Here T. F. explains and undoes the usual understanding of how events in history and causation relate one to the other. He defeats the idea of causation, appropriated by Classical Theists, in general; and Classical Calvinists & Arminians, in particular, that there is a necessary relation between the event that happened, and the events that led to the happening. He makes a disjunction between Factual event and Necessary event; the former being that which we understand as an actual happen-stance of the past, and the latter having to do with the idea that because that happen-stance happened, that the events that led to its happening also were necessarily organised in a certain way in order for the the conditions of that event to be so — as if we, as historians (or scientists, theologians, etc), can absolutize causes based upon an idea of uniformitarian conception of Event. Obviously this is a little complicated, and not for the faint of heart, but I think it important to be grasped in order to understand what Evangelical Calvinists mean when we say that we eschew the logico-causal-determinism of ‘classic’ thought. Here’s T. F. Torrance (this whole discussion takes place in the context of TFT talking about resurrection):
(a) Interpreting ordinary historical events
(i) Freedom and necessity in historical events
Let us try to understand this from a merely natural point of view. Think of a historical happening: in taking place it appears as a free happening. Once it takes place, it cannot be undone. Throw a stone through that window and you are engaging in a free act, but once it has taken place, the act cannot be recalled — we cannot turn it backwards as we can a film of the event. Thus once an event has taken place, it becomes ‘necessary’ — in the sense that it cannot now be other than it is. At this point, however, we are liable to suffer from an illusion, for we tend to think that because it is now necessary fact, it had to happen. This is the kind of optical illusion we suffer from on the golf course when our opponent putts a ball from the other end of the green and it goes right down into the hole — immediately that happens we somehow think it had to happen from the start, but what we have done in a flash is to read the final result back all along the line of the ball’s course into the free act behind it. It is through this kind of illusion or indeed delusion that some historians think that historical events are to be interpreted in the same way in which they interpret the events of natural processes as concatenated or linked together through causal necessity.
The distinction between causal necessity and factual necessity
But it is important to distinguish in historical happening between causal necessity and factual necessity, between causal determination of events and the fact that once they happen they cannot be otherwise. An historical event, once it has taken place, is factually necessary for it cannot now be other than it is, but an historical event comes into being through a free happening, by means of spontaneous human agencies. Certainly all historical events are interactions between human agents and nature, as well as interactions between agents and other agents — so that there are elements of causal determination in historical happening that we have to take into account, physical factors relating to the kind of patterns of space and time in which we live and work. But historical events are not by any means merely natural physical processes, for as happenings initiated and bound up with purposeful agents they embody intention which often conflicts with and triumphs over the course of events that nature would take on its own.
(ii) History is the interweaving of natural processes with human intention
It is this interweaving of natural processes and human agencies, of nature and rational intention, that gives history its complicated patterns. The course of events has often quite unforeseen results, for human acts may fail to achieve what would have been expected or may achieve far more than would or could have been anticipated. But in our interpretation of history we must never forget that in the heart of historical events there is free happening which bears the intention in which the true significance of history is to be discerned. Thus while we must appreciate fully the physical factors involved, we must penetrate into the movement of time in the actual happening in order to understand the event in the light of the intentionality and spontaneity embedded in it. The handling of temporal relation has proved very difficult and elusive in the history of thought, for it has so often been assimilated to logical relation and so transposed into something very different. The confusion of temporal with logical connection corresponds here to that between spontaneity and causal determinism in natural science. We can see this error recurring, for example, in notions of predestination where the free prius of the divine grace is converted by the scholastic mind into logico-causal relation, while the kind of time-relation with which we operate between natural events is imported into the movements of divine love and activity. It is a form of the same mistake that people make in regard to the resurrection, when they think of its happening only within the logico-causal nexus with which they operate in classical physics. (Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2009, 249-50)
In keeping with Torrance’s usual mode of thinking from the Incarnation & Atonement (here the resurrection being the focus), he seeks to excoriate any ideas of logico-causal determinism as the lens through which profane historians would attempt to interpret the ‘historicity’ and ‘facticity’ of the resurrection itself — Torrance’s discussion here, is all taking shape within his line of thought associated with Kata Physin (or according to the nature of the thing, or his more popular method Theological Science). As he deconstructs the post hoc ways of what might be called ‘natural theology’ (meaning all modes of intellectual inquiry which make inferences from supposed stable events, works, physical nature, etc. to their “necessary causes”), by implication, he also gets at theological constructs (like classic Calvinism-Arminianism, Neo-Orthodoxy like Brunner’s) that operate with this same modus operandi.
The moral: There are unseen, unknown contingencies built into the nature of things themselves that make it impossible to accurately infer a stable causal chain of events from the event back to the cause itself. The answer to this, in relation to knowledge of God, is to see the event and cause conjoined together in the person-act of Jesus himself. It is from this vantage point that we then are set up to know God, in Christ, but no longer as some sort of deterministic causal agent; but instead, as personal, triune Divine agent who apocalyptically breaks into the contingencies of history re-creating them towards their telos or created purpose in Christ (cf. Col. 1:13ff) — the resurrection, then, being the instantiation of this within time-space history.
I doubt this has cleared much up, but if nothing else it helped me to write this out for my own process. I also would surmise that it is because of the nuance of this kind of thought, evinced by TFT, that Evangelical Calvinism will continue to have problems with making headway with the typical American Christian. It is easy to understand causal-determinism, because that’s what “we see” in “nature” all the time (there is an “apparent” coordination between how things appear to the naked mind’s eye, and how we then assume things in themselves “must” be — so it is natural to operate with a docetic understanding of things — but this is not Christian, nor Evangelical Calvinism — it is the mode of Classical Calvinism & Arminianism [and I realize this is hard teaching, who can hear it?]).