Monday, May 10, 2010

Torrance: Dualism and Natural Theology, pt. 1

In a recent post, we considered the "epistemological" significance of the Nicene homoousion, that is, the Nicene creedal assertion that Jesus Christ is "of one nature with the Father" (homoousios to Patri). We were trying to understand the significance of the incarnation for the knowledge of God. To gain a greater appreciation of the incarnation as the means to an accurate knowledge of God, we need to look at what happens when we do not start with Jesus in our theology. We have done quite a bit of that in this blog.

Today we need to consider in detail the dualism that is created in the doctrine of God when we start our speech about God, not with Jesus, but with "natural theology" based on human reason and the creation as means to the knowledge of God.

We gain a greater appreciation of the epistemological significance of the homoousion by an exploration of Torrance's rejection of natural theology as an independent means to the knowledge of God. Torrance closely follows his teacher, Karl Bath, in his rejection of natural theology and the dualism in the knowledge of God that results from it (Torrance, 1970:121-135; 1980:75-109; 1982:31-34; 1984:287-301; 1990:136-159).

In addition, an exploration of Torrance's rejection of natural theology will both illuminate the understanding of his repudiation of the dualisms embedded in Western theological thought and facilitate an understanding of his scientific approach to knowledge of God with its fundamental axiom that knowledge in any field of inquiry must be developed according to the nature (kata physin) of the reality under study.

Natural theology is the attempt to "prove" God's existence or to develop an understanding of God's essential attributes on the basis of an independent movement of thought from the created order to God the Creator, considered apart from revealed theology (Colyer, 2001a:194).

Comment: At this point, it might be helpful to review my posts dealing with natural theology, particularly "How to Make a Western Omelet God" (4/09).

As Torrance (1985:38) notes, natural theology attempts to gain knowledge of God apart altogether from any interaction between God and the world, proceeding by way of abstraction from sense experience and inferential and deductive reasoning from observed (empirical) facts. In short, natural theology operates on the assumption that knowledge of God may be developed by a process of logical deduction from sensory experience and empirical observation; that is to say, a cause (Creator) may be known by its effects (creation) (Colyer, 2001a:195, 196). Torrance (1970:125) rightly offers this caustic criticism of natural theology:

Natural theology as such arises out of man's natural existence and is part of the whole movement in which he develops his own autonomy and seeks an explanation for himself within the universe. . . . That is to say, the claim to a natural knowledge of God . . . cannot be separated out from a whole movement of man in which he seeks to justify himself over against the grace of God, and which can only develop into a natural theology that is antithetical to knowledge of God as he really is in his acts of revelation and grace.

Analogy of being: A Logical Bridge

Arising from a perceived dualism or deistic disjunction between God and the world, natural theology seeks to close the "gap" between God and creation, and provide rational support for faith, through a "logical bridge" from the world to God which operates on the basis of a logical connection between concepts and experience. The idea of a logical bridge between concepts and observed facts (experience), or an "inherent isomorphism" (Colyer) between God and humanity, provides the epistemological foundation for natural theology.

Comment: Make sure you get that point. The "epistemological foundation" (the basis on which speech about God is grounded) of natural theology begins with the assumption that there is a logical connection (bridge) between what we see happening around us (experience) and the concepts we derive from experience (for example, we see objects in motion; therefore, there must a "first cause" for that motion). As we will see below, there are problems in that assumption. But for now, the important thing to note is that Jesus Christ, the definitive self-revelation of God, is left out of the picture.

By establishing a logical bridge between ideas and being in order to reach out inferentially to God, natural theology attempts to develop a rational approach to knowledge of God and, thereby, bridge the "gap" between faith and reason. Torrance notes that a great deal of modern apologetics, both liberal and fundamentalist, is based on the assumption of a logical bridge between the Creator and the creation (Torrance, 1982:32; 1985:38; 1994:44; Colyer, 2001a:134, 195, 196; McGrath, 2001:216).

During the medieval era, Thomas Aquinas sought to span a perceived "gap" between God and the cosmos via the "Five Ways," a series of logical "proofs" which were claimed to demonstrate natural knowledge of God (Aquinas, 1989:12ff; cf. Torrance, 1980:80; 1981a:86, 87). Aquinas asserted that there is an "analogy of being" (analogia entis) between God and the world; that is, there is a logical bridge or inherent isomorphism between God and creation, wherein the world mirrors God in the same way a work of art tells us something about the artist. Aquinas asserted that analogical speech about God is possible, not because God is similar to creatures, but because creatures are similar to God; that is, every effect in some way reflects its cause. Thus, we can speak of God in analogical terms because there is an "analogy of being" which is prior to our own discovery of it. This "fundamental likeness" (similitudo) between God and the world is a consequence of a relationship of 'causal' dependence between the Creator and the creation from which all things derive their existence. Because God is both the first cause and the designer of the world, what we observe in the world points us toward the Creator (Aquinas, 1989:11, 12; Gonzales, 1987:271; McGrath, 2001: 208, 245).

Comment: On the surface there is nothing wrong with Aquinas' approach; yet, it led to drastic consequences for the Western Latin doctrine of God. Aquinas split the doctrine of God into two parts, formally creating a dualism or bifurcation in the Western doctrine of God. First, he developed a doctrine on the One God (De Deo Uno) on the basis of human reason and natural theology. Here we get the infinite, immutable, impassible, omnipotent omniGod. This doctrine of God, developed apart from God's self-revelation in Jesus, became the dominant doctrine of God in the West. Second, after a thorough development of the "attributes" of the One God, Aquinas developed a relatively minor treatise on the Trinity (De Deo Trino) based on revealed theology (Scripture). In subsequent Western Latin theology, the doctrine of the Trinity was hardly considered at all, for Aquinas had relegated the Trinity to a minor "appendix" to the more thoroughly developed doctrine of the One God. In short, Aquinas bequeathed the Western church two competing versions of God. For a review, see my post, "Tommy A. and the Western Split" (3/09).

In contrast to Aquinas' attempt to span the perceived gap between God and creation via a logical bridge, Torrance follows Barth in rejecting the medieval idea of analogia entis, though perhaps not as vehemently as the latter, who described the doctrine as "the invention of the Antichrist" (Barth, 1975:viii).

There are both epistemological and methodological reasons for Torrance's rejection of natural theology as an independent means of arriving at knowledge of God by means of the creation. In terms of epistemology, Torrance rejects natural theology on the ground of the doctrines of justification by grace (sola gratia) and creation ex nihilo. In terms of methodology, Torrance rejects natural theology because it is only 'externally' related to its object of inquiry and violates the fundamental axiom of scientific theology that realities must be investigated in accordance with their natures.

In today's post we will consider Torrance's rejection of natural theology on the epistemological ground of justification by faith (sola gratia). This post will be followed in a week or so by another post on Torrance and natural Theology.

Epistemological Relevance of Sola Gratia

In his rejection of the medieval analogia entis, Torrance notes that the idea of a logical bridge between God and the world undermines the uniqueness and exclusiveness of the divine self-revelation in Jesus Christ, thus epistemologically undercutting the hallmark Reformation principle, sola gratia (Torrance, 1970:126; 1990:143-145; cf. Seng, 1992:362-365). The analogia entis leads to an interpretation of the Gospel in terms of "an independent conceptual system reached before and apart from the actual knowledge of God given to us through his incarnate self-revelation in Jesus Christ" (Torrance, 1990:169). Because it is exclusively through Jesus Christ, the incarnate self-revelation of God, that true and accurate knowledge of God is mediated, the epistemological implications of "justification by faith" force upon us "a relentless questioning of all our presuppositions, prejudgments and a priori authorities, philosophical or ecclesiastical," so that we are finally thrown back wholly upon the nature and activity of God himself for the verification of our concepts and statements about him. Apart from Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (Jn 14:6), there is no way to the Father; thus, we cannot rely on our own innate capacities of reason to achieve the cognitive union with God which true knowledge of him requires (Torrance, 1970:126, 128). In terms of its epistemological significance, sola gratia means that we are unable to attain accurate knowledge of God through our own natural powers. As Torrance argues elsewhere, "[N]o work of ours . . . can establish a bridge between our understanding and the Truth of God. Knowledge of God is in accordance with his nature, that is, in accordance with grace, and therefore takes its rise from God's action in revealing himself and reconciling us to himself in Jesus Christ." We cannot forge a relationship between our own statements about God and God himself in his own truth. We can only "allow" revelation to "happen to us" as we obediently and gratefully submit to the revealing and reconciling actions of God (Torrance, 1996b:26; cf. Seng, 1992:363).

Comment: Torrance is arguing that we cannot "figure out" God on our own. Left to ourselves, we come up with everything from a golden calf to the omniGod defined in terms of pagan philosophy. If we are to know God as God is, not as we think God ought to be (dignum deo), then God must reveal himself to us. God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ is an act of sheer grace (sola gratia).

If we are really to know God as God is, we must be redeemed from our mental alienation and reconciled in our minds (cf. Rom 12:2), so that they may be adapted by grace to God's divine self-disclosure (Torrance, 1970:126; 1990:143, 144). Torrance continues:

The fact that God himself had to become man in order to break a way through our estrangement and darkness, and work out a way of bringing us back to himself through the saving life and death and resurrection of Christ, not only precludes us from entertaining other possibilities of a way from man to God but actually invalidates them all. . . . [A]ll natural theology perishes at the point where the knowledge of the one and only God is gained in the face of Jesus Christ and by the renewing of human beings in the Holy Spirit.

Comment: In short, God's self-revelation in Jesus "trumps" natural theology.

God has sovereignly and unconditionally given himself to us in Jesus Christ, who himself is the Truth. This Truth can only be only be known by pure grace (sola gratia), for God not only mercifully provides us Truth but also the conditions by which we may perceive it. In graciously revealing the Truth to us, God calls into question all forms of natural theology which attempt to bridge the gulf between God and man from the side of man by claiming knowledge of God apart from God (Torrance, 1996b:125; cf. Seng, 1992:362). Thus, we must acknowledge the unconditional priority of the Truth revealed in Jesus Christ as well as the "irreversibility" of the relation he establishes with us. Torrance refers to this priority and irreversibility as the "logic of grace," meaning that our "theological rationality" must be bound by the "incarnational rationality" which is in Christ before it is in us. In other words, we must think "economically" following the actual, irreversible movement of the "Word became flesh" (i.e., we could never say that "the flesh became Word."). Thus, we may say that we "know" God provided we mean it is by grace alone that we are enabled to know him (Torrance, 1969:206ff; Seng, 1992:363, 363 n 68).

As justification by grace through faith in Jesus sets aside all our works of righteousness, the "epistemological relevance" of justification by grace sets aside natural knowledge of God, for we know him only by his gracious self-revelation as mediated in Christ and not through the efforts of human reason. Just as there is no "co-redeemer" in Christ's saving work, there is no "co-revealer" in the mediation of revelation. Justification by faith rules out all forms of Pelagianism, whether ethical or epistemological (Seng, 1992:364; cf. Torrance, 1990:57; 1996b:163).

Furthermore, justification by faith rejects the claim that the criterion of truth is found in the "knower" [as in Kant]; rather, it insists that the truth of a statement is to be found only in the reality to which it refers and may be verified only by the grace of that reality. Sola gratia, therefore, calls into question "all our preconceptions or vaunted authorities" and forces us to "transfer the centre of authority from man or the Church to the objectivity of the Truth itself." That is why justification by faith remains "the most powerful statement of objectivity in theology," for it throws us back on the reality of what God has done for us in Christ and will never allow us to rest on our own efforts (Torrance, 1971:67, 68: cf. Seng, 1992:365).

If God is the content of his revelation (as indicated by the Nicene homoousion), our knowledge of God does not arise through human attempts to philosophically construct a logical bridge between creation and the Creator. It is not by our created light that we see God but only in and by God's light do we see God; that is, only by God can God be known. Knowledge of God does not arise in a "Socratic" manner whereby man "recollects" the truth latent in the human soul or by an "Ariadne's thread" of immanent continuity between the divine and the material. All human knowing that takes the path from man to God instead of following the incarnational revelation of God to man is finally anthropology, that is, man speaking of himself in a loud voice or an eminent extension of man's being to infinity or a mythological projection from the depths of man's creative spirituality and zealous piety. Genuine theology (theologia) refuses to start with man in an attempt to construct a mythological path to God. Rather, it follows the actual way of the incarnation of the Word of God to man. It does not possess truth in itself but finds its truth in Jesus Christ (Seng, 1992:351, 352, 354; cf. Torrance, 1971:181ff).


Aquinas, T. 1989. Summa Theologiæ: A Concise Translation (edited by T.S. McDermott). Allen, TX: Christian Classics. 652pp.

Barth, K. 1975. Church Dogmatics (vol 1.1) (edited by G.W. Bromiley & T.F. Torrance; translated by G.W. Bromiley). Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 503pp.

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

McGrath, A.E. 2001. Christian Theology: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. 616pp.

Seng, K.P. 1992. The Epistemological Significance of Homoousion in the Theology of Thomas F. Torrance. Scottish Journal of Theology, vol 45, pp. 341-366.

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

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. 1971. God and Rationality. London: OUP. 216pp.

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. 1985. Reality and Scientific Theology. (New Forward by T.F. Torrance, 2001). Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers. 220pp.

Torrance, T. F. Karl Barth: Biblical & Evangelical Theologian. Edin: T & T CLark. 256pp.

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

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


  1. This is good stuff, Martin. I appreciated you saying that observation of creation INDEPENDENT of revelation cannot give one a true picture of God. Our observations (and resultant conclusions) of creation MAY complement what God has revealed, but they can never stand alone as the basis of understanding God. Sadly, I have a friend who has consigned vast billions of people who have never even heard the name of Jesus(Who alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life)to hell, based on Romans 1:20 alone! I assume this is a symptom of unknowingly (or knowingly?) acceding to the tenets of "natural theology" that must permeate much of Western thought about God still.

  2. Hi Jerome,

    As we will see in the next post, Torrance DOES have a place for natural theology. He believes it should be subsumed under revealed theology. God's self-revelation in Christ and the Spirit is primary and definitive. Natural theology supplements revealed theology.

    Natural theology can encourage the faith of the believer, for "the heavens declare the glory of God." It should never, however, be granted a status INDEPENDENT of God's Triune self-revelation. It is the independent status that has led to the problems in the western doctrine of God.

  3. This is very good in helping to understand Thomas Torrance's writtings. Thanks.

  4. Nice post, brother. This definitely leads to and implicitly articulates a Theology of the Cross, no?

    I am currently reading through Torrance's lectures on Christology.

  5. Hey Everybody,

    Joseph has a great post on Luther's Theology of the Cross at

    Check it out. You will be glad you did!


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