Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"Worship, Community, And The Triune God Of Grace" By James B. Torrance

(This review origionally appeared in three parts, 8/7/07, 8/11/07, and 8/17/07.)

The Torrance brothers, Thomas and James, are highly regarded by some of the professors at Wesley Biblical Seminary. So when I saw Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace by James Torrance in a bookstore, I knew I had to buy it.  The book has only four short chapters, yet the style and content are such that these chapters take two or three readings before what Torrance is saying can be grasped. The time spent is well worth the effort, and not just for the purpose of grasping the book's message. I have already used some of its insights to teach with positive effect. This experience will be shared further on.

Torrance reminds us that Jesus is not only the center of our worship; Jesus is the leader of our worship. Many Christians would reply "Well, of course He is the leader of our worship, as He is the leader of all that we do." Yet this assertion is often undermined by our actual practice. More often than not, Christians act upon the attitude that in worship, the only two parties involved are themselves and God. An individual Christian may express this attitude in this manner: "Its just God and me! No priest or ritual can dictate to me how I worship God." Yet if this is the case, doesn't the initiative then rest with us as to how we respond to God in worship? Is man in the driver's seat as to the content of worship? Will not our "experience" take center stage, while the persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit recede in importance? Torrance correctly points out that this is not worship as God intended it to be.

Jesus Christ is not only our savior and healer and soon coming King. He is our High Priest. It is through the Son that we approach the Father. When we approach Christ, it is Christ Himself who intercedes on our behalf. When we boldly approach the throne of grace, it is Christ Himself who leads the way. When we continually abide in Christ, we share in Christ's own communion with the Father. These truths should fundamentally alter our individualistic view of our worship of God. Here is how Torrance explains the issue of our relationship to God and worship: "It is he (Jesus) who leads our worship, bears our sorrows on his heart and intercedes for us, presenting us to the Father in himself as God's dear children, and uniting us with himself in his life in the spirit. To reduce worship to this two-dimensional thing-God and ourselves, today-is to imply that God throws us back upon ourselves to make our response. It ignores the fact that God has already provided for us the response which alone is acceptable to him-the offering made for the whole human race in the life, obedience and passion of Jesus Christ. But is this not to lose the comfort and the peace of the gospel, as well as the secret of true Christian prayer? The gift of sharing in the intercessions of Christ is that when we do not know how to pray as we ought, the Spirit makes intercession for us. Whatever else our faith is, it is a response to a response already made for us and continually being made for us in Christ, the pioneer of our faith. (pages 29-30) Torrance goes on to define true, Trinitarian worship as "...the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son's communion with the Father." (p. 30) The unique relationship between the Father and the Son is at the center of our worship. Christ has union and communion with the Father through the Spirit, presenting Himself in our humanity through the Holy Spirit on our behalf. By the same Holy Spirit Christ enables us to participate in His life of worship and communion with the Father. Furthermore, we are drawn by the Holy Spirit into Christ's mission to the world that He received from the Father.

In terms of public worship, Torrance focuses on two sacraments that allow us to participate in Christ's own worship of the Father. In baptism, Torrance reminds us that just because we have chosen to be baptized, that does not make us the primary agents or actors. Christ is the primary agent in baptism. He is our "leitourgos", our high priest, whose vicarious atoning sacrifice for our sins cleanses us and sanctifies us so that He may present us to the Father. "Baptism in water is a sign in the first instance, not of anything in us, but of Christ in the Spirit. It is not my faith which cleanses but Christ by the Spirit-the Christ in whom I believe." (Torrance, p. 79-80) "Christ is the agent in baptism and he baptizes us into a life of sonship, of service, of dying and rising with him in newness of life (Rom. 6). He baptizes us into that life of communion for which we were created in the image of the triune God, to be co-lovers (condiligentes)." (Torrance, p.79) In communion, it is not an offering that we have made that is of utmost importance. What is most important is that Christ's offering on our behalf is brought back to our remembrance. And as we participate in communion, we are drawn to the Father and the Son and to each other. And our faith is nourished until Christ's return. This is a foretaste of what worship will be like when we are actually in the Father's presence in Heaven.

According to Torrance, what kind of communion are we drawn into through baptism and communion? We are drawn into Christ's own intercession for humanity. In corporate worship we become the royal priesthood referred to by Peter. As members of this priesthood, we bear the sorrows and cares of this world in our hearts as our high priest, Christ Jesus, does. Communion also performs a work of memory in us. "This work of memory, of realizing our participation and fellowship in the suffering of Christ, is the work of the Holy Spirit. He brings these things to our remembrance and interprets to us the meaning of the events. We remember Christ-yet it is not so much we who remind ourselves of these events, but Jesus Christ, who brings his passion to our remembrance through the Holy Spirit, as our ever-living and ever-present Lord, who in his own person, is our memorial in the presence of the Father. In other words, our memorial is the earthly counterpart of the heavenly memorial. Christ, in constituting himself as our memorial before the Father, by his Spirit, lifts us up as we present our memorials before God. So the Lord's Supper, like the Passover, is a memorial to us, but also a memorial before God." (Torrance, p. 86)

The final chapter of Torrance's book is called "Gender, Sexuality and the Trinity." Not only was I impressed with what Torrance was conveying in this chapter, I have been able to use Torrance's insights in ministry with good results. Torrance points out that behind much radical feminist theology and its hostility to the fatherhood of God are the personal experiences of many feminists. The relationship between these feminists and their earthly fathers were often not only bad, but abusive, the fathers being the abusers. Torrance rejects the notion that we must redefine God and the Bible in terms of gender so that we can discern female traits in God. Torrance instead urges us to speak of God in terms of the Father. Yet he strongly cautions us not to interpret the fatherhood of God in terms of any earthly model of fatherhood. Instead, we should view fatherhood in the model of the relationship between Jesus and His Father. '...we are meant to interpret our humanity, our male-female relations, in light of the Trinity. God is love. Love always implies communion between persons, and that is what we see supremely in God. The Father loves the Son in the communion of the Spirit. The Son loves the Father in the communion of the Spirit in their continual mutual "indwelling"...The Spirit is the bond of communication between the Father and the Son and between God and ourselves. The Spirit is God giving God's self in love. The Father and the Son and the Spirit are equally God...But there is differentiation within God-personal distinctions in the Godhead. There is unity, diversity and perfect harmony. It is this triune God who has being-in-communion, in love, who has created us as male and female in that image to be "co-lovers"...to share in the triune love and to love one another in...unity." (Torrance, p. 104-105) As males and females, we find our identities and fulfilment in Christ. We look to Him to know what it is to be in the image of God.

I have been able to apply Torrance's teaching in prison ministry. Most, if not all the men you encounter in prison ministry, had bad fathers, if they knew their fathers at all. Their relationship with their fathers can make it difficult for them to understand God not only as their Father, but as their merciful and loving Father. In Rantoul, IL., I taught men who had been released from prison. I taught them that to see Jesus is to see the Father. Jesus reflected the Father in His mercy, compassion and servanthood. I pointed them to the example of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples the night of His betrayal. Jesus used this as an example of how His disciples were to relate to one another. Then in the next few chapters Jesus stated that to see Him was to see the Father. His disciples were meant to apply the example of servanthood to the Trinitarian relationship that Jesus brought to their attention that night. This caused the men in the group to gain a truer vision of God as Father. Before, they had no models of fatherhood with which to understand God as Father. But now they have the correct model, Jesus Christ himself. In Jesus, they have a picture of how to relate to others. They have a model of God the Father as a servant, not as a tyrant.

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