Introduction to T.F. Torrance's theology (part 3): scientific theology

This post continues a series exploring T.F. Torrance in Recollection and Reappraisal by Bruce Ritchie. For other posts in this series, click a number: 1, 2.

Last time, we looked at Ritchie's overview of several foundational understandings in Torrance's incarnational and Trinitarian theology. This time, we'll explore T.F.'s theological method, which he refers to as theological science.

Fish Magic by Paul Klee (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Decrying the tendency in Western thought since the Enlightenment to divorce form (structure) from content (meaning), T.F. was committed to an approach to theology that utilizes the best methodologies of the natural sciences--ones "in which form and content are grasped as a unity, and in which what an object presents to us on the one hand, and its inner meaning on the other, are in harmony and are not disjoined" (pp. 41-42). Applied to theology, this methodology involves allowing God (the object of inquiry) to determine how God is to be known--allowing God to communicate his rationality to us rather than imposing on God our thinking arising from our own experience and presuppositions concerning God. Utilizing this theological method takes a good deal of discipline, for it means seeking to know God in a manner appropriate to his nature, thus allowing God to be God. With this methodology, "the object (God) determines the mode of knowing, as well as the content of what we know" (p. 43).

But how do we go about applying T.F.'s scientific methodology to theology? The answer is that we begin with what God has revealed to us concerning Godself, rather than beginning with human thoughts about God (including our thoughts and experiences). Ritchie observes that 

the central task of [a scientific] theology is in listening to God's Word concerning God and humanity.... In theological science the enquirer ceases to be lord and becomes servant. In this epistemological reversal, it is the object of enquiry (God) who becomes the active agent in our knowledge of him... [In that way] the human enquirer allows the nature of the object to determine the manner and mode of the investigation. (pp. 48, 52, 53) 

Ritchie then adds this remark concerning T.F.'s theological method:

Undergirding everything is the discovery that God, out of pure grace, has given himself to us; hence our knowing and thinking of him reposes upon his prior decision or movement in grace to be the object of our knowing and thinking.... Torrance taught us [that] God must be allowed to be the living God. God is himself directly involved in revelation and reconciliation. If theologians put this principle aside then they build atheistic premises deep into the foundations of their [theological] science. (p. 53)

Continuing on the topic of theological science, Ritchie explores T.F.'s teaching concerning natural science--specifically how it is that we understand the nature of the physical cosmos. Key here is the understanding that the cosmos is knowable (i.e. intelligible), "amenable to scientific investigation, precisely because God the creator has granted it its own rationality" (p. 54). As T.F. also noted, "all empirical science depends on nature being created out of nothing, and being given a contingent order... the whole scientific enterprise is given to humanity by God, in order that the Universe may come to knowledge of itself and may glorify its creator" (p. 54).

In describing his scientific theology, T.F. often cited Albert Einstein's method in studying the natural sciences. Though Einstein saw an objective randomness at the core of physical reality, he nevertheless was convinced that beneath that apparent randomness is an inherent order (structure). But how is that structure discovered? His answer was that it will not be discovered when the scientist imposes an order of their own devising upon nature. Rather the answer is found when the scientist seeks to discover the structure that exists, independent from their scientific inquiry. 

T.F.'s theology follows the same scientific method in seeking to understand the nature of God. T.F. understood that it is all too easy to impose on God a nature and structure grounded in our presuppositions and experiences, but when that is done, what is discovered is not God (as God truly is) but a god we have created in our own image. Said another way, a truly scientific theology allows God to reveal himself--to give us the "lens" of his definition through which we then may view God, and thus come to know God, as God truly is.

What then is this "lens"? T.F. taught that it is none other than the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. Thus, if we wish to understand who God is, we first must understand who Jesus is, for he is the lens that God has given to reveal Godself. In that regard, understanding the Incarnation is paramount. As Ritchie notes, the reality behind Jesus of Nazareth is the Incarnation, and and understanding of the Incarnation changes everything, including how we read the Gospels, the written word of God, through which God reveals Jesus to us: 

Our reading of the Gospels is transformed when we acknowledge Jesus to be God incarnate. Until we grasp the proper nature of what we are observing, we miss what is in plain sight. Thus we cannot understand Jesus' "speech" (i.e., the physical, audible, observable phenomena) until we hear his "word" (i.e., the fundamental logic of the gospel arising from who he is). (p. 59)

In concluding this section on T.F.'s scientific method for studying God, Ritchie points to T.F.'s humility in noting that "theological knowledge involves apprehension rather than comprehension." Moreover, "the human mind can only ever apprehend part of the reality [of God]... and can never comprehend the whole of it. Nevertheless, and importantly, what can be known is true knowledge even if it has depths which have not yet been plumbed" (p. 61).

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