Friday, January 15, 2010

T.F. Torrance: Faith and Prayer in Scientific Theology

This is the second of a three-part post on Torrance's "Scientific Methodology and the Knowledge of God." For part 1 in this series, see below.

As stated in part 1 above, scientific inquiry is conditioned by the 'nature' of the object under investigation. In the natural sciences, the object of investigation is, to varying degrees, subject to experimental control. God, however, is not an object to be controlled and manipulated; he is not subject to man's command and cannot be put to the test or brought under controlled scrutiny. Thus, in regard to theological science, the method of inquiry must be appropriate to the nature of God who addresses us in his Word. Whereas the natural scientist employs controlled observation and experimental verification in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, the theological scientist must cast himself upon the grace of God, allowing God to determine the form his knowledge will take, as well as the kind of verification appropriate to the divine nature. Since real knowledge of God can be developed only to the extent that God sovereignly and freely gives himself to be known, the appropriate attitude for theological science is one of 'prayer', so that we may humbly listen to what God tells us of himself and understand it under the illumination of the Holy Spirit. "It is because the object of theological knowledge confronts us always as subject, and indeed as absolute subject as the Lord God, that prayer is the scientifically correct mode of inquiry, for it is the mode of inquiry that corresponds to God's nature as man's creator and redeemer" (Torrance, 1969a:38; 1990:67).

Throughout his long career as a respected academic theologian, Torrance remained a deeply devotional man of faith. In his introduction to Theological Science (1969a:v), he wrote:

If I may be allowed to speak personally for a moment, I find the presence and being of God bearing upon my experience and thought so powerfully that I cannot but be convinced of His overwhelming reality and rationality. To doubt the existence of God would be an act of sheer irrationality, for it would mean that my reason had become unhinged from its bond with real being. Yet in knowing God I am deeply aware that my relation to him has been damaged, that disorder has resulted in my mind, and that it is I who obstruct knowledge of God by getting in between Him and myself as it were. But I am also aware that His presence presses unrelentingly upon me through the disorder of my mind, for He will not let Himself be thwarted by it, challenging and repairing it, and requiring of me on my part to yield my thoughts to His healing and controlling revelation.

Despite his intellectual rigor, Torrance insisted that accurate knowledge of God cannot be developed in a detached, merely academic way. To know God intimately requires that we enter into a personal and saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Hence, revelation and reconciliation are inseparable in Torrance's theology, for we cannot know God in a detached, impersonal manner without regard for his purpose for our lives (Torrance, 1988a:3; 1996b:132). For Torrance, theology is one aspect of the church's response to grace in obedience and worship; thus, theology can never be more than a refinement and extension of the knowledge of God as it arises in the liturgy and doxology of the community of faith and in the believer's living personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Throughout his work, Torrance intertwines theology and worship, so that the theology of T. F. Torrance is not only rigorously scientific and intellectually challenging but devotional and evangelical as well (Colyer, 2001a:25, 28).

As a deeply devotional theologian, Torrance argues that human epistemological process, in both the natural sciences and theological science, is dependent on a fundamental stance that he calls "faith." "[F]aith is the very mode of rationality adopted by the reason in its fidelity to what it seeks to understand, and as such faith constitutes the most basic form of knowledge upon which all subsequent rational inquiry proceeds." More simply, faith is "the orientation of the reason toward God's self-revelation, the rational response of man to the Word of God." Hence, faith is crucial to scientific inquiry because it allows the epistemological process to unfold (Torrance, 1969a:33; 1984:194; Grenz, 2004:204, 205).

In regard to theological knowledge, our human way of knowing undergoes a radical change, or "epistemological inversion," wherein God is "Lord of our knowing" (Torrance, 1969a:132; 1994:47, 48). That is, we can only know God in accordance with his gracious self-revelation and, thus, only in a mode of prayerful worship and devotion as we humbly and obediently respond to the God's divine initiative in making himself known. According to Torrance (1994:48):

Here the modality of our reason undergoes radical adaptation in accordance with the compelling claims of God's transcendent nature ‒ that is precisely what authentic theology involves. This is very important because it calls for a real [and often painful] change . . . in our approach to God . . . in which the self-centred structure of our minds is turned inside out and transformed. Apart from such a metanoia or deep-seated change in mind and heart, you cannot really be a theological student, far less a minister of the gospel.

Because God is the absolute subject who freely chooses to give himself to be known and determines the method by which he will be known, faith is an essential part of the "epistemological inversion" required in scientific theological thinking. According to Torrance (1969a:132):

Faith entails the opening up of our subjectivity to the Subjectivity of God . . . Faith is the relation of our minds to the Object who through his unconditional claims upon us establishes the centre of our knowing in Himself and not in us, so that the whole epistemological relation is turned around ‒ we know in that we are known by Him. His Objectivity encounters our objectivity and our objectivity is subordinated to His and grounded in His.

Thus, the appropriate procedure for theological science (and all other science) is one in which the mind of the knower conforms to the nature of the object of inquiry. In scientific theology, human reason allows itself to be guided by the nature of God in his revelation and adopts a mode of rationality that corresponds with God's "objectifying" of himself for humankind. Here then, for Torrance, is the 'epistemological' meaning of faith: faith is not an irrational leap; rather, it is "a sober commitment to the nature of the given reality, a determination of the reason in accordance with the nature of the object as it becomes disclosed, an orientation of the mind demanded of it in encounter with its unique and incomparable object that is and remains subject, the Lord God." In short, faith means that, to the self-giving of God, there corresponds in the human knower a receiving and appropriation of the truth in such a way that the rationale and necessity of faith lies not in itself but in the object of faith. Theological knowledge, therefore, is not a rational explication of the nature of faith; rather, it is, 'in faith', an explication of the independent reality known. "Theological activity does not proceed in the light of the theologian's faith, but in the light of what comes from the side of that in which he has faith, the self-authenticating and self-revealing reality of God which according to its very nature can be known and understood and substantiated only out of itself" (Torrance, 1990:68, 69).

It is precisely because theological science is confronted with the Lord God who has an absolute claim over us that it must be carried out "in the strictest discipline, in stringent self-criticism and in utter obedience to the object." Moreover, because it is God who confronts us, he is always greater than we can conceive and transcends all our formulated knowledge about him; nevertheless, he really gives himself to us as the object of our knowledge. "Hence, even if our knowing of him is not adequate to his nature, it is not for that reason false, for he has come to us, adapted himself to us, and given himself to us to be known as reality within the actualities of our own being and existence, in Jesus Christ" (Torrance, 1990:70, 71).


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.

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. 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. 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 71pp.

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

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