Either something is, or it isn’t. Surely, there are nuances on a continuum, and we should all be aware of that as we approach any system or maybe better, organism of thought. Nonetheless, in the end, either a framework of thought is sound and corresponds to reality or it doesn’t. This seems like a good working definition of critical realism. If we apply this to a theological prolegomenon, what, in the end, will obtain, is that we will use various criteria to determine whether or not some belief structure, that we may or may not adhere to, is actually true or not. This process is undertaken, often unspoken, and uncritically, by the masses, in our case, the Christian masses, as we approach whatever interpretive tradition, we think is most proximate in regard to explicating the entailments of the kerygmatic (‘Gospely’) reality as revealed in Jesus Christ. But is this process as smorgasbord as I’m making it sound?
According to TF Torrance, Christian theology, if it is to avoid being Pelagian, is an exercise pre-determined by God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. In other words, for TFT, the theological task is either kata physin (‘according to the nature of thing’ under inquiry) or it is simply a self-projection of the would-be knower in regard to thinking God; and thus, self. So, for TFT, who God is, is not known by a prior optics developed by people attempting to think an idea of an abstract infinite, or actus purus (‘pure being’), a part from Godself. For TFT knowledge of God is purely ordered by God’s free choice to be for us in Jesus Christ. It is this antecedent, extra nos (‘outside of us’) reality that is the ground by which any true knowledge of God will obtain. This is, for TFT, the basis for a theological or critical realism. That is, that knowledge of God is not discovered, but instead it is Self-revealed by God for us, because of who God is as triune love, that a potential theologian might actually come to know the true and the living God. TFT calls his approach to a knowledge of God a ‘stratified knowledge of God.’ He explicates what that entails in his book Christian Doctrine of God. Ben Myers offers a nice distillation of what TFT is after with his theory of a stratified knowledge of God:
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.
This movement of knowledge of God, as Myers helpfully details, starts when even as a mere child a person is confronted by the reality of God in a simple Gospel presentation. As the child responds to the ‘Good News,’ that is as objectively grounded in Christ’s vicarious response for them first, this movement into a more and more refined knowledge of God starts the process. It is a movement from an evangelical to a theological knowledge of God. Where the child matures and grows in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, moving into the Holy of Holies of God’s life as the One who has eternally been in the ‘bosom of the Father’ takes us into the bosom, even as He first took our humanity for Himself. But this is the kataphysical (V metaphysical) basis upon which the child comes to see God from within His inner triune life, as that has been revealed and provided access to through His outer life for the world in Jesus Christ.
For TFT, the aforementioned is the basis by which a genuinely Christian theological framework can be ‘verified’ as to its veracity as truly corresponding to the reality of the living God or not. Insofar that various theological systems stray from this kataphysical center in God for us in Christ, it can be determined whether or not a system of thought and theological reflection ought to be pursued or not. These are the critical bases by which the would-be Christian theologian might come to have a genuinely accessing approach to God. All other approaches, approaches grounded in abstract and speculative metaphysics, with pure beings, actual infinites, unmoved movers, and the like are understood as imposters in regard to genuinely offering an accessing entrée into the throne room of the living God. Since God in Christ, our high priest, and the mediator between God and humanity / humanity and God is the only one who has penetrated either side of the Creator/creature distinction, it is only through Him, in an intensive and principial way, that the would-be theologian could ever hope of crossing into the near country of God’s inner life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So, as you are confronted by a host of seemingly competing theological systems, all claiming, to one degree or another, to be the most proximate way to think God; ask yourself, are these systems radically grounded in God’s Self-revelation of Jesus Christ or not? Are they based in an intensive understanding of what it means to be in union with Christ (unio cum Christo), and thus founded in a ‘participatory’ ground, in Christ, for thinking God with Christ by the Spirit? Or are they offering an alternative way that presumes an abstract natural way for thinking God from an abstract analogy to an abstract humanity for thinking God from abstract effects in the world back to their abstract and monadic first cause in a simple pure being known, abstractly, as God? Depending on what way you choose to go at this fork in the road will determine, really, the trajectory of your whole Christian life. Indeed, that is what these matters reduce to. Ultimately, whether or not we have a good way to think God, or not, that does not change the objective de jure reality that God is for us in Jesus Christ; i.e., it doesn’t change a confessing Christian’s eternal destiny. But what does potentially change, is how a person’s Christian life unfolds here and now. Will it be based on a solid foundation, the foundation that God alone has laid for us in Jesus Christ (cf. I Cor. 3.11), or instead, will it be based on a self-asserted construct for thinking God that presumes as if the person’s own abstract givenness, and collectivistically and historically so, is good enough for thinking God; as if nature only needed to be perfected and not re-created. Without orthodoxy there can be no orthopraxy, and it is the latter that is really of ultimate concern for the Christian existence.
 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.