Someone asked, on a new Facebook group I just created (Thomas F. Torrance Discussion Group), if and how Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance differed theologically. Two friends of mine in the know responded to this question by highlighting a difference between Barth and Torrance in regard to their usage (Torrance) or not (Barth) and engagement with the natural sciences (as far as bringing them into discussion one with the other at both formal and material levels). And I think it is right to focus on this as a difference between Barth and Torrance.
In the past, another question I had about this, was whether or not Karl Barth was Neo-Orthodox, as so many evangelicals and others like to label him. Another ‘friend,’ David Congdon, responded to this question (along with Travis McMaken), and this is what he had to say:
I see you’ve posted Travis’s comment. It’s mostly right, but I would like to specify matters somewhat further. What neoorthodoxy did was to marshal certain ideas from Barth (mainly, divine transcendence, revelation as encounter), abstracted as static, stand-alone propositions, and use them to buttress the project of Christian orthodoxy within the modern era (hence the “new”). Neoorthodoxy is fundamentally ideological, in that it presupposes the validity of something like a Christian orthodox tradition. Having presupposed this tradition as something to be preserved and maintained, it then finds in Barth certain concepts that are useful toward that end. The reason neoorthodoxy is not dialectical theology is that the latter makes no such presupposition; it is in fact the total abolition of ecclesiastical presuppositions. Dialectical theology is a thoroughly destabilizing understanding of the gospel. Neoorthodoxy is basically a species of natural theology, in that it takes for granted something stable and given in the world — in this case, the church. It is therefore no wonder that Barth and Brunner would fall out over that issue.
For these reasons, I demur from Travis on two points. First, existentialism as such is not a constitutive element of neoorthodoxy. It is only existentialism as it is welded to a certain kind of natural theology, as it was in Brunner’s case, but emphatically not in the case of Bultmann. Second, I cannot help but see Torrance as operating within the ambit of neoorthodoxy. He did not engage in natural theology (I agree fully with Travis there), but it seems to me that he takes for granted a kind of ecclesiological givenness in the form of the orthodox tradition. That was precisely the underlying presupposition for his ecumenical work. And, conversely, it is why Barth cared so little about such ecumenical agreements: not because he did not believe in the unity of the church, but because such unity only exists in the person of Christ — and the person of Christ is a reality that does not give itself to ecclesiastical and theological traditions. The saving event of Christ must always be an offense to those theologies that seek to sustain and prop up the tradition of the church. Orthodoxy, as Barth insisted, is only ever an eschatological reality. As such, there is no orthodox faith in history. And therefore there can be no neoorthodox theology.
I actually don’t disagree with, David. I think, in this sense, we could say that Torrance held to a ‘type’ of natural theology, insofar as David elucidates what that is (relative to the stability of the Church and an ostensible ‘orthodox Faith’).
So this could be a genuine difference between Barth, and Torrance. Barth was radically christocentric in approach, whereas Torrance was radically ecclesiocentric in a Christ conditioned way.