The Freedom to Become a Christian

A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God

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Andrew B. Torrance
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , February
     2016.
     232 pages.
     $120.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780567661210.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Andrew Torrance’s The Freedom to Become a Christian is a lucid yet relentless argument that Søren Kierkegaard’s articulation of human agency in the God/Human relationship always presupposes God’s prior agency. This, Torrance asserts, over and against readings of Kierkegaard that collapse his understanding of Christianity into an entirely subjective and innate human experience, on the one hand, and Barthian readings that over-emphasis the infinite qualitative distinction between God and humanity, on the other.

For Kierkegaard, the Christian life is one constituted by a mutual reciprocity that exists in the “interrelationship” between humans and God. The Christian life begins when someone encounters the truth of Christianity. For Kierkegaard, this is none other than the Paradox—the God-human Jesus Christ. The truth is, thus, external to human nature. We cannot find the Paradox within us, as some sort of immanent religiousness. For one thing, there is a qualitative distinction between God and humanity, insuring that humans cannot naturally relate themselves to God. For another, sin alienates humans from both God and themselves, creating a second qualitative distinction between the authentic human being and the imprisonment of despair in which all humans exist.

God encounters the human by overcoming both of these qualitative distinctions in Jesus Christ. When confronted by the truth in Jesus Christ, a person finds themself at a crossroads between belief and offense. This is not the “Hercules at the crossroads” that worries Karl Barth—where one is truly able to effect their own salvation through a decision—but it is a crossroad nonetheless. To the one side is belief in the truth of Jesus Christ, a decision that calls for a willingness to suffer, and to the other side is the possibility of offending God by denying the truth of Jesus Christ, and therefore the truth of human existence itself.

When confronted with the truth of Christianity, people find themself in a mutually reciprocal relationship with God whereby they are internally transformed as they externally encounter God. They acquire sin-consciousness as a result of their Christ-consciousness that enables them to see that their freedom to offend God leads to a life of despair. At the same time, God gives them a passion of faith that overcomes the absurdity of the paradoxical nature of life with God.

Whether or not this passion of faith—this instantaneous inflaming of human passion for God—is any different from prevenient grace remains unaddressed, but a Wesleyan reader will likely draw this connection when Torrance writes, “To avoid losing sight of God, a person must decide for God in the moment that God impassions her to do so” (54). To do so, however, would risk pressing Kierkegaard further from his Lutheran roots than Torrance would like, I suspect. For Kierkegaard, it is true that one makes a decision to become a Christian; however, it is not a once-for-all decision. It is a decision that must be continued with each new day. The type of progress that one makes in the Christian life is less like John Wesley’s “more and more,” and more like Martin Luther and Barth’s “again and again.”

In this sense, Torrance’s work is an important contribution to Protestant theological ethics. Those who wish to account for human agency as responsibility before God, without collapsing into the fearful occasionalism of deontological ethics on the one hand, and the specter of semi-Pelagianism attached to virtue ethics on the other, will find Kierkegaard to be a welcome dialogue partner. For Torrance, Kierkegaard’s insistence on the free agency of both divine and human participants in this interrelationship means that he will, at times, emphasize human agency and the subjective experience of conversion; while at other times emphasizing divine priority and God’s objectivity and qualitative distinction. On these terms, Kierkegaard is neither Timothy Jackson’s “Good Arminian,” nor a Reformed monergist, although he does, at times, demonstrate qualities that are amenable to either theological position.

One final point must be addressed. Those who are familiar with the famous Torrance clan of Scottish theologians may expect to encounter a number of Torrancean themes—the vicarious humanity of Christ, covenant vs. contract, etc—in Torrance’s treatment of Kierkegaard. The Torrance family, beginning with James B. Torrance (1923–2003) at Aberdeen and brother Thomas F. Torrance (1913–2007) at Edinburgh, has shaped the last three generations of theological education in Scotland. Andrew is the grandson of James Torrance and the son of Alan Torrance (1956– ) who is professor of systematic theology in St. Andrews. For the most part, Torrance is a disciplined and sympathetic reader, preferring to let Kierkegaard speak with his own words and conceptual schemes. That is not to say, however, that Torrance does not indulge in some interpretive moves that bring Kierkegaard within the Torrancean school of theology. For the most part, these moves are relegated to footnotes; however, this confluence of thought worlds threatens to muddy the waters for Kierkegaard’s thought at notable points. I would especially caution readers to interrogate Torrance’s discussion of repentance, as well as his preference for the language of “interrelationship” and “participation.” For the sake of brevity, I will treat only the first point here.

In an illuminating treatment of Kierkegaard’s understanding of repentance, Torrance explains that Kierkegaard’s treatment of conversion is a response to the Western theological tradition of the ordo salutis. On these terms, repentance is reduced to a preliminary step that one makes in order to initiate a mechanism of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. For Torrance—channeling his grandfather, James Torrance—the repentance of the ordo smacks of “legal repentance.” Kierkegaard, in contrast, is clearly after “evangelical repentance,” or the type of repentance that results from a prior encounter with the loving and forgiving God. While Torrance clearly interprets Kierkegaard through concepts that originate from outside of Kierkegaard himself, I do not think the point Torrance intends is wrong. The words are Torrance’s, but the idea is Kierkegaard’s: namely, that repentance is not something that creates the possibility of relationship but something that presupposes a relationship in need of reconciliation. The nature of that very relationship is such that human acts of repentance do not obligate God to humans. Instead, God already obliges himself, and repentance reflects a human willingness to accept God’s self-obliging love. As for “interrelationship” and “participation”—themes that unmistakably belong to Thomas Torrance’s work—I suspect Torrance could similarly acquit himself, and I welcome further work from him that does just that.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David B. Hunsicker is adjunct professor of theology at Azusa Pacific University.

Date of Review: 
May 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Torrance is a Research Fellow in the School of Divinity, University of St Andrews, UK, and Project Leader for a major Templeton grant.

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