Theology Thursday: Thomas F. Torrance Part 2

by Max Andrews

Theologian: Thomas F. Torrance (1913 – 2007) – the development of onto-relations

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.

In reality all entities are ontologically connected or interrelated in the field in which they are found.  If this is true then the relation is the most significant thing to know regarding an object.  Thus, to know entities as they actually are what they are in their relation “webs”.  Thomas Torrance termed this as onto-relations, which points more to the entity or reality, as it is what it is as a result of its constitutive relations.[1]

The methodology of the epistemological realist concerns propositions of which are a posteriori, or “thinking after,” the objective disclosure of reality.  Thus, epistemology follows from ontology.  False thinking or methodology (particularly in scientific knowledge) has brought about a failure to recognize the intelligibility actually present in nature and the kinship in the human knowing capacity to the objective rationality to be known.[2]

This onto-relation allows for inference to be a bridge between the ontological-epistemological divide.  It is this “web” of onto-relations and consilience that function best with coherentism.  Thus, to think rightly and in terms of inference and a posteriori reasoning means to connect things up with other things, thinking their constituent interrelations, and thus it is important for thinking to determine what kind of relation that exists between the realities contemplated.[3]

The onto-relationships as described above concerning the intricate web and connection between reality and its entailment of knowledge does not seem to have such effect on a priori and non-empirical knowledge.[4]  Such methodology inevitably turns all such knowledge into scientific knowledge—so what about ethical and religious knowledge?[5]  Kant argued that such synthetic a priori knowledge was logically prior to any a posteriori knowledge.  Such knowledge would be excluded from inferential knowledge but not necessarily excluded from the onto-relationship with reality.  This knowledge may serve as an intuitive apprehension into the actual intrinsic relations in reality (physical and metaphysical).  This intuitive knowledge is rational but non-logical and non-inferential.  This could be said that it is the knowledge that serves as the foundations, which arise in the mind’s assent under the impress of objective structures in reality.[6]  There is no reason to limit such intuitive apprehension of reality to the physical world only, which would serve as a defeater for any further entailments for positivism or strict empiricism.  Such structures of reality may be purely metaphysical such as minds, abstract objects, or God.  However, there must be some type of causal capacity for the onto-relations to have effect, which would exclude abstract objects since they do not seem to stand in causal relations.  Thus, minds and God may serve as plausible ontological origins for non-empirical knowledge.

This methodology is not so far astray from the epistemological realist’s empiricism, such a methodology I have assumed thus far, since the onto-relationship has still been preserved.  This form of method has replaced a posteriori knowledge with a priori but the apprehension of such knowledge is still preserved by the onto-relationship of reality.  Moral intuition may serve as an a priori conception, which can be expressed either doxastically or in a self-evident or incorrigible way.  I do not see any good reason for why moral judgments should not function as evidence for a belief.  These judgments are not empirically based but intuitively based.  These intuitions are objective and are grounded in an objective reality, just as is any other criterion for evidence by empirical standards.  The only differentiation between moral intuitions and empirical judgments is whether they are a priori or a posteriori but are still harmonious with epistemological realism and the onto-relationship between reality and knowledge.  This causal relationship may simply be impressed upon us logically prior to our experience.[7]


[1] John Morrison, Knowledge of the Self-Revealing God in the Thought of Thomas Forsyth Torrance (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997), 106.

[2] Thomas Torrance, Theological Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 76-80.

[3] Morrison, 107.

[4] To claim that such inferential reasons are not good reasons for belief one might deny the legitimacy of such forms of abductive reasoning as described above. The most common objection to such reasoning is when the conclusion of the argument involves unobservables (physically or metaphysically).  Stephen Leeds, “Correspondence Truth and Scientific Realism,” Synthese 159 (2007): 3.  Bas van Fraassen takes the stronger objection to this inferential reasoning no matter that the context is; even if it is empirical a posteriori.  For more on addressing van Fraassen’s objection see Douven (1999).

[5] For the role of moral knowledge in non-inferential reasoning see Bart Streumer, “Inferential and Non-Inferential Reasoning,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74 (2007): 4-5.

[6] Morrison, 91.

[7] If the epistemological realist’s need for empiricism must be appeased by some experiential medium then it may certainly follow that the knowledge of certain ethical and religious truths may certainly come about a posteriori as well, though this is not the typical approach or ‘category’ for such knowledge

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