Torrance: knowing God according to his nature

This series explores T.F. Torrance in Plain English in which author Stephen D. Morrison unpacks nine key ideas in Thomas F. (T. F.) Torrance's Christ-centered, Trinitarian theology. For other posts in this series, click a number: 1, 3456789.  

Last time we looked at T.F.'s theological method, which yields what he calls a scientific theology. This post looks at a fundamental precept of that method: We know God truly only when we know him in accordance with his nature (thus scientifically).

For T. F., knowledge in any field of inquiry (be it a natural science or Christian theology) is true only to the extent that it accords with the actual nature of the reality it seeks to describe. Borrowing a phrase from Greek, T. F. calls such knowledge kata physin (κατα φυσιν)---knowledge that is according to nature. As Morrison notes, "Behind kata physin is the notion that every reality has its own intrinsic rationality to know it by" (p. 63). Accordingly, T. F.'s theological method is grounded in the precept that reality itself must be free to determine how we know it, how we verify our knowledge of it, and what kind of rationality we understand it with. As applied to the knowledge of God, only God can reveal Godself. There is no other source.

Growth in knowing God requires repentance

For T. F., disciplining our thinking about God so that it is kata physin, requires an "epistemological repentance... changing our minds in the light of Jesus Christ, and learning to think of God exclusively in terms of God's self-revelation" (p. 41). Unfortunately, much thinking about God in Christian circles is in accordance with human reasoning rather than God's self-revelation. Morrison comments:
If theology is to be truly scientific in its knowledge of God, then theology cannot seek to know God primarily through philosophical speculation, apologetical proofs, or even by stringing together a series of out-of-context Bible verses. No, if theology is to be faithful in its pursuit of the knowledge of God, then theology must come to know God in accordance with God's very being and nature. This means taking up the "mind of Christ," and undergoing a "renewal of the mind" by the Holy Spirit in union with Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 2:16, Rom. 12:2). This means giving God absolute sovereignty in our knowledge of God, thinking not with a center in ourselves but with a center in God's self-revelation.... God is known only through God (pp. 43-44)
The Trinity by Rublev (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Three levels in knowing God

For T. F., coming to a deep, accurate knowledge of God as God (i.e. kata physin) involves a progressive journey through three levels (or stages) of knowing: 1) evangelical, 2) theological and 3) scientific. Here is a summary of each (Morrison gives greater detail):

1. The evangelical level. This level relates to our personal encounters with God through our day-to-day worship of God within the fellowship of the church. Knowledge acquired at this level involves our intuitive reasoning in which we come to "know more than we can express" (p. 48).

2. The theological level. From level one we move (without leaving the first level behind) to theological knowledge, as we consider the God we have experienced in level one, gaining a more precise understanding of God, contemplating who this God has revealed himself to be as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

3. The scientific level. From level two, we move to level three (not leaving levels one and two behind), to what T. F. calls "the higher theological and scientific level" (p. 50)---moving from God for us (the economic Trinity) to God in Godself (the ontological Trinity). At this level, we penetrate more deeply into God's self-communication, coming to understand more fully that
who God is for us in Jesus Christ is who God is antecedently in Godself. [As we  enter level three] we move from the external acts of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit to the internal relations of the Godhead. [As we do] we contemplate the very mystery of God's innermost being. This leads us to... know the depths of the love of God's [own] life and to experience our inclusion in this communion of love. (p. 51)
It is important to note that T. F. sees these three levels of growth in the knowledge of God as fully unified. Moreover, he sees them as involving a progressive journey from the first to the third, grounded throughout from the third to the first. Morrison comments on this journey:
As God encounters us, as God meets us in our lives through the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the Gospel, we encounter God's innermost reality and are led to articulate the knowledge of God who has encountered us. (pp. 51-52)
As implied, this knowledge of God as God comes only through a personal relationship with Jesus by the Spirit. Growth in that relationship (and thus in personal knowing) always involves repentance---a continuing journey of submitting ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit as he conforms our thinking about God to the reality of Godself revealed fully and finally in Jesus Christ. Such growth means "both an evangelical encounter with God and a refined theological knowledge of God" (p. 58). In this personal knowing of God there is no dualism---no split between "heart knowledge" and "head knowledge." Both are essential, and in accordance with the Spirit's ministry are integrally related. May we all, by God's grace, experience growth in all three levels of knowing the triune God.