Really, Nash? Ronald Nash’s Attempt to Critique Torrance, Barth and the Whole Crew: My Brief Response

It is always nice when an Evangelical (Reformed) philosopher of religion takes note of Christian Dogmaticians outside of their normal sphere of comfortability, but sometimes this is a dangerous path to travel. Such is the path philosophythat Ronald Nash has chosen to trek.

I was sent some copies of pages (Pdf file) from Ronald Nash’s book The Word of God and the Mind of Man  from a reader of my blog, an MDiv student (just finishing up) at Fuller Seminary—this reader is about to become (Lord willing!) a pastor in a Presbyterian church in the States. Anyway, he has been turned on to Torrance as a result of some exposure that he has received while attending Fuller (which is no surprise). Apparently he was reading this book by Nash (or became aware of Nash’s critique [of Barth, Torrance, and others like minded]), and came across the points of critique that the rest of this post will endeavor to engage. I am not really intending on mounting a defense, but more of a short (bloggy) exercise in providing context that will contravene and contradict Nash’s reading of Torrance in particular. In the following, as we read along with Nash, I hope you will notice how shallow of an attempt Nash’s is to provide critical depth in engaging Torrance’s perspective on reality, theology, etc. Here is what Nash writes (I will offer quote in full, in order to provide the necessary context):

[…] Can a similar distrust for or contempt for logic and reason be found in the writings of Christian theologians [Nash has just finished reviewing a theologian or philosopher with the last name of Stace, who I am unfamiliar with; but Nash seems to think that Torrance, Barth and others are engaging in the same style of mystical aberrant and irrationalist kind of theologizing as Stace, it is just that Nash thinks Torrance is more cloaked in his mode]?  One thing that hinders a simple answer to this question is that few writers are as daring and as explicit as Stace. Discussions about the proper place of reason in religion are frequently plagued by inattention to tow quite different senses the word reason can have. Consider the following claims:

(1) The Incarnation is unreasonable; that is, the claim that Jesus Christ is God in incredible. I simply cannot believe it.

(2) The Incarnation is unreasonable; that is, the doctrine of the Incarnation violates the Law of noncontradiction.

In the second case, a particular Christian belief allegedly violates a principle or law of logic. Anything that is unreasonable or irrational in sense (2) is such in an objective and universal way. But in the first case, a particular Christian belief is called unreasonable simply because some person cannot understand it or believe it. Unreasonableness in sense (1) is person-relative. It should be obvious that all sorts of beliefs that some people cannot accept and thus find irrational are readily acceptable and rational to others.

When religious thinkers [ha, not Christian, eh, Nash?] like Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and Emil Brunner proclaimed the irrationality of certain Christian beliefs, I suspect that what they really meant to say was that something about Christianity was so shocking and so offensive to the “reason” of many unbelievers that they (the unbelievers) found it irrational. Since the New Testament itself suggest this position, and since it accords with what any observer can detect in the reactions of people to many Christian claims, the view itself is quite unexceptional.

Unfortunately, the extreme rhetoric of some Christian writers suggests that they also mean to say that Christianity is unreasonable in the second sense, that it actually involves violations of the law of non-contradiction. The writings of the Scottish disciple of Karl Barth [which by the way, Torrance was not an uncritical disciple of Barth, see Alister McGrath’s T. F. Torrance, An Intellectual Biography], Thomas Torrance, are a case in point. Torrance certainly appears to claim that there is a difference between God’s logic and human logic [that’s weird!, God forbit it!, you mean I don’t have anything in myself to stand on that provides rational certitude?], and, further, that the forms of “human logic” cannot be extended to a transcendent God. Torrance seems to believe that human “ideas and conceptions and analogies and words are too limited and narrow and poor for knowledge of God.” His suspicions about purely “human” logic are evident in such statements as: “Real theological thinking” should be freed from “imprisonment in timeless logical connections.” Knowledge of eternal truth, he suggests, is hindered by insisting on “fixed categories of thought.” What Torrance seems to give us is a statement that human knowledge about God is impossible and that human forms of reasoning are completely incapable of understanding truth and reason as it exists in the mind of God. [brackets throughout are mine] [Ronald N. Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man, 93-4.]

Grr … where do I start? Let me start with Torrance himself; here is a kind of summarizing quote of Torrance’s style of theologizing, and something that directly illustrates the kind of thing that Nash is seeking to critique (in a passive aggressive way, you’ll notice his frequent usage of “it seems” throughout this quote from him, but then he later offers the aggressive side of this in his critique of Torrance as he apparently has moved beyond his perception of “it seems” into “it is” or “this is how it is” and “this is why Torrance and others like him are wrong”). Anyway, here is Thomas Torrance:

[O]ur task in christology is to yield the obedience of our mind to what is given, which is God’s self-revelation in its objective reality, Jesus Christ. A primary and basic fact which we discover here is this: that the object of our knowledge gives itself to us to be apprehended. It does that within our mundane existence, within our worldly history and all its contingency, but it does that also beyond the limits of previous experience and ordinary thought, beyond the range of what is regarded by human standards as empirically possible. Thus when we encounter God in Jesus Christ, the truth comes to us in its own authority and self-sufficiency. It comes into our experience and into the midst of our knowledge as a novum, a new reality which we cannot incorporate into the series of other objects, or simply assimilate to what we already know. [Thomas F. Torrance “Incarnation: The Person And Life Of Christ,” 1.]

In other words, for Torrance, there is no analogy in nature for the Incarnation; I am not aware of any analogies that ontologically correlate to the Incarnation, apparently Nash, though thinks that the Incarnation represents something ordinary and mundane; such that any average sentient person could rationally conceive of such—simply by reflecting on the proclivities of nature, abstracting said proclivities and then using this as the Foundation[alism] upon which we as humans know God through, and by which we justify His existence as God. Torrance, if Nash would have taken the time to actually read or attempt to faithfully understand him, would have understood what causes Torrance to write such as he does in the quote that I just provided from TF. Torrance inverts Nash’s paradigm, and sees our order of knowledge contingent upon an antecedent (or ‘outside of us’) order of ontology. In other words, Torrance believes in what he calls an epistemological inversion (which if Nash really read Torrance’s ‘Theological Science’ he would know) wherein for knowledge of God to be truly determinative of a genuine knowledge of God, that this knowledge is Revealed not philosophically discovered. And so, we can only come to know God under the constraints and categories that are imposed upon us by the nature of the reality with whom we encounter, God in Christ.

There is much more that I need to say about this. And it gets even more philosophical, but of the kind that Nash is not comfortable(it has already been made into a demon by him, in need of exorcism); there is the reality of Continental Philosophy at play in much of what Torrance and Barth are dealing with. But I think I will save that discussion for another day, and another post. Suffice it to say, Nash, and anyone really serious about critiquing Barth, Torrance & co. ought to read the more recently released book (2011)  Karl Barth And American Evangelicalism edited by Bruce L. McCormack & Clifford B. Anderson. Obviously this book post-dates Nash’s book, but in a revision, this could be helpful for Nash and his students. McCormack’s and Anderson’s edited book (which I am still reading) provides excellent background and coverage of the issues that Nash is superficially (without understanding) critiquing in the aforementioned quote from him.

I will close by asserting that it is all about Faith, not of the blind variety, but of the variety that is grounded in the vicarious humanity of Christ. The kind that provides vision of the Father, that outwith all we will end up doing is worshipping the creation rather than the Creator.

I almost forgot; I ran a series of posts that dealt with this kind of issue of Torrance and his purported method before. Here is the link to the index of those posts: Click Here

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3 comments

  1. Bobby,

    Nash definitely makes something of an unfair (I think) caricature of Torrance so that he has a straw-man to knock down. That aside, I think what he’s generally trying to argue in this book (having read a bit of it now) is for an epistemology built on the idea of the intrinsic relationship between divine and human Logos (following St. Augustine, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr). Whereas 20th century theologians work to find a way in which the utterly transcendent and “wholly other” God of liberal protestantism can make himself known to us (by offering himself, but of course not offering us knowledge of himself) Nash finds that line of thinking a totally unnecessary response to the potential roadblocks which are created by Kant and others. For Nash, “Logos theology” circumvents these issues.

    Interested to hear your thoughts!

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  2. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the feedback.

    I understand what Nash might be trying to achieve (but I don’t agree with it, insofar as I understand what he is trying to do … I do understand what Augustine tried to do with his neo-Platonic theory of knowledge of God through a priori kinds of internalization and emanation etc.—it is this very turn which Barth and Torrance’s theories so helpfully contradict, by grounding knowledge of God in the event of His Self-revelation in Jesus).

    Anyway, I am not a fan of Nash. Although I did use him for my Master’s thesis on the mystery cults :-).

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