Friday, January 15, 2010

T.F. Torrance and the Relationship Between Epistemology and Ontology

This is the third in a three-part post on T. F. Torrance's "Scientific Methodology and the Knowledge of God." For parts one and two, see below. Warning: This post is pure unapologetic academic theology. You will need to light up a pipe to appreciate this one!

Because knowledge of the reality under consideration must be developed in accordance with the nature of that reality (see part 1), to know God in strict accordance with his nature establishes the proper relationship between epistemology and ontology. Torrance uses a "common sense" philosophy to suggest that knowledge arises through insight shaped by the internal structure of the reality under study. This insight develops from a "structural kinship" that arises between the knower and that which is known as we cognitively "indwell" the object of inquiry and gain access to its meaning through an "intuitive anticipation of a hitherto unknown pattern." Torrance is not referring to a priori concepts imposed upon the object or to a Platonic form of recollection; rather, Torrance understands the human mind to have a "tacit power" to bridge logical gaps in knowledge and discern Gestalten (coherent patterns) through creative leaps of the imagination from the parts to the whole (Torrance, 1984:113, 114; Hardy, 1997:258).

In regard to the knowledge of God, the "primary task" in epistemology is "to focus our attention on the area where God is actually known, and seek to understand that knowledge in its concrete happening, out of its own proper ground, and in its own proper reference to objective reality." In theological inquiry, we are concerned with the knowledge of the living God; we are engaged with a Reality that cannot be construed in terms of what is already known to us. Therefore, we must be prepared to conform our knowledge to what God reveals of himself, and therefore be open to what is genuinely new (Torrance, 1969:25, 26).

Thus, for Torrance, there is a close relationship between ontology (i.e., the 'nature' of the object of inquiry) and epistemology; that is, there is a close relationship between the 'substance' to be understood and the means of understanding it, so that epistemology must always accord with ontology. Knowledge is possible because the nature of the reality under study prescribes the "mode of rationality" by which it may be known. That is, a "correspondence between reality and thought" is possible to the extent that the knower conforms to the "mode of rationality" inherent in the object of inquiry (Grenz, 2004:204).

Given this understanding, theology is not only an objective science but also "the positive science in which we think only in accordance with the nature given." That is, in theological inquiry, "we must allow the divine realties to declare themselves to us, and so allow the basic forms of theological truth to come to view and impose themselves on our understanding" (Torrance, 1996:9).

In describing theology as a "positive" science, Torrance rejects the "progressive ignorance" associated with the negative or "apophatic" approach to knowledge of God developed by Basileides of Alexander (who argued that we cannot say what God is, only what he is not). Following Gregory Nazianzus (329-389), Torrance sees the apophatic approach as self-contradictory in that we must have some positive knowledge of God in order to say what God is not. Torrance adopts a "kataleptic" approach which refers to the compelling claims of reality to which the human mind must assent. If we are to learn anything new, we must allow our minds to fall under "the compulsive self-evidence of its objective reality and its intrinsic intelligibility." Therefore, throughout the process of theological inquiry, we must operate with an "open" epistemology or "epistemological reserve," wherein "we allow the way of our knowing to be clarified and modified pari passu [at equal rate]" as we advance toward deeper and fuller knowledge of the object under study. Consequently, our way of knowing cannot be determined in advance but only as we look back from what has been established as knowledge (Torrance, 1969:10; 1988:159, 160; cf. 1989:108, 109).

"Christian theology," argues Torrance, "arises out of the actual knowledge of God given in and with concrete happening in space and time. It is knowledge of the God who actively meets us and gives Himself to be known in Jesus Christ ‒ in Israel, in history, on earth." It is essentially 'positive' knowledge, mediated in concrete experience with a content that can be articulated. Furthermore, it is concerned with empirical fact ‒ the fact of God's historical self-revelation in time and space. "We do not therefore begin with ourselves or our questions, nor indeed can we choose where to begin; we can only begin with the facts prescribed for us by the actuality of the object positively known. Anything else would be unreal and unscientific, as well as untheological." Thus, theological thinking is "theo-logical" in that it does not arise from a centre within ourselves but from a centre in God. It is essentially "theo-nomous" thinking that revolves around the fact that God has made himself known and continues to do so; that is, God "objectifies" himself for us so that "our knowledge is a fulfilled meeting with objective reality" (Torrance, 1969:25-29).

In theology, we encounter an objective Word, or Logos, from beyond our experience, which speaks for itself and guides us to an ever deepening understanding of its objective reality. This Word is encountered as a word to be heard and an objective truth to be acknowledged, not merely a rationality to be interpreted. This means that theological thinking is more like 'listening' than any other kind of knowledge. Yet, if we fail to listen to the objective self-interpretation of the Reality given, we, like Schleiermacher, are thrown back on ourselves in an attempt to authenticate the objective reality of God "by putting our own words into his mouth and by clothing him with our own ideas." As Torrance observes, "That kind of God is only a dumb idol which we have fashioned in our own image and into whose mouth we have projected our own soliloquies, and which we are unable to distinguish from our own processed interpretation. In other words, we have no genuine knowledge of God at all, for we are left along with our own thoughts and self-deceptions." This "theology" is, in actuality, nothing more than 'anthropology', for its rests upon a "basic falsification," that is, an ultimate failure to distinguish objective reality from the subjective state of our own consciousness, or to distinguish "what is not ourselves from ourselves" (Torrance, 1969:30-32).

As Torrance (1969:32) argues, apart from the objective reality of God's Word to us, we cannot distinguish the objective reality of God from our subjective experience. "In a true theology God's Word is the condition and source of real knowledge, for it is in and through his speaking that I am not cast back upon my own resources to establish his existence or to devise a symbolism in order to make it meaningful." It is in and through his Word that God distinguishes himself from the subjective experience of our own consciousness so that "he is not left to the mercy of our questions and answers, but we ourselves are questioned by a Word from beyond which draws us out of ourselves and declares to us what we are utterly incapable of learning and declaring to ourselves."

Torrance rejects the development of epistemologies in abstraction from actual knowledge developed by inquiry into the nature of the object of study. A truly scientific method of inquiry will develop epistemological structures according to the requirements imposed by the nature object, uncompromised by a priori assumptions of any kind (Torrance, 1970:128). Genuine scientific theological inquiry is distrustful of all speculative thought and a priori reasoning. Theological thinking is a 'positive' form of thinking [in contrast to apophatic or "negative" approaches], grounded in the actual reality of its subject of inquiry; it is an a posteriori form of thinking in that it follows and is obedient to the objective Word and Act of God that is given to it as the material for its reflection; in addition, it is an 'empirical' form of thinking in that it is based on real experience of God determined by God. Theological thinking has its "reality" in the objective 'given-ness' of God; thus, all theological thinking must be tested in reference to the "concrete reality" of the object under study (Torrance, 1969:33).

Therefore, in order to probe into the "ontic basis" or "the inner basic forms" of its object of inquiry, scientific theology will employ no abstract criteria in the testing and establishing of its knowledge and will posit no epistemology in abstraction from the material content of its knowledge of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. That is, a scientific theology will allow a correct epistemology to emerge and a proper theological method to develop in the process of coming to understand its object of inquiry, all the while constructing its dogmatics in utter obedience to its object. Hence, epistemologies will properly arise toward the end, rather than the beginning, of scientific inquiry, as our understanding gradually conforms to the nature of the object under study. As Torrance observes, "[I]t is only at the end of the work of dogmatics, therefore, that it will be possible to offer a proper account of an adequate epistemology" (Torrance, 1990:71, 72, 146; cf. 1970:127, 128), for ontology and epistemology should unfold together (Colyer, 2001a:323).

In sum, a truly rational approach to scientific inquiry, whether in the natural sciences or in theological science, will never seek to impose a preconceived conceptual pattern on the material it seeks to understand; rather, it will humbly inquire of a given field of reality, question it, and then allow it questions to be questioned. Thus, in Torrance's scientific theology, 'knowing' follows 'being' (operari sequitur esse); that is, epistemology follows ontology (Kelly, 2007:76; cf. Hardy, 1997:257).


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

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.

Torrance, T.F. 1969. Theological Science. Oxford: OUP. 368pp.

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. 1988. Realism and Openness in Scientific Inquiry. Zygon, vol 23, no 2.p 159-169.

Torrance, T.F. 1989. The Christian Frame of Mind: Reason, Order, and Openness in Theology and Natural Science. Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard Publishers. 164pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1996. (orig. ed. 1965). Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers. 288pp.


  1. All I can say brother is WOW! Thank you for your Christ saturated work!

  2. I refer to the end of the 2nd paragraph : the ability by tacit powers to discern patterns....
    As a creative and cognate discipline in which via scientific understanding of the Incarnation we have cognate Union with Christ, it will be interesting to find out just how much , in the future, other theologians will follow suit, and reveal to our minds more of the profound simplicity of our knowledge of God. I say this because even amongst followers of Torrance and their work, his unified grand vision of theology seems to be missing. Is this partly because there is no method prescribed by Torrance ie a priori? This is why i am tempted to say, and could be misunderstood as saying, the God of Torrance although understood from the Bible, is often more real to me than the sometimes inconsistent or illogical depictions of God in the Bible. That says a lot for scientific simplicity and profoundity!


Grace and Response: A Matter of Order

Many years ago, when I was a young man in Bible college, one of my theology professors said to the class, “When I wake up in the morning, ...