Torrance's scientific theology

This post is from Neil Earle, who teaches Christian History at Grace Communion Seminary.

Thomas F. Torrance is widely recognized for his work in correlating cosmology with Christian theology. In How to Read T.F. Torrance, Elmer Colyer quotes Torrance as saying that his aim was to “clear the ground for a rigorous Christian dogmatics within the contingent rational order with which the Creator has marvelously endowed the universe.” In fulfillment of this aim, Torrance set forth an impressive series of articles, books and lectures. These investigations into ‘scientific theology” undergirded his claim that the New Physics—those developments in the early 1900s spearheaded by Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Max Planck and Kurt Gödel— “was not uncongenial” to theology (Divine and Contingent Order, 70). In fact, argued Torrance, the new discoveries resonated well with aspects of Christian thought that date back to Patristic times. 

This post outlines an analysis of Torrance’s interests as a scientific theologian who held that a ready grasp of Nicene and post-Nicene theology was key to his stated task. Torrance’s “critical realist” perspective reflected a conviction that a philosophy of “the science of theology” was both needed and opportune. Creative penetrations into the nature of reality necessitated by the epistemological consequences of the New Physics illuminated the Trinitarian discussions of the early church. In early life his attempted harmonization was stimulated by contacts with his wife’s cousin, Sir Bernard Lovell, and in late life by a deep friendship with the distinguished Princeton physicist John Wheeler, a student and colleague of Niels Bohr. Torrance donated his winnings of the Templeton Prize in Science to create an Institute dedicated to the further integration of these fields at Princeton, a measure of how seriously he took his task.

In Space, Time and Resurrection (STR), Torrance outlined four aspects of the Einsteinian and post-Einsteinian outlook upon the cosmos which he saw as opportune for a reality-based “scientific theology.” Combined with Torrance’s insights from other salient works such as Theological and Natural Science (TNS) and Divine and Contingent Order (DCO), it is possible to see a bold apologetic at work. Torrance was convinced that Einsteinian principles had broken up the reigning Enlightenment paradigm of mechanical cause and effect, and an obsession with process, to call for a reengagement of what is actually there before the rational investigator. This meant that the One who held all things together, the “God who hides” in Isaiah’s eloquent formulation, had created a cosmos in which he was free to “come out of himself,” and yet still be God in the words of the sixth century physicist John Philoponus. 

For Torrance, this meant four things:

1. A fresh approach to the concept of reality itself where the invisible matters as much or more than the visible

Torrance scholar Todd Speidell explains that such dualistic imperatives as spirit vs. matter have the side-effect of militating against the reality of a Christian union with Christ. Torrance knew that as early as the electromagnetic theory of James Clerk Maxwell, science was unfolding a “dynamic view of the world” wherein “a continuous integrated manifold of fields of force” predominated. Reality was proving harder to categorize in terms of Newton’s Clockwork Universe. (DCO, 76-77).

Torrance argued that the New Physics privileges “continuous fields of connection” and “invisible intelligibilities” over the mechanistic conceptions that date back at least to Aristotle and revived by Newton’s disciples. General Relativity proposed by Einstein in 1915 and demonstrated as true by the 1920s proposed that gravity—the word that had made Isaac Newton famous—affected the curvature of space and time. Thus Einstein followed Maxwell’s lead and linked gravity to space and time in a relational way—space-time, he finally came to call it. Later in the century researchers would metaphorically follow these curved beams of light into the “black holes,” a phrase now renowned through popular discourse.

Connected force fields became a new paradigm for physics. According to Torrance in Reality and Evangelical Theology (RET), the “widening chasm between the natural sciences and the humanities” could be straddled if theologians maximized the analogies with Scripture that physics was now showing forth (33). Torrance advanced the claim that the New Physics confirmed how there was more “there there” in the cosmos than we could account for (DCO, 58). He applied this theologically: “God defies complete disclosure…The Scriptures indicate more than they can express” (RET, 140, 119). Challenge and surprise are aspects of the divine contingence in Torrance’s thought. The fact that the Creator God could become "the Crucified” showed how surprising the world of nature and nature’s God could be. This for Torrance is part of the essential “higher knowledge” of Resurrection and Incarnation that ultimately makes sense of the Gospel narratives (STR, 189).

In discussing the Resurrection of Christ, argues Torrance, one can’t prove the supernatural by nature (STR, 22). Torrance concluded that “new modes of thought and speech” are needed in approaching the implications of the Incarnation, just as the men of Nicaea articulated new terms compatible with their weighty subject (STR, 31). Greek terms used in a new and creative way—hypostasis, ousia, homoousios—represented the fundamental postulates orthodox theologians still use. What physicist Kip Thorne called the “outrageous legacy” of the New Physics—time warps, quarks and subatomic particles--says Torrance, parallels the ground-breaking theology of Nicaea and Chalcedon. For Torrance, the unexpected forced the appropriation of new concepts put together in a creative but harmonious way, just as in 20th century physics (STR, 42).  

2. A relational concept of space and time

Einstein’s notion that time is curved, says Torrance, reawakened scientists to the necessity to probe into the “inherently non-observable structures of the universe” (STR, 187). The more precise probes into the nature of the atom since the time of Max Planck along with Niels Bohr’s quantum theory was making the invisible as important as the visible, the invisible as connected to the visible, something with which the author of Colossians 1:16 might have agreed. It took Einstein’s first important paper in 1905 to persuade even Ernest Mach to admit the existence of atoms (DCO, 99). Visible reality was not what it seemed to be, as James Clerk Maxwell had already intimated.

The other aspects of his thought flow from this key concept privileging interrelationships that allowed Einstein to link space and time as “space-time,” a term pointing to the fact that fields in themselves were as significant as what they held together (DCO, 15). When in 1925 Werner Heisenberg showed that the very act of measuring a particle’s position perturbed its velocity and destination by an unpredictable amount, physics moved into some radical new conceptions. Here was a Cosmos getting “curiouser and curiouser,” not as capable of domination and manipulation as the Nineteenth Century physics had anticipated

Thus a Torrance contemporary, N.T. Wright, speaks in The Resurrection of the Son of God of the “strange aura” in the Gospel narratives, “more enigmatic than triumphalist” for even as Jesus ascended there were still some who doubted (587). But their doubts were from “an excess of reality,” states Torrance, an excess, not a lack of evidence. As the theologian, John Philoponus had seen in the 500s AD, an overwhelming New Reality had entered nature, and forced the prospect of a unitary theory of Nature beyond the Aristotelian categories of spirt and matter. For Torrance, just as Relativity had usurped the Old Physics, “Jesus has transformed all the old conditions of life” (STR, 37). We are astonished at events such as Incarnation and Resurrection, but, considering the ultimate ground of this event, the Redeemer who is also Creator, it rings true.   

3.  A multi-leveled approach in structuring human knowledge. 

To solve a problem in modern physics, says Torrance, an “all-important additional factor must be introduced from a higher level” (STR, 188). Torrance correlated this analogy to the supreme miracle of God raising Jesus from the dead. The stark fact of extra insight added from an exterior source allows Christian apologists to escape the old canard that miracles are impossible because they “violate the laws of nature.” Today whole battalions of specialists are needed across many fields to push scientific advances ahead. John Wheeler’s vivid descriptions of how the discovery of nuclear fission was tied to a need for collaboration at the highest levels makes this clear.  

Often a line of scientific investigation gets stuck and needs input from another field or (as mentioned above) a higher level of knowledge to make progress. Einstein’s insistence that gravity bends time was corroborated by an Astronomy Royal expedition to observe an eclipse of the sun in 1919. Thus, says Torrance, what we hastily call natural laws—a hallmark of Classical Physics—are actually deductions formally stated from already observable processes (STR, 78). Thus, rather than seeing Biblical miracles as “infringements of natural law,” Torrance counters that such laws are often “read into Nature” in the first place. Can 60,000 tons of steel float? Not normally, unless different knowledge is applied from other fields. This leads to Torrance’s fourth point:

4. The need for humility as a pre-condition of the scientific process. 

When Torrance quotes Einstein as saying that the universe is “in its profoundest depth [sic] inaccessible to man” he praises a Biblical call to humility at work (Proverbs 30:1-6). The analogy here is that just as in quantum physics where the scientist can alter the position or direction of a particle by simply investigating, so theologians come at the subject of Divine Contingence from their own “fallen” perspectives. “Christian theology,” admits Torrance, “is characterized by a certain brokenness” (DCO, 115). In DCO, Torrance meditates on the “combination of unpredictability and lawfulness found in nature.” His view of God’s freedom to “constitute the universe an open dynamic system of contingent order in which nature is capable of a variety of possible developments” outflanks Greek notions of Necessity. This, he says, is “the signature of the Creator…nature’s capacity spontaneously to generate richer and more open-structured forms of order in the constantly expanding universe” (DCO, 73).   

When contemplating the ever-deepening dimensions of a universe bursting with complexity and intelligibility, Torrance cited his scientific colleague Michael Polyani and his  call for a sense of “reverence,” without which fresher insight will not come (STR, 192). The almost whimsical parables of Newton’s apple and Watt’s steam kettle have been matched in our day by the confirmation of the Big Bang, for example, by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson picking up puzzling “static” from space disturbing their horn-shaped antenna in 1964-1965. This is a down-home example once again of Torrance’s contingency principle at work: “The Universe is open to both surprise and investigation.” Thus his call for “fluid dogmatics” in theology takes its starter from a physics that has traditionally been based much more on intuition and hunches than is normally thought.   

Contingency outflanks what he calls “the determinist principle of Darwinian theory” (DCO, 55), often a box canyon which many Darwinians themselves have identified. “The frontiers of science are filled with uncertainty and confusion,” admits Nobel Prize winner Leon Lederman of the University of Pennsylvania in “The Nobel Legacy: Why Bother?” (PBS Videocassette), "every step forward is accompanied by new mysteries. Science lives with its uncertainties.”

Thus, even on this popular level one can see the New Physics as a revolt against three centuries of fixation on Natural Law. The deterministic legalism of the 1700s is often balanced in real-time research by factors such as intuition, hunches and inspired guesswork. These built-in contingencies often drive the scientific enterprise forward. Einstein himself confessed “the mysterious comprehensibility of the universe which is yet finally beyond [man's] grasp” (TNS, 31). Einstein reiterated on more than one occasion the respect for mystery, a religious awe as an indispensable first principle in science. For Torrance, a “fluid dogmatics” in theology analogizes to the humility with which science often moves forward. Thus Torrance’s call for Christian theologians to view dogmatics through the essential facts before them of Incarnation and Creation before getting into the more arcane regions such as form criticism or rhetorical analysis. Correlations with realist science avoids doctrinal blind alleys, or intellectual detours and brings us back to a hermeneutic of appreciation to counter the too-pervasive “hermeneutic of suspicion: 

Now since God has endowed his creation with a rationality and beauty of its own…the more the created universe unfolds its marvelous symmetries and harmonies to our scientific inquiries, the more it is bound to fulfill its role as a theatre which reflects the glory of the cosmos and resounds to his praise. (RET, 10-11)

The universe as “a theatre of God’s glory” is Torrance’s eloquent call to exegete the created order. Few other theologians have so relentlessly traced out the implications of a created universe endowed with such independence from its Creator that frustration and purposelessness are often its bewildering side-effects (Romans 8:20). In the words of Torrance student John McKenna (deceased, former Professor at  Grace Communion  Seminary), “The God of Israel revealed in Jesus Christ chose to establish a created order of supreme freedom, free enough for him to enter as Creator/Redeemer through the Incarnation” (The Setting in Life of ‘The Arbiter’ by John Philoponus). The sometimes capricious-seeming universe to which we humans belong, adds Torrance, is “the creaturely medium through which he makes himself known to mankind” (RET, 11). 

Thus, in Torrance’s bold presentation, the Cosmos is both turned towards God and away from God simultaneously. While it cannot explain itself its ultimate reconciliation is assured, already effected by the God-Man who holds it all together and “through whom and for whom the whole universe has been created” (RET, 11). As the “theatre of God’s glory” it is also the stage set for the drama of salvation working through the dynamic interventions of Incarnation, Resurrection and Ascension.  It is an open system, open enough for the Creator to step into it and be subject to its contingencies as the Incarnate Son. Torrance knew this: Its very openness is the scientists’ opportunity and burden. “The intelligibility of the universe provides science with its confidence, but the contingency of the universe provides science with its challenge” (DCO, 58). 

The New Physics, argued Torrance, created a congenial dialogue partner for theology. His challenge to engage still beckons.


For additional posts concerning Torrance's scientific theology, click herehere, and here.