Trinitarian Grace and Participation : An Entry into the Theology of T. F. Torrance – Geordie W. Ziegler

Geordie W. Ziegler offers an exploration of the concept of “grace” in the thought of T. F. Torrance, and what it means for understanding the Christian life as “participation” in Christ’s ongoing humanity. He clarifies Torrance’s claim that Christ’s vicarious humanity intensifies, rather than lessens, the necessity of human response to God in sacrificial and Christ-like service. Specifically, Ziegler demonstrates the centrality of Torrance’s concept of grace across the dogmatic spectrum and argues that grace, for Torrance, is a downward, twofold movement from and to the Father, through the Son in the Spirit. This understanding of grace distinctly defines the Christian life as the gift of sharing in the Son’s relation with the Father through the Spirit. This project is distinct in that it articulates a Trinitarian approach to grace which spans the entire dogmatic spectrum. Part One considers grace as a movement of the Trinity, expressed in the economy of salvation. Part Two applies this understanding of grace to the human person. It traces the way in which human beings, through the Holy Spirit, participate in Christ’s Sonship within the three concentric levels of anthropology, ecclesiology, and personal formation in Christ.

Foreword (John Webster)
Introduction

Part 1: The Objective Agent in Grace—The Triune Persons
1. The Motion of Grace from the Trinity
2. The Motion of Grace through the Son
3. The Motion of Grace through the Spirit
Part 2: Human Participation in the Motion of Grace
4. Anthropology—Grace Has a Context
5. The ecclesiological Form of Grace
6. Formation through Participation: Identity and Movement
Conclusion

 

Eugene H. Peterson (Regent College) says:

“God speaks. Are we listening? Thomas F Torrance was a master at redirecting our attention from asking or questioning God. God is chiefly God of grace, which means that his presence among us is fundamentally is to give us life, salvation, and blessing. Geordie W. Ziegler’s dissertation is a clear and extensive invitation to pastors to restore grace to its primary position in our understanding of what we are about.”

Dr Andrew Purves (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) says:

“This comprehensive, carefully developed exploration of the theology of T F Torrance is marked by consistent attention to the personal encounter with God’s grace given for us in, through, and as Jesus Christ. Geordie w. Ziegler patiently leads readers into a serious, direct, and sometimes critical conversation with Torrance – all while pointing to where Torrance himself would have us look, unto Jesus Christ. This book is a rich theological feast, and I endorse it with enthusiasm and applause for a job well done.”

Paul D Molnar (St John’s University Queens New York) says:

“This books is not just for Torrance scholars, but for anyone who wishes to understand the power of grace as God’s action towards us in His Word and Spirit – a power that God does not relinquish, but exercises here and now as the risen and ascended Lord, through the action of his Holy Spirit uniting us to Himself. With clarity and consistency Geordie W. Ziegler explains why salvation by grace, when rightly understood with the help of Torrance’s theology, eliminates the need to seek assurance for our salvation in what we do, since that assurance is freely actualized for in Christ himself and enabled by the Spirit. Ziegler demonstrates precisely why the theology of T F Torrance offers a breadth and depth of understanding that simply will not be found elsewhere.”

 

Hello and Welcome to Trinity in You- an on-line web site of Perichoresis Australia.

Preamble

Last year It came to our attention that Dr. Geordie Ziegler, an American Presbyterian minister serving as Pastor of Adult Discipleship and Formation at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Washington State, USA has written a significant book. The book Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An entry into the theology of TF Torrance, was published by Fortress Press and will be available in February 2017. This publication is based upon his doctoral dissertation, which he completed at the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland under the supervision of the late Professor John Webster. We would like to introduce Dr Ziegler and his forthcoming publication to an Australian audience/ readership and inclusively of course, to our global audience of supporters and viewers of this website.


James Chaousis: It’s my pleasure to welcome Dr Geordie Ziegler to Trinity-in-You.

Dr Geordie Ziegler (Geordie): The pleasure is mine.

James: Please share with us something of your background and your current ministry at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, Washington, USA.

Geordie: My Christian journey has been quite eclectic. I grew up in a Presbyterian Church in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I’ve had the opportunity to study in a variety of countries, beginning with a term during college in which I attended Torchbearer Bible Schools in both Sweden and Austria. After teaching English in China for two years, my wife and I moved to Vancouver, Canada where we attended Regent College. Most recently, we spent six wonderful years in Scotland, so that I could pursue a PhD in theology at the University of Aberdeen. In between all these study ventures I’ve served as a pastor in various Presbyterian churches – four years, nine years, and about three and a half years so far at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, Washington (which is just outside of Portland, Oregon).

At Columbia I serve as Pastor for Adult Formation and Discipleship. For me, it is an exciting place to be because we are working very hard to flesh out in our life together a vision for the church that functions as an intergenerational family of missional disciples. We want to learn from Jesus how to live by listening to him and doing what he says; we want to see ourselves as sent by the same Spirit that sent and empowered him; and we want to do that together in the midst of all our diversity and differentness rather than as isolated individualistic Jesus Green Berets.

James: Geordie, thank you for that profile. What was influential in your decision to re-locate to Aberdeen, Scotland for some half-dozen years for post-graduate studies, leading to the completion of a doctor of philosophy program?

Geordie: That’s actually a pretty special story to me. The origins go back to my time at Regent (94-98). My major mentors there were Eugene Peterson and Jim Houston, and I took every spiritual formation course I could from them. Regent is a special place for a variety of reasons, but one of the things that I think makes it particularly unique is that there is a pervasive concern to think through every subject matter from a Trinitarian perspective. This was the case whether the subject at hand was prayer and worship, the arts, creation care, or “secular” work. My theological professors were Stanley Grenz and J.I. Packer, and I owe them much, but in the summer before my third year I had the opportunity to serve as a teaching assistant for Alan Torrance, a visiting lecturer from St. Andrews Scotland, and from that point on everything changed. Sitting in class and listening to Alan teach with such joy and passion and clarity, and then reading his uncle Tom’s book, The Mediation of Christ changed my life. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say it was like a conversion experience.  

That was 1996. Since that time, for more than twenty years, I have been on a joyful quest. After earning my M.Div. and getting ordained in the Presbyterian Church I kept looking for ways to grow in my experience and understanding of the Trinity. After a couple years I joined a group of pastors reading Eastern Orthodox theologians and learning about spiritual formation practices within that stream of the Body of Christ. Yet all along the way I felt like I was just skimming the surface of the issues. Eventually, I started to look for formalized educational opportunities that might be helpful. As a pastor, with no intent of leaving pastoral ministry, I naturally looked at D.Min. programs but was advised by the director of one of the programs that my interests were too specific for a D.Min. and that I should consider a PhD. To be honest, a PhD had never crossed my mind at that time. But three years seemed like a necessary and reasonable season to achieve the focus I was looking for, so I started looking at various options. In February 2007, my wife and I took a reconnaissance trip out to Scotland since that was clearly the best place for me to study the thought of a pastor and theologian who himself was from Scotland. We came home loving Scotland, but not clear on whether a move there for me to pursue this crazy dream was what we were supposed to do. I remember being quite anxious that we didn’t have any certainty at that time.

About a month later our church hosted a guest preacher, Dr. Andrew Purves, who had come at my invitation to lead a pastors preaching workshop for our presbytery. Andrew is one of the premier Torrance scholars in the United States and I was greatly looking forward to picking his brain about the idea of a PhD and Torrance scholarship. Andrew was (and continues to be) extremely encouraging and gracious with his time, but the God moment happened on Sunday morning as he was preaching. The time was approximately 9:48am and he had just finished his sermon on Phil 3:12-14 about how Christ has grabbed hold of us and will never let us go, and as Andrew finished his prayer and went to sit down something happened that never had happened before nor has ever happened since – the traditional congregation clapped. They clapped. And here’s the thing. They weren’t clapping for Andrew or for what a great sermon he gave. They were cheering God, cheering the good news of the gospel that they had just heard and they were compelled to respond to with something like…gratitude and joy. It was in that moment that I received my call to go to Scotland. I felt God clearly saying to me, “Geordie, you need to go to Scotland to study Torrance so that you can come back to the Church and communicate this incredible gospel as clearly as Andrew just did.” From that point on, I had no doubts.

James: What drew you to the theology of Thomas F. Torrance and to the themes of your doctoral research project – Trinitarian grace and participation?

Geordie: My “conversion” which I spoke of earlier was the discovery that Jesus never lets to of his humanity, but takes it (and all of us in him) with him to the Father. Up until that point, I saw Jesus’ humanity as a temporary necessity he undertook in order to accomplish a legal transaction. Like many Christians, I had always assumed that after the resurrection when Jesus went up into the clouds he left his humanity behind and was done with it for good. When Alan Torrance showed us that the Bible teaches otherwise, I was astonished. For me, it was as if the good news of the gospel that I’d always known that Jesus died for my sin had suddenly become the amazing news of the gospel that Jesus had lived for me as well, and not only lived for me, but LIVES for me still!

Prior to this, my version of the Trinity was pretty much like tag-team wrestling – first the Father creates, then the Son redeems, then the Spirit carries us to the finish line. I remember being stunned when I read for the first time Torrance’s assertion that at the center of the New Testament is Jesus’ relation with the Father. I had no way to conceive of Jesus as a man depending on the Father through the Spirit as having any relevance to the life of God eternally. But if God’s intention is to make a space for humanity in the person of the Son within the life of God himself, then…well that’s a game changer. I became entranced by the fact that God would love us so much that he would fulfil our side of the covenant by becoming human and living an obedient human life, and then dying an obedient sacrificial death, and that he would do all that so that we might share in his life and love. If Christian faith is not simply about a legal transaction necessitated by our sin, then that begins to open up its meaning as a wondrous love story. It also meant that my job now was not simply to respond by working hard for God, but something so much more wonderful: to participate through the Spirit in the Son’s relation with the Father.

James: What do these themes mean to you personally and in the ministry calling you have as pastor of Adult Discipleship and Formation at Columbia Presbyterian Church?

Geordie: Personally, it has been incredibly freeing on so many levels. On the outside people would look at me and think I had life pretty much together, but inside I felt terribly alone and vulnerable, deeply aware of my inadequacy, and fearful of what God and others expected of me. I’d read, I’d been prayed for, I’d done counselling, I’d worked with a Spiritual director, I’d gone to Bible School, I’d gone to the mission field, I’d gone to seminary….but my theology was limited in its ability to adequately address the core issues. In many ways, healing was sabotaged by my old theology of separation and performance.

It’s been, and still is, a long journey. Baxter Kruger’s various books have been a tremendous source of help through the years. In The Great Dance he speaks of the voice of the “I am not” that litters our life with insecurity, anxiety, and fear. I have known that voice well – “I am not enough” – and when we are convinced that “we are not,” then we are driven to find a way to “become.” (p. 75) I’ve spent a lot of my life striving to become, to justify my existence if only to myself. Within this framework what else could I do but try desperately to achieve some sort of respectable identity or sense of self. It is a rat race with no way out. My old model of a Christian life encouraged this separation because it was fundamentally extrinsic: God is “out there” and wants me to “do better” so I work hard at doing better so that I can “be like Jesus.” It all sounds good and biblical and Christian, but its real effect is to throw me back upon myself again and again and again. That is what is so tremendously sad in the Church: people are doing what the church tells them to do and it has left them empty.

By contrast, the gospel, the real gospel, is that Jesus is on my side of the equation. I am not alone. I am included. I am in and with him before the Father. In him I am forgiven, reconciled, and justified. I am adopted. I am secure – as secure as the risen Son himself – for he will never ever let me go. My life is hidden with God in Christ (Col 3:3). I am continually captivated by the idea that God’s intention is not simply my legal righteousness, but communion – to share in his life and love – and it is in this sharing that I find that I become properly human or “humanized” as Torrance likes to say.

It is this theological vision that makes me understand what the apostle Paul meant when he said that “the love of Christ compels us,” for it really does. The challenge for me now is to learn new ways of praying and thinking and behaving that correspond to this reality that my life is not alone. There is much in me that continues to resist this personalizing, humanizing, way of God. I am in the Holy Spirit’s school of the renewing of my mind (Rom 12:2; Eph 1:17-19) where I am learning, slowly, falteringly, what it means to be a child in God’s kingdom, led by his Spirit rather than by myself in isolation (Rom 8:14-16).

My enthusiasm for the amazing news of the gospel I have come to discover in Torrance is “complemented” by my concern regarding the state of Spiritual formation in the church today. So much of what we tout as “spiritual formation” in the church is just self-help virtue ethics and workout programs with a little sprinkle of Holy Spirit on top. It is not specifically a problem of the Spiritual formation movement, but of the entire theology that undergirds most of what is known as evangelicalism. This presents a challenge, because the sickness is in the very water we drink and surrounds us on every side – our books, our “Christian” movies, our music, our programs, our sermons, etc. My litmus test is this: what work does the continuing humanity of Christ at the right hand of the Father do in this or that teaching or message? If the answer is “nothing,” which it usually is, then I know that the message I’m being given (in whatever media form it may take) is essentially Pelagian, that is, I’m thrown back upon myself to respond myself to God. In other words, “It’s all up to me, and I’m all alone.” I am saddened that the people in my church live under this Pelagian weight and they don’t even know it. My passion is to do whatever I can with whatever gifts and opportunities God has given me to shine the light of God’s truth on who God really is, and what they are included in by virtue of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension in our place and on our behalf.

James: In your assessment do Evangelicals need to re-discover Trinitarian grace and participation or do they have a robust theology of life and Christian living?

Geordie: Evangelical theology, with all of its strengths, has some significant lacks when it comes to how we think and speak about sanctification because we haven’t grounded it in a very robust theology of the Trinity. We’ve turned grace into a thing or a force or some generic divine favour, and in so doing we have depersonalized the gospel, the God of the gospel, and those caught up in the gospel (ourselves). The fact is, grace is not a thing, grace is a Person. Grace is Jesus Christ sent from the Father through the Spirit. And he comes and dwells among us to live the life we failed to live and die the death we deserve to die and to take our redeemed humanity in him to ever live before the face of the Father in our name. THAT is grace. And THAT is amazing. But it doesn’t stop there. Grace is not a gift with “no strings attached” – that kind of a gift has no interest in relationship. Rather, God gives himself to us in Jesus Christ SO THAT we might share in his life, so that we might participate by the Spirit in the Son’s life and love in the Father. We are brought in and lifted up that we might know a life of love and trust and joy and service and faithfulness and compassion like Jesus does by fixing our eyes on him who fixes his eyes on the Father.

Of course, the Evangelical depersonalized version of grace creates significant problems downstream, specifically in the area of Christian formation. Evangelicals love the Trinity (sort of), but talking about “it” a lot does not make us Trinitarians in practice. No matter how regularly we recite the Apostles Creed most Evangelicals are functional Unitarians. Cleverly putting things in threes only masks the problem. Liberals and Evangelicals alike have traded the objective reality of the gospel which resides in the person of Jesus for their own subjective creations that throw people back upon themselves in spite of how loudly they declare that they don’t throw people back upon themselves. This impacts pretty much every aspect of our faith and life. To be honest, a great deal of what I see churned out by the Evangelical world (which is my general camp), leaves a pretty unsatisfactory aftertaste. One core reason for this, I argue, is that we have the nasty habit of making it all about us. In the book I make a distinction between what I call “Subjective Moral Formation” and “Objective Trinitarian Participation” as a way of highlighting the problem. If you’d like, I can sketch that out a bit here.

James: Please, go ahead.

Geordie: Subjective Moral Formation essentially focuses on behavioral modification, and from that standpoint, it is reasonably effective. On the surface this may not seem bad at all, but whatever “fruitful” change it produces comes at the cost of a self-focused, impersonal approach to the living God. This version of Christian formation is subjective because the primary agent is ourselves, rather than the ascended Christ. It is moral because its goal is development in virtue and other socially idealistic behaviors. It is formation because it assumes that we can train ourselves – through specific practices, habits and attitudes – toward the achievement of predetermined behaviors and qualities which imitate Jesus. Here’s the problem: anytime the Christian life gets reduced to individualistic and non-personal ideals or technique-focused programs, the living God is shrunk to the shape and size of a vending machine: programmable, predictable, and controllable. Jesus gets demoted to the status of a moral example or a moral teacher (and not just by Liberals). The end of subjective moral formation is an impersonalizing of that which makes us truly and properly human – a relation of dependence and trust with the living God.  

In the book, based on my reading and unpacking of T.F. Torrance, I propose an alternative approach to Spiritual formation, which I call, ‘Objective Trinitarian Participation.’ Objective Trinitarian Participation takes place within the circle of the worshipping life of Jesus Christ, as participation in Jesus’ relation with the Father through the Spirit. It is objective because the primary agent is the living, ascended Christ. It is Trinitarian because its activity has its origin and continuation in and through the Holy Spirit sent by the Father with the Son. It is participation because we are included: through our engagement in specific practices, habits and attitudes, the Holy Spirit continually leads us, through Christ, to the Father in every area of life. From this standpoint, the main focus and concern of Christian formation is that the Father-Son relation be translated into the daily life of the children of God through the Spirit. It’s a totally different starting (and ending) point.

James: What is your favourite TF Torrance quote?

Geordie: I’ll give you two, one short and the other more extended, but both of them capture for me the beauty and freedom we are invited into in Jesus Christ. I am not alone. My life is not my own. I am included, caught up, enfolded, encircled, gathered up, secured, and the Spirit is the down-payment of the reality of this grace so that I might know it experientially even on this side of the veil. “Christ’s faithfulness undergirds our feeble and faltering faith and enfolds it in His own.” (G&R, 154)

“The ascension means the exaltation of man into the life of God and on to the throne of God. . . . There we reach the goal of the incarnation. . . . We are with Jesus beside God, for we are gathered up in him and included in his own self-presentation to the Father. This is the ultimate end of creation and redemption revealed in the Covenant of Grace and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. . . . We ourselves are given a down-payment of that, as it were, in the gift of the Spirit bestowed on us by the ascended man from the throne of God, so that through the Spirit we may already have communion in the consummated reality which will be fully actualized in us in the resurrection and redemption of the body.” (STR, 135–36.)

James: In closing – In less than four lines what do you consider to be the “take home” message of your book Trinitarian grace & participation?

Geordie: Grace provides the heuristic key (the “logic”) for all doctrines that seek to order the relation of God and humans. Grace is God’s gift of himself (from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit) so that we might share in his life and love. As we are taught by this grace, we become truly human, personalized persons, echoing by the Spirit the “Abba, Father” of the Son.

James: Thank you Geordie.

Here are some additional TF Torrance Quotes:

“Grace is intensely personal. It involves encounter with God who draws personally near to us through his Word and Spirit, and personally acts upon us, creating on our part personal response to him in faith and love.” (TR, 181)

I love this quote because it speaks of the fact that God’s intentions for me, for us, are intimate and personal. God is a not authoritarian.

“Within the single thought of imago Dei there is included a two-sided relation, but it is a relation which has only one essential motion and rhythm. There is the grace of God, and man’s answer to that grace. Such an answer partakes of and subsists in the essential motion of grace—for even man’s answer is the work of the Holy Spirit who through the Word forms the image anew in man, and forms his lips to acknowledge that he is a child of the Father.” (CDM, 80.)

The Church is “a supernatural fellowship” in the midst of creation in which “[Christ’s] own Sonship toward the Father is made consciously to echo within mankind in a filial relation of obedience to God the Father.” (Mission, 134)

“We must give an intelligent life-answer to grace in such a way that our existence is ours only as we re-live our grace-existence in a thankful and knowledgeable motion in answer to the Word of grace.” (Thomas F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 116)

There is no fence or middle ground here: we either face towards Christ, or we gaze upon idols; and “[f]reedom is only possible face to face with Jesus Christ.” (Thomas F. Torrance, “Predestination in Christ,” Evangelical Quarterly 13 (1941): 123)

The pure self-giving of God in Jesus Christ takes us behind and beyond good and evil, puts a new Spirit within, and relates us personally to God “in such a way that goodness is a spontaneous growth. He [Jesus] himself, the law alive, enters our hearts and so fulfils the law for He is Love. He issues no commands, promulgates no new ethic, sets up no new standards of life. What He does is rather to bring a completely new orientation that is as different from the old as death is to life, a new orientation in which He and not the human ‘self’ is the central point of reference, a new Orientation grounded in His Love which is guided by no external law but creates itself in the exigencies of the occasion the forms in which Love shall act.” (CNDDG, 33)