Tuesday, December 09, 2008

T.F. Torrance: Theology as a Science

In preparation for an upcoming phone interview I've been trying to read up on some more Alister McGrath. To date I'm mostly familiar with McGrath's works on the Reformation, and have read a few of his articles. And in the process of furthering my familiarization with him, I encountered and began reading his recent "intellectual biography" of T.F. Torrance.

This is extremely interesting, highly brilliant stuff. It is what I like to call a little piece of "loving the Lord your God with all your mind."

Thomas F. Torrance is a Scottish theologian who lived from 1913 -2007. His main teaching stint was at Edinburgh from 1950-1979. Next to Karl Barth (and in many ways building on him), he just may be one of the most important Christian thinkers of the 20th century. So, how about a few excerpts?

I find his approach to theology as a science very appealing. For instance, McGrath tells of the time when Torrance was asked to teach divinity in a "dispassionate" manor at Princeton University:

"Torrance responded by declaring that he would be interested in teaching theology as a science. When he was asked to elaborate on this statement, Torrance explained his developing views on the matter: that in a rigorous science, 'we think not as we choose to think, but as we are compelled to think in accordance with the nature of the object, and thus in manners which are governed by the objective grounds on which the science rest's'. The rigorous nature of scientific questioning could be applied equally well to Christian theology. Torrance, who disliked talk of 'dispassionate' approaches to theology, added that he could not guarantee that no one would be converted through the lectures . . . . To his astonishment, they decided to appoint him, and told him so the next day" (57-58).

Torrance never ended up taking that post at Princeton, but did go on to write a lot about this scientific approach to theology. He found fodder for it in the thought of Athanasius:

"It was to theologia of this kind that Athanasius assimilated the scientific method that had been developed in Alexandria, namely, rigorous knowledge according to the inherent structure or nature (kata physin) of the realities investigated, together with the development of the appropriate questions and the apposite vocabulary demanded by the nature or the realities as they became disclosed to us. It is in this way that theology adapts its method to its proper subject-matter, and allows its proper subject-matter to determine the appropriate forms of thought and speech about God. So far as scientific theology is concerned, this means that we are forced to adapt our common language to the nature and reality of God who is disclosed in Jesus Christ, and even where necessary to coin new terms, to express what we thus apprehend" (160-1).

To illustrate what this means, consider his assessment of Trinitarian thought: "The doctrine of the Trinity is thus not to be seen as a retreat into mysticism, or the outcome of intellectual speculation going far beyond the cautious language and conceptualities of Scripture. It is to be seen as the proper outcome of scientific engagement with the reality of God, as God is disclosed in Christ. In one sense, the doctrine of the Trinity is to be seen as the culmination of a scientific theology -- not its contradiction" (162) .

In other words (if you are still reading along!), as all sciences, theology seeks to be governed by its object rather than its subject, and so good Christian theology is the study of God as God is truly and fully revealed in Jesus Christ. Although the subjective creeps in, as always, we seek not to let it govern, but submit our thought to the witnesses to Christ and the interpretive dialogue that surrounds them; submitting ultimately to the self-revealing God. To put it more plainly still: Christian theology (and I dare add worship) is not yours or my speculative ideas or expressed feelings about God, based loosely on notions gained through religion or experience. Christian theology is the study of God as if Jesus Christ reveals him, and thus it speaks of God as Jesus reveals Him. Jesus is the object, and the provider of objectivity.


Dustin Resch said...

Glad you are enjoying some Torrance. I actually came to my PhD with the intent to write on Torrance (Christology). I found his theological realism so refreshing. My supervisor steered me away from him quite adamantly. As a Patristics scholar, he was not too keen on his reading of Athanasius etc. Perhaps I'll return to Torrance someday; Hunsinger's new book on the Eucharist apparently has some indebtedness to Torrance. And, as you know, Torrance has been appropriated for pastoral theology. Lots worth contemplating there... especially for biblical exegesis, preaching, and theological method... Keep us posted on your findings.

Anonymous said...

I am looking forward to finally reading the other two posts on this today. My celebration of the end of exams.