, 32, and Molnar, Paul D., Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 230–1.

11 Hence, ‘Redemption was not accomplished just by a downright fiat of God, nor by a mere divine “nod”, but by an intimate, personal movement of the Son of God himself into the heart of our creaturely being and into the inner recesses of the human mind, in order to save us from within and from below . . .’ Torrance, Trinitarian Faith, pp. 187–8. See also Torrance, Atonement, pp. 440–7ff. In Christ our minds were healed so that we could know God and obey God in freedom.

12 This harmonises with Barth's earlier statement that ‘the Godhead is not so immanent in Christ's humanity that it does not also remain transcendent to it, that its immanence ceases to be an event in the Old Testament sense, always a new thing, something that God actually brings into being in specific circumstances’ (CD, I/1, 323).

13 See Godsey, John D. (ed.), Karl Barth's Table Talk (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1962), p. 49.

14 The tensions in evidence in CD, IV/1 remain in IV/2, pp. 343–51.

15 In the rare instance where Torrance speaks of ‘a “before” and an “after” in the life of God’ he attempts to make sense of the fact that the incarnation was something new even for God. See Torrance, Thomas F., Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 69 and Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance, pp. 253–9.

16 Torrance, Thomas F., Trinitarian Perspectives: Toward Doctrinal Agreement (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), p. 66; cf. also pp. 28–36, 118–20 and 133.

17 I am grateful to George Hunsinger for helping me see this point with clarity.

18 See CD, I/1, p. 352. Barth's intention here was to stress that the gift (grace) was identical with the giver (God), an important insight which Torrance regularly stressed as well. See Torrance, Trinitarian Faith, pp. 24, 138, 140–1 and Thomas Torrance, F., The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), pp. 21, 63 and 100.

19 See e.g. Peters, Ted, God as Trinity: Relationality and Temporality in Divine Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), pp. 81145.

20 See e.g. Torrance, Christian Doctrine of God, p. 108, and Trinitarian Faith, p. 155.

21 See Pannenberg, Wolfhart, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, trans. Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 368, and McCormack, Bruce L., ‘Divine Impassibility or Simply Divine Constancy? Implications of Karl Barth's Later Christology for Debates over Impassibility’, in Keating, James F. and White, Thomas Joseph (eds), Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), p. 178.

22 Hunsinger, George, ‘Election and the Trinity: Twenty-Five Theses on the Theology of Karl Barth’, Modern Theology 24/2, (2008), pp. 181–3, explains perfectly that when Barth says that Jesus Christ is the subject of election he is not speaking without qualification.

23 Torrance, Thomas F., Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), p. 201, and Christian Doctrine of God, pp. 199, 243.

24 See Torrance, Atonement, pp. 184–7.

25 Following Athanasius with respect to Jesus’ pain, agitation and distress Torrance thinks ‘one cannot say that these things are natural to Godhead, but they came to belong to God by nature, when it pleased the Word to undergo human birth and to reconstitute in himself, as in a new image, that what he himself had made’, Christian Doctrine of God, p. 248.

26 While I think much of Rowan Williams’ critique of Barth is off the mark, his observation about this remark is interesting: ‘What, if anything, this can possibly mean, neither Barth nor his interpreters have succeded [sic] in telling us’ (‘Barth on the Triune God’, in Sykes, S. W. (ed.), Karl Barth: Studies of his Theological Method (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), p. 175). Here Barth was inconsistent in distinguishing, without separating the processions and missions, the immanent and economic Trinity.

27 See CD, II/1, pp. 306ff. and his statement that the Son's eternal begetting is a perpetual becoming which ‘rules out every need of this being for completion. Indeed this becoming simply confirms the perfection of this being’ (CD, I/1, p. 427 and IV/1, p. 113). Torrance agrees with this (Christian Doctrine of God, p. 242).

28 Importantly, Torrance here claims ‘This is surely part of the significance of 1 Cor 15:24ff.’ and also refers to Phil 2:7–10.

29 He did this with respect to God and suffering, arguing that ‘God finds no suffering in Himself. And no cause outside God can cause Him suffering if He does not will it so. But it is, in fact, a question of sympathy with the suffering of another in the full scope of God's own personal freedom’ (CD, II/1, 370). In CD, IV/2, p. 357, he says that it is our suffering that God takes to himself in his Son for us.

30 Torrance, Karl Barth, p. 131. See e.g. CD, I/1, pp. 412–15, where Barth thinks of the distinction between God's Fatherhood and Sonship in terms of ‘super- and subordination’ (p. 414), while claiming that there was ‘no distinction of being’ implied (p. 413).

31 Torrance, Trinitarian Faith, p. 155.

32 It could also lead to thinking which denies that the hypostatic union is the uniting of the divine Word with the human nature of Jesus Christ in the incarnation. Thus, ‘The second “person” of the Trinity is the God-man. So even in the act of hypostatic uniting, the “subject” who performs that action is the God-man, Jesus Christ in his divine-human unity.’ McCormack, ‘Divine Impassibility’, p. 178.

33 Torrance, Christian Doctrine of God, pp. 252ff. and Trinitarian Faith, pp. 184–5.

34 Thus, ‘primarily it is God the Father who suffers in the offering and sending of His Son, in His abasement. The suffering is not His own, but the alien suffering of the creature, of man, which He takes to Himself in Him’ (CD, IV/2, p. 357). See also Torrance, Christian Doctrine of God, p. 249.

35 Understanding election as prothesis, Torrance maintains that Jesus’ humanity is not eternal in the sense that it was pre-existent; his person is eternal and ‘his person is not human but divine’ (Incarnation, p. 177). Barth also argued for a distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity for similar reasons (CD, I/1, p. 172, IV/1, pp. 125ff., 212–13).

36 Torrance, Karl Barth, pp. 134–5.

37 Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection, p. 135.

38 See e.g. Torrance, Thomas F., Royal Priesthood: A Theology of Ordained Ministry, 2nd edn (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), ch. 2, ‘The Function of the Body of Christ’, and ch. 3, ‘The Time of the Church’.

39 Torrance thinks that, while Thomas Aquinas modified the receptacle notion of space when thinking of the incarnation in patristic terms, Luther failed to do so and so allowed monophysitism in by the back door by extending the ubiquity of Christ (the human receptacle) to contain his omnipresence with a strong form of the communicatio idiomatum. Space, Time and Incarnation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), p. 62.

40 Barth's continued reference to the logos asarkos as necessary even in CD, IV/1, p. 52, then could be seen as an attempt to maintain the ‘Calvinist extra’ and would make sense as long as it was not understood using a receptacle or container view of space which might lead to the false conclusion that there is indeed a God behind the back of Jesus Christ.

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