For those not familiar with Thomas F. Torrance and his unique contribution to dogmatics, here’s a little introduction. I will utilize excerpts from his 1981 lectures delivered at Fuller Theological Seminary, “The Realist Basis of Evangelical Theology,” published as Reality and Evangelical Theology (Wipf & Stock, reprint edition, 2003).
Torrance was the son of Scottish missionaries serving in China, where he was born in 1913 († 2007). His academic training included Edinburgh, Oxford, and eventually Basel (Switzerland) where he studied under Karl Barth. Barth’s influence is often noted and debated, but it should in no wise detract from his credentials as a significant theologian in his own right, traversing academic terrain scarcely touched by Barth. In particular, Torrance canvassed the difficult field of advanced theoretical physics with a boldness gained by a steady confidence in the Lordship of Christ over all of our thinking, or, in short, over all of reality. The Christocentrism running throughout Barth’s Church Dogmatics (which T.F.T. edited) is taken, with Torrance, into all of creation. For those, like me, who like to harp on about the sectarian thought patterns in (much of) evangelical thinking, Thomas Torrance is a gift.
Reason and Reality
It is interesting to note how Torrance understands “rationality.” He doesn’t have a formalized understanding of “what is rational” in the sense of laws intrisic to reason, as if “thinking” could be taken by itself and considered purely, apart from its “object,” the world. No, it is more simple than that: “Man acts rationally only under the complusion of reality and its intrinsic order…” (p. 26). In other words, you are being rational to the extent that your mind is impressed by the governance of the world. If you are telling rightly of existence, you are thinking rightly. In science, this is done, and progressively so, by an openness to reality, such that the “out there” is the absolute towards which our thinking is related (=relative). When science forgets its relativity, it no longer allows nature the absolute claim it rightly has. If nature does not have this absolute claim, then our own thinking (subjectivity) substitutes for the absolute; science then becomes a plaything of the postmodern linguists. Thus, it is imperative that science recognize the relativity of its formulas, not in order that science become “relativistic” but that it become ever more “objectivistic.” The “relativism” of common parlance is ruled out (if not entirely) by the fact that the objective referent in science contains a rationality of its own, independent of our own reasoning. But, the independence of the objective referent does not disallow the dependence of the subjective referrer. As dependent, the referrer can never be cut off entirely without at once losing his or her ability to make any claims to rationality at all, given, once again, the defintion of reason as a disclosure of reality. Thus, the move to absolute skepticism must include a claim to absurdity on the part of the skeptic, i.e., a claim to never know that one knows something. However, if our starting principle is that it is the world and not merely our thoughts that we are dealing with, then an authentic relativism can never wholly collapse into subjectivism.
God and Reality
Torrance sees a parallel between this realist requirement for scientific knowledge and the realism required by Christian dogmatics:
“The more we know of the universe today, the more we find that we have to do with states of affairs governed by an inherent rationality which is always and everywhere utterly reliable and which, while commanding our respect and rational assent, retains a mysterious transcendence over all our understanding and knowledge of it. Thus while our science is pursued in passionate commitment to the objective reality of the universe and under the compelling claims of its intrinsic rationality upon our minds and is dedicated to the task of making contact with reality and grasping it in the depth of that rationality, this does not mean that we are ever able by our science to capture that reality within our conceptual structures and theoretical formalizations. The very reality we grasp is possessed of a rationality of such an indefinite range that it outstrips all that we can think or say, conceive or formulate, about it.” (p. 12)
And thus we have a common epistemological principle in theology:
“How much more should a realism of this kind characterize theological inquiry and doctrinal formulation! Here we have to reckon above all with the unique Reality and transcendent Rationality of the Lord God who created the universe out of nothing and gave it a contingent reality in utter differentiation from his own and a contingent rationality in continuous dependence on his own. By its very nature the self-revelation of this God summons us to acknowledge the absolute priority of God’s Word over all the media of its communication and reception, and over all understanding and interpretation of its Truth. The Word and Truth of God reach us and address us on their own free ground and on their own authority, for they cannot be understood, interpreted, far less assessed for what they are, on any other standard besides themselves. Hence in all our response to God’s Word and in all formulation of divine Truth we are summoned to let God retain his own reality, majesty, and authority over against us. In divine revelation we have to do with a Word of God which is what it is as Word of God in its own reality independent of our recognition of it, and we have to do with a Truth of God which is what it is as Truth of God before we come to know it to be true. That means that in all our response to God’s self-revelation as it is mediated to us in space and time through the Holy Scriptures we must seek to understand and interpret it in accordance with its intrinsic requirements and under the constraint of the truth which bears upon our minds in and through it, and not in accordance with requirements of thought which we bring to it or under the constraint of rigid habits of belief which we retain at the back of our minds irrespective of what we may experience beyond ourselves.” (p. 13)
Thus, dogmatics is a science, wherein God is the objective referent (albeit a free Subject) and our theological formulations, whether Chalcedonian or Dordtian, are the subjective referrers. Given the relativity of the latter, it is critical for the Church to never close itself within its particular formulae. The “form” that we give God can never be the true Form that is God himself. The classic example for Torrance of science closing itself, content with its subjectivities, is the dominance of Newtonian science for generations, which was unable to account for the reality of the universe as it forced itself upon a new generation of scientists in the last century, namely with Einstein and Planck. The parallel examples in Christian doctrine include, e.g., the sacramental and ecclesial theology of the medieval Church and the predestinarian schemes of the Reformed churches — all representative, for Torrance, of a theology untethered to its object, Jesus Christ. (Of course, T.F.T. blames Augustine for much of this.) The endurance of Greek patristic thought — Christ as true God and true man — is its utter realist claim, that the God we have (=revealed) in the man Jesus Christ is the one true God of Israel, whole and entire.
There’s much more to be said about Torrance’s work, but I think the above points are the most fundamental to understanding his mission. Like Barth, Torrance ever retained the immense unity of his thought, following the ramifications as far as he could.