Saturday, January 2, 2010

T. F. Torrance: Scientific Theology and Critical Realism

In the last two posts ('The Problem of Dualism," I & II), we examined the problem of dualism in relation to the knowledge of God. We noted that the cosmological dualism of the ancient Greeks or the Newtonian-Deism of the Enlightenment asserts that the divine has not, or cannot, intervene in the space-time reality of human history. By shutting God out of worldly affairs, cosmological dualism renders the incarnation problematic if not unthinkable (hence, the Gospel is foolishness to the Greeks as well as to those bound by the dualisms of modernity). We also described the epistemological dualism associated with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In arguing that we cannot know "the thing in itself" (Ger. Das Ding an sich), Kant posited a disjunction (dualism) between the human knower and that which we seek to know by asserting that our "knowing" is both shaped and constrained by the mental constructs (ideas, images, beliefs, presuppositions) we bring to the act of knowing. For example, according to Kant, the "order" we see in the universe is not a characteristic of the cosmos itself but, rather, is an imposition of a mental construct ("order") upon nature so that we might make sense of an otherwise chaotic manifold of sensory experience. Thus the "laws" of nature are not read from nature but are 'imposed' upon it by the human mind.
Against dualism, Torrance seeks to develop a "unitary" (not dualistic) approach to theology wherein knowledge of the reality under investigation (in this case, God) is developed according to the demands imposed upon us by the intrinsic nature of the object of inquiry. In order to better understand Torrance's approach, we shall explore the closely related topics of "scientific" theology and "critical realism." (In the next post, we will explore the methodology of Torrance's scientific theology.)
Scientific Theology
Torrance (1969:281) describes theology as "a dogmatic, or positive and independent, science operating on its own ground and in accordance with the inner law of its own being, developing its distinctive modes of inquiry and its essential forms of thought under the determination of its given subject-matter."
Comment: Torrance describes theology as a positive science. This may not seem significant, yet it is of major importance. Much western theology arises from the "negative" way (via negativa) promulgated by Thomas Aquinas (12th C.) and others who articulated their doctrine of God based on a negation of the imperfections of the cosmos (e.g., "God is not this"). For example, the world is changing; thus God is "not-changing," that is, God is "immutable" (see my post, "Tommy A. and the Western Split."). In contrast to a negative theology that often (and wrongly) seeks to tell us what God is 'not', Torrance seeks to develop a positive approach to theology based upon God's self-revelation in Jesus.
Note also that Torrance's theology seeks to develop "its distinctive modes of inquiry and its essential forms of thought under the determination of its given subject-matter." Simply stated, God himself (the Object of scientific theological inquiry) sovereignly determines how he will be known, and he does so through the mediation of the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ.
Theology is "the unique science devoted to knowledge of God, differing from other sciences by the uniqueness of its object which can be apprehended only on its own terms and from within the actual situation it has created in our existence in making itself known." Scientific theological thinking does not arise from a centre within ourselves or from axiomatic assumptions we make in regard to the nature of God. "Theo-logical" thinking arises, rather, from a centre in God and is possible only because it really is God who is the object of our inquiry and the "ground and possibility" of all our knowledge of him.
Comment: "Theological thinking does not arise from a centre within ourselves." Compare this to Schleiermacher who developed his theology from the "feeling" of dependence in the human consciousness or Augustine who based his trinitarianism on an analogy of the human mind (see my post, "NeoPlatonism: Augustine and the Wedding Cake Cosmos"). Nor does theological thinking arise from "axiomatic assumptions we make in regard to the nature of God." Again, compare this to medieval theologies based on what human beings thought it "proper" for God to be (dignum deo). In contrast, Torrance's scientific theology is an a posteriori form of thinking grounded in the prior "given-ness" of God in Jesus Christ.
"Scientific theology," according to Torrance, "is active engagement in that cognitive relation to God in obedience to the demands of His reality and self-giving." A scientific theology seeks to bring knowledge of God into clear focus, so that the truth of God may shine through unhindered and unobscured by the "opacity" of the human mind. "That is to say, we seek to allow God's own eloquent self-evidence to sound through to us in His Logos so that we may know and understand Him out of His own rationality and under the determination of His divine being" (Torrance, 1969:v-viii).
Comment: Against the Kantian disjunction between the knower and the known, God's own "eloquent self-evidence" has sounded through to us both in the mediation of revelation in ancient Israel (see coming post) and particularly and most clearly in the incarnation of the Word (Logos) of God in Jesus Christ, who is "of one being with the Father" (homoousios to Patri).
In summary, Torrance's scientific theology is a positive (rather than negative) approach to knowledge of God developed in accordance with God's historical self-revelation in the history of Israel and the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Critical Realist Epistemology

In regard to the knowledge of God in general, and the mediation of Christ in particular, Torrance adopts a "Christian realist epistemology," that is, a "biblical and scientific realism" that has been called his "greatest contribution to the theological life and mission of the Church for ages to come." For Torrance, we can have real and accurate knowledge of things outside ourselves, including real and accurate knowledge of Jesus Christ (Kelly, 2007:75).
Critical realism arose in the United States in the early twentieth century as a rejection of an "idealist' over-emphasis on human consciousness and experience. Realism makes the "common sense" claim that realities exist independently of human perception. At its core, realism rejects the idealist insistence that esse est percipi ("to exist is to be perceived"), asserting, instead, that an object may exist apart from being perceived. Critical realism concedes to idealism that whenever something is perceived, it is an object of the mind; however, it does not follow from this that a given reality has no existence except in being perceived. Critical realism takes note of the Kantian emphasis on human perception, yet argues that, even though reality may be conceptually mediated, it does not follow that our concepts or apperceptions constitute reality. Theological realism [such as that embraced by Torrance] is committed to the view that the object of religious experience and inquiry (i.e., God) exists independently of human experience. In acknowledging an independent reality beyond our control, there is a basic humility associated with theological realism, wherein human experience is not the sole arbiter of what is real (Patterson, 1999:12-14; Padgett, 2002: 186, 187).
In his typically tortuous fashion, Torrance describes realism as "an epistemic orientation of the two-way relation between the subject and object poles of thought and speech, in which ontological primacy and control are naturally accorded to reality over all our conceiving and speaking of it" (Torrance, 1982:60). His conception of an "ontological primacy" appears to be a 'realist' assertion that the object of inquiry has a reality that is independent of the human subjective pole and open to scientific investigation.
In contrast to the Newtonian-deistic separation between God and the world or natural theology's attempt to develop knowledge of God apart from God's historical self-disclosure (see coming post), Torrance adopts an "interactionist" approach to knowledge of God, wherein God is understood as personally interacting with the world in space and time while remaining distinct from it. Against the Kantian disjunction between the knower and the known, Torrance's "realist" epistemology asserts that reality discloses itself in a way that we can really comprehend (Torrance, 1982:97-99; 1990:136).
Comment: Without doubt, most readers of this blog embrace a "realist" epistemology in the doctrine of God. In simple terms, we believe in the independent reality of God's existence and that God can be known. Against Kant, we do not regard knowledge of God as the result of the imposition of human thought forms on an otherwise unknowable reality; we believe that divine reality can be known because it has been revealed. Against cosmological dualism, we believe that God has (and continues to) intervene in human affairs, particularly in the history of Israel, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and the sending of the Spirit. Thus, for Torrance to assert that the divine exists independently of human perception is no big deal to most of us. Yet in the scientific and academic milieu in which Torrance develops his theology, a "realist" understanding of God is not taken for granted.
Moreover, Torrance adopts an interactionist approach to knowledge of God, wherein God is understood as personally interacting in human history. This is an important point. Torrance divides theologies into two overarching types: 1) theologies that operate from the perspective that God has really "interacted" with humanity in the realm of historical space and time, and 2) dualist epistemologies such as that of Bultmann that shut God out of the world.
Torrance's approach accords with "common sense." In everyday experience the human mind operates in such a way that we are able to distinguish between ourselves as knowing subjects and the objects of our knowledge. In common discourse, we employ ideas or words to represent the realities they signify so that ordinary communication is possible. Our attention is not focused on the words we use; rather, it is focused on the realties to which they refer. Hence, for Torrance, the natural operations of the human mind appear to be "realist" (Torrance, 1982:58)
Torrance insists that knowledge is not centred in the rational human subject only, for there is a "universal rationality" or inherent intelligibility woven into the fabric of the cosmos by its Creator. Because the universe not only exists in intellectu, but also in re, our mental operations are coordinated with patterns and structures in the universe that are independent of us. Realities are not merely the conceptual constructs of the human mind; rather there is a "noetic component" to things that make their intrinsic intelligibility accessible to human knowing. As we engage these realities, we become recipients and channels of their inherent intelligibility. Hence, our images and concepts are tools of discovery rather than tools of creation; that is, realities are discovered, not invented (Torrance, 1985:3; Patterson, 1999:14, 17).
Comment: The preceding paragraph is a powerful argument against Kantian epistemological dualism. Remember that Kant argued that the laws of nature are not "discovered" in nature; rather, they are "imposed" upon nature by the human mind.
Like philosophy, theology operates within a dialectical tension between realism and idealism; that is, "theology engages in its movement between the given object and thought about the object." Classical realism holds that all our knowledge of God arises out of actual experience with a given reality; yet, it also recognizes that there are both "inward" and "outward" aspects to our actual experience. The crucial problem for "realist" epistemology is to assert how we can distinguish independent objective reality from our experience of it. As Torrance (1990:52, 53) asks, "How do we know that the God whom we know in our minds has existence apart from our mental knowledge of him, that 'God' is anything more than an empty 'idea' in our minds?" In answer, Torrance's "realist" theology takes as its fundamental proposition that God is; that is to say, God has a reality independent of our knowledge of him, a reality made known to us "concretely" in the historical encounter with Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Torrance (1990:53, 54) writes:
It is in that encounter that we learn that the objective act of God upon us in the freedom of his Spirit is to be distinguished from our inward subjective conditions, and that the God who meets us face to face in Jesus Christ is . . . the living God who really comes to us from beyond us and acts upon us in the midst of all the other actualities and objectivities of our historical and natural existence.
Against all forms of idealism, wherein an encounter with God is reduced to mere subjective experience [as in Schleiermacher], Torrance argues that we must "let God be God"; that is, we must let knowledge of God be grounded in God's objective self-revelation in Christ and the Spirit. Against any "Pelagian" claim on the part of human reason to be able to acquire knowledge of God on its own [as in an independent natural theology], we must allow all our ideas about God to be called into question by God's objective self-revelation in time and space. Proper theological questions must be shaped by "the nature of God who gives himself to us in sheer grace and remains sovereignly free in his transcendent Lordship over all thoughts of him and over all our formulations of the understanding he gives us of himself in his Word" (Torrance, 1990:57). Torrance's realist approach to theology is exemplified in his description of "dogmatics" as "the actual knowledge of the living God as he is disclosed to us through his interaction with us in our world of space and time ‒ knowledge of that God that is ultimately controlled by the nature of God as he is in himself" (Torrance, 1980:15, 16).
Torrance's 'realist' approach to theology reaches back to the theology of the Patristic era, particularly that of Alexandria [Athanasius, Cyril], where "[p]recise, scientific knowledge was held to result from inquiry strictly in accordance with the nature of the reality being investigated, that is, knowledge of it being reached under the constraint of what it actually and essentially is in itself, and not according to arbitrary convention." In accordance with the Alexandrian fathers, Torrance asserts that to know things in strict accordance with their nature is "the only way to reach real, exact or scientific knowledge in any field of inquiry, through the faithful assent of the mind to the compelling . . . claims of reality upon it" (Torrance, 1988:51; cf. Grenz, 2004:204). Torrance also finds this approach to knowledge in the theology of the great Reformer, John Calvin, who saw that knowledge was derived objectively and "actively" from God "through modes of knowing imposed on us from the nature of God and from his self-manifestation through his Word." For Calvin, all knowledge of God must be referenced back to God himself, so that all or presuppositions may be unmasked and the idols of the mind dethroned in light of God's objective self-manifestation. As Torrance notes, this "principle of objectivity," wherein we detach ourselves from all presuppositions and prejudgments in favour of the given-ness of reality, played a forceful role in scientific knowledge following the Reformation (Torrance, 1996:90-92; Hardy, 1997:259).
Torrance argues for a realist approach to knowledge of God wherein the knower participates in Christ's own knowledge of God. Thus, we must get past all cognitive distortions of the knowledge of God in order to apprehend the reality of God independently of received language and culture, so that our minds may be transformed by God's revelation of himself in Christ. Theological realism insists that, in apprehending Jesus Christ, we do, in fact, apprehend God ‒ not merely ideas about God. Because knowledge of God arises from God's self-revelation in Christ, there is no external, independent court of appeal by which such claims to knowledge could be adjudicated. "Knowledge of God in and through Jesus Christ is inevitably a profoundly personal knowledge, the result of the Trinitarian pattern of God's self-revelation becoming stamped on our minds. This is the sine qua non for knowledge of God in which experience and apprehension lead to real knowing" (Purves, 2001:71).
In the next post (on or about January 15), we will discuss the methodology of Torrance's scientific theology.
Grenz, S.J. 2004. Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress. 289pp.
Hardy, D.W. 1997. The Integration of Faith with Scientific Thought: Thomas F. Torrance. In D. Ford, ed. The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the Twentieth Century. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 257-261.
Kelly, D.F. 2007. The Realist Epistemology of Thomas F. Torrance. In G. Dawson, ed. An Introduction to Torrance Theology: Discovering the Incarnate Saviour. London: T & T Clark. Ch. 4.
Padgett, A.G. 2002. Dialectical Realism in Theology and Science. Perspective on Science and Christian Faith, vol 54, pp. 184-192.
Patterson, S. 1999. Realist Christian Theology in a Postmodern Age. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press. 184pp.
Purves, A.P. 2001. The Christology of Thomas F. Torrance. In E. Colyer, ed. The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T. F. Torrance. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Ch. 3.
Torrance, T.F. 1969. Theological Science. Oxford: OUP. 368pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1982. Reality and Evangelical Theology: The Realism of Christian Revelation. (Forward by K.A. Richardson, 1999). Downers Grove, IL: IVP. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster. 174pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1985. Reality and Scientific Theology. (New Forward by T.F. Torrance, 2001). Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers. 220pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1988. The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church. London: T & T Clark. 345pp
Torrance, T.F. 1990. Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 256pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1996. (orig. ed. 1965). Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene,OR:Wipf & Stock Publishers. 288pp.


  1. Printed it and read it by the fire this morning. Good reading. It was easy to understand and very helpful. Ron

  2. I am enjoying these Torrance posts (and the others) very much. Thank you for your efforts here.


  3. Thank you for this- all of it!

  4. Thanks again, Martin! I appreciate the journey we are all on together.


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