What Does Thomas Torrance Think About Theology?

*repost

I have just finished reading three books in succession, and I’m now beginning a fourth, which represents a re-read. The first three that I have finished already are: Thy Word Is Truth: Barth On Scripture edited by George Hunsinger, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought by John Webster, and Predestination: Biblical and Theological Paths by Matthew Levering; and the re-read I am just starting is Theological tommytorranceScience by Thomas F. Torrance. The reason I mention this is because there are things in each book that I would like to share with you here at the blog; things having to do with theological method (Torrance), how Barth and Eberhard Jüngel understood the context for human freedom from within a moral ontology founded within a soteriological justified by faith alone frame (Webster), how Barth interpreted particular passages of scripture (so not abstract discussion, but concrete looks at his actual exegesis) (Hunsinger). So plan on getting bits of all of this over the next few weeks; we will see if I can actually do all of this, I am often too idealistic with my blogging :-). To kick this time off though I want to start with a lengthy piece from Thomas Torrance on what he terms ‘Theological Science’. I am afraid that some of my readers don’t really understand what is informing my own methodological approach, and so hopefully this long quote (which I provide at length for context … in case this is the only exposure some of you will ever have to TF Torrance) will help provide you with more context for reading me. This quote comes from Torrance’s preface to his ‘Theological Science’, it is important to understand that what Torrance is articulating is quite distinct from the mode of theologizing and exegeting that most of us are used to in day to day Evangelical life. Here is the quote, enjoy:

[I]n discussing the meaning and place of authority in his second series of Gifford lectures delivered in St. Andrews, during the session of 1927-8, my revered teacher, A. E. Taylor, called for the locating of authority, neither in individualism nor in some institutional seat, but in a reality that is wholly given and trans-subjective, and simply and absolutely authoritative through its givenness. If knowledge is to be more than personal opinion, he argued, there must be control of our personal intellectual constructions by something which is not constructed but received. In our human knowledge of God this is humbly to acknowledge that what is genuinely given has unquestionable right to control our thinking and acting, just because it is so utterly given to us and not made by us. With that notion of authority clarified, Professor Taylor held that we might entertain hope for the future of theology as ‘a genuine, assured, and yet progressive science of God’. (The Faith of a Moralist, vol. 2, p. 241.)

That is what I believe theological science to be and how I try to engage in it, but we are not concerned with that here in its positive and material content. This is a book about the philosophy of the science of God, a discipline which the theologian must undertake if he is really to do his job. What is required of us here is not a Philosophy of Religion in which religion is substituted in the place of God, but a Philosophy of Theology in which we are directly engaged with knowledge of the Reality of God and not just with religious phenomenality. Whenever religion is substituted in the place of God, the fact that in religion we are concerned with the behavior of religious people, sooner or later means that the substitution of humanity in the place of religion—the point at which our ‘secularizing’ philosophers of religion appear to have arrived. There is undoubtedly a place for the scientific study of religious people, of religious phenomena, and of religious language, but none of these can be substitute for the Philosophy of Theology in which we are concerned with the meta-science of our direct cognitive relation with God. Science and meta-science are required not because God is a problem but because we are. As Austin Farrer has said, ‘the existence of perfection requires no explanation, the existence of limited being requires explanation’ (Finite and Infinite, p. 15). It is because our relations with God have become problematic that we must have a scientific theology.

If I may be allowed to speak personally for a moment, I find the presence and being of God bearing upon my experience and thought so powerfully that I cannot but be convinced of His overwhelming reality and rationality. To doubt the existence of God would be an act of sheer irrationality, for it would mean that my reason had become unhinged from its bond with real being. Yet in knowing God I am deeply aware that my relation to Him has been damaged, that disorder has resulted in my mind, and that it is I who obstruct knowledge of God by getting in between Him and myself, as it were. But I am also aware that His presence presses unrelentingly upon me through the disorder of my mind, for He will not let Himself be thwarted by it, challenging and repairing it, and requiring of me on my part to yield my thoughts to His healing and controlling revelation.

Scientific theology is active engagement in that cognitive relation to God in obedience to the demands of His reality and self-giving. In it we probe into the problematic condition of the human mind before God and seek to bring knowledge of Him into clear focus, so that the truth of God may shine through to it unhindered by its opacity and the human mind may acquire clear and orderly forms through which to apprehend and conceive His reality. That is to say, we seek to allow God’s own eloquent self-evidence to sound through to us in His Logos so that we may know and understand Him out of His own rationality and under the determination of His divine being. In the course of this activity we being to understand something of how the cognitive relation of men to God can be so sharply refracted that double vision results, in which human knowers are unable to trace the thought of God back to its proper ground in His reality. Although God does not cease to disclose His power and deity to them the truth becomes stifled, for at the very roots of their knowledge, as St. Paul said, they twist it unto untruth. All a man may be able to do then in his sense of the presence of God is to give it oblique, or symbolic, meaning only to discover that he has thrust himself into its content, or he may try to straighten out the connections of his thought and make them point into emptiness and nothing, even though he remains haunted, as it were, by the ultimate rationality of God all around him.

This is where theological science must step in to help men refer their thoughts properly beyond themselves to God. We cannon communicate God to men directly, but we can engage in normal acts of communication in which we use language with a semantic intention, not so much to express our minds as to refer other minds to something beyond ourselves. While our linguistic and conceptual forms may be communicated directly to other minds, intuitable realities are not directly communicable: we may point them out, or refer to them through accepted signs or acquired designations, in the hope that others will perceive or apprehend them also, but unless that takes place communication has not achieved its end. Communication takes place between minds that are directed to the same or similar objects and so is necessarily indirect through a triadic relationship in which one mind directs another to an object by referring to it, and in which the other mind by following through the reference to the object understands the intention of the first mind.

This presupposes the rationality of the medium and the context in which communication takes place, that is, not only an intelligible language, but an intelligible subject-matter. The things about which we speak to one another must be capable of rational apprehension and of semantic designation. This is something that we assume and operate with continually in ordinary experience and in science, without attempting to explain it. If the nature of things were not somehow inherently rational they would remain inapprehensible and opaque and indeed we ourselves would not be able to emerge into the light of rationality. It is because things are amenable to rational treatment that we can apprehend them at all; we understand them, or get light upon them, in so far as we can penetrate into their rationality and develop our grasp of it. Scientific knowledge is that in which we bring the inherent rationality of things to light and expression, as we let the realities we investigate disclose themselves to us under our questioning and we on our part submit our minds to their intrinsic connections and order. Scientific activity certainly involves a give and take between subject and object, while all knowledge is by way of being a compromise between thought and being; nevertheless it remains an awesome fact that if the nature of things were not intelligible and apprehensible, knowledge could not arise at all, far less communication. We communicate with others only when we get them to submit their thoughts to the same rationality of things that we experience. Thus communication from the very start involves an element of persuasion. So far as theological knowledge is concerned this is what we call, perhaps mistakenly, ‘apologetics’, but, whatever we call it, it is a necessary part of scientific activity in theological communication. [Thomas F. Torrance, Theological Science, viii-xi.]

Okay, still here? After this I am going to go care for my carpal tunnel (after typing all of this 😉 ), but I hope you are better able to appreciate what informs my own approach; I along with Thomas Torrance am a critical or theological realist. I believe that in order to successfully talk about God the first positive supposition in that direction is that he is there; not because I proved that he is there, not because my tradition says so, not because my socio-linguistic context purports this to be the case—but simply because He is!, and He has revealed Himself to be so through Christ. So my approach sits under the weight of God’s own Self-directed, Self-interpreting, Self-revealing Word; and as such, I am not free to roam here and there in my theological thinking. I must go where God goes in Christ. And I don’t go anywhere God goes without relating to Him through faith. I don’t relate to Him by first understanding Him from a cornerstone in my own being, or in your being; I enter the holy of holies through the torn veil of Christ’s body. When I think theologically I am not also engaging in Philosophy of Religion, as if this is doing theology (as so many Evangelicals seem to think), I want to simply, and I mean, simply go where God goes and is, in Christ.

There you have it. I have more posts coming, and I will be referencing those other books I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

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4 comments

  1. Bobby, thanks for the interesting post. However, are you missing some words or a sentence here? “In the course of this activity we being to understand something of how the cognitive relation of men to God can be so sharply refracted…” (fifth paragraph). It is an important few sentences. Thanks.

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  2. In his essay, “T. F. Torrance and Scripture,”John Webster wrote: “The deceptively simple sentence at the beginning of ‘Space, Time and Resurrection’ says it all: ‘I make no apology for taking divine revelation seriously.’” Deceptively simple, indeed! As you put it, Bobby, “simply because he is!” as revealed in Christ through his faith in us – it’s a “given.”

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