An Open System of Theology: evangelical Calvinism, Thomas Torrance, and Travis Stevick

Travis Stevick, a new friend, and PhD student at St. Andrews University in Scotland, has recently written two peered reviewed essays for Participatio Journal: Thomas F Torrance Theological Fellowship’s theological universejournal, of which I currently serve as an Assistant Editor); I wanted to share a little from what he has written on Thomas Torrance’s ‘open’ approach to reality and thus God versus the more dominant ‘closed’ approach to things that we are used to in the West, in particular. Here is what Stevick has written:

From time to time, Torrance will make a distinction between working out the difficulties in knowledge we already have and the acquisition of totally new knowledge. Perhaps the most helpful discussion is regarding the shift in the asking of questions that took place by the humanists and taken up by John Calvin. The dominant form of questioning in the Middle Ages was the quaestio, which “is the kind of question you ask in solving a problem in knowledge you already have, in order to move from confusion to clarity. Questions of this kind  arise in a complex of relations of ideas where the answer is to be found by  straightening out the logical connections.”1 The form that was given dominance  by people like Calvin was interrogatio, which is the kind of question you ask of  a reality “in order to let it disclose itself to you and so reveal to you what you  do not and cannot know otherwise. It is the kind of question you ask in order  to learn something new, which you cannot know by inferring it from what you  already know.”2

An issue at stake in this distinction is the difference between closed and open  systems. A question that deals with untangling knowledge one already has and,  for such purposes, brackets out any consideration of truth or falsity, preferring  to deal with validity or invalidity of reasoning, can imply that it is dealing with a closed system that is not open to what is utterly new or beyond it. On the contrary, an interrogative question that seeks to uncover what is radically new, by its very nature is, or should be, open to reality outside of itself.3

Before we can say anything else, we must clarify the distinction between open and closed concepts. In Torrance’s own words,

“Closed concepts” are of the kind that we can reduce to clipped propositional ideas, whereas “open concepts” are of the kind which by their very nature resist being put into a strait-jacket, for the reality conceived keeps on disclosing itself to us in such a way that it continually overflows all our statements about it. Closed concepts are rigid and easily manipulable but open concepts are elastic because they operate on the boundary between the already known and the new.4

The key issue that has dramatic consequences is whether our concepts and statements are open to questioning by the object of their reference or whether they are closed off and contained within themselves. The truth of open concepts and systems does not lie in themselves, for if they contained their own truth, they would be closed, but their truth lies in the reality external to themselves to which they refer.5 For Torrance, the radical openness of theological statements is rooted in the issues related to speaking of God, who is infinite, while using language which is finite. However, the need to use open structures of thought is not limited to speaking of God, but is similarly relevant for our statements in the natural sciences because the universe as we know it is not self-explaining but is radically contingent. [See the full article by clicking on title: Openness And Formal Logic In the Natural And Theological Sciences According To T.F. Torrance starting on pg. 37.]

I am primarily quoting this in order to whet your appetite and invite you to read the whole of Travis’ essay. But I also want to reinforce something about the style of evangelical Calvinism that I am endorsing (in my own words), and what kind of impetus you will find funding the drift of Myk’s and my approach in our edited book on the topic of evangelical Calvinism. What I want to reinforce is that the process of engagement that we are part of, as we engage with the theology of Thomas Torrance, remains a highly constructive venture; indeed, a venture that is not simply a negative kind of critique of classical Theism, but a venture that has a positive program and alternative offering relative to that provided by the classical system (which would fit into the ‘closed’ mold as Travis describes it above). And so when we appeal to the dynamic reality of God in Christ in relation to us in salvation (for example), and when we seem to be working from a posture of mystery (or dialectic), instead of appealing to decrees and deterministic causation (so classical Calvinism, Arminianism, Open Theism, et. al.); what we are constantly recognizing is that God cannot be so enclosed. Instead what we posit, along with Torrance (as attested by Stevick), is that our theological statements about how God acts in Christ for us must take their primary cue from that Revelation (God in Christ). If we start with Christ as primary and determinative for our thinking about how God acts, what we will come to quickly realize is that our statements about such reality must always remain open to more and stratified knowledge of God in act. As such, we will avoid imposing foreign conceptions of metaphysics upon God and his act in Christ; and instead, we will remain open to the implications of his Self-revelation and think from there.

And so you see, there is something more going on, something fundamentally deeper going on in regard to what Thomas Torrance, and in stride, us evangelical Calvinists are offering as an alternative way of thinking to an array of theological options. It has much much to do with a theory of being, and theory of knowledge itself; and how these two realities impinge upon themselves, but from a methodologically Christian stance which starts in God’s Self-revelation and interpretation in Jesus Christ.

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4 comments

  1. In previous days, people were charged with “putting God in a box” – a closed approach to the things of God. It was thought that a better way to think was to be more open and see God as completely free within Himself and His acts. However, we can only go so far in that thinking because faith needs content. When Simeon says “mine eyes have seen Your salvation” (Lk 2:30) and this truth, salvation is in Christ alone, is reiterated many times in many ways throughout the NT, it becomes a closed statement that we can count on and give our lives to. Not all “closeness” is bad.

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  2. @Nathan,

    Amen.

    @Steve,

    It seems as if you might be reacting to a perceived fear that when “open” is used that it might be tied to Open theism; but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Open theism is out to lunch, because it still works from within the ‘closed’ Newtonian Euclidian metaphysic and epistemic on offer by such conceptions of reality; that are mechanical and non-personal. You ought to read the whole essay I take this quote from and what I am asserting here will become more clear for you.

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  3. Thank God that the Biblical Gospel really is NO “theory”! As we can see in the biblical word “kerygma” (message) itself! See, 1 Cor. 1: 21! In the end, for me at least, we simply MUST see and allow the Doctrine of God from Paul’s Greco-Roman and his Jewish Hellenist mind-set! Here Paul a Jew of the Diaspora is central in verses like Gal. 4: 4, “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of women, made under the law…etc. with verses 5 & 6! Indeed that word “adoption” is theologically centred in that depth of adamic Imputation, which is of course fulfilled “in Christ’! Thus for me again, God really is, as Aquinas noted – and believed himself – in an “Augustinian” theological model! And of course later Calvin also! Yes, I am a Neo-Calvinist, with the likes today of a John Frame and Vern Poythress! 🙂

    *Btw, see Poythress’s 2013 book: Logic, A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought, (Crossway). This should become a new standard in Neo-Calvinist hermeneutics!

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