Torrance: relating grace and nature

This series explores T.F. Torrance in Plain English wherein author Stephen D. Morrison unpacks nine key ideas in Thomas F. Torrance's Christ-centered, Trinitarian theology. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 456789.  

Last time we looked at Torrance's key idea that God is known truly only when we know him in accordance with his nature (thus scientifically). This time we'll examine a corollary key idea, here summarized by Stephen Morrison:
Torrance agrees with Karl Barth's famous rejection of an independent natural theology, but goes beyond Barth by integrating (contextualizing) natural theology within divine revelation. This is understood best through the relationship of grace and nature: grace does not destroy nature, it perfects and fulfills nature. (p. 67)
With this key understanding, Torrance overcame the false (and unfortunate) dualism that views revelation (faith) and science as hopelessly at odds. Indeed, one of Torrance's great achievements was the way he fostered positive dialogue between Christian theology and the natural sciences.

"God the Geometer" (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Why did Torrance reject the idea that God can be known through nature apart from direct interaction of God with his creation? Morrison answers:
[For Torrance] the God of an independent natural theology ultimately becomes an abstract projection of our best thoughts, since God has been ripped apart from His acts in Jesus.... Certainly there is a bridge from God to humanity (in the incarnation) but there is no bridge from humanity up into the being of God. We cannot take from our world analogies, or even our best rational thoughts, and project them onto God. That's mythology, not proper theological thinking. (p. 70)
To Torrance, accepting an independent natural theology would be tantamount to ignoring the biblical teaching that justification comes by God's grace, not by human works. Morrison comments:
[According to Torrance] since we cannot be justified by works, we also cannot know God through works of the intellect. Knowledge of God... must come from God and not from ourselves. (p. 71)
For Torrance, justification by grace not only sets aside any idea of natural goodness, it also sets aside an independent natural theology, for "both belong to natural man" (p. 71). That being said, Torrance also taught that grace does not destroy nature. Instead, grace sets nature on a whole new foundation. Morrison elaborates:
If we rely on an independent natural theology for true knowledge of God, we likewise delude ourselves with hopeless self-justification. God alone reveals God, and therefore, if God is known it is by grace. This does not remove the fact that we remain human beings bound to a natural rationality, a natural knowledge, but it does displace our knowledge as a valid foundation for the knowledge of God. In its place we find God's knowledge of Godself, shared with us in the mind of Jesus Christ, which becomes the only true foundation for theology. Our rationality still has a part to play, but it is no longer a valid foundation for theology to be built upon. (p. 72)
As Morrison goes on to note, rather than being removed by revelation, our natural rationality is renewed and reformed---made natural to divine revelation. Said another way, rather than being destroyed by grace, nature is perfected by grace. Morrison explains:
Divine revelation does not remove the need for natural theology, since revelation cannot remove the human subject who is the recipient of revelation; but revelation reforms and renews our natural theology, forming new modes of thought, which arise naturally in correspondence to God's self revelation. God's Word does not make human words about God unnecessary, but it does force a change in human forms of thinking and speaking. (p. 73)
For Torrance, natural theology appropriately and helpfully serves as the form for the knowledge of God that is given us by revelation. In that way, natural theology is necessary but it is not sufficient. The challenge we all face is that of repentance (metanoia)---conforming our thinking (our rationality) to the reality of divine revelation. This means learning to talk and think consistently in accordance with God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ. As Morrison puts it, "Revelation cannot fit within our modes of thought, but must be transformed to rightly correspond to God's Word" (p. 76).