Friday, January 15, 2010

T.F. Torrance: Scientific Methodology and the Knowledge of God

This is the first of three posts on T. F. Torrance's scientific theological method.

Comment: This post concerns the scientific methodological approach to the knowledge of God that is foundational to the thought of T. F. Torrance. The issue of methodological procedure may at first seem boring and irrelevant, but I assure you it is not. Theological method is concerned with how we go about developing knowledge of God. Where do we start? What determines the questions we ask? If we follow the Western Augustinian-Thomist tradition and develop our knowledge of God based upon the effects of the cosmos, we end up with the immutable, impassible, inscrutable, omnipotent God of the western tradition. On the other hand, if we follow the methodological procedure of the Alexandrian Fathers, including Athanasius (see final paragraphs of previous post), we end up with a view of God very different from the dreaded "omni-God" many of us grew up with.

As you read this post, keep several related questions in mind. How do we develop knowledge of God? Do we start with the creation (effects) and make inferences about its cause (God)? Do we follow the negative way (via negativa) by negating the empirical phenomena of the creation and asserting that "God is not this?" Do we start by removing the limits of creation and saying God is more than this (via emenintia)? Or do we follow Athanasius and the great thinkers of Alexandria and assert that knowledge of God must be developed in accordance with the nature of God? If we follow Athanasius (and Torrance), we will conclude that knowledge of God is developed in accordance with the one who is "of one nature (being) with the Father" ‒ Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God.

For Torrance, there is a "way of acting and thinking" which applies to every field of scientific endeavour, one which mirrors our ordinary way of thinking as we engage the environment in our daily lives. According to Torrance (1969:106, 107):

This is the way of acting and thinking that is no more and no less than the rigorous extension of our basic rationality, as we seek to act toward things in ways appropriate to their natures, to understand them through letting them shine in their own light, and to reduce our thinking of them into orderly forms on the presumption of their inherent intelligibility.

The operative word in Torrance's description is "appropriate," for "pure science can yield results only when the method and the matter are purely matched" (Torrance, 1969:107). Hence, the "fundamental axiom" of Torrance's scientific theological method is that knowledge in any field of inquiry, including theology, must be developed according to the nature of the reality under study. Torrance describes this general methodological principle as "kataphysic inquiry," derived from the Greek kata physin ("according to nature") (Palma, 1984:7; Torrance, 1992:25; 1994:45, 46; Colyer, 2001a:322).

For Torrance (1984:269, 270), to think theologically and scientifically is to think in accordance with the nature of things and in consonance with the "interior principles" that are disclosed in the process of inquiry. Early in his career, Torrance (1969:viii) wrote:

It is always the nature of things that must prescribe for us the specific mode of rationality that we must adopt toward them, and prescribe also the form of verification apposite to them, and therefore it is a major part of all scientific activity to reach clear convictions as to the distinctive nature of what we are seeking to know in order that we may develop and operate with the distinctive categories demanded of us.

For Torrance, whether in theology or science, there is only one basic way of knowing that develops different "modes of rationality" in accordance with the nature of the object of inquiry. Because we must allow the nature of what we seek to know to determine the form and content of our knowledge, our approach to knowing varies according to the nature of the object of inquiry. In seeking to understand what is knowable in its specific field of inquiry, science will develop investigative procedures, analytical tools, and structures of thought that are particularly suited to its object of inquiry (Torrance, 1980:8, 9; Colyer, 2001b:271). According to Torrance (1990:67, 68):

All scientific activity is one in which the reason acts strictly and precisely in accordance with the nature of its object, and so lets the object prescribe for it both the limits within which it may be known and the mode of rationality that is to be adopted toward it. But for that reason it also lets the nature of the object determine the kind of verification or demonstration appropriate to it. It will not insult the object by trying to subject it to some kind of demonstration that has been developed elsewhere in accordance with the nature of a different kind of object, nor by employing for its investigation external criteria dragged in from some other realm of knowledge. The kind of verification it must scientifically employ is the kind that derives from and is in accord with the actual way in which knowledge has arisen.

Because the inquirer is bound by the nature of the object under study and is committed to its "objective reality" and "intrinsic rationality," a rigorous scientific method does not allow for any "free thinking." Torrance (1990:126) explains:

Hence far from thinking in some free detached or dispassionate way, we think as we are compelled to think by the evidential grounds, and develop explanatory theories or laws strictly in accordance with the nature of things and their inherent rational order as they are brought to light in the course of scientific inquiry.

Comment: It is the nature of the object of inquiry as disclosed to us in the process of scientific investigation that determines the way the reality under study is to be known. This means that, contrary to new age, "feel good" theology," we cannot "design" a god that suits our particular tastes ("My god tells me . . ."). Rather, we humbly inquire into the nature of God as revealed to us and from there develop our theology in a scientifically appropriate way.

Because the subject matter of theology concerns, among other things, the Word of God who has become flesh in space and time, there is an aspect of its object of investigation that is open to empirical and critical observation, as in the natural sciences. According to Torrance (1994:48; cf. 1982:33, 34):

[T]he theologian is concerned with God as he reveals himself to us within space and time through historical Israel and in the incarnation of his Word in Jesus Christ, so that we cannot divorce what God reveals to humankind from the medium of spatio-temporal structures which he uses in addressing his Word to human beings. Empirical correlates therefore have an eradicable place in theology, as in natural science ‒ hence theological truths and concepts may not be resolved away or "demythologized" without losing their essential content or import.

Theology, therefore, operates within the God-world relation. The empirical correlate of theology means that God has entered human space-time relationships; that is, the life of God has fallen within the life of humankind so that God can really be known as God (Purves, 2001:70).

Comment: Torrance's "empirical" method, wherein God is understood to have entered space and time in a way that can be known, is directly opposite to theologians like Bultmann who are constrained by cosmological dualism (see my post, "Torrance and the Problem of Dualism, part 1, November, 2009).

In regard to knowledge of the divine, God has revealed himself to us in the theatre of space and time in "modes of rationality" that he has conferred upon creation and upon humanity; therefore, it is in and through the universe of space and time that theology seeks to make a disciplined response to God's historical self-revelation. In relation to its object of inquiry, a rigorous scientific approach to theology must be informed by actual knowledge of God as revealed to us in the economy (oikonomia) of salvation, that is, in God's historical dialogue with Israel and particularly through the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit. God's self-revelation in time and space calls into question "all alien presuppositions and antecedently reached conceptual frameworks" regarding knowledge of God. For Torrance, this necessitates the development of a rigorous, scientific epistemology that is governed from beginning to end by the 'nature' of its object of inquiry: "God in his self-communication to us within the structures of our human and worldly existence" (Torrance, 1980:1; 1990:62, 63, 122).

Comment: God's self-revelation in time and space calls into question "all alien presuppositions and antecedently reached conceptual frameworks" regarding knowledge of God. Torrance's scientific theology is an a posteriori (roughly, "after the fact") approach to knowledge of God. It develops its understanding from what has been previously given in God's self-revelation in Israel and particularly in the incarnation and the sending of the Spirit. This is diametrically opposed to an a priori (roughly, "before the fact") approach to knowledge of God that begins with humanly contrived presuppositions and conjectures as to what is proper for God to be.

Because God has given himself to be known in Jesus Christ, for Torrance, "the central and pivotal point of all genuine theological knowledge" is found in christology. In proceeding in reference to the nature of the object of inquiry, scientific theology will operate on a christological basis, for christology is critical to the understanding of the nature of God. Rather than go "behind the back" of Jesus to develop knowledge of God, christology teaches us to know God in strict accordance with the steps he has taken to make himself known to us and, therefore, to test our knowledge of God in accordance with the steps in which knowledge of him has actually arisen in space and time (Torrance, 1990:71). Hence, for Torrance, the incarnation of Jesus Christ is the "actual source" and "controlling centre" for the Christian doctrine of God (Torrance, 1996a:18). To know God through the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, who is of "one substance with the Father" (homoousios to Patri) is to know God in strict accordance with God's nature (kata physin) and, hence, in a theologically scientific way (cf. Torrance, 1969:110-113; 1988:3, 51, 52).

Comment: We can briefly sum up Torrance's scientific approach to theology as follows: A scientific approach to theology seeks to develop knowledge in accordance with the nature of the reality (God) under study. Because Jesus Christ is "of one nature or being with the Father" (homoousios to Patri), a scientific approach to the knowledge of God will begin with God's self-revelation in the incarnate Son. In short, a scientific approach to the knowledge of God begins with Jesus!!


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

Colyer, E.M. 2001b. A Scientific Theological Method. In E. Colyer, ed. The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T. F. Torrance. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Ch. 9.

Palma, R.J. 1984. Thomas F. Torrance's Reformed Theology. Reformed Review, vol 38, no 1, pp. 2-46.

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. 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. 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. 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. 1992. The Mediation of Christ (rev ed). Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard. 126pp.

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

Torrance, T.F. 1996. The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons. London: T & T Clark. 260pp.

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