T. F. Torrance and the Latin Heresy

A first-rate appreciation and criticism of the work of Barth’s major translator into English.  Especially important, I think, is the careful but definite defense of what Barth and Torrance miscalled “the Latin heresy”:

No small irony appears just here, in this unintended Eutychianism that obscures the humanity of Christ! And it has its own inevitable consequences for ecclesiology, as we must now observe, for it tends also to obscure the Marian and Petrine dimensions of the Church. It tends, that is, to occasionalism.
The first consequence of turning Jesus into a reconciling event, into a divine-human Happening that (unlike other happenings) is everywhere and always taking place, is that the Church becomes nothing more than a community of witnesses, a community of people who with the eyes of faith see and confess what is everywhere and always the case. The sacraments themselves become mere acts of confession. Torrance, to his credit, resisted Barth’s drift in this direction, even pleading with him not to publish the fragment of the final volume of the Dogmatics that rejected infant baptism. Yet Torrance himself could not quite allow the Church its sacramental concreteness. For if reconciliation is an event strictly internal to the being of Christ, and if Christ is without remainder the reconciliation he achieves, then the Church must be denied any reconciling or mediating function of its own, lest it somehow be confused with Christ. Thus the Eucharist, as traditionally understood both in the Latin and the Greek Churches, is incomprehensible—even idolatrous. And the Church remains something hidden. Even in the Eucharist it cannot be said, ‘Here is the Church.’

A second consequence is that one is forced to emphasize the petra of Peter’s act of confession at the expense of Petros himself, whose confession it is and to whom the keys are given. Keys imply jurisdiction, and jurisdiction canons, and canons of lawful succession, and so on. Confession and keys together imply magisterium. But again, this is all too concrete. The Church, in its pastoral function as in its proclamation, points to the reality that is Christ, but it only points. It possesses nothing. Torrance might be readier than Barth to allow that the Church, through its councils, does have power to declare what is orthodox and what is heterodox. Yet with Barth he is unafraid to tell the Church that it is guilty of “the Latin heresy”: that it does not know, or not as well as they, what is orthodox or heterodox. (Here I worry that Torrance is closer to Tertullian, whom he criticizes as one of the earliest sources of the Latin heresy, than to Irenaeus, whom he admires.)

A third consequence is the marginalization of Mary, who is not allowed to be what Irenaeus claimed she was, the new Eve. She cannot be that, because in the Barthian scheme it is her role to transmit to Jesus the fallenness of the old Eve. That the unassumed is the unhealed is not denied by the Catholic Church, but affirmed. It is denied, however, that Mary transmits fallenness to Jesus in the sense of original sin or the bondage of actual sin. What she passes on, what he takes up from her in partaking of her humanity, is her situation in “the land of sepulture,” her place under the Law, her place too under the shadow of Satan, beset by temptation, and her mortality. It was precisely to show solidarity with all those in this situation that the Son became incarnate so late in time, says Irenaeus—only at the end of history, rather than at the beginning, “being made like us in all things, sin excepted.”

Otherwise put: In the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Church does not say that Christ worked out our redemption without himself wrestling with our situation or condition. It says rather that what he accomplished in that respect he passed backwards to his mother through the Holy Spirit, so that she, like Eve, might be in a position to offer free consent to the divine will, and by his help and merits, unlike Eve, actually do so. As Torrance himself says in The Mediation of Christ, “Mary was not treated like an impersonal instrument in the hands of God but graciously blessed, sanctified and upheld in the freedom and integrity of her human being within the reciprocal relationship with God to which she belonged in Israel.”

To which we must add: That Mary might be the Mother of God in the very freedom of her Son and without any reservation inherited from Eve, that she might receive freely what God was giving freely, she was blessed ab initio with the fullness of grace. And this addition matters. For, in Mary, the whole question of what it means to participate in Christ is concentrated. In Mary, the possibility appears that the Church itself is graced, even in this world, with a certain fullness of grace. In Mary the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, who enables a true reception of God and of the Son of God that is otherwise impossible, comes to the fore.

Attention to Mary in this last connection is important, because a fourth consequence of the actualist scheme is its tendency to minimize pneumatology. This happens when the work of the Spirit is reduced to its epistemic dimension, which is a natural result of making the whole work of atonement or reconciliation internal to the person of Christ.

[emphasis added for enumeration]

via Article | First Things.