Asking The Unaskable Question

From “Space, Time and Incarnation”
by Thomas F. Torrance, 1913-2007

By the Incarnation, Christian theology means that at a definite point in space and time the Son of God became human, born at Bethlehem of Mary, a virgin espoused to a man called Joseph, a Jew of the tribe and lineage of David and towards the end of the reign of Herod the Great in Judaea. Given the name of Jesus, he fulfilled his mission from the Father, living out the span of earthly life allotted to him, until he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, but when, after three days, he rose again from the dead the eyes of Jesus' disciples were opened to what it all meant: they knew him to be God's son, declared with power and installed in messianic office, and so they went out to proclaim him to all nations as the lord and saviour of the world. Thus it is the faith and understanding of the Christian church that in Jesus Christ, God himself in his own being has come into our world and is actively present as personal agent within our physical and historical existence. As both God of God and man born of woman, Jesus Christ is the actual mediator between God and people and people and God in all things, even in regard to space-time relations. He constitutes in himself the rational and personal medium in whom God meets people in his creaturely reality and brings humankind, without having to leave his creaturely reality, into communion with himself.

This is an utterly staggering doctrine. It does not mean, of course, that God has resolved himself wholly into what he was not or that he has merged his eternal reality entirely with the creaturely reality of man. Nevertheless, it is to be taken in all its serious intention to mean that the Son of God has become human without ceasing to be the God he ever was and that, after the Incarnation, he is at work within space and time in a way that he never was before. As soon as we talk like this, however, as Origen was quick to point out in the “De Principiis,” or even say about the Son that ‘there never was a time when he did not exist,” we are using terms “always,” “has been,” “when,” “never,” etc., which have a temporal significance, whereas statements about God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, must be understood to refer to what transcends all time and all ages and all eternity, since even our concept of eternity contains a temporal ingredient. How then can we speak about the Incarnation as an act of God in this way without illegitimately projecting our creaturely time into God?

This question must be pressed even further, for it is surely relevant to everything we say about God. All our speech about him is creaturely and cannot be cut loose from its creaturely content without ceasing to be human speech altogether, but it is not for that reason false as if it could have no authentic relation to the reality and intelligibility of God. Here we are up against one of those ultimate boundaries in thought such as we reach when we ask a question as to the rationality of the universe: not only do we have to assume that rationality in order to answer the question but we have to assume it in order to ask the question in the first place. We cannot meaningfully ask a question that calls in question that which it needs in order to be the question that is being asked. We cannot step outside the relationship to the rationality of the universe in which we find ourselves without stepping outside of rationality altogether. Before the question as to the relation between our knowing and ultimate rationality we cannot but stand in awe and acknowledgement and can ask our questions rightly only within the actuality of that relationship. That is the problem that arises in our knowledge of God, in determining the relation between our thought and speech and the reality of God about whom we think and speak, for in the nature of the case we operate with incongruence between our knowing and the divine object of our knowing. We can only stand before him in wondering awe, acknowledging that in our knowing of him we are unable to reduce the relations between our thought or speech and the reality of God to relations of thought or speech, and so we have to be on our guard against asking the meaningless kind of question that presupposes we can.

That is why, with reference to our human inability to overcome the incongruence between human knowing and the reality of God, Karl Barth has asked: “How do we come to think, by means of our thinking, that which we cannot think at all by this means? How do we come to say, by means of our language, that which we cannot say at all by this means?”

If there is to be real knowledge of God there cannot but be an incongruence between God as the known and humanity as the knower, but if that knowledge is to take place it must rest upon the reality and grace of the object known, just as in all true knowledge, where we are unable to reduce the relation between our thought and speech and the reality of things to relations of thought and speech, we nevertheless allow their reality to shine through to us and act upon us. And so Barth rightly insists that in the knowledge of God we cannot raise questions as to its reality from some position outside of it.

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