Review: James B. Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace

Published by InterVarsity, 1996, 130 pp.

James B. Torrance spoke at a recent "Renewal Day" (March 6-7, 1998). The book under review contains much of what he presented in his three addresses on the theme "Prayer to the Triune God of Love."

His book is a pertinent statement on "The chief end of man is to glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever" (The Westminster Larger Catechism, Q.1). At the very outset, we are reminded of this Reformed accent: "Our chief end is to glorify God, and creation realizes its creaturely glory in glorifying God through human lips." Torrance would emphasize that worship is for God and not for our enjoyment. Worship does involve enjoyment, but it is the enjoyment of God. It is the joyful response to God as he is in himself and has graciously given himself to be known and worshipped in Jesus Christ. Torrance may be interpreted as saying that it is as we glorify God and enter our creaturely calling that we enjoy God truly.

A signboard in front of a church read: "God has created you to enjoy yourself." Torrance's book is a sustained critique of the "selfism" contained in this statement. How we define and what is basic to Christian worship is at issue.

    Christian worship is… our participation through the Spirit in the Son's communion with the Father, in his vicarious life of worship and intercession. It is our response to our Father for all he has done for us in Christ. It is our self-offering in body, mind and spirit, in response to the one true offering made for in Christ, our response of gratitude (eucharistia) to God's grace (charis), our sharing by grace in the heavenly intercession of Christ. Therefore, anything we say about worship…must be said in the light of him whom it is a response.

Worship, then, is that offering God receives from us; it is that sacrifice we offer to God through Jesus Christ before it is an experience. Worship does not revolve around what we expect to receive from God, as though he existed for the purpose of providing us with uplifting experiences. Torrance is concerned to free us from the banality of accenting the quality of experience we are inclined to seek from worship.

What is being said in so many words is that the God who created us for worship has in advance ordered worship so that it is possible among us with all our sin and weakness. The way God has ordered worship makes worship a gift of grace. Gift is prior to task, otherwise worship would be a graceless attempt to fulfill the purpose for which we were created. That we worship is a gift from the Triune God of grace that we in turn offer back to him. And it is so sanctified by the Son and the Spirit that it is acceptable to the Father.

As is obvious, Torrance approaches worship from the standpoint of the Trinity. The Trinity speaks to us of the order of worship. He never tires of noting that the Father condescends to us through the Son in the Holy Spirit. In the Holy Spirit, we ascend through the Son to the Father. The former defines God's movement toward us; the latter depicts our movement toward God. We worship in the power of the Spirit, through the priestly offering and intercession of the Son. Accordingly, Torrance emphasizes that Christ is "the leader of our worship" (John Calvin), the Leitourgos (Hebrews 8:2). The worship in which Christ leads us is the worship that God has provided for us. This is the worship which alone is acceptable to God.

    There is only one true priest through whom and with whom we draw near to God our Father…. There is only one offering which is truly acceptable to God, and it is not ours…. There is only one who can lead us into the presence of the Father by his sacrifice on the cross.

Torrance dwells at length on "The Incarnational Trinitarian Model" of worship. This model highlights that worship is not our achievement. It articulates that "worship is the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son's communion with the Father." Indeed, the doctrine of the Trinity "is the grammar of this view of worship and prayer."

The model in question unavoidably focuses upon the Incarnation. That Jesus is the incarnate Son of God is the hinge on which evangelical worship turns. The name of Jesus is at the heart of worship, for as the incarnate Son of the Father he has achieved for us what we cannot begin to do for ourselves: to be reconciled to God and offer worship acceptable to God. Worship in Jesus' name means "participating in union with Christ, in what he has done for us once and for all, in his self-offering to the Father, in his life and death on the cross." The significance and power of the name of Jesus stem from the fact that he is the incarnate Son of God, a point Torrance would underline in order to show how this impacts worship. If Jesus is not very God in our humanity who lifts our humanity to God, the emphasis in worship falls upon what we do. Indeed, if Jesus is less than very God, our worship would not be taken up into the very life of God. In brief, a defective view of Jesus issues in a defective view of worship.

Torrance notes two other models of worship: "the liberal" and "the experiential" models. In the former, the Trinity is denied and the focus in worship is our activity. It is "legalistic" — worship becomes something we do to please God. The latter is not far removed from the former — we believe it necessary to pump up an experience of worship. In both cases, worship is our achievement. This is so, because in both cases the doctrine of the Trinity is either denied, as in the former, or neglected in practice, as in the latter. Worship is not seen as that gift from the Triune God of Grace.

That worship is to be understood in terms of "grace alone" is Torrance's over-arching theme. It is from this standpoint that he argues that the Trinity is "the grammar of worship." To speak of the Trinity is to speak of grace: "the grammar of the Trinity is the grammar of grace." We worship according to the riches of the grace of the Triune God. God graciously descends to us and through this grace, we ascend to God in worship. Worship inheres in the communion the Son has with the Father. It is not something that occurs "outside" God. It is true communion with God, communion with God as he is in himself.

    [To] participate by the Spirit in the incarnate Christ's communion with the Father is to participate in the eternal Son's communion — a relationship which is both internal to the Godhead and externally extended to us by space. In this understanding of worship, we can discern a double movement of grace — (a) a God-humanward movement, from (ek) the Father, through the Son (dia), in (en) the Spirit, and (b) a human-Godward movement to the Father, through the Son in the Spirit. This double movement of grace… is grounded in the very… being of God… What God is toward us in these relationships, he is in his innermost being.

All this to highlight that, if salvation is by grace, so is worship, and that in worship, we participate in the very grace of God.

Torrance concludes with a chapter on "Gender, Sexuality and the Trinity" and an appendix "On Human Language for God." Neither are peripheral to his book. The Trinitarian "grammar" of worship and grace are seen to be at stake. Three basic points are registered in order to affirm and defend a full-orbed Trinitarian view of God and worship.

First, God is beyond gender. Human sexuality is not the lens through which we understand God. The Christian doctrine of revelation must never be undermined — "by God alone can God be known." God's revelation of himself in Jesus Christ through Scripture is definitive for our understanding of who God is, legitimate human concerns notwithstanding. These must not be allowed to govern our understanding of God.

God reveals himself as Triune. His disclosure of his identity is prior to and stands above human experience. If we do not allow it to be supreme, we risk positing a second source of revelation: our experience becomes revelatory and is believed to provide the clue necessary to interpreting God. The question for Torrance is "What is our criterion of truth?

    Suppose we do seek for new images of God in the depths of our experience, which is so relative to our culture…. What about the sources of revelation?… There is only one source of revelation, in Jesus Christ who comes to us in Scripture…. Is our criterion the Triune God, revealed uniquely in Jesus Christ… or are we left with only highly relative subjective criteria? Are we thrown back on ourselves to find new forms of self-expression congenial to our culture?

Only as we allow Scripture to inform us do we avoid being engulfed in subjectivism.

Nevertheless, Torrance is not interested in mere polemics. He simply believes that the feminist movement is on "the wrong road" in its attack on the doctrine of the Trinity and the incarnation and its rejection of the view that God has revealed himself as "Father" in the person of the Son, instead to explore feminine spirituality and to create new images of God. Its direction is self-defeating. The worship that ensues hardly qualifies as worship, for it is centred "in the self, where we celebrate the self and our own sexuality with a god created in our own image." This simply reflects a "narcissistic preoccupation with ourselves." The self reigns supreme to define truth. In effect, the self replaces God, which entails the loss of the true God.

Secondly, Torrance argues for what may be called a realistic view of biblical language. That is, Scripture so speaks of God and his nature that there is a real correspondence between what it says about God and who God is.

    God has revealed himself to us as Father…. But the word is not just a model, a metaphor we might use to describe God…. God has named himself as "Father." A name is more than a metaphor. In naming himself, God has commandeered human language to reveal himself.

"Father," then, is hardly an incidental and culturally conditioned term for God. It is indispensable because it is true of God. When we cry "Abba Father," we are giving voice in language that God has actually given to us.

At issue is the adequacy of the language of Scripture through which we hear God naming himself. Here, Torrance reflects the emphasis of his brother, T.F. Torrance, (Reality and Evangelical Theology, Westminster, 1979). The language of Scripture is realistic and truly indicative — it points to who God is in reality and truth. God has so harnessed the human language of Scripture to his revelation that what it said is true and real of God.

Consequentially, the language of Scripture cannot be replaced with other categories we deem more congenial to our experience and culture. When Scripture speaks of God as "Father," it is not using metaphor or simile that we may use selectively according to our predispositions. The point is, since Scripture truly names God as "Father," we may use this language with confidence. We are not projecting a human concept onto God.

Thirdly, and to state the obvious, for Torrance, no less than the Triune identity of God is at stake: God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These are not modes of God's action or his relation to us, with there being another God above them who remains unnamed. God exists eternally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. How he relates to us is identical with who he is in his innermost Being. The God we relate to and invoke in worship is no less than God as he is.

For Torrance, the litmus test for worship is whether it is truly Trinitarian and in the triune name.

    We are baptized into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and are taught to confess it, praise it, live it, proclaim it in a wonderful life of communion…. It has semantic content…. It is the name through which God discloses himself personally to us to draw us into intimate communion with himself in worship and prayer.

He is the triune God of grace. Our worship of God and our doctrine of God belong together. Doxology cannot be divorced from theology.

As can be gathered, I commend this book as necessary reading. Torrance writes as both a theologian at worship and a theologian of worship. What is transparent is his pastoral concern. He is a theologian for the sake of being a discerning pastor. One cannot be more pastoral than to accent the grace of the Triune God in relation to our worship in order to show that the resources to fulfill our foremost calling have been given by this God of grace. Worship is a gift of grace before it is a responsibility we honour.

Rev. Dr. Garth Wilson is minister at Wychwood-Davenport Presbyterian Church, Toronto, Ontario, past chair of the Fellowship's Issues Committee and also Executive Director of the Canadian Branch of the Latin American Mission.