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Inhabiting Reality: Thomas F. Torrance’s Criticisms of Dualism

The following is a paper I wrote some years ago for an independent reading course as part of my PhD program at Westminster Theological Seminary. It is an evaluation of one aspect of the theology of Thomas F. Torrance. I claim no expertise in Torrancean theology. But I offer this as an exercise in theological analysis.

1.0 Introduction

1.1 Prolegomena

This paper is about one particular aspect of the thought of theologian Thomas F. Torrance.[1] Torrance, is, of course, known for two major contributions he has made to theology. Torrance has made a tremendous contribution to an understanding of the interrelations of science and theology and, especially since his “retirement” from active teaching, for his production of erudite works on Trinitarian theology. Regarding Torrance’s work on the relationship of theology to the natural sciences, Elmer Colyer tells us, Thomas F. Torrance is considered by many to be the most outstanding, living Reformed theologian in the Anglo-Saxon world. One of the leading theologians in the dialogue between theology and philosophy of science, he was awarded the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion in 1978.[2]

Regarding his contribution to Trinitarian studies, Alister McGrath says,

One of Torrance’s greatest regrets is that he was unable to lecture on ‘the doctrine of God’ while Professor of Christian Dogmatics at Edinburgh. This area was deemed more philosophical in orientation, and had hence been treated as the territory of philosophical rather than dogmatic theologians. It was, however, an area in which Torrance took a keen interest from his student days onwards. A careful survey of Torrance’s massive theological output shows that the doctrine of the Trinity is explicitly addressed only on a few occasions throughout his professional career until his retirement in 1979. While it can be argued that Torrance’s emphases on the priority of revelation and on the importance of the incarnation can be understood to make implicit trinitarian claims, these are not explored or in detail until after Torrance’s retirement from the Chair of Christian Dogmatics at Edinburgh. Thereafter, what can only be described as a torrent of substantial studies appeared, culminating in the major studies The Trinitarian Faith (1988) and The Christian Doctrine of God (1996).[3]

Truth is, Torrance’s concern for the relation between theology and science (and the truly scientific nature of theology) and his concern for a proper Trinitarian theology are mutually entwined. Our concern here is not with Torrance’s concern for the scientific nature of theology as such nor with his Trinitarian theology per se, but with a major element in Torrance’s discussion of these two matters, his criticism of the problem of dualism.[4]

1.2 Thesis

My concern in this paper will be to examine Torrance’s criticism of dualism and how that effects the formulation of his constructive theology, which has been called holism.[5] Dualism has principally effected two areas of reality, namely cosmology and epistemology.[6] Dualism in the realm of cosmology involves the separation of God from his world and in epistemology it involves the separation of the human knower and the object of knowledge. “Holism” involves for Torrance an indwelling of reality by the human knower so that one comes to learn about other objects through a relation to them (what Torrance calls kataphysin science) rather than from dualistic abstraction. For Torrance, holism would stress an interactionist model of God’s relationship to the world and would embrace a critical realist epistemology in the theological and natural sciences.

My goal is to assess the correctness of Torrance’s charges of dualism and the viability of his “holism” (interactionist cosmology and critical realist epistemology) as he interacts with dualism in philosophy, science and theology. My method will be to 1) offer a brief description of dualism and holism and 2) examine one example of Torrance’s criticism of dualism in each of the areas of philosophy, natural science and theology followed by a description of his holistic alternative. I will conclude with a critical evaluation of Torrance’s treatment of dualism and holism in its cosmological and epistemological aspects. My thesis is that Torrance’s cosmology, while correctly reacting to the naturalistic (deistic) elements of enlightenment natural science, tends toward making God and his creation correlative and may be held captive to the Einsteinian paradigm in science and that his critical realistic epistemology denies the epistemological reality that objects have been pre-interpreted by God before any human being ever begins to examine them.

2.0 Dualism & Holism Described

I have already mentioned that Torrance believes that one of the central problems of Western thought is dualism.[7] Dualism is the tendency to abstract an object in reality from its inherent intelligibility.[8] Within the theological tradition of Western Christendom, Torrance sees this tendency toward dualism exemplified in the theology of Augustine.

Increasingly, Torrance came to identify a group of theologians who developed a unitary approach to the Christian faith, and especially the question of the relation between God and the world. For Torrance, the telltale sign of such forms of dualism was a positing of a distinction between ‘God’ and ‘revelation’…Torrance identifies a trend in western theology, which he traces back to Tertullian and Augustine, which ‘abstracted knowledge of God from its objective ground in his self-revelation’.[9]

Needless to say, Torrance sees dualism as a problem in more than just Christian theology, since it has been pervasive in philosophy and the natural sciences as well. As Torrance tells us regarding Karl Barth’s discovery of dualism or what he calls ‘the Latin heresy,’

What Karl Barth found to be at stake in the twentieth century was nothing less than the downright Godness of God in his revelation, for the Augustinian, Cartesian and Newtonian dualism built into the general framework of Western thought and culture had the effect of cutting back into the preaching and teaching of the church in such as way as to damage, and sometimes even to sever, the ontological bond between Jesus Christ and God the Father, and thus to introduce an oblique or symbolical relation between the Word of God and God himself. Barth’s struggle for the integrity of divine revelation opened his eyes to the underlying epistemological problems, not only in Neo-Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, but in Protestant Orthodoxy as well. These were bound up with the Western habit of thinking in abstractive formal relations, which was greatly reinforced by Descartes in his critico-analytical method, and of thinking in external relations which was accentuated by Kant in his denial of the possibility of knowing things in their internal relations. This is what I have called ‘the Latin heresy’, for in theology at any rate its roots go back to a form of linguistic and conceptual dualism that prevailed in late patristic and medieval Latin theology.[10]

For Torrance, dualism is guilty of separating God from his creation on the one hand, and of separating the human subject and object in the epistemological context. It takes the triadic reality of the God/man/world context and reduces it to the God/man relation.[11]

Judging from the history of thought in ancient as well as modern times, it would seem evident that so long as theology is restricted to the man/God relationship it can hardly escape from the projective thrust of man’s own self-understanding, so that theology tends to contract into a form of anthropology in which meaning is expressed in the symbolic or mythological objectification of inward experience. This always becomes accentuated under the stress of phenomenalist and dualist theories of knowledge in which the relation between subject and object, or intelligible form and ontological reality, is seriously damaged, if not severed. In this event theology quickly reduces to being a mere second-order activity in which there results a further split between form and content, and between method and subject matter, so that theological concepts become twice removed from objective reality.[12]

Dualism is guilty of separating things that ought to belong together. Subject and object are distinct but not separate.[13] Holism, Torrance’s answer to the dualism prevalent in Western thinking, seeks to address these separations. Holism involves the God/man/world or God/world/man context and so cannot be reduced to an anthropological phenomenon. It involves what Torrance calls the kataphysic method in which intelligible form and ontological reality are fused. It is the opposite of the separation of theological concepts from objective reality. As Colyer tells us,

The fundamental axiom that runs through all of Thomas F. Torrance’s many publications on theological method is that the nature of the object or subject-matter in question defines the methods employed in investigating it, the mode of rationality used in conceptualizing what is discovered, and form of verification consonant with it…The fact that method must be apposite to the nature of the reality under investigation means that method can be distinguished, but never separated, from content. This is the reason for Torrance’s rigorous attention to scientific methodology and theological content throughout his career…Thus we cannot lay down the conditions on which valid knowledge is possible in detachment from the actual knowing relation intrinsic to the reality or subject-matter…[14]

No scientist or theologian (or philosopher) can predetermine the nature of a particular object or subject matter and the scientific method adopted must be adapted to the object under investigation. Additionally, the kataphysic method involves indwelling the reality of the universe (or God) that has levels of contingent rationality. These levels of rationality can be discerned by man, even though there is no necessary relationship between reality and the human mind (what Torrance calls an “isomorphism” between the human mind and reality). Developing an epistemological method akin to the work of Albert Einstein and Michael Polanyi,[15] Torrance calls for a “theoretic structure which, while affecting our knowledge, is derived from the intrinsic intelligibility of what we seek to know, and is open to constant revision through reference to the inner determinations of things as they come into view in the process of inquiry.”[16]

This gradational discovery process (which is freely chosen) reflects the gradational nature of the intelligible structures of reality.[17] Movement is made by indwelling reality at the tacit dimension first, and then coming to understand deeper levels of intelligibility. This “kinship” between our knowledge and the reality being examined is not a necessary nor a priori one nor an “innate conceptual counterpart” to the intelligibility being examined.[18] It is, in fact, “an anticipatory intimation of a pattern of order that arises dynamically out of heuristic indwelling and the informal tacit dimension.”[19] There is here, then, no separation between theoretical models (epistemology) and empirical reality (cosmology).[20]

We will see that the dualism prevalent in Western thought has, as we have already mentioned, affected the two basic areas of cosmology and epistemology.[21] Cosmologically, dualism posits a separation between God and his world in which God is not able to interact with his creation. God is, “not thought of as interacting with the universe of space and time but as inertially related to it or as deistically attached to it.”[22] Epistemologically, dualism has chiefly been revealed in natural theology as it has been traditionally conceived. “It has always been in periods when epistemological and cosmological dualism have predominated that the demand for natural theology has been urgent, in order to find a way of throwing a logical bridge between the world and God if only to give some kind of rational support for faith.”[23]

3.0 Dualism & Holism Exemplified

I have discussed the problem of dualism as criticized by Torrance and his solution of holism somewhat in the abstract and so now I would like to look at one example of dualism and its answer in holism as Torrance has discussed them in the fields of philosophy, natural science and theology.

In the field of philosophy, Torrance is undoubtedly critical of the dualism evident in Plato’s distinction between the world of ideas and the world of flux.[24] “I refer here to the irreducible dualisms in the philosophy and cosmology of Plato and Aristotle, which threw into sharp contrast rectilinear motion in terrestrial mechanics and circular motion in celestial mechanics, which were related to the dualisms between the empirical and the theoretical, the physical and the spiritual, the temporal and the eternal, the mortal and the divine.”[25]

While these dualisms were serious enough, it is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant that brings these tendencies home with his distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal realms. Responding to the crass empiricism of David Hume with his rejection of innate ideas (following Locke) and his embrace of “sensationism”,[26] Kant had to figure out a way to bring the theoretical and empirical elements together to save empirical science. As Torrance tells us, Kant achieved this bridging of the theoretical and phenomenal in his concept of the synthetic a priori in which sense experience is combined with categories in the mind that are created by the mind so that the order which man perceived in the universe was not discovered “out there” as much as it was imposed “in here” in the mind of man. This combination of sense experience (perception) and mental categories (conception) prevented man from ever coming into contact with the inner nature or reality of the things ( the Ding an sich) with which he came into contact. This also had the tendency of making theology an anthropological exercise. We can see that Kant’s attempt to rescue empiricism from the radicalism of David Hume[27] ended up solidifying the divide (chorismos) between both man and his environment (epistemology) and God and his creation (cosmology).

Torrance’s answer to this Kantian bifurcation is his holism doctrine, which we have described above, in which the theoretical and phenomenal realms are fused. Examination of an objective reality external to the human mind is possible, although Torrance denies any kind of “isomorphism” in that the relation between the external world and the human mind is not necessary. This reflects Torrance’s critical realistic epistemology in which a real world exists external to the mind but which also recognizes the perspective of the human knower. McGrath offers this helpful explanation,

Torrance operates with a complex understanding of correspondence between reality and knowledge which avoids the conceded difficulties of ‘naive realism’ (which posits a direct correspondence between knowledge and reality). The general position adopted by Torrance is perhaps best described as ‘critical realism’, a position which has gained increasing support within theological circles in recent decades. The New Testament scholar N. T. Wright offers an excellent approach to this position, which he describes as, ‘a way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence ‘critical’). This path leads to critical reflection on the products of our enquiry into ‘reality’, so that our assertions about ‘reality’ acknowledge their own provisionality. Knowledge, in other words, although in principle concerning realities independent of the knower, is never itself independent of the knower.‘”[28]

Torrance’s answer to the cosmological dualism inherent in this philosophical perspective, a dualism clearly seen in Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone for instance, is his interactionist model of the God-universe relationship which we will discuss below under the dualisms seen in the world of natural science.

The problems of dualism in philosophy have spilled over into the natural sciences.[29] Not surprisingly, given Torrance’s concern for the relation between theology and the natural sciences, Torrance has discussed this field of knowledge as well.[30] Torrance sees dualistic tendencies in the science of Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton.[31] With Galileo, we find that he made a distinction between the geometric aspects of reality (which are quantifiable) and appearances and with Newton, we find that he made a distinction “between absolute mathematical time and space and relative apparent time and space that was to become paradigmatic for all modern science and cosmology up to Einstein. This development gave rise to the deistic disjunction between God and the universe that has so deeply plagued modern theology and to the conception of the mechanistic universe, which closed the universe to any interaction with it on the part of the Creator.”[32]

This cosmological dualism (which is not without its epistemological fallout) has quite obviously spread beyond the bounds of the natural sciences (just as it failed to remain within the bounds of ancient philosophy). Torrance reminds us that this dualism is reflected in Lessing’s ugly ditch in which the necessary truths of reason can never be grounded in the accidents of history and in Hermann’s distinction between two forms of history, Geschichte and Historie.[33]

Torrance’s holistic answer to the dualism evident in science is, of course, related to his answer to dualism in other disciplines. His answer to the cosmological dualism is to stress the interactionist model of understanding the relationship between God and the universe. To illustrate his point, Torrance uses the example of fellow Scotsman James Clerk Maxwell’s work on the electro-magnetic field (or the dynamical field theory) in the nineteenth century, in which Maxwell developed a theory of onto-relations influenced as much by the philosopher Sir William Hamilton[34] as he was by the professors in his physics classes.[35] Onto-relations, for instance, involve atoms not as discreet entities that bump into one another (like so many billiard balls), but also as the relations between one atom and another. Albert Einstein also endeavored to fuse form and being in his development of relativity theory. Torrance’s answer to epistemological dualism in the arena of science is the act of indwelling reality in which a person comes to discover the nature of reality without forcing preconceived notions onto the reality being examined. We must allow the nature of the object which we are examining to determine our scientific method and to shape our knowledge of the object in question. This is kataphysic science, or science “according to nature.” Paralleling the thought of Michael Polanyi, Torrance discusses the gradational nature of the contingent intelligibility of the universe that man can come to know in a graduated manner as he indwells reality and comes to know more about it, in ever increasing levels of depth.[36]

Torrance’s discussion of dualism in the arena of theology will, as it will no doubt be unsurprising by now, mirror what he has said in the areas of philosophy and the natural sciences. We should not be amazed at this since all these areas of knowledge impinge upon one another. We cannot discuss every area within theology that has been affected by dualism (any more than we have discussed every example of it in philosophy or science), so I will discuss his understanding of how dualism has affected the church’s doctrine of revelation.

Earlier we referred to Torrance’s debt to Karl Barth. This debt is no clearer than in his understanding of the doctrine of revelation. For Barth, as for Torrance, since God’s act is his being, and his being is his act, it makes sense to see God as being his revelation. Dualism entered the picture, for Torrance, when Augustine stressed a distinction between God and his revelation. Since the Son (who is the Word) is homoousian with the Father, this traditional distinction (in which the Western church, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, have followed Augustine) breaks the essential bond, as was attempted in various heretical movements in the early church.[37] It has also led to the problematic attempt at building a natural theology (such as was attempted by the Schoolmen, Thomas Aquinas being the best exemplar of this method) in which one can endeavored to build a “logical bridge” from the created world to the Creator (assuming a likeness between a cause and its effects) that led to a notion of a unitary God, whereas God has revealed himself as Triune. While Barth and Torrance seemingly take a different tack in addressing natural theology (Barth rejects it altogether and Torrance has reworked it as operating within the confines of divine revelation)[38] both rejects its apparent autonomous character as traditionally conceived.

Torrance’s answer to this form of dualism replicates what he has elsewhere argued. Stressing the ontological unity of the Triune Godhead, Torrance stresses the homoousial oneness between the Father and the Son. When God reveals himself in history, he himself is given. It is the Triune God who has created the universe and it is he who interacts with his creation in a revelatory manner. Man can come to know this Triune God who has revealed himself in the time-space continuum through taking part in the church community (which possesses, through its worship, a tacit awareness of the Trinitarian God) and in reading the Scriptures, which are the response of the community of reciprocity (Israel in the Old Testament, the church in the New). In reading the Bible, one comes to indwell the reality of the Triune God behind Scripture and that resultant knowledge allows one to come to ever deeper understandings of the reality of the Triune God. We see here the kataphysic nature of theological discovery in which our theological method of examination is determined by the reality of the nature of the Triune God. God interacts with his universe (along lines of something like the Maxwellian magnetic field theory) and reveals himself in a gradational manner, which can be discovered by man as he continues to indwell the reality of God and his creation.

In all these arenas of human experience and knowledge, in philosophy, the natural sciences and in theology, we have seen that Torrance has been critical of the dualistic tendencies in Western thought, ranging from the Platonic world of ideas and the world of flux, the Kantian distinction of the noumenal and phenomenal realms and his synthetic a priori, the Galilean distinction between the geometric reality and the appearance of things, the Newtonian distinction between absolute and relative time and space and the Augustinian dualism in which God is separated from his revelation so that the homoousial relation between the Father and the Son is denied or ignored. We have seen that Torrance’s answer to these various dualisms is his holism which involves affirming the cosmological fact of God’s interaction with his creation and the epistemological reality that man can know reality, albeit from a limited perspective and with the proviso that whatever knowledge he possesses must be considered revisable in the face of the reality that governs the knowledge gained.

4.0 A Critical Interaction with the Torrancian Reality

My concern in this final section is to offer both positive and negative criticisms of Torrance’s reading of the history of the influence of dualism and of his constructive holistic alternative. I will discuss his treatment of dualism in the fields of philosophy, the natural sciences and theology in terms of the cosmological and epistemological dualisms and will also discuss the holism which he offers as an answer to this all too real problem.

Firstly, regarding the problem of dualism that Torrance has seen in the field of philosophy, he is absolutely correct to question the validity of the Platonic dualism of the world of ideas as set over against the world of flux. And it appears as though this idea continued in philosophy for years, especially in the thinking of Descartes, but especially in the thought of Immanuel Kant. As I have already mentioned, Kant endeavored to answer the radical skepticism of David Hume which appeared to virtually destroy the foundations of empirical science with its questioning of the cause-and-effect nexus. For some reason, Kant continued the tradition of splitting the world up into two realms, instead of the world of ideas and the world of flux, Kant had the noumenal and phenomenal realms. The noumenal realm covered things as they are in themselves (the Ding an sich) and the spiritual realm where God is located, and the phenomenal realm embraced things as they appear to the human mind. Rather than endeavoring to bring the noumenal and the phenomenal together, Kant had the human mind creating order out of the chaos of the world of appearances. Order was a figment, so to speak, of the human mind and was not found in the external world “out there.” As Torrance has pointed out, this had disastrous consequences not only for philosophy, but also for the science it was intended to rescue and for theology which got reduced to an anthropological or psychological exercise in futility. If the order we experience in the investigation of the universe is constructed by the human mind, how do we ever know if there is any connection or correspondence to the extra mental reality of the universe?[39]

As we already know, Torrance’s response to this epistemological dualism (grounded as it is, in a cosmological dualism) is his notion of holism and the fusion of form and being. I think Torrance’s notion of kataphysic science is essentially correct. My concern here is with its implications for the philosophical endeavor. Man cannot predetermine what a given subject-matter will be like nor can he approach a given object without allowing that object to determine his method of investigation in some way. It would seem to me that an a priori scientific method would create something like a procrustean bed in which the subject-matter under investigation would be distorted. However, Torrance appears to me to proceed as though the reality of the created universe was some sort of surd which man bumps up against without God’s prior knowledge or awareness of the object in question. God has created this world and he has pre-interpreted it, so that man does truly discover the universe in which he lives and God has created him to be able to discover it.[40] Philosophy as such is a sinful autonomous activity if it is done without taking consideration of God’s natural or general revelation as well as his special revelation.[41] Of course, it is not really possible to do philosophy without reference to either God’s revelation intentionally given through creation or in his Word.[42] Inasmuch as Torrance’s discussion of epistemology is in terms of some kind of bare non-divinely pre-interpreted reality, philosophical or otherwise, I would argue that it is sub-biblical.

Related to this is, of course, Torrance’s embrace of critical realism. I am not wanting to deny the reality of the universe that Torrance wants to safeguard and affirm, nor do I deny that human beings have only a limited awareness and knowledge of the reality of the world around them. The problem with critical realism seems to be that it forgets what we have mentioned above, that God has a complete awareness of his created universe and so there is an exhaustive knowledge, but that it is not possessed by any individual human or society or culture. Considering the relationship of man’s mind to the world without considering God’s relationship to the world cuts off human knowing from its only ground of certainty. Man can know reality (albeit in a limited and imperfect manner) only because God already knows his creation fully since he knows himself fully.[43] If critical realism proceeds on the assumption, as it appears to do, that God has not already interpreted the world that man discovers, then the universe is a brute thing that man must discover and almost create its meaning and significance since it has none of itself. If God has not revealed himself in and through his creation, then from a philosophical perspective, man must reason his way up to God from creation, which Torrance rejects on the one hand, but appears to embrace on the other.[44] Critical realism also seems to land in an unstable disequilibrium in that it endeavors to affirm that the human subject affects the knowledge he possesses and yet also tries to affirm the existence of an extra mental reality. Apart from the existence of the God of Scripture, on what basis does Torrance or the critical realism he embraces, affirm the reality of the universe? I am not trying to suggest that Torrance doesn’t in fact affirm God’s existence or the existence of the created universe. I am only pointing out what I perceive to be a weakness in his critically realistic epistemology. In this instance we have what I would call a “happy inconsistency” but an inconsistency nonetheless.

Secondly, regarding Torrance’s discussion of dualism in science, I can only offer limited criticisms of his approach since I am not trained in the natural sciences. But inasmuch as Torrance’s concerns here are mirrored in his approach to philosophical and theological dualisms , I think I may offer some response. Torrance is, once again, right on target with his criticism of the deistic influence in science in which natural laws are so constructed to eliminate any interaction by God with his world that he created. On this level the interactionist model that Torrance puts forth is a helpful response to the enlightenment mentality still prevalent in certain scientific circles. On the other hand, I wonder if Torrance hasn’t subjected himself to scientific paradigms that will one day be seen to be deficient? Torrance rightly criticizes the scientific theories of Galileo and Newton, which appear to be captive to prevailing dualistic tendencies that have spilled over from philosophy and perhaps theology, but isn’t he doing the same thing, only this time with a different scientific paradigm. While I recognize that he allows for revisability, in fact almost demands it of his epistemology, given the shifting nature of scientific paradigms, does he really want to found his theology or theological method upon something as chimerical as a particular scientific theory or method? I am not in a position to judge the work of James Clerk Maxwell, Albert Einstein, or Michael Polanyi on he merits of the their strictly scientific work, and I am happy to embrace truth wherever it can be found, but I think a Christian theologian has absolutely no obligation to allow his theology to be governed by a paradigm, be it philosophical, scientific or theological, that is not grounded in God’s natural and special revelation.[45] Also, does Torrance’s use of the electro-magnetic model with its onto-relations imply some kind of correlativity between God and his creation? Further, does it imply some kind of entity, whether it exists in concept or extra mental reality of a transcendental category that embraces both God and his world together? Again, I don’t happen to think Torrance would embrace these things, but they do seem to be the product of his interactionist God/world/man model. It is not the interaction as such that is problematic, but how Torrance grounds the interaction that seems to lead to a correlative relationship since God and the universe are inside some sort of field.

Thirdly, I find the most difficulty with Torrance’s discussion of dualism within the theological sphere. Torrance accuses Augustine of creating an unwarranted distinction between God and his revelation. If God’s act is his being, and his being is his act, which I would affirm, it seems to indicate that God is his revelation. That, I think, is true on one level. But I would want to make the traditional distinction that is often made between God’s revelation of himself in his Son, Jesus Christ (the Living Word) and God’s revelation of his himself and his will in Scripture (the Written Word). The Bible is not merely the response of the community of reciprocity (Israel in the Old Testament and the church in the New) to God’s revelatory interaction with it. It is God speaking through his messengers to reveal himself and his will. To speak of revelation as only being God himself in Jesus Christ is reductionistic.

I am wanting to affirm the close relationship between God and his revelation. It is, after all, his freely given disclosure of himself and his will. God is his revelation when we consider revelation as regarding his Son, but not when we are thinking of the written Word. But why should we truncate revelation in this fashion? If that makes me dualistic, so be it. Why is it not possible to have a divine Word from God that is not equal to his being? How does making a distinction between the Living Word and the written Word compromise the Godness of God or call into question the homoousial nature of the Father/Son relationship within the Triune Godhead? This dualism seems to require the prior rejection of the distinction between revelation in the Son and the related but different revelation in the written Word. Since I don’t grant the rejection of the distinction, I don’t grant the dualism charged here.

It seems to me that if Torrance (along with Barth) accepts the notion of a created universe that is the product of divine activity, yet separate from God’s being, it should not be necessarily problematic for there to be another product of divine activity, namely the inscripturation of the divine Word, which is not the same as his being. I will grant that the use of the word “word” is analogical here, although it is not completely equivocal. That is, I am not confusing the written Word with the Living Word, a confusion improperly attributed to Evangelicals which seems to often lead to the charge of bibliolatry. The traditional comparison between Jesus’ divine and human nature’s being united in one person and Scripture’s having a divine author and several human authors while retaining its singular purpose is not without its usefulness here. It seems to me that if Torrance’s doctrine of revelation is to hold true, he must reject the notion of a creation that is the product of divine activity yet separate from God’s being.

Torrance’s doctrine of revelation quite obviously rules out his embrace of the notion of natural revelation. We have already noted that Torrance is critical of natural theology, and we share his aversion to that method of theology, at least as it is traditionally conceived. But natural theology and natural revelation are not the same thing. Now, if revelation is only God revealing himself in his Son, then there would be no place for natural revelation. I believe that God is not limited to the revelation of himself personally in his Son, but has also spoken through his creation and his messengers in his written Word. Natural revelation is limited (it doesn’t reveal the plan of redemption) and it doesn’t reveal the essential Trinitarian nature of God. Because of this, natural or general revelation needs to be completed with special revelation, which would involve both the incarnation in history and God’s other acts in history, including verbal communication with people and the inspiration of Scripture.

[46] Natural revelation and special revelation are not two hermetically sealed forms of revelation. They are organically interconnected. As Cornelius Van Til has said, general or natural revelation creates the “playground” or context in which special revelation can occur.[47] In the end, Torrance’s doctrine of revelation is reductionistic since it leaves out of consideration both natural revelation (which is organically connected to special revelation) and it eliminates revelation given through human writers in Scripture.[48]

5.0 Conclusion

This examination of Thomas F. Torrance’s criticisms of dualism and his constructive alternative of holism has been valuable and instructive. My desire has been to be accurate in my description of his theology concerning this issue and fair concerning my assessment of his work. Torrance’s contribution to theology and the relationship of theology to the natural sciences has been immense. I have not even begun to scratch the surface in this paper. While I differ with Torrance on many matters, I have been struck by his assessment of problematic dualistic tendencies within Western thought. We have looked at a small portion of his criticisms and have realized that we agree with him at points and greatly disagreed with him at others. Making the distinction has not always been easy for me. I have indicated at several places that my concerns may reflect what I perceive to be the logical outworking of his views and not necessarily the views as he has espoused them.

We discovered that Torrance has found dualistic tendencies in both the cosmological and epistemological realm. We also discovered that while he very often offered cogent criticisms, his constructive alternative was also found wanting. Philosophically, the Kantian dualism between the noumenal and phenomenal realms were just targets for Torrance’s criticisms, although I am not convinced that his critical realism is an adequate answer to the split between form and being that Torrance has rightly criticized. Scientifically I questioned Torrance’s dependence on Maxwell, Einstein and Polanyi and his use of the electro-magnetic field metaphor. Theologically I was critical of Torrance’s reductionistic doctrine of revelation that fails to account for the tri-aspectual organic nature of revelation that includes natural revelation given in creation (including within man), the revelation of the Son and the revelation given to writers in the process of inscripturation. Thomas F. Torrance deserves further attention since he has contributed so much toward better relations between theology and the natural sciences and to Trinitarian doctrine, which we have only touched upon in our discussion on revelation. I would hope that others can read him with profit, saving what is useful (and biblically based) and casting off what is problematic.

[1]My interest in Scottish systematic theologian Thomas F. Torrance began with a course I participated in involving the history of Trinitarian theology in the Christian church over the last two millennia. From my reading of materials produced by Torrance, I came to have a deep respect for his theological acumen. Respect does not, of course, equal agreement. I find myself in disagreement with Torrance in his general Barthian or neo-orthodox theological stance. Torrance is no Barthian epigone, but he has been sufficiently influenced by Karl Barth to classify him in this way.

[2]Elmer Colyer, How to Read T. F. Torrance: Understanding His Trinitarian & Scientific Theology (Downer’s Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2001), p. 15. See similar remarks from Alister McGrath in his T. F. Torrance: An Intellectual Biography (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999), pp. xi-xiv.

[3]McGrath, Torrance, p. 166.

[4]Obviously I can’t ignore these topics in this paper, but my concern is narrower than the scientific nature of theology per se (or the relations between the natural sciences and theology proper) or Trinitarian theology as such.

[5]I have picked up this term from Colyer, How to Read, pp. 17 & 55.

[6]I am indebted to Elmer Colyer for this helpful observation of how Torrance’s criticisms of dualism work themselves out. See Colyer, How to Read, pp. 57–60. Colyer is indebted to Torrance’s remarks in, among other places, Reality & Evangelical Theology (Downer’s Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1999), pp. 31–34.

[7]Torrance’s indebtedness to Karl Barth at this point can be seen in his “Karl Barth and the Latin Heresy,” which originally appeared as an article in the Scottish Journal of Theology 39 (1986), pp. 461–482 and was later included in Torrance’s Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (Edinburgh: 1990), pp. 213–240.

[8]Colyer, How to Read, p. 57.

[9]McGrath, Torrance, pp. 143–144.

[10]Torrance, “Latin Heresy,” pp. 215–216. Barth’s and Torrance’s criticism of various dualisms is therefore grounded in their concern that God’s revelation not be severed from his being and in the intimate relations between the Father and the Son within the Trinitarian Godhead. Torrance’s major concern is to guard and build upon the homoousial nature of the three persons of the Godhead.

[11]Torrance, Reality, pp. 27–30.

[12]Torrance, Reality, p. 29.

[13]I would note Torrance’s discussion of the scientific examination of the atom and how James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of the electro-magnetic field exemplifies an understanding of atoms as bodies-in-relation and not as isolated entities. It is this bodies-in-relation notion that gets at the heart of Torrance’s holism or kataphysic approach to scientific (and scientific theological) method. See Colyer, How to Read, p. 186 and W. Jim Neidhardt’s introduction in The Christian Frame of Mind (Colorado Springs: Helmer’s & Howard, 1989), pp. xxiv-xxxi.

[14]Colyer, How to Read, 322–323.

[15]Torrance has denied dependence upon these writers, although he has obviously read their literary output. See McGrath, Torrance, pp. 229f for more on this.

[16]Thomas F. Torrance, Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge: Explorations in the Interrelations of Scientific and Theological Enterprise (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), p. 42.

[17]Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1976), p. 191.

[18]Colyer, How to Read, p. 337.

[19]Colyer, How to Read, p. 337.

[20]Colyer, How to Read, p. 340.

[21]Torrance reminds us that these elements are often intermingled. Reality, pp. 31–32.

[22]Torrance, Reality, p. 32.

[23]Torrance, Reality, p. 32.

[24]Thomas F. Torrance, The Ground and Grammar of Theology: Consonance Between Theology and Science (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001), p. 21. Plato was trying to relate Heraclitus (flux) and Parmenides (staticism).

[25]Torrance, Ground, p. 21.

[26]Torrance holds that Kant was in fact responding to a whole tradition, including Galileo, Newton, Locke and Descartes. Galileo distinguished between geometrical aspects of reality and the phenomenal appearances of things and this was carried through in philosophical circles. Ground, pp. 23–25.

[27]Particularly, I am thinking of Hume’s rejection of the relationship of cause and effect.

[28]McGrath, Torrance, pp. 217–218. McGrath quotes from well-known Anglican New Testament scholar, Nicholas Thomas (N. T.) Wright’s New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 35.

[29]This is not surprising given the fact that the natural sciences were originally included within the parameters of philosophy.

[30]There would be too many books to list if I were to cite every article, chapter or book that Torrance wrote concerning the relation of science to theology. See the bibliographies in Colyer, How to Read, pp. 375–386 and in McGrath (which is a complete listing), Torrance, pp. 249–296.

[31]Torrance, Ground, p. 22f.

[32]Torrance, Ground, p. 23.

[33]Torrance, Ground, p. 23. See similar remarks in his Preaching Christ Today:The Gospel and Scientific Thinking (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 4–5. A perusal of almost any New Testament introduction, not to mention the Old Testament introductions, will confirm Torrance’s evaluation of this overarching dualism.

[34]Hamilton is known for his connection to British idealism and to Thomas Reid and Scottish Common Sense Realism philosophy. For More information on Hamilton, see J. David Hoeveler, James McCosh and the Scottish Intellectual Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).

[35]Torrance, Ground, p. 7.

[36]Colyer, How to Read, pp. 322–374. While not intending to distort Torrance or Colyer, my brief description undoubtedly does that.

[37]Torrance, “Latin Heresy,” p. 215.

[38]Torrance tells us that he met with Barth shortly before he died in 1968 and that Barth reacted positively to Torrance’s remaking of natural theology.

[39]As a Christian I am, of course, assuming the reality of an extra mental universe created by the God of Scripture and pre-interpreted by him and upheld in his sovereignty.

[40]What I am saying here could just as easily apply to the natural sciences and theology, but by now we should not be surprised by the interpenetrating (one could almost say perichoretic) nature of the realities we are discussing.

[41]A distinction needs to be made between natural revelation and natural theology. I will speak to this issue in more depth below.

[42]I will address the nature of God’s revelation of himself below.

[43]I have not addressed the noetic effects of sin at this point. What we are saying holds true whether sin is in the picture or not. I am quite obviously indebted to Cornelius Van Til’ thought here.

[44]Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time & Resurrection (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998), p. 191–193, speaks of something like a chain of being in reference to Polanyi’s notion of tacit knowledge and levels of deeper knowledge imbedded in the universe.

[45]Again, I am not arguing that Maxwell, Einstein and Polanyi are wrong. What I am saying is that given the chimerical nature of the scientific enterprise, Christians ought to hold any and possibly every scientific theory at a distance. For instance, is it wise, as Torrance appears to do, to depend upon the “big bang” theory of the universe’s beginnings, even though it allows for the possibility of singularities which would, of course, create room within a scientific worldview for things like the incarnation and the resurrection? I can accept the argument for singularities, without embracing the “big bang” theory of the origins of he universe. For a helpful discussion of the shifting nature of scientific paradigms, see Thomas Kuhn, The Structures of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961).

[46]While special revelation is primarily redemptive in focus, it is not limited to redemptive concerns. With Cornelius Van Til, I would affirm that God’s verbal communication (special revelation) with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden before the Fall involved an awareness of natural or general revelation. To prohibit the couple from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil presupposed their awareness of and knowledge about other trees. The point being that man could know nothing without some kind of revelation.

[47]Natural revelation does not reveal the Trinitarian nature of God, but it doesn’t lead to a wholly different God, as I believe natural theology, in ignoring revelation, does. See Van Til’s “Nature and Scripture,” in The Infallible Word (Edited by Ned B. Stonehouse and Paul Woolley. Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1967), pp 267–301.

[48]I realize that Torrance’s The Uniqueness of Divine Revelation and the Authority of the Scriptures (Edinbrugh: Rutherford House, 1995), pp. 2–3, appears to contradict this point, but a closer reading supports my point.

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Benjamin P. Glaser

11 years ago

I am taking a course at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary this Fall on the Theology of T.F. Torrance and thank you for this essay.

Jeff Waddington

11 years ago

Ben

Happy to be of some help. If you listen to the latest CTC, an interview with R. Scott Clark, and check the bibliography with that, you will note that IVP is coming out with the first volume of set based upon Torrance’s lectures on Christology at Edinburgh. I would imagine that will be mentioned in the class. May I ask who the professor will be for the course?

Julio Folson

9 years ago

Pete Provence

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