Defending Barth and Torrance from the Charge of Incoherence: Contra Robert Letham and Others
By Bobby Grow
Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance are both, and often accused of being incoherent in their material theological positions and conclusions. Robert Letham most recently has made this charge against Thomas Torrance in particular (and it might as well have been against Karl Barth as well). Letham writes against Torrance:
… It is simply incoherent for Torrance to say what he says about the definitive justification and reconciliation for all people and yet to deny universal salvation. Moreover, if it is possible for people to reject Christ and what he has done, it cannot be definitive and effective for them and cannot have been complete in Christ’s person. It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis.
What seriously bothers me about such claims is that people like Robert Letham, Roger Olson (who thinks us Evangelical Calvinists are incoherent for the same kinds of reasons), et al. totally fail to appreciate and take Barth and Torrance on their stated terms. It is not as if Barth or Torrance have not provided extended treatments of their terms and prolegomena and approach to things, theological; they have! And so for the rest of this post (and it will turn out to be a long post because of this, but I want to have this available online for whenever I hear that Barth and Torrance are incoherent) I will be quoting George Hunsinger at length on Karl Barth; and Hunsinger will be explaining why Barth (and think Torrance as well, for his own related reasons) is not in fact incoherent while those who are making the claim of incoherence in fact are the ones who are incoherent relative to the particular categories of Scripture and God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ. So here we go:
Testing for Incoherence Within the Framework of the Chalcedonian Pattern
The coherentist mode of testing, as it emerged in the survey of rationalism, also plays a decisive role in Barth’s justification of his position on double agency. Directly and indirectly, therefore, it serves to justify his reliance on the conceptions of miracle and mystery in that position. On the exegetical or hermeneutical premise that the terms of the Chalcedonian pattern are rooted in the biblical testimony regarding how divine and human agency are related, the mode of doctrinal testing proceeds as follows. The Chalcedonian pattern is used to specify counterpositions that would be doctrinally incoherent (and also incoherent with scripture). “Without separation or division” means that no independent human autonomy can be posited in relation to God. “Without confusion or change” means that not divine determinism or monism can be posited in relation to humanity. Finally, “complete in deity and complete in humanity” means that no symmetrical relationship can be posited between divine and human actions (or better, none that is not asymmetrical). It also means that the two cannot be posited as ultimately identical. Taken together, these considerations mean that, if the foregoing conditions are to be met, no nonmiraculous and nonmysterious conception is possible. The charge of incoherence (as previously defined) thereby reveals itself to be abstract, in the sense that it does not adequately take all the necessary factors into account. It does not work inductively from the subject matter (as attested by scripture)–as the motif of particularism would prescribe. Instead, it starts from general considerations such as formal logic and applies them to certain isolated aspects of the more “concrete” position. At the same time, the charge may well have implicated itself, wittingly or unwittingly, in one of the rejected couterpositions.
Without Separation or Division: Against Independent Human Autonomy
No independent human autonomy, Barth argues, may be posited in relation to God. The idea of an independent human autonomy posits the kind of illicit “determinism” that Barth finds to be characteristic of Pelagian and semi-Pelagian positions counter to his own. The actuality of human autonomy or freedom or self-determination (and so on) is, it is important to see, not in question. What is in question is the condition for the possibility of human autonomy, freedom, and self-determination. The Pelagian position finds this condition to be entirely inherent in human nature as created by divine grace, whereas the semi-Pelagian position finds it to be only partially inherent in human nature. The Pelagian sees no need, whereas the semi-Pelagian sees some need, for the special operation of divine grace, if the human creature is to act freely in fellowship with God (I/1, 199-200; II/1, 562-63). Neither position survives Barth’s coherentist form of testing, for neither is seen to do justice either to the radicality of sin or to the finitude of the creature. The same basic inadequacy can be restated with reference to other doctrinal beliefs, and these are actually thought to be the more fundamental. Christologically, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the cross of Christ (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the necessity of the mediation of Christ (as it overcomes not only sin, but the finitude of the creature, by exalting the creature to eternal life). Theologically, moreover, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the divine righteousness (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the divine majesty (as it discloses the essence of creaturely finitude).
In discussing the question of double agency, it is most often the radicality of sin and the majesty of God to which coherentist appeal adverts (although the other beliefs do not cease to be presupposed, of course, and are sometimes invoked). The radicality of sin, as already documented on more than one occasion, is regarded as meaning that we have “completely lost the capacity for God” (I/1, 238). The majesty of God, on the other hand, is characteristically conceived in terms of the “conditioned” and the “unconditioned.” “The creature which conditions God is no longer God’s creature, and the God who is conditioned by the creature is no longer God” (II/1, 580). Or again: “Grace would not be grace if it were not free, but were conditioned by a reciprocal achievement on the part of the one to whom it is addressed” (I/1, 45). Or again: “Grace cannot be called forth or constrained by any claim or merit, by any existing or future condition, on the part of the creature…. Both in its being and in its operation its necessity is in itself” (II/2, 19). That God’s grace is absolutely free in relation to the creature, ant that the creature can in no way condition God, is as axiomatic in Barth’s theology as he believes it to be axiomatic in scripture. Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism both fail, because they posit a creature who by nature conditions God, and a God who by nature can be and is conditioned by the creature. What is worse, these counterpositions do so even in the face of the radicality of sin. They are therefore judged to be incoherent from the standpoint of doctrinal testing. “What takes place in the covenant of grace takes place wholly for the human creature. A creatura mediatrix gratiarum or even corredemptrix is a self-contradiction” (I/1, 45).
Barth’s position over against these counterpositions may be briefly restated. The actuality of human freedom is affirmed (and by no means denied). But the condition for its possibility in relation to God is found not at all in human nature itself, but entirely in divine grace. In the event of human fellowship autonomy is not at all independent. It is entirely subsequent to and dependent on grace. The missing capacity for freedom in fellowship with God is given and received as a gift–“not as a supernatural quality, but as a capacity which is actual only as it is used, which is not in any sense magical, but absolutely free and natural in its exercise” (III/1, 128). In and through him it is called by grace “out of nothingness into being, out of death into life.” The event of grace on which the capacity for freedom completely depends is thereby a miracle and a mystery. But in and with this complete dependence, it is “real in the way in which creation generally can be in its relationship to the Creator.” Human freedom in all its reality is “encompassed,” “established,” “delimited,” and “determined” by divine grace (II/1, 128). The “mystery of human autonomy” is clearly not “an autonomous mystery” (II/2, 194). It is rather included within “the one divine mystery.” It is, that is to say, included within “the mystery of grace,” within “the mystery of God’s triumphant affirmation and love.” Only in this sense (but certainly in this sense) is it included within “the mystery of God’s omnipotence.” The reality of human freedom takes place, therefore, not as “the second point in an ellipse” (the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian counterpositions), but as “the circumference around one central point of which it is the repetition and confirmation” (II/2, 194). Divine grace and human freedom stand, in other words, in a conceptually asymmetrical relationship rather than in one of conceptual interdependence.
The features of this argument may also be stated in terms of the various motifs. The reality of fellowship is in question by way of the problem of double agency (personalism). The mode of testing for incoherence takes place in terms of the remaining web of doctrinal beliefs (rationalism). The bestowal, by grace, of freedom for fellowship with God is described as a miraculous event (actualism). This event also takes place in such a way that divine omnipotence and human freedom coexist in mutual love and freedom as the mystery of God with humanity and of humanity with God (particularism). Furthermore, the miracle and the mystery of the event are said to be dependent upon and mediated through the saving person and work of Jesus Christ (objectivism). The counterpositions (Pelgianism and semi-Pelagianism) are shown to be incoherent at essential points with the presupposed web of doctrinal beliefs (especially “the radicality of sin” and “the majesty of God”), whereas the position in question is shown in fact to be coherent with it in the mode of miracle and mystery (rationalism, actualism, particularism). Since the web of presupposed beliefs is taken to be in accord with scripture, it follows (granted the assumption) that the challenged position is also in accord with scripture, and that the proposed counterpositions are not (although this could and would need to be argued also on independent exegetical grounds) (realism). Thus all six motifs are in force in one way or another in the mode of testing for the possible coherence or incoherence of the challenged belief.
 Robert Letham, The Triune God, Incarnation, and Definite Atonement in edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 454. When Letham writes of Torrance: ‘…It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis….’ What he is referring to is this in Torrance’s writings:
The rationalism of both universalism and limited atonement. Here we see that man’s proud reason insists in pushing through its own partial insight into the death of the cross to its logical conclusion, and so the great mystery of the atonement is subjected to the rationalism of human thought. That is just as true of the universalist as it is of those who hold limited atonement for in both cases they have not yet bowed their reason before the cross of Christ. (Atonement, 187-88)
(i) Christ’s death for all is an inescapable reality. We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity — that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact — nothing can undo it. That means that God has taken the great positive decision for man, the decision of love translated into fact. But because the work and the person of Christ are one, that finished work is identical with the self-giving of God to all humanity which he extends to everyone in the living Christ. God does not withhold himself from any one, but he gives himself to all whether they will or not — even if they will not have him, he gives himself to them, for he has once and for all given himself, and therefore the giving of himself in the cross when opposed by the will of man inevitably opposes that will of man and is its judgement. As we saw, it is the positive will of God in loving humanity that becomes humanity’s judgement when they refuse it. (Thomas F. Torrance,Atonement, 188-89)
What Letham, as others, fails to appreciate is the very point that Hunsinger (above and below) highlights about Barth’s approach; primarily having to do with the ‘radicality of sin’, and thinking from the grammar and mystery of the Incarnation itself. Torrance, as Letham asserts, is not merely making an ‘assertion,’ but in fact has his assertion squarely grounded within Christian, historical, and constructive theological proposals that are both robust and cogent within a coherent framework of thought. Hunsinger, I believe, defeats Letham’s (and other’s) charge of incoherence against Torrance, and by relation Karl Barth; and for the very reasons that Hunsinger registers in his clarification and defense of Karl Barth. The irony is that Barth and Torrance, if understood through classical patterns of Christian theological engagement are seen to be the coherent ones while those who are critiquing them are the ones who end up being incoherent by engaging abstract patterns of thought that are foreign to the mysterious Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It is not that mystery is being appealed to in abstraction by either Barth or Torrance, instead the parameters of thought for both of them is chastened and cordoned off by the mystery of God en sarkos (‘in the flesh’); and any Christian intelligibility must be thought from within this center, and not a center of our own active intellectual making.
 George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 195-98 nook version.