Is Thomas Torrance Really a Thomist?

Bruce McCormack argues, contra Hunsinger’s reading of Barth, that Hunsinger’s reading of Barth’s Trinitarian theology is in fact modulated through TF Torrance’s reading of Barth. McCormack further argues that TF Torrance’s approach is in fact Thomist, particularly when it comes to thinking a doctrine of God, and thus represents an inaccurate lens through which to read Barth, who of course is not Thomist.[1] In light of that it is interesting to read the way that Gilles Emery, OP describes Thomas Aquinas’ speculative approach to thinking God from the ad extra or economy of God’s life. But before we see what Emery has to say, let’s reread a summary offered by Ben Myers of TFT’s approach towards a knowledge of God; it is known as his ‘stratified knowledge of God’ theory (which TFT articulates most directly in his book The Christian Doctrine of God). Here is Myers:

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 intuitive 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.[2]

And here is how Emery distills Aquinas’ approach:

In sum, Thomas finds in the action of the Trinity, as brought into focus by Scripture and received by faith, the revelation of the divinity of the three persons, their personal existence, and their relations. This rapid survey shows us the path on which Thomas will leas us through Trinitarian theology. The spring of Trinitarian theology is the reception of the revelation of the Trinity in the economic actions of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Trinitarian teaching in the Summa Theologiae will seek to present this same reality which the action of the persons discloses: their unity and their distinction. And, in studying the eternal mystery of the three persons who are one God, speculative theology will equally seek to show the depth of the creative and salvific action of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.[3]

If Emery is right about Aquinas the ground for knowing the triune God is the economic Self-revelation of God in the incarnation. Similarly, as noted by Myers with reference to TFT, the economic revelation of God is the evangelical ground for thinking God in a stratified way. Both Thomas A. and Thomas T. maintain the primacy of the antecedent or immanent Trinity, thus avoiding the collapse of the processions of God in the inner life (in se) into the missions of God in His outer life (ad extra) for us. The difference between the two comes from how a theological ontology is conceived. That is, what is the relationship between a theory of revelation (so theological ontology), and a theological epistemology, insofar as that relates to a natural theology? In other words, does TFT maintain that nature has an integrity of its own in the sense that all it requires to become total is a perfecting of nature by God’s grace? Or rather, does TFT maintain that outwith the condition of God’s re-creation for the creation that creation has no capacity of its own to see or know God in any way? Thomas Aquinas maintains, per his dictum, that ‘grace perfects nature.’ As such, at a theological-anthropological level, he holds that in the fall humanity didn’t lose the intellectual capacity to think and see God’s effects in the created order. For him, as a result, while creation outwith the incarnation’s reality is diminished because of the fall (noetically), it is not fully dead; it simply requires its missing link to ascend to full capacity (so ‘perfecting grace’). Torrance rejects this, along with Barth, and believes along with Athanasius, that humanity was plunged into a subhumanity as a result of the fall, and thus it requires God to become incarnate if humanity has any hope of living, in an elevated way, into the reality of what it genuinely means to be human coram Deo.

There are some similarities between Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Torrance, but in the end, they are ultimately equivocal in the sense that they operate from different theological ontologies, and thus theological epistemologies and anthropologies, respectively. For TFT the entrée to genuinely knowing God is principally conditioned by concentrating on Christ alone, as God’s center of Himself for us, to know and worship Him through. For Aquinas, Christ comes in as the bright knight on a shiny white horse salvaging ‘Eden lost,’ and restoring it to its once stellar place in the created order. While Aquinas has language like “re-creation” in his lexicon, it really cashes out to be more of a “re-storation,” and this is what differentiates Thomas from Thomas. Aquinas operates with a protological emphasis, whereas TFT works from an eschatological focus in regard to a knowledge of God (Aquinas has the original creation driving his ontology, whereas TFT has re-creation conditioning his). These have substantial points of departure, and thus McCormack’s claim that TFT is really a Thomist doesn’t follow. Just because TFT thinks from the notion that there is an anteriority of God, that is prior to His Self-revelation in the economy, does not necessitate or reduce TFT to being a Thomist, per se. It just means that TFT, if anything, isn’t all that Hegelian (and I don’t actually think Barth is either).  


[1] See Bruce McCormack, “Election and the Trinity: Theses in Response to George Hunsinger,” Scottish Journal of Theology 63 (2): 203-24 (2010).

[2] 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.

[3] Gilles Emery, OP, The Trinitiarian Theology of St Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 17 [emboldening mine].

2 thoughts on “Is Thomas Torrance Really a Thomist?

  1. Great article Bobby.
    Wondering if you’ve engaged with Ben Myers’ recent critiques of TF’s stratification of knowledge ?
    He doesn’t seem a fan ?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Nathan. I have somewhere. He isn’t a fan. He did a whole blog series critique years ago on his blog. I think I responded to all of that on one of my now defunct blogs.


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