Theology Thursday: Thomas F. Torrance Part 1

by Max Andrews

Theologian: Thomas F. Torrance (1913 – 2007) – the development of scientific theology

More about his theology:  Thomas Torrance was a professor of Christian Dogmatics at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.  He was heavily influenced by Karl Barth and contemporary science.  He translated Barth’s Dogmatics from German to English. (Which is quite voluminous–thirteen volumes, six million words).  He was also a recipient of the Templeton Prize for the advancement of religion.

Torrance was the primary contributor to the development of scientific theology.  He argued that the universe of space and time is the means by which God has revealed himself to man, as it comes to view under human inquiry to develop and formulate knowledge of God.  This was the development of an exegesis of nature. 

Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457) developed the interrogative (interrogatio) rather than the problematic (quaestio) form of inquiry.  Valla’s mode of inquiry was one in which questions yield results that are entirely new, giving rise to knowledge that cannot be derived by an inferential process from what was already known.  This method was similar to the works of Stoic lawyers and educators like Cicero and Quintilian; that is, questioning witnesses, investigating documents and states of affairs without any prior conception of what the truth might be.  Valla transitioned from not only using this method for historical knowledge but also applied it as “logic for scientific discovery.”[1] Valla’s logic for scientific discovery was the art of finding out things rather than merely the art of drawing distinctions and connecting them together.  He called for an active inquiry (activa inquisitio).  John Calvin (1509-1564) applied this method to the interpretation of Scripture and thus became the father of modern biblical exegesis and interpretation.[2]  Francis Bacon (1561-1626) applied it to the interpretation of the books of nature, as well as to the books of God, and became the father of modern empirical science.[3]

There is another reorientation of man’s knowledge leaving epistemic and cosmological dualism behind in operations that have to do with the unity of form and being.  Scientific theology is concerned with the discovery of appropriate modes of rationality or cognitive instruments with which to enter into the heart of religious experience, and therefore with the development of axiomatic concepts with which to allow interior principles to be disclosed, and in that light to understand the rational structure of the whole field of God’s interaction with man and the world.[4]

Torrance’s use of Einstein’s theory of relativity played a major role in his theological methodology.  One of the most dramatic changes in recent scientific culture has been Einstein’s theory of relativity, which called into question some of the settled assumptions of Isaac Newton (1643-1727).  Yet many theologians were unwise to assume that Newton’s ideas were permanent features of the intellectual landscape having based their theology on his model of the universe.[5]  For Isaac Newton, space and time, what he linked to the divine sensorium, formed a vast envelope that contained all that goes on in the universe.  Space and time was independent of all that it embraced and in that sense absolute.  Space and time was isomorphic and together with the particle theory of nature formed a mechanistic universe and static concepts that go along with it.[6]  Relativity theory must not be confused with its sociological use.  On the contrary, relativity refers to an objective relatedness in the universe invariant to any and every observer and for that very reason it necessarily relativises the observer’s representations of it.[7]

Einstein’s general theory of relativity permitted the possibility that God interacts with the created order without interrupting the physical cause and effect system.[8]  Torrance reveled in this by having science in sync with the theological doctrine of divine immanence whereby an introduction of a new cause into the system was permitted.  The most important task for scientific theologians was how to avoid de facto deism—not merely by calling it unorthodox and expressing a dislike for the Newtonian theistic system, but by actually showing why it is an unnecessary conclusion drawn from science.  Christian theologians must be in the position to say what they mean by God’s activity in the world and how God’s activity can be consistent with the belief that God has created a finite order with a goodness and perfection of its own.[9] Thus, divine action wasn’t just an area of ontology and metaphysics but it was also acceptable in the scientific sphere of thought.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, “Einstein and Scientific Theology,” Religious Studies 8 no. 3 (1972):   236-237.

[2] Valla served in conjunction with Andrea Alciati (1492-1550) as Calvin’s primary influence for his biblical interpretation.

[3] Torrance, 237.

[4] Torrance, 244.

[5] Alister E. McGrath, The Science of God: An Introduction to Scientific Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 29.

[6] Torrance, 236-239.

[7] Torrance, 243.

[8] See Thomas Torrance, Space, Time, and Incarnation (Edinburgh, Scotland:  T&T Clark, 1969).

[9] Clayton Philip, God and Contemporary Science (Edinburgh, Scotland:  Edinburgh University Press, 1997), 192.


One Trackback to “Theology Thursday: Thomas F. Torrance Part 1”

Leave a Reply