Dr. Thomas Noble : Holy Trinity, Holy People (Part Two)
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In this episode of You’re Included, Dr. Thomas A. Noble shares his experience collaborating across evangelical traditions. He describes the value of a shared faith and mission in an ecumenical community and how it made an impact on his understanding of God. Our host is Dr. Gary Deddo.
Gary Deddo: Tom, it’s good to have you with us again for this segment of You’re Included.
Thomas Noble: My pleasure again.
Gary: You’re from a Wesleyan background and teach or supervise at a couple of different Wesleyan institutions, and you had something to do with James Torrance coming and giving a series of lectures a number of years ago, didn’t you?
Thomas: Yes. At the time his brother T.F. came, I was the Dean and I organized all that. And so, The Mediation of Christ came out of that. But by the time James Torrance came, I was no longer on staff there, although I was research supervisor. But he opted to do a series on worship. Up until that point – I think I’m accurate in saying that Professor James Thomas had not published a book; he published articles and so on and so on. And so, I suggested to my colleague who was inviting him, that he should lay it down in the invitation that Professor James should bring the manuscript with him.
And this series, that is real lectures, it’s four consecutive evenings: F.F. Bruce started off, T.F. Torrance, various other leading theologians and Bible scholars. And so, he came in that sequence, and out of that came the book, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace, which was a distillation of his thought. And of course, when James lectured, he preached! And he would pace up and down, and he communicated. Now, T.F. did, too. I mean, he walked up and down and communicated. But James came across very warmly, and that was a memorable series.
Gary: As students of James, we used to talk about how James was “the oral tradition,” even traveling anywhere in the world to speak and to be personally present and interact. Whereas Tom was happy to spend a lot more of his time writing – not that he didn’t speak and teach. But he was “the written tradition” was kind of the little humor we had about them. And that little book, I’ve used myself and referred to many [people] over the years.
There is a little bit of a puzzle here because Wesleyans aren’t supposed to have much to do with Reformed. They can be regarded as kind of oil and water, you know? And yet of course, the story behind it, you had been a student of both James and Tom Torrance. That’s pretty unusual in itself. Not a lot of people got to hear both of them, but how did that happen? How did a Wesleyan like yourself end up studying with these two Reformed theologians?
Thomas: Well, the lay people in the congregation I grew up in were very interested in theology and what our doctrine was. Then when I went, as an undergraduate student, to study history at the University of Glasgow – this is my classical university tie, by the way – I took a degree in history and politics there and was actively involved in the Christian Union InterVarsity fellowship. UCCF, it is in the UK. And there, interchanging with different traditions – Baptist, Church of Scotland, Anglican, and so on – united in that they were all evangelical, but with different perspectives. So, we had different approaches to predestination, for example. Being Scotland, there was a strong Calvinist tradition there. And I knew that we were Arminians, but there was something ecumenical about that, in that we shared the faith. We shared in mission to the university, just as Wesley and Whitfield did in the 18th century.
And through my reading of mainly InterVarsity literature – writers like John Stott and James Packer and so on – I became interested in theology and felt that there was a job here to be done, defending the faith, because it was the age of Bultmann and demythologization and all that. And I came to the conclusion: there was a strong case to be made for what we then called conservative evangelical theology. So, feeling that I could make a contribution there, which might lead into the ministry, might lead into teaching, I resigned my teaching post. And we went off to Edinburgh, and I enrolled at New College.
Gary: Right. So, and you got your PhD degree there?
Thomas: Yes, that’s right. Yeah. So that was three years there, and I specialized. I was in the honors class in Christian dogmatics in the final year. And so, it was dogmatics all day, every day.
Gary: That’s [not] a bad thing, I don’t think! Well, how did that impact you over the years by having that exposure to their dogmatics?
Thomas: Well, I think even before I met the Torrances, others in the Reform tradition such as Stott, broadly, but Stott’s an Anglican, of course. And that was very much the [Charles] Simeon tradition of biblical preaching. Packer was a bit more of a theologian and obviously in the Calvinist tradition, but one thing I learned to value, even from them, was the emphasis on the object of reality of truth.
If my own tradition has a weakness, it could be said to be the tendency to subjectivism. When I got to New College, I found the Torrances’ theology much more amenable to the Wesleyan Arminian tradition. I don’t think they really knew the Arminian tradition. There is a tendency in Reformed circles to think of Arminians in terms of people like Charles Finney or people who emphasize freewill, but that is not the authentic evangelical tradition of Arminius himself, nor of John Wesley, whose emphasis is very strongly on the priority of grace. I found that what the Torrances were saying was very – I shouldn’t say easily – but could be seen to fit, but in a way which laid the emphasis on the centrality of Christ and the objective work that he had achieved in his incarnation and atonement, which gave a depth and a foundation to subjective Christian experience.
One of the simple models that I found very helpful was Torrance and [Michael] Polanyi emphasizing that both in theological science and in the natural sciences, in our knowledge, there has to be an objective and a subjective pull. So, it was not a matter of objectivity versus subjectivity. It’s a both/and. But the problem with subjectivism was that it has a tendency to focus on the subjective pull: myself, my own experience, the subjective pull of experience. But the whole point about Christian experience is the God whom we experience. Now that’s a James Torrance-ism: that the center of our faith is not our experience of God; it is the God whom we experience. Now, I found that tremendously helpful. And of course, in the Wesleyan tradition there’s a strong emphasis on experience. But I have, ever since, emphasized that yes, of course there is a subjective pull. There is the faith of the believer. There is our love for God, but it is the God whom we experience that is the basis for all that. So, I find that very, very helpful.
Gary: Right. Yes, I can see how that would be. And it’s a common root, in a certain way, beneath the distinctions – to the degree you want to bring those out – between Reform and Arminian. It’s more foundational underneath.
Thomas: Now, this is a good point, of course, that a lot of Protestant theology – in particularly evangelical tradition – always gives the impression that theology started with the Reformation. So, Calvin and Luther are the founders of the Christian church. And the perspective I imbibed from the Torrances is: No, you’ve got to go further back than that. And the Trinitarian, Christocentric heart of the Christian faith, which all Christians share, is where we have to begin.
Gary: Yes. Well, that’s very important. Yes, I know there’s often a leap from the Bible just to the Reformers. No, there’s quite a bit that went on in between. And especially, I know even Calvin himself – as well as Luther – they look back to the Fathers on the basis of the New Testament, well the whole of Scriptures. But they were happy to look back.
Thomas: Absolutely. Yes, yes, Calvin was quite an expert on the Church Fathers.
Gary: Yes, that’s what I found, as well, fascinating when I went to study because that part of my theological education was a little weak on the early Church Fathers. And I so appreciated that as well.
Would you say there’s a reverse kind of thing? Not to speak of the Torrances in particular, but just in general, what the Wesleyans have to offer to the rest of the church that might be a corrective? Why should anybody study Wesley today? Is there some counter-help that can get overlooked? I know in the Reformed, often the emphasis is, for instance, not on sanctification. It’s typically and generally on justification.
Of course, for the Wesleyans, you really get quite an emphasis on holiness or sanctification. Is there a kind of a counter-corrective or counter-helpful?
Thomas: Well, Wesley did insist on several occasions that he did “not differ from Mr. Calvin by a hair’s breadth” on the doctrine of justification. Now the early Wesley was all taken up with a search for holiness until he met the Moravians.
That is when he recovered the Reformation faith of justification by faith, began to understand what that really meant. And of course, it was after listening to someone reading from the preface to [Luther’s] the Epistle to the Romans that in his famous words: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation.”
Now Wesleyans have often emphasized the “warmed heart.” I think the key sentence is: “I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation.” There is the “Solus Christus, Christ alone” of the Reformation. So, justification is important in Wesley’s thought. But the danger of the Protestant doctrine – right and true and fundamental as it is – is that it can lead to a merely legalistic understanding of justification. And what Wesley was concerned about, from his background and the “holy living” school in the Church of England, was that it can lead to what he called antinomianism and the extreme idea, which is not true to Luther or Calvin, the extreme idea that the law has no place at all in the life of Christian. It’s certainly not true to Calvin—“the third use of the law,” Christians are to live lives of holiness, are to advance in holiness or to grow in grace. And at that point, Wesley is at one with the Reform tradition.
Gary: Yes. Yes. Sometimes traditions just get narrowed down to one particular thing and a lot is lost – the larger context and actually what unites Christians. Really, if we emphasize the distinctives only, then it seems to me a lot can be lost.
Thomas: T.F. used to use the phrase often that if we could “cut behind” our disagreements to the fundamental agreement at the heart of the gospel. That was part of his ecumenical passion and concern. People in the evangelical traditions have always been rather wary and suspicious of the word ecumenical.
And there was some grounds for that in the way in which, in some decades in the mid-20th century, it seemed to mean that you were prepared to compromise on essential things just to get together. But of course, that is not at all what he meant by ecumenical understanding. There is hard work to be done theologically in thinking about why this group emphasizes this, why this group emphasizes that, and how if we go deeply beneath them, we can see that actually they may be seeing two sides of the same truth.
Gary: Now I know you’re working on a big project. There are three volumes. Do you call it systematic theology?
Gary: And so, I’m sure you’re kind of bringing all this together. That’s a large project. What’s behind that? And how are you kind of coming at that?
Thomas: Well, I think this would seem rather an overambitious exercise had I not been commissioned to do it and asked to do it. And so, it’s at one and the same time, a great joy and also a great burden or task that I’m never free from. So, it’s in my waking thoughts from the time I get up in the morning.
The structure that I am following, the overall title, is to be Christian Theology, which is the same title used by an earlier Nazarene theologian, H. Orton Wiley, whose work was published in the 1940s. So, that’s the continuity in the tradition, the Wesleyan tradition there. But I’ve structured it in three volumes. So, the first is finished; I now go on to the second and third. And volume one is “The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Volume two is “The Love of God.” And volume three – don’t need to tell you – “The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” So, it’s Trinitarian in shape, but not the normal structure. Most systematic theologies take the order of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Matthew 28:19 order. I’m taking the 2 Corinthians 13:13, or in some versions 13:14 (that alters a bit), “The grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” So beginning with Christ, beginning with Christology.
Years ago, when Elmer Colyer published his book How to Read T.F. Torrance, I thought, “Oh, he’s got in before me; he’s used that structure to talk about terms.” But I think there are advantages in coming into theology through the gospel; that is the beginning of Christian theology. So, it’s the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. So, the first volume is “The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It’s a little long, so the idea is to publish it in three parts. And the first part is what theologians call “prolegomena”: things that you say before you say what you really want to say—but not the usual kind of prolegomena, which is often philosophical, epistemological, methodological.
I’m writing for a global denomination that’s in 160 different nations with 56 colleges around the world. So, it seems to me, that for the global church, we need to start with the gospel. So, after four introductory chapters in part one, the rest of part one is really about the quest for the historical Jesus. And I emphasize this is not yet theology. This is preliminary. This is asking the question, supposing we’re not believers: what can we establish historically about Jesus? And so, what I do is – my background as a historian comes into this – I examine the methodology of modern history and emphasize that this is not a sort of neutral tool, that it arises out of the Enlightenment.
So, I have a chapter where I look at the roots of all that, and that helps to explain, to a large degree, why so much of the quests for the historical Jesus have been skeptical. And then I eventually come to more positive presentations by writers like N.T. Wright. But then I come onto the resurrection at the conclusion of this prolegomena. And that brings us right up to the threshold of faith, but you cannot come to faith by rationally proving historically that such an event took place. And so, I very strongly emphasize in the introduction to part two – well, actually in the last chapter of part one, but also the introduction to part two – that it is only by the Holy Spirit, it is only by the grace of God that we cross that threshold and confess Jesus Christ is Lord.
So, that first prolegomenon is under the title of “Jesus Christ.” The second section is under the title “Lord.” And that’s ten chapters on Christology in which I look at New Testament Christology, the development of Christology through the centuries, the present situation. And then the third part of the first volume is under the title “Grace.” That’s about soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, objective soteriology, that is to say, the doctrine of the atonement. So that’s volume one, right.
Gary: But if you’re going to go long on a topic, I think it should be the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. So, I congratulate you on that and look forward to seeing it in print. And I hope our listeners, as well, will do so. Tom, it’s been great talking with you. Thanks so much.
Thomas: My pleasure.
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