Elmer ColyerElmer Colyer is professor of systematic theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, and pastor of a Methodist congregation. Dr. Colyer received his Ph.D. from Boston College/Andover Newton in 1992.

Dr. Colyer talks with Mike Feazell about the practical theology of Thomas F. Torrance.

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Edited transcript

JMF: You are the author of How to Read T.F. Torrance. When we talk about an author who needs a book called “how to read,” do we mean that he is so impossibly difficult to understand that you have to write a book called how to read him?

EC: It’s interesting that you bring that up. Sometimes my students say, Dr. Colyer, we need a book on how to read Dr. Colyer’s book on how to read T.F. Torrance (both laugh). There is some sense in which Torrance’s theology is difficult. He always says that part of the reason his theology is difficult is because theology can be difficult. It’s a combination of simplicity and profundity, simplicity and difficulty.

Part of it is that Torrance’s writing style makes him difficult, and part is that he didn’t write a systematic theology. So I wanted to bring together, in a one-volume treatment, Torrance’s theology of all the main themes, as well as providing some direction to secondary literature, so it would be easier for people to be able to read Torrance’s theologies.

JMF: But to be fair, how to read a given theologian, there’s any number of books like that. It’s not just T.F. Torrance. Virtually any important theologian has a book, how to read that theologian.

EC: Yes. The title comes from George Hunsinger’s book on how to read Karl Barth.

JMF: In your book, How to Read T.F. Torrance, you describe him as holistic and practical. Could you elaborate on that?

EC: Torrance’s holism is part of the reason for the difficulty of his theology, and yet it’s one of the crucial elements of his thought. It’s extraordinarily important when we talk about the Trinitarian character of Christian faith because the doctrine of the Trinity arises holistically as we indwell all of Scripture. That’s one of the reasons why we often haven’t seen historical-critical biblical studies generating a robust doctrine of the Trinity, because they tend to focus on the individual texts rather than how the texts bear in relation to one another.

Because holism is a difficult concept, one of the illustrations or analogies that I like to use to help people begin to get their minds around it is the magic-eye pictures. You’ve probably seen those; most everybody has, in our culture. You can buy books of them now. When you look at a magic eye, it at first looks like a bewildering collection of tiny figures that bear little or no relation to one another, and you can stare at it and it just seems like a bunch of little dots or pictures on a page. But if you hold the magic eye close to your face, to your nose, to your eyes, and gradually move it away, all of a sudden a 3-D picture will come into view that’s embedded in the magic eye.

Seeing that picture represents analogously what Torrance means about holism. Using an analytic or deductive approach, you can’t analyze all the little figures and ever see the 3-D magic eye picture. The only way you can see it is to indwell the pictures so that your mind deals with the clues that are embedded in the picture and enables you to see the 3-D image.

Another illustration is the famous inverting spectacles. When you put on a pair of inverting spectacles, it makes the world look upside-down or right-to-left, and you wear those spectacles for eight days. At first, you’re absolutely discombobulated – you can’t eat, you can’t drive or do anything. But after about eight days, all of a sudden, at a certain point, not by any kind of a formal process, but simply by the holistic powers of the mind interacting with this environment, all of a sudden it will reverse and you’ll see things right-side-up again.

JMF: Really.

EC: Yeah, you’ll see things right-side-up again. It’s an example of the way in which you focus on, like in the magic eye, a massive amount of subsidiary detail in order to see the 3-D image. Analogously, something like that happens in terms of how the doctrine of the Trinity arises. You don’t deduce the doctrine of the Trinity from biblical passages or statements, you indwell the Scriptures, and only when you come into contact with the love of God through the grace of Jesus Christ in the communion of the Holy Spirit do you actually understand and see the doctrine of the Trinity.

Torrance’s holism is an attempt to take into account the way in which so many elements in Scripture, in Christian life, bear upon the doctrine of the Trinity rather than understanding it as a rising out of Scripture by some kind of logical deduction or induction. That’s part of what he’s getting at when he talks about holism.

JMF: And practical.

EC: Sometimes, when Torrance talks about what he means by practical, it’s not what people are expecting. They’re expecting that theology has some additional task of making itself practical, showing itself relevant. When Torrance says theology is practical, he means that it’s inherently practical. When you’re talking about theology, you’re talking about the love of God incarnated in Jesus Christ, assuming our broken and diseased humanity. In assuming our broken and diseased humanity, God has established an utterly practical relation to us. God has taken on our very condition, our sin, our guilt, our alienation in order to overcome it. And so to say that theology is inherently practical is to say that God acts on our behalf in an absolutely concrete way.

To try to make theology practical in addition to that would be to misunderstand fundamentally the very key to what the gospel is. The gospel is essentially practical. It’s God coming into our midst in order to redeem us. It doesn’t need something else added to it to make it practical.

JMF: There’s a difference between us coming up with a program or an idea to try to make things happen or bring about a certain kind of life in Christ and realizing that when Christ dwells in us we are, in fact, dwelling in him.

EC: Precisely. That is what Torrance means by a practical or an ontological relation that we have to God. People often view the church as providing spiritual goods and services, and when the culture no longer wants it, then we’ve got to think of some way for the church and the gospel to be “practical.”

We’ve rendered the real practical character of the gospel impractical by failing to take it as seriously as we should. There’s nothing we human beings or the church can ever do to establish a more practical relation with broken, diseased, sinful humanity than the one that God has already established in Christ. To enter into a relationship with Christ is the most intensely practical, theological, spiritual relation there is. There aren’t any that are more practical than that, that are more transformative than that.

JMF: Doesn’t that have implications for living, for everything we do? We often think of the spiritual part of life and the mundane part of life. There’s some kind of barrier, and we can put all our mundane things down here, we get up and deal with our family in the morning, we have breakfast, and we get ready for work, and we go off to work, and then maybe on Wednesday night we cross the line to go to Bible study, or on Sunday we cross it and go to church. Or maybe at night we’ll cross over from our regular real life down here and cross up into some period of prayer or studying the Bible. Then we go back down into our regular stuff and go out and see the family.

But really, we’re talking about a holistic, practical, integrated, there’s only one life, and that life is in Christ because Christ is in us. There’s no other way to be, except in Christ, since Christ took humanity into himself as one of us. All of living is in the presence of Christ. All of it is above the line, as it were. [EC: Yes.] There’s no such thing as below the line anymore, and that means that there is meaning and value in every activity we engage in.

EC: That’s an excellent way to put it, and precisely where Torrance comes out on this particular area. Part of the problem in North America, with the separation of church and state, and with viewing the church as one more provider of goods and services, that’s exactly what happens: our Christian faith gets compartmentalized on Sunday morning, Wednesday evening, maybe in a time of devotion. But the problem is that it excludes Christ from all of the other aspects of our life.

On another level in Torrance’s theology, holism is that there’s no aspect of our life that’s apart from being in Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. I race bicycles, but I take my bicycle racing as every bit as much a Christian activity as I do sitting here talking about Torrance’s theology or preaching or teaching, because cycling is part of my life in Christ. It’s an avenue for Christ to live Christ’s life through me and to bear witness to the gospel.

One problem in our culture is that we tend to separate many aspects of our life out of what you describe as being “above the line.” It’s not in Christ.

Take for example our leisure activities. They’re not something we think about in a Christian way. I teach a course at the seminary called redeeming the routines of ministry and life, in which we look at work and leisure in terms of this kind of participatory vision of Christian faith. There are some leisure activities that are more amenable to participating in Christ than others. There are some things that are ruled out of court that Americans do with their leisure time, like pornography on the internet, things like that, but there’s a whole lot of other areas of our life that ought to be brought under the gospel.

For me, it’s racing bicycles. I can worship and praise God on my time trial bike as well as I can do it in worship. It’s not less valid in terms of my Christian life than what happens on Sunday morning. They are all part of the fabric of our life in Christ.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ first ministry is turning water into wine. Think about what it says about the mundane event of festivity around a wedding that our blessed Lord, according to John’s Gospel, the first miracle he does, is involve himself in a wedding, and does a miracle so the wedding can continue to its telos [end or purpose] of celebration. In doing that, our Lord has hallowed human festivity and many areas of our life that we tend to separate off and rule out of the gospel.

So part of Torrance’s holism is precisely your point. The gospel overarches every aspect of our life. Every aspect of it has to come under the purview of what it means to be in Christ.

JMF: Doesn’t John’s Gospel end with a fish fry on the beach? (Laughing)

EC: Yes. (Laughing)

JMF: It reminds me of a friend. They were once trying to get his grandmother to stop smoking. She had smoked her whole life, and they thought she had stopped, and he went out on the porch and she was out there in the rocking chair smoking. He said, “Grandma, what are you doing?” She said, “Jesus and I are enjoying a smoke.” (Both laughing) There’s the idea of “the sacrament of the present moment,” which came out of medieval theology [17th-century monk Jean-Pierre de Caussade]. The idea of the sacrament of the present moment is realizing that Christ is ever-present in everything we do. To limit the sacraments to special events or rites is too restrictive (not that they aren’t sacraments). A sacrament is a window into the life of God and into the presence of God. Absolutely everything we do is that, if we have the eyes to see it.

EC: Well said. When Torrance talks about Christ living his life through us and our being in Christ and the Spirit of God filling us with Christ, uniting us with Christ, that’s precisely the kind of holism that he’s talking about. We don’t know at any given moment what Christ is going to do in and through our witness in our ministry. It’s part of what makes life an adventure: We never know what’s going to happen around the next corner when we’re allowing Christ to live his life through us and we’re practicing that kind of sacramental presence as a way of life in all aspects of our life.

JMF: Prayer is the same way. There’s this sense that prayer has to be at a certain time, in a certain place, in a certain position, otherwise it’s not real prayer and doesn’t really count. And yet prayer has so many variations and permutations and expressions, even just appreciating the beauty of a fresh morning, or the beauty of what’s going on in the household as the family comes together for a meal, and so on, are expressions of a communication with God that oftentimes are below the radar screen. We don’t realize that this is what’s going on, but we sense it, and we feel it, these are the times when you feel most close to God and that things are most right with God. Often it’s not even a sense of focusing on that. It’s just a sense of well-being because we’re in tune in a way that we aren’t always.

EC: This is part of what adds vitality and makes life in Christ the adventure it should be. Too often we run through life (and this can even happen with pastors in ministry, where we’re manipulating the symbols of faith, manipulating the symbols of life) by not really participating in the realities.

Some years ago I was at a scholarly conference (they’re not always boring and dull spiritually, but sometimes they are) and there was a Roman Catholic priest. The rest of us were Protestants, and he quickly sized us up and he realized it was going to be a long weekend, so he decided to inject a little levity into our time together, so he offered to lead us in the Eucharist. I thought this would be a rather amusing event, for a Roman Catholic priest and scholar to lead a bunch of Protestant academic-types in the Eucharist, so I went along to see what would happen, more than to worship. But this Roman Catholic priest was a man who lived in the presence of God and who allowed Christ to live his life through him, and it was an absolutely moving time of worship.

What happened later that evening astonished me, and is such a commentary on what can happen to the Christian life, to pastors, and even to scholars. I was having a heart-to-heart conversation with another theologian and this priest about the things that really matter most, and it got to a certain point in the conversation, and the other theologian said to the priest, “I did my PhD work in one of the finest PhD programs in North America.” (The person wrote a dissertation comparing and contrasting Karl Barth and Karl Rahner’s doctrine of the Trinity.) The theologian said to the priest, “I know how to manipulate the symbols of the faith, but you participate in the realities of the faith and I do not.”

Seldom have I heard a more honest admission of the danger of being a Christian and compartmentalizing our life. We compartmentalize it and pretty soon, we’re just going through the motions of being a Christian rather than participating in the reality. What Torrance means by his holism at this point is that Christ’s presence, the power of the Spirit, overshadows every aspect of our life. There is never a moment in any situation where we are set free from this glorious wonder of the God of the universe who has chosen to inhabit us and make our lives God’s dwelling place, to live God’s life through us, and shed abroad in this broken world something of the mystery of what it means to be a Christian.

JMF: Madeleine L’Engle was not a theologian, but she wrote a number of inspiring books about Christian living, and in one of them, Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places, she talks about icons and how Catholics are very much into icons and Protestants typically are very much against icons. In her view, icons were not something to be looked upon as having any value in themselves whatsoever…

EC: Yes. This is the true theology behind the icons.

JMF: …but a window, as it were, to look through to see the God who is behind every window. She was talking about many things, and on this trip she took around the Cape of Good Hope, they came close to Antarctica. She saw the penguins as icons in the way they behaved. The book was about being able to realize that we live in the presence of God all the time. Christ is not just in the presence of God, but Christ is actually living, dwelling in us all the time.

We don’t often think of it that way, or we’re too busy focusing on, as you said, the details of that magic eye to try to make our way, but without letting ourselves realize who we are in the presence of God and seeing that whole picture. Even with the magic eye, sometimes it takes you awhile. Sometimes it happens right away, but other times you kick yourself, you just can’t seem to get it. Finally, when you do get it, it’s amazing. Once you get it, you can look all over the place, you don’t have to focus anything. You can keep looking everywhere and you’re amazed at all the things you see, and then just as suddenly, the smallest distraction, boom, it’s gone again, and you have to start all over trying to get back into that frame of mind.

EC: That’s a marvelous analogy of the Christian life and how it’s easy to go on manipulating the symbols rather than participating in the reality. After you do it awhile it gets easier, and if you stop practicing, if you stop doing it, then it becomes harder again.

JMF: A lot of analogies there.

EC: Yeah. There’s a wonderful scene in the movie The Chariots of Fire, the Eric Liddell story. His sister is telling him that God has called him to be a missionary, he needs to give up this running, and he needs to go off to the mission field. And Liddell in that famous line says, “Yes, God has called me to be a missionary, but he’s also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

JMF: Yeah.

EC: That’s the way it ought to be with all aspects of our Christian life. They ought to be lived in Christ so that whether we’re driving on the freeway to work, or we’re enjoying something as mundane as a cup of coffee, or we’re jogging or racing bicycles, or whatever might be the ordinary fabric of our life, that it’s transfused with the glory and the power of the triune God, who has loved us with the love that will not let us go and has not despised our humanity, but has come into our midst as one of us in Jesus Christ in order that we might join in the party and be able to live our lives transfigured the way Christ did in his life.

JMF: Isn’t it the ultimate stress reliever.

EC: Yeah.

JMF: It’s relaxing because you’re not worried about the details and getting them all just right, but you’re enjoying the present moment in the presence of God.

EC: A lot of Christians sometimes have difficulty entering into the sheer joy of the gospel at this level. It’s almost too good to be true! (Laughs)

JMF: Yeah. As though Jesus wouldn’t enjoy a baseball game, or deep sea fishing, or throwing a football or whatever.

EC: It’s amusing how quickly we gloss over those passages in the New Testament that show Jesus immersed in the mundane things of life, like turning the water into wine at a wedding.

JMF: What is it that you would most like people to know about God?

The Crucifixion, by Gruenewald EC: You saved the most difficult question for the last. I’m not a particularly visual person, so I’m tempted to point to a book or a passage, but if I wanted to leave somebody with an image, Karl Barth had a famous painting in front of his desk when he wrote his Church Dogmatics. It was Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion, with John the Baptist with the pointing finger.

I don’t like shiny crosses, because shiny crosses don’t capture for us the sheer depth and breadth and extent of the love of God in Christ. In Grunewald’s painting, the gruesome pictures with Christ’s contorted hands nailed, pointing up to heaven, the look of death is absolutely real. You can stare at that picture for a long time because it’s so powerful.

I think that picture communicates the thing that is at the center of the gospel, that we ought to always most remember about God. This is what tells us what the heart of God is really like. You want to know the depth and the extent of the love of God, look up into the face into Grünewald’s paining, his Christ hanging on the cross. That’s where we have a window, according to Torrance, into the very heart of the Almighty. There will never be a dark inscrutable deity behind Christ’s back that will turn out to be different, less loving and compassionate toward us, than the God we see revealed there.

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Last modified: Sunday, March 28, 2021, 9:24 PM