Friday, November 13, 2009

Torrance and the Problem of Dualism, pt 1

Today's contribution to the cause of Trinitarian-incarnational theology is the first of a two-part post on the problem of "dualism." Even if you have read only a little T. F. Torrance, you have likely encountered his recurring critique of the problem of dualism, particularly in regard to the Enlightenment's dualistic Newtonian cosmology and the Kantian (dualistic) disjunction between the knower and the known (see below for explanations of these high-browed ideas). As someone noted, however, Torrance gives us (his readers) more credit than we deserve; that is, he assumes we know more than we really do ‒ and that can create problems for us readers. For example, consider the first few pages of The Mediation of Christ. In only a few paragraphs, Torrance probably manages to scare off most potential readers. Torrance graciously assumes we know what he is talking about when, in highly compressed prose, he notes the many problems associated with both cosmological and epistemological dualism and our need to embrace, as theologians, a unitary view of reality as conceived by modern science (beginning particularly with James Clerk Maxwell). (Note, however, that if you can get by the first three or four pages, the book gets easier ‒ though not necessarily easy.)

To be sure, reading Torrance often requires at least a general knowledge of the history of philosophy, history of theology, and a perverted desire to delve into the subatomic world of quantum mechanics. Ouch!! In regard to philosophy, if wrestling with the ephemeral world of Platonic and Neo-platonic philosophy is not bad enough, once you get into Torrance, you have to move on to the philosophy of the Enlightenment era if you want to have even the remotest clue about his critique of Kantian epistemological dualism. Problem is, most of us have lives to live ‒ you know, babies to burp and wood to chop. We simply don't have time for philosophy and quantum physics. We want to get to Jesus!

Never fear. This is where your faithful correspondent comes in. Think of me as a translator, like those who sit beside the diplomats at the U.N. This is not to suggest I am an expert in the Torrance "language"; I am not. But I am learning to speak "Torrance," and as someone who is a teacher by nature, I can't help but share what I am learning. Therefore, I seek to help my readers familiarize themselves with various concepts encountered in reading Torrance.

So here we go again. It's pipes for the men and cigars for the ladies. Sit back, kick off your comfy Mickey Mouse slippers, and enjoy a bit more of "All Things Torrance."

The Problem of Dualism

Torrance's scientific approach to knowledge of God as mediated by Jesus Christ draws him into sharp conflict with both ancient and modern forms of "dualism," that is, the division of reality into two independent, incompatible domains. Torrance (1980:76) notes that the Church has faced an ongoing struggle with dualism, particularly in the Patristic and modern eras. An appreciation of Torrance's rejection of cosmological and epistemological dualism is vital to grasping his "realist" understanding of the mediation of Christ (Colyer, 2001:57, 58).

According to Torrance, theologies may be divided into two distinct types: 1) interactionist and 2) dualist. An "interactionist" theology (such as that of Torrance) is one in which God is understood to interact closely with the world of nature and history without being confused with it. A "dualist" theology is one in which God is thought to be separated from nature and history by a "deistic distance." As an example of a dualist theology, Torrance cites Schleiermacher, who conceived of God as so transcendent and "other" that he cannot be the object of our knowledge; thus, knowledge of God arises from our immanent religious consciousness (Torrance, 1970:121; 1990:136).

Cosmological Dualism

Cosmological dualism posits "a separation between the reality or essence of something and the empirical sources of our knowledge about it," that is, a separation between "substance" and "appearance" (Achtemeier, 2001b:273). In regard to theological science, cosmological dualism posits a separation between God and the world, whether in the metaphysics of the ancient Greeks or in the "deism" of the modern era (Torrance, 1980:15ff).

Originating in ancient Greek thought, cosmological dualism asserts that what is "really real" is an eternal, unchanging realm of pure thought "forms" which stand in stark contrast to the imperfect, changeable realm of concrete appearances [we're talking Plato here]. In theological science, cosmological dualism typically asserts itself in an assumed incompatibility between the eternal, divine realm and the finite realm of space and time. For Christian theology, this has historically taken the form of a denial of the empirical reality of the incarnation, so that a wedge has been driven between the Christian understanding of Jesus Christ and genuine knowledge of God (Achtemeier, 2001b:273).

Comment: We've talked about this before (see The Wedding Cake Cosmos: Augustine and Neo-Platonism, 3/09). The Greeks posited a "dualism" between the divine and materiality. God is "way up there," we are "way down here," and there can be no interaction between the two. The dualist assumption that God cannot interact with materiality rules out the incarnation from the start! Thus, the gospel is "foolishness" to the Greeks.

Cosmological dualism arose again at the beginning of the modern scientific revolution, particular in the thought of the great physicist, Sir Isaac Newton (1642‒1727). The changes in cosmology initiated by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo were mathematically elaborated by Newton in his "system of the world." Newton's cosmology was characterized by "a thorough-going dualism between absolute space and time and the contingent events that took place within their embrace" (Torrance, 1976:268).

"Absolute space and time," presupposed by Newton's laws of motion, form a static backdrop against which the movement of bodies can be described and plotted. According to Newton, "absolute space" is structured according to the uniform principles of Euclidean geometry; "absolute time" provides a universal frame of reference against which events anywhere in the universe can be described as occurring simultaneously, before, or after one another. Absolute space and time form a vast "envelope" that contains all that goes on in the universe, "inertially conditioning" events and our knowledge of them while remaining unaffected by them. The contents of universal space-time are understood in atomistic terms as discrete particles, or "point-masses," called "corpuscles," which move and interact with one another according to the influences of gravitational "forces." Newton's "particles in a box" paradigm readily lends itself to mechanistic, reductionist ways of thinking about the universe; that is, if the universe is composed of particles moving according to fixed laws of motion, then all phenomena could conceivably be explained in those terms. The determinism evident in Newton's "corpuscular" view of matter gave rise to the conception of the universe as self-perpetuating clockwork-like machine. Newton's mechanistic-dualistic cosmology has dominated Western science for centuries (Torrance, 1980:75; 1984:270, 271; Achtemeier, 2001b:282, 283).

Comment" Newton's "corpuscular" view of particles moving around in the vast arena of space is often portrayed something like a giant pool table with billiard balls rolling around all over the place, more or less at will.

As Tarnas (1991:270, 271) notes, "By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the educated person in the West knew that God had created the universe as a complex mechanical system, composed of material particles moving in an infinite neutral space according to a few basic principles, such as inertia and gravity, that could be analyzed mathematically. . . . It also seemed reasonable to assume that after the creation of this intricate and orderly universe, God removed himself from further active involvement or intervention in nature, and allowed it to run on its own according to these perfect, immutable laws. The new image of the Creator was thus that of a divine architect, a master mathematician and clock maker, while the universe was viewed as a uniformly regulated and fundamentally impersonal phenomenon."

Newton's appeal to absolute time and space as an a priori "philosophical backdrop" to his theory creates a rigid cosmological dualism between absolute space-time and the material contents of the universe, a dualism that closely mirrors the ancient Greek distinction between an eternal, divine world of rational "forms" and a material world of subjective appearances. Not only has the Newtonian cosmology "built a deep-seated dualism into the whole fabric of Western science, philosophy, and culture" but also has encouraged a view of the universe as a "closed continuum of cause and effect," far removed from the ongoing providence of a loving God (Torrance, 1976:268, 269).

Torrance rightly observes that there are significant theological implications associated with the Newtonian view of the cosmos. To be sure, Newton's view of the material contents of the universe as "particles in a box" moving in strict accordance to fixed laws of motion leaves little room for God's involvement in the world, except as the "first cause" or creator of the universe. Moreover, Newton's dualistic outlook, coupled with a "Baconian" understanding of scientific method (wherein speculative hypotheses are shunned in favor of theories developed strictly by inductive means based on experimental data), drives a wedge between scientific and "religious" ways of knowing. "Science" is viewed as empirical and "objective," deriving its understanding from experimental data, while "religion" is viewed as "subjective," tenuously grounded in personal belief. The net result of this is a "powerful resonance" between the scientific view of Newtonian physics and Deism, a theological view that understands the world to function in an autonomous "clockwork" fashion that requires no divine involvement other than as a "first cause" (Torrance, 1981:43, 44; Achtemeier, 2001b:284).

Comment: That's the essential point. The Newtonian view of the cosmos as a closed system of cause and effect leaves God out of the picture. In fact, according to this view, if God were to intervene, say with miracles, it would throw everything out of whack, upsetting the delicate balance of the cosmic pocket watch. In short, miracles are a no-no in this view.

As Achtemeier (2001b:285, 286) observes, "The radical disjunction in Newton's thought between the philosophical backdrop of absolute, eternal, and unchanging space and time on the one hand, and the dynamic world of objects and appearances on the other, is thus mirrored in an equally radical disjunction between the creator God and the independent, ongoing processes and activities of the created order." Newton's "container" view of absolute space and time as the philosophical backdrop of his thought renders the Christian doctrine of the incarnation extremely problematic, since it is not clear (in a Newtonian view) how the infinite God could be contained in the limited structures of time and space. The theological implications of his theory were not lost on the great physicist. As Torrance (1980:68) notes, Newton was compelled to deny the incarnation and to support Arius against Athanasius.

In embracing a dualistic worldview, wherein the universe is conceived in terms of a self-containing and self-explaining deterministic framework, some theologians have gone to great lengths to "cut off faith from any empirical correlates in physical space-time reality" [i.e., incarnation, miracles, etc. didn't really happen in time and space, just in the collective imaginations of us dumb Christians]. In so doing, they have replaced objective, God-centered theology with a radically subjective, man-centred outlook (Torrance, 1981:62, 63). [What else can you do when God is disqualified as a player from the start?] Those who hold dualistic views tend to interpret the biblical accounts of God's agency in the world as "nonliteral symbolism or premodern mythology, and therefore subject to allegorical or demythological strategies of interpretation in order to extract or explain the meaning embedded in the symbol or myth" (Colyer, 2001:58). [In other words, the Bible is nothing but a collection of fairy tales.] Bultmann is a prime example of a theologian who is constrained by a modern dualist worldview. Bultmann held that historie, that is, history understood solely in terms of a closed system of cause and effect, ruled out of rational consideration anything that could not be interpreted in terms of natural physical laws. Thus, Bultmann was compelled to rule out any thought of incarnation, miracles, resurrection, or God's interaction in human history. "[Bultmann's] acceptance of the idea of an unbroken continuity of cause and effect governed by natural law made him regard the central Christian beliefs embedded in the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament as a mythological account of reported this-worldly events in other-worldly ways lacking objective truth and reality." Thus, Bultmann devised a method of "demythologizing" the New Testament so that modern people could understand it within the framework of a Newtonian-deistic dualism, wherein the world is considered a closed system of cause and effect not subject to intervention from the "outside." In offering an "existentialist reinterpretation" of the gospel, Bultmann insulated the Christian message from the critical investigations of science while at the same time rendering the gospel completely irrelevant for modern science and technology (Torrance, 1980:18, 19; 1994:4-5).

This kind of "demythologizing" of scripture is alive and well today with the so-called "Jesus Seminar." In their vaunted wisdom, they get together and vote on which portions of New Testament scripture are authentic (they put colored balls into a hat I think) and which are merely the superstitious accretions of those silly first Christians. Like Bultmann, they appear to embrace a cosmological dualism in their assertion that God does not (or perhaps cannot) intervene in history. Thus, they get out their scissors and cut out everything in the Bible that smacks of the miraculous (including the Virgin Birth, incarnation, resurrection, ascension and other little things like that). When they get through, they have a really, really thin Bible. (I like mine better.) So you see, cosmological dualism is alive and well. Just watch the "biblical scholar" "Domino Croissant" who gets interviewed by the History Channel every time the subject of the "historical" Jesus comes up.

See part 2 for a discussion of Kant's epistemological dualism.

That's all for now. Stay tuned. Next post due in a week or so.


Achtemeier, P.M. 2001. Natural Science and Christian Faith in the Thought of T. F. Torrance. In E. Colyer, ed. The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T. F. Torrance. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Ch. 11.

Colyer, E.M. 2001. How to Read T.F. Torrance: Understanding His Trinitarian & Scientific Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 393pp.

Tarnas, R. 1991. The Passion of the Western Mind. New York, NY: Ballantine. 544pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1970. The Problem of Natural Theology in the Thought of Karl Barth. Religious Studies, vol 6, pp. 121-135.

Torrance, T.F. 1976. Theology in Reconciliation: Essays toward Evangelical and Catholic Unity in East and West. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 302pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1980. The Ground and Grammar of Theology: Consonance Between Theology and Science. (Preface to new edition by T.F. Torrance, 2001). Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 256pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1981. Christian Theology and Scientific Culture. Oxford: OUP.152pp.

Torrance, T. F. 1984. Transformation & Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge: Explorations in the Interrelations of Scientific and Theological Enterprise. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 353pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1990. Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 256pp.


  1. I now see why Torrance was so interested in science - our way of understanding the universe has had enormous implications for the way we understand God. As Baxter says, "more please!"

  2. This helps those of us who need some easier words for our understanding of Torrance. Also, maybe as we attempt to explain this to folks we can express it so they don't think we're talking in some kind of other language. It is so beautiful to grasp some of the truth wrapped up in this.

  3. Well done, brother Martin. Thank you, Holy Spirit. We will have more please. Now Martin come up with fifty stories that illustrate the point, and you will help change the masses.

  4. Thanks!
    Just started listening to his audio lectures on the ground and grammar of theology and thought I better stop and learn the history of philosophy and science...


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