I’m reviewing Thomas F. Torrance’s Theological Science (1969) for a particular reason. It’s part of my preparation for a response to comments on this book by Alister McGrath, Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford. The event will take place in November at a meeting of the TF Torrance Society, immediately preceding the larger yearly meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature in San Antonio, Texas.
Theological Science is one of those books that reasonably easy to summarize—that is, to offer a core thesis—but that could also be reviewed in long-form, since it is almost impossible to do justice in the 2500 or so words I’m allowing myself here.
So let me offer what’s easy, before I attempt the impossible.
Torrance’s core thesis could be summarized as follows:
Torrance’s core thesis could be summarized as follows:
Theology is a rational human enterprise or science, which bases itself on the Word of God as its Object. Its rationality and objectivity offer substantive connections with, as well as certain dissimilarities from, the natural sciences.
McGrath, for his part (and here I might be stalling a bit) presents four central components of Torrance’s “scientific theology” (Intellectual Biography, 235),
- Realist epistemology
- Rejection of a priori modes of thinking; “scientific and theological thinking takes place a posteriori, after the actuality of knowledge”
- Need to respond to each reality according to its own distinctive nature
- The “truth” of reality is muliti-layered
Note in all this, Torrance is focusing on the connections between theology and the natural sciences at the level of the method or methodology (by the latter I mean, discussions of method).
The key to unfolding Torrance a bit further is that he is a rationalist and that theology, in his view, is also rational. This key does indeed unlock central convictions in Torrance’s thought.
With the emphasis on rationality and thus objectivity of the object (or Object) in mind, I will sketch a summary of the book’s argument (and I highlight sketch here—this is a very intricate monograph). Torrance begins Theological Science in his first chapter (of six), The Knowledge of God, by developing a theological epistemology, and here I’ll take some space to cite him because of the centrality of this assertion:
What we have been concerned to do, is to show that Christian theology has its place of enquiry within the field of rational knowledge, and to claim that in accordance with its attempt to behave in terms of the nature of its own proper object, it must be allowed to adopt and modify language, to shape and form its own concepts, and to delimit or expand its use of terms, like any other branch of knowledge or science. (25)
In the second chapter, The Nature of Scientific Activity, Torrance reviews the development of scientific knowledge. He takes a swipe (justified in my view) at problems with the impassibility of God in medieval theology (59ff) and its negative effects on science because it suppresses the contingency of nature. This trend found a rejoinder, accompanied by a spur for the development of modern science, in the Reformation (this is one of Torrance’s heroic errors) which was able “to restore in its fullness the biblical doctrine of the living, acting God as Creator and Father,” that brought “a more dynamic and active way of thinking” (65). Its emphasis on the objectivity of the Word was central to the development of science: “Utter respect for objectivity is the sine qua non of scientific activity” (85). Thus he finds a major connection between theological science and natural science, even if he also cautions that “Both natural science and scientific theology operate through a methodological exclusion of one another, for by their very nature they move in opposite directions.” Then he notes concept of complementarity in quantum physics (principally developed by Niels Bohr) and adds, “Therefore the more exactly natural science and scientific theology are pursued, the sharper the distinction but the greater the complementarity exists between them” (102).
In the third chapter, The Nature of Scientific Activity, Torrance reminds his readers (following A. D. Ritchie) that “there is no Science in the singular, for there are only sciences” (106) and continues to reclaim a key distinction, between scientia generalis and scientia specialis, general and special science. Theology is the latter and must always pay attention to “divine self-disclosure” (113), i.e., its Object, Jesus Christ (133)—and here he sounds like a true disciple of his teacher, Karl Barth when he emphasizes “the centrality of Jesus Christ as the self-objectification of God for us in our humanity, that is, from the supremacy of Christology in our knowledge of God” (137). I’ll return to this centrality of Christ “anon” (with a vague allusion to what N. T. Wright might say here).
The Nature of Truth forms the theme of chapter four. In Christian theology, truth is understood “as Personal Being revealed to us in Jesus Christ” (141). Here I need to be sure to highlight a distinction Torrance makes via David Hume on “existence statements” and “coherence statements.” To paraphrase the ultimate scholarly source, SparkNotes,
Hume’s language drew a distinction between "relations of ideas" and "matters of fact." Relations of ideas are a priori and indestructible bonds created between ideas. All logically true statements such as "5 + 7 = 12" and "all bachelors are unmarried" are relations of ideas. Matters of fact deal with experience: that the sun is shining, that yesterday I went for a walk, or that it will rain tomorrow are all matters of fact. They are learned a posteriori, and can be denied without fear of contradiction. If it is sunny outside and I assert that it is raining, I can only be proven wrong by looking out the window and checking: my assertion cannot be disproved simply by an appeal to logic and reason.
All this will return, but at this point, I need to make a brief excursus by referencing a quip that one of my professors, Timothy Lull, made about Karl Barth—and since Torrance is entirely influenced by Barth, it works for him too. I’ll call it the Lull Rubric.
“What is the answer to every theological loci for Barth?” “Jesus Christ.”“Let’s try it—What is creation? Jesus Christ.
What is election? Jesus Christ.
What is the Word of God? Jesus Christ.”
You see how it works—start every answer to a theological question with “Jesus Christ” and proceed from there. It’s not a bad summary of Barth and not an entirely distorting path to understand Torrance.
Let’s see what the Lull Rubric leads our understanding of Torrance and particularly how theology as a science relates to the other sciences on the nature of truth. (I’m continuing in chapter four.)
First on the objectivity of knowledge in his chapter on The Nature of Truth and poses the question, What is theological knowledge? Jesus Christ or
Knowledge is real only as it is in accordance with the nature of the object, but the nature of the object prescribes the mode or rationality we have to adopt towards it in our knowing, and also the nature of the demonstration appropriate to it. (198)
Thus there is a striking similarity with the other sciences and yet also this difference: “justification by the Grace of God in Jesus Christ applies not only to our life and action, but to our knowledge, and is essentially relevant to epistemology” (198).
Or later, Torrance comments on the question, How we verify theological statements scientifically? Jesus Christ, or with more nuance,"the verification of our theological statements consists, as we saw, in their reference to Jesus Christ… [as it] reaches us through the Christ and through the witness to Him in the Scriptures in the midst of the Church.” (199-200)
The Problems of Logic (chapter five) must feel weighty because Torrance uses the greatest amount of pages (almost 80 for this topic. “How are we to relate the logos of man to the Logos of God, formal logic to the Logic of God?” He ponders. We cannot “climb up to God and pry into His Mind…” (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9), and so we rely on “His self-giving and self-objectification for us” (205). And just in case the Lull Rubric be forgot—“By ‘the logic of God’ we can only mean Jesus Christ, for He and no other is the eternal Logos of God become flesh” (205-6, italics mine).
Ah, there is so much here, but I find myself running out of space! Let me highlight a few final highlights from this chapter.
We must keep steadily in front of us the distinction between the logic of empirical reference which is directed to material relations in objective reality, and the logic of systematic correlation which has to do with formal relations in our theoretic demonstrations, and at the same time see how they are coordinated with each other, but it must be clearly recognized that we are using ‘logic’ in two different ways relative to the acts of reasoning involved.(225)
These are, respectively, the “logic of active inquiry” and “the logic of formal argument” or Sachlogik, and Sprachlogik. 225-6. If you’re listening closely, you can hear the existence- and coherence-statements in the background.
Formal logic doesn’t do justice entirely for the natural sciences: “Formal logic does not claim to accumulate truths but only lay down a clear system of rules for formal validity that applicable in every science irrespective of their factual truth or content…” (247). It certainly cannot contain theological truth.
So he offers a few summary statements—again repeating the limitations of formal logic, 272:
It is of utmost importance, therefore, to bear in mind the limitations of formal or symbolic logic, its abstraction from existence and actuality and its restriction to timeless and motionless involution. In logical thinking of this kind we are shut up to the world of pure possibility and thereby exclude from the world of reality. (272)
(Just in case “involution” wasn’t at the tip or your tongue, in physiology it is the shrinkage of an organ in old age or when inactive, e.g., of the uterus after childbirth, and in mathematics it means a function, transformation, or operator that is equal to its inverse, i.e., which gives the identity when applied to itself.)
Then offering an overview of theological science (which, after all, is the title of the book), Torrance writes,
A scientific theology of any worth at all shares with rigorous logic the concern for purity of form and statement in the attempt to cut away the false assumptions and inappropriate ideas that have grown up uncritically in popular thought and have become deeply lodged in our ordinary and colloquial language…. (277)
This sounds like a subtly articulated exposition of an intellectually rigorous theology.
And finally, this: we cannot allow “formal logic to dictate the forms in which we develop our understanding of God and His renewal of creation,” still must respect and use it, even a theologian’s
though will inevitably have a novelty of form baffling to the natural thinker and that the new content which he seeks to express in grammatical and logical language may impose too heavy a strain on it. As Jesus taught us, the new wine will burst the old wine-skins.” (280)
We arrive then at the final chapter, Theological Science Among Special Sciences, recalling of course, this distinction in chapter thee between scientia generalis and scientia specialis, general and special science. He notes first similarities between theology and other sciences (286-95)—(1) a human inquiry, (2) “externally given reality,” (3) no “preconceived metaphysics,” (4) come to a line “they cannot penetrate and cannot attempt to pass without inconsistency and error,” (5) problem of relating their particular language to ordinary language.
Naturally, there are considerable differences, that theology involves history and “the fact of Christ” (312ff.), and yet even there we must keep in mind uniqueness—that the historical Jesus not “merely as an ordinary historical episode like all others,” i.e., that this is just one instance of a parallel to a natural scientific law of nature (322).
With consideration of Jesus Christ, “we cannot but treat this historical event as we treat other historical events.” And yet (322-3), it is distinguished “as one resulting primarily from a divine movement….” (Here Torrance, on pages 327ff., puts in some criticism of Rudolf Bultmann, which strikes the modern reader as a bit of a period piece.)
Torrance offers a long and fascinating discussion of dogma (338ff.), where dogma is what is true to the object so that there are dogmas (or teachings) in natural science. He concludes with this:
Dogmatics, like the Church itself, stands or falls with sheer respect for the Majesty and Freedom of God in His Word and for the transcendence of His Truth over all our statements about it even when we do our utmost to make them aright (that is dogmatically) in accordance with the rectitude of the Truth itself as it comes to light in our inquiry into the divine Revelation (352).
I think I’m a bit too stunned by the experience of taking three months to work through this book carefully to have too much analysis. My sense is one of appreciation for Torrance’s hard work in demonstrating the connection between theology as a science and other sciences. I’m not sure it would convince the usual suspects of atheist polemics—e.g., Dawkins, Hitchens, Coyne. Even further, one of the characteristics of this book is a remarkable lack of apologetics. He’s not overly troubled by the problems that science presents for theology (at least he doesn’t name them extensively). And maybe it’s due to Torrance’s experience, “I cannot but be convinced of His [God’s] overwhelming reality and rationality” (ix). That conviction certainly diverges from mine—or say, C. S. Lewis, Wolfhart Panneberg, or Alister McGrath’s—where all three (I’ll now remove myself from this august list) had to be convinced of God’s reality and, in their oeuvres, spend a great deal of space and time convincing others of the truth of Christian thought. Torrance is simply wrapped up in its beautiful rationality and intricacy. As I’ve heard it said in another context, this book is about signification over justification. He’s not trying to justify that theology is rational, but to signify how it is the case. Still, with these comments in mind, Theological Science reminded me that theological is indeed a rigorous intellectual discipline and that it can stand up to the rigorous standards of other sciences. That message sounds remarkably necessary and timely almost fifty years later.
After all this—and much more that I didn’t cover—this reader was tired. Torrance is reasonably verbose—he employs a Torrance of words perhaps—and as I worked through this book carefully the past few months, I found myself saying, “Find an editor, or at least make another draft!” It almost as if I was reading German translated woodenly into English. But beyond that, the density arises from his erudition and (most likely) my ignorance. As David Galilee exclaimed in his 1970 review of Theological Science, this is “a book of immense erudition; its author has read everything about everything and much besides!”
Through all this (and much more), Torrance makes a remarkably consistent point. Theology, as a science, like all other sciences, pays particular attention—and creates its methods—in light of its object, namely, Jesus Christ. (Let us never forget the Lull Rubric.) At Princeton Seminary, I heard Torrance speak (the only time I heard him live), and he began by remarking (and I paraphrase from memory) that he was always and simply “a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” And in some very unusual, important, and remarkable way that is what who he is here as well.