Torrance on the sacraments

In The School of Faith (1959) Torrance discusses the Reformed conception of the Covenant of Grace. He makes in this regard a sharp distinction between Mediaeval theology, thinking in sacramental terms and Reformed theology, thinking in convenantal terms. Whereas Mediaeval theology, according to Torrance, considered the church as the extension of the Incarnation, against the background of a sacramental universe, the Reformers employed the Biblical terminology of the Convenant of Grace and its total fulfilment in the Person and Work of Jezus Christ as the incarnate Son and Word of God (p.lii).

After citing Karl Barth’s formula of the Convenant as the inner ground and form of the creation and creation as the outer ground or form of the Convenant and Calvin’s statement that Godwrapped himself up in earthly signs and symbols, so that the whole of creation is to be regarded as a mirror or theatre, Torrance continues by saying:

“Thus while the whole of creation is formed to serve as the sphere of divine self-revelation, it cannot be interpreted or understood our of itself, as if it had an inherent relation of likeness or being to the Truth, but only in the light of the history of the Convenant of Grace and its appointed signs and orders and events in the life of the Convenant people, that is to say, according to its economy prior to the Incarnation and according to its economy after the Incarnation” (p.liii).

In short, Torrance seems to deny any intrinsic connection between the sacramental signs and their signification. That, however, raises several questions. Think, for example, of the Lord’s Supper. According to Torrance, it’s signification originates from Divine appointment, e.g. the words of institution spoken by Christ and repeated by the minister every time the Supper is celebrated. True as that is, does that mean that, say, its character as a meal is completely arbitrary? Could the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection as well have been instituted in the form of a shared dance around an old tree? Or would in that case the ritual have had a different meaning, at least partly? I think so.

It seems that Torrance, in his effort to avoid a sacramentalism based on a kind of natural theology, did cut off, not only the branches of the tree, but also some of its vital roots. Furthermore, while claiming to describe the Reformed position in sacramental theology, he seems to distantiate himself from the position of Calvin. For Calvin makes use of the analogy between our daily eating and drinking and the eating and drinking we have in the Lord’s Supper (for example in his sermon about Psalm 65, edited in Supplementa Calviniana VII (ed. E. Mülhaupt); p.32-40). Obviously, Calvin doesn´t want to know about an intrinsic sacramental operation. The signs and the rite don´t have an operation on their own, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. But that does not mean that the relation between the sacramental signs and their signification, between the rite and its operation is completely arbitrary.