I find Thomas Torrance’s stratified knowledge of God and St. Augustine’s exercitatio mentis (spiritual exercises), and their relative correspondence to be quite intriguing, and yet in this intrigue there is also recognition of a fundamental difference. Here is how Ben Myers describes Torrance’s ‘stratified knowledge’ (if you want to read Torrance on this see his Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons):
Thomas F. Torrance’s model of the stratification of knowledge is one of his most striking and original contributions to theological method. Torrance’s model offers an account of the way formal theological knowledge emerges from our intutive and pre-conceptual grasp of God’s reality as it is manifest in Jesus Christ. It presents a vision of theological progression, in which our knowledge moves towards an ever more refined and more unified conceptualisation of the reality of God, while remaining closely coordinated with the concrete level of personal and experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ. According to this model, our thought rises to higher levels of theological conceptualisation only as we penetrate more deeply into the reality of Jesus Christ. From the ground level of personal experience to the highest level of theological reflection, Jesus Christ thus remains central. Through a sustained concentration on him and on his homoousial union with God, we are able to achieve a formal account of the underlying trinitarian relations immanent in God’s own eternal being, which constitute the ultimate grammar of all theological discourse. [Benjamin Myers, “The Stratification of knowledge in the thought of T. F. Torrance,” SJT 61 (1): 1-15 (2008) Printed in the United Kingdom © 2008 Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd doi: 10.1017/S003693060700381X]
And here is how Gilles Emery, O. P. describes Augustine’s exercitatio mentis:
Augustine emphasizes in particular that in order to glimpse God, the spirit must purify itself of corporeal representations and “phantasmata.” The spirit must not stop at created images but must rise to what the created realities “insinuate.” This is precisely the usefulness of the study of creatures and the goal of the exercise. The exercitatio proposed by Augustine is an ascension … toward God from the image that is inferior and unequal to him, and it is at the same time a gradual movement toward the interior (introrsus tendre). From these corporeal realities and sensible perceptions, Augustine invites his reader to turn toward the spiritual nature of man, toward the soul itself and its grasp of incorporeal realities, in a manner ever more interior (modo interiore), in order to rise toward the divine Trinity. The exercise of the spirit is “a gradual ascension toward the interior,” in other words, an elevation from inferior realities toward interior realities. One enters, and one rises in a gradual manner by degrees (gradatim). Such is the way characteristic of Augustine: “pull back into yourself [in teipsum redi]…, and transcend yourself.” [Gilles Emery, O. P., Trinitarian Theology as Spiritual Exercise in Augustine and Aquinas, in Aquinas the Augustinian edited by Michael Dauphinais, Barry David, and Matthew Levering, p. 14.]
[For further reading on a Reformed version of ascension theology check out Julie Canlis’ sweet book Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension.]
One fundamental and important difference—even given some apparent similarity between Torrance and Augustine, like on stratification or graded movement towards Triune knowledge of God—becomes an issue of theological anthropology and the difference between Augustine’s a priori versus Torrance’s a posterori approaches in relation to the imago Dei/Christi.
For Augustine, knowledge of God is already present (even if soteriologically and christologically construed) by way of analogical reflection upon the image of God (which is opened up soteriologically by Christ). For Torrance, knowledge of God is not a result of turning inward, but looking outward to Christ. So we don’t know what it is to really be in the image of God, there is not resonant knowledge of God available in the human being, per se. It is only as we are recreated in Christ in the resurrection by the Spirit that genuine knowledge of God can be acquired by observing and spiritually participating in the knowledge of God through Him. So the analogy for both of the these theologians—by which we come to knowledge of the Triune God—is grounded in reflection upon the image of God. But the difference is that for Augustine, the image of God is grounded in each individual person (which would help to explain his view of election/reprobation as well); for Torrance the image of God is grounded in Christ (Col. 1.15), and thus the supposition is that God’s image has a ground external to creation in Christ, which allows us to think of knowledge of God as something external to us, and not something resonant within us (even if like Augustine we try to explain this in his kind of soteriological way).
I don’t like doing this, but for sake of blogginess and reception let me do so: For Augustine knowledge of God happens by turning inward to the self (by Christ to be sure) and attending to personal piety; For Torrance knowledge of God happens by turning outward to Christ, and attending to personal intimacy therein.
This kind of movement (inward a priori and outward a posterori) has some other interesting implications that get fleshed out in subsequent centuries and theologies that continue to affect us to this day. We will have to talk about this later.