Wednesday, March 14, 2007

McGrath on Torrance on Natural Theology

Alister McGrath, Thomas F. Torrance: An Intellectual Biography (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999).
“Torrance explicitly critiques the notion of analogia entis - the idea, especially associated with Thomas Aquinas, that there exists some intrinsic likeness between creator and creation arising from the creative action of God. The fact that there exists some form of correspondence between the creator and creation is not due to an inherent relation of likeness, but to the free and gracious decision of God that some such correspondence shall exist. We are thus dealing with an analogia gratiae rather than an analogia entis. There is no intrinsic capacity on the part of nature to convey God, nor is the created element as such part of the content of revelation. For Torrance, revelation must be understood to be self-revelation of God.

"It will thus be clear that Torrance considers a ‘natural theology’ which regards itself as independent of God’s self0revealation as a serious challenge to Christian theology. Natural theology has a place under the aegis of revelation, not outside it. In its improper mode, a ‘natural theology’ is an approach to theology which leads to the introduction of ‘natural’ or ‘commonsense’ concepts into theology without first establishing the warrant for doing so on the basis of revelation. In this sense of the term, Barth was entirely justified in critiquing natural theology…

"In this sense, ‘natural theology’ must be regarded as a serious threat to responsible Christian theology.” (190)
“It will be clear that Torrance’s careful discussion of the manner in which the creation can be said to have revelatory potential opens the way to some very significant developments. Torrance insists that creation can only be held to ‘reveal’ God from the standpoint of faith. Nevertheless, to one who has responded to revelation (and thus who recognizes nature as God’s creation, rather than an autonomous and self-created entity), the creation now has potential to point to the creator. The theologian who is thus a natural scientist (or vice versa) is thus in a position to make some critically important correlations. While the neutral observer of the natural cannot, according to Torrance, gain meaningful knowledge of God, another observer, aided by divine revelation, will come to very different conclusions.” (192)

10 comments:

Jonathan Erdman said...

"Torrance insists that creation can only be held to ‘reveal’ God from the standpoint of faith....While the neutral observer of the natural cannot, according to Torrance, gain meaningful knowledge of God, another observer, aided by divine revelation, will come to very different conclusions.”(192)

Let me start by saying that from a Romans 1 perspective this position strikes me as patently absurd. My take on Romans one is simplistic: All are culpable because all know of a. God's divine power/deity and b. understand their accountability to this God. The suggestion of Torrance (and others) seems to amount to a revelation on top of a revelation. In other words, Paul in Romans 1 gets it wrong: All people do not have knowledge of God's power, rather, only those who have access to more revelation will have access to this revelation.

Am I wrong on this point? Or does it seem to be that Torrance is saying that revelation is necessary in order to have access to revelation?

Maybe this thinking of Torrance is the result of a false dichotomy. According to the above quote:
The fact that there exists some form of correspondence between the creator and creation is not due to an inherent relation of likeness, but to the free and gracious decision of God that some such correspondence shall exist.We are thus dealing with an analogia gratiae rather than an analogia entis. There is no intrinsic capacity on the part of nature to convey God, nor is the created element as such part of the content of revelation.For Torrance, revelation must be understood to be self-revelation of God.

The dichotomy is simple, as I see it: Either creation corresponds with Creator or else it does not. But maybe this is not the point of Romans 1? And maybe a better exegesis of Romans 1 would dissintegrate the dichotomy. Why, for example, do we have to say that the creation corresponds with the Creator in order to get information of the Creator through creation? It seems as though some renderings of Natural Theology demand this correlation. Torrance reacts against it and develops his idea of revelation on top of revelation, which I suggest is absurd. But maybe we don't have to choose between Natural Theology or Torrance.

So, here's where I reveal my leanings. I like what I think is Alvin Plantinga's idea that the creation in a sense triggers our knowledge of God. The idea of sensus divinitatis - that through our contact with the creation we learn of God and have a "properly basic" understanding of certain characteristics of God. On Plantiga's epistemology, then, there is warrant for such belief. In this way we escape the problem Torrance alludes to in the above quote:
In its improper mode, a ‘natural theology’ is an approach to theology which leads to the introduction of ‘natural’ or ‘commonsense’ concepts into theology without first establishing the warrant for doing so on the basis of revelation.

I am interested in your thoughts on Plantinga!

Chris TerryNelson said...

I would question whether Torrance actually believes that there is such a thing as a neutral observer in the first place. Romans 1:18-21 makes clear that there is no such thing. The very activity of observation is distorted by sin. That's the ironic sense I get from Paul - which is what builds to the need for justification by faith in 3:20 onward. If the universal natural knowledge were enough, then Paul would have stopped writing there and then. The "trigger knowledge" is relativized and destroyed by sin's power. It's not a stepping stone.

It is Jesus Christ who creates faith as God's gift. Creation participates in God's revelatory activity just as we do as creatures. But it can only participate in that which is given first. The distinction between creation and creature I think is not so strong here.

A triggering of knowledge, a sense of the divine, can have no saving power according to the biblical witness. Creation and creature do not cooperate in saving knowledge. Creation as a mediator of knowledge is just as implicated in sin as we are.

The danger I see with letting creation trigger knowledge of "certain characteristics" of God is that it relies supremely on the assumption that our knowledge of creation and ourselves is still capable as a stepping stone to God at least in part. Furthermore, by knowing "certain characteristics," this puts God's simplicity at stake. One could argue that this is what Paul meant when he said "Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known" (1 Cor. 13). But this is more about the fact that God remains hidden even as He reveals Himself. Knowledge is in pieces; not God.

P.S. I gave up blogging for Lent, but since I didn't post at all last Sunday, let's just pretend this comment was posted then. *Conscience clear*

Erik said...

Jonathan,

As someone fairly well acquainted with Plantinga, I suggest that he is more commensurate with Torrance than you suspect. It is true that he develops the idea of the sensus divinitatis, as you describe, but only then to argue that (with Calvin and others) it gets entirely messed up on account of sin, leading him to posit his extended A/C Model, which is really the heart of his expansive volume, Warranted Christian Belief. My interpretation of Plantinga, then, is that he finds belief in God to be properly basic, but not from a natural theology that is not dependent upon faith. In fact, his whole model derives from a beginning point in faith, which is why he argues that if Christian Theism is true, then something like his model for warranted Christian belief obtains. Do you take me to misunderstand Plantinga on this?

WTM said...

Hello Jonathan, Chris and Erik,

Sorry that I have taken so long to reply here. It has been an interesting week. But, I have enjoyed reading your comments and would like to make a (more or less) brief reply. I should say up front that I have a regrettable lack of knowledge concerning Plantinga’s work. So, I will not be able to comment directly upon him. But, I have another consideration that I would like to bring up.

I am constantly surprised at how often in theological work the question of infra / supra-lapsarianism comes up. This is one of those times. One of these days I will have to do a post on this topic, but for now here is the basis shape: Does election happen after the Fall is known by God (infralapsarianism) or before (supralapsarianism)?

This comes into play in the current discussion because one’s answer here theologically determines the sort of account of creation that you can (consistently) develop. If infralapsarian, then creation has a sort of existence independent of covenant / incarnation. If supralapsarian, then creation does not have this sort of independent existence.

Now, if we want to talk about a sensus divinitas in anything like the way that the majority of the tradition has, then we need to be infralapsarian. The same is true if we want natural revelation / natural theology in the usual sense. If creation was set up to exist in relationship with God apart from the covenant / incarnation, then it would need to have its own ways of making God known.

But, if one sides with the Supralapsarians, then there really isn’t a reason for creation to be able to make God known (unless you are really worried about moral responsibility, but there are other ways of dealing with this). Instead, we see that creation is ordered around God’s redemptive and self-revelatory will expressed in the covenant and incarnation. This means that the covenant and the incarnation are the ways that God has decided to make himself known. This is where I find myself, and where Barth and Torrance tend to land.

Does this mean that creation does not reflect God’s glory? Of course it doesn’t mean that! But, look at what term I used – ‘reflect’. Creation does not possess any inherent capability to make God known. However, this does not mean that within the sphere of the covenant we come to see that God has taken up creation as a way of illustrating that which he has shown us of himself in his dealings with us.

If you want to dig into this, there is a section on Barth’s appropriation of infra / supra-lapsarianism in CD II.2, around page 150 if I recall. But, more to the point is the discussion on the Knowledge of God at the beginning of CD II.1 – look for the sections on the readiness of God and the readiness of humanity.

Erik said...

Travis,

I with you, mostly, on this issue of infra/supralapsarianism. I think regarding Plantinga, he would tend to fall more in line with infralapsarianism, hence his use of the sensus divinitatis. This is one of my criticisms of him. However, I do think there is a way to construe his important insights epistemologically into a more covenantal theological framework (a la Barth). In fact, he argues that any number of theological models of the basic epistemological argument he makes are possible. In such a construal, your use of the word reflect would be appropriate, it seems to me.

Shane said...

"Natural theology has a place under the aegis of revelation, not outside it."

In what sense is 'natural theology under the aegis of revelation' natural? If we take it that there really is a difference between natural and supernatural grace, then what is the meaning of 'natural' theology if it remains chained to a particular dogmatic theological system (which is what "revelation" is a codeword for)?

So, nature/supernature and the identification of different kinds of grace has something important to do with this question. Another important facet is the the division of the sciences.

Is there such a thing as a science of metaphysics which has God as an object of its investigation? If so, how does one distinguish the investigation of God in the science of metaphysics from the work of a dogmatic theologian?

I think answering that question is going to make clear the division between the natural theologian and the dogmatic theologian. But I'm not sure exactly in what way this will allow the 'natural theologian' to take his place under the aegis of revelation, unless what McGrath has in mind by this phrase is a hierarchy of sciences where the natural theologian is simply forced to accept the conclusions of the dogmatic theologians as more certain because they come from a higher science.

I, for one, am unhappy with the idea of dogmatic theology as the regina scientiae just because I think it is quite foreign to the hermeneutical process by which dogmatic theological claims themselves are formed. As it turns out, the earth goes round the sun and not vice versa and this forces the dogmatic theologians to have a new interpretation of genesis. Of course, lots of dogmatic theologian would pretend that it wasn't a mucky lower science like astronomy that forced them to change the content of their dogmas, but as a matter of fact it is the case. The Barthian/Torrencian/McGrathian worry about 'natural' theology needing to find its ground in revelation first seems like a very unsophisticated way of ignoring this hermeneutical situation because it seems to say that if theology and philosophy or science or anything else conflict, theology always wins. Now I'm fairly sure Barth and Torrence at least are smart enough to avoid this sort of unsophisticated nonsense in their actual theological work. But it still seems to me that the view being articulated here doesn't leave them any theoretical reason to do so.

I have more to say about the idea of an intrinsic likeness between God and creatures . . . (of course there is one--we are like God because we are his creatures. We are like God precisely because we are not non-beings like he is. But this doesn't impugn God's freedom nor does it eliminate the gracious character of our creation.) But I can't go into all that now.


sw

WTM said...

On this side of Barth, we can’t really talk of Natural Theology, but only of ‘natural theology’. That is, those who think that Barth got this right and that Torrance got Barth right cannot conceive of an independent entity such as Natural Theology, but they can conceive of a more limited and subsidiary aspect of dogmatic theology that looks a lot like Natural Theology. That is, do the heavens proclaim the majesty of God? I am happy to say “Yes, when viewed from within the sphere of the covenant.”

Now I must critique McGrath a bit. He seems to talk of creation gaining potential to point toward the Creator. This ‘potential’ language is a bit troubling to me, because I want to maintain that creaturely existence has no potential for knowledge of God or for making God known. We need a better word here, which is why I like ‘reflect’. Nature reflects God to those with eyes to see and ears to hear, but this is because God acts within the covenant to reveal himself in these ways and not because of inherent potentialities within creation itself. This gets tricky because we can begin talking about the ‘fittingness’ of creation for this purpose, and Torrance makes much progress at precisely this point, but the basic structure remains.

Shane, you wrote: “Is there such a thing as a science of metaphysics which has God as an object of its investigation? If so, how does one distinguish the investigation of God in the science of metaphysics from the work of a dogmatic theologian?”

I believe that you and I have hashed this out in a different place along the typological distinctions of “philosophy”, “Christian philosophy”, and “dogmatic theology”. Perhaps I need to post that material here at DET. In any case, I would still affirm that typology.

As to the hierarchy of the sciences thing, I don’t think that this is what is going on. I would certainly want to let historical-critical (and other) study influence my theological and exegetical work, and, of course, Barth did work in this manner as well. Indeed, I think it important for theology to try to find ways to accept the best scientific research without giving up its central concerns. Of course, this means that there will be times when theology simply has to say ‘No’, but that should not be the default position.

That said, however, theology always wins when it come to God, Christ, salvation and grace. If this establishes a hierarchy of sciences, so be it. But, I don’t think it does because there is no other science that deals with the knowledge of the Christian God. Metaphysics / philosophy may deal with an idealist concept of ‘god’, but this is not the Christian God and any similarities that it happens to have to the Christian God are coincidental and likely the result of either (1) Christianity influencing the imagination of philosophers, or (2) theologians borrowing too much from philosophers.

All this notwithstanding, we must be willing to allow our knowledge and even our patterns of thought (logic!) to stand under the judgment of God in his self-revelation. I don’t really want to open this can of worms with you right now, Shane, but you know as well as I that it is always in the background.

Shane said...

"Metaphysics / philosophy may deal with an idealist concept of ‘god’, but this is not the Christian God and any similarities that it happens to have to the Christian God are coincidental and likely the result of either (1) Christianity influencing the imagination of philosophers, or (2) theologians borrowing too much from philosophers."

Bullshit.

suppose i tell you that i'm imagining a person who is 5'11", 180 lbs, 24 years old, born in paducah kentucky at 4 in the afternoon on december 23 and currently studies philosophy in belgium. As it turns out that description uniquely identifies one person in the whole world. As it turns out that person is me.

This is not a complete description: it omits lots of important things about me. the first girl i kissed. the thing i'm most afraid of. but it identifies me.

now suppose a metaphysician produces a proof that says there exists exactly one being in the universe who is maximally powerful, good and who created everything else. According to you this isn't really God he's describing.

But you are wrong about this just because there is no one else that it could be other than God. it isn't a complete description of God, but it doesn't have to be complete to be true.

your position is just another facet of what i have been calling the mendacious pessismism of protestant theology.

pac christi!

sw

WTM said...

Shane,

I’m going to presume that everything following your pronouncement of “B*llsh*t” is meant as support for that pronouncement. That being the case, I’m afraid that your rather homely and common-sense illustration misses the mark. This is because in setting forth the characteristics that are true of you if not a complete description of you, you have subtly relied on one important point: namely, that the being described by the listed characteristics could only be you (I’m presuming that there are no other people who are 5'11", 180 lbs, 24 years old, born in Paducah Kentucky at 4 in the afternoon on December 23 and currently studies philosophy in Belgium, but this is merely an assumption).

Now, suppose we know that description down to height, weight, age in years, and city of origin. It would not be hard to conceive of any number of individuals who match this description, yourself being among them. Of course, it is only after I know you, and know that you fit those characteristics, that those characteristics become important in any sense other than as a thought experiment.

On to the theological application.

You write: “now suppose a metaphysician produces a proof that says there exists exactly one being in the universe who is maximally powerful, good and who created everything else. According to you this isn't really God he's describing. But you are wrong about this just because there is no one else that it could be other than God. it isn't a complete description of God, but it doesn't have to be complete to be true.”

The characteristics set forth here could be true of any number of gods and can only be said to be true of the Christian God in very specific and qualified ways. For instance, “maximally powerful” would have to be understood in a way that avoids abstract notions of power. Also, “good” would have to be conceived in specific ways, namely, not as some abstract measure external to God’s being. This could go on indefinitely.

This brings me to the heart of the matter: your affirmation that ‘accurate’ (even in the most limited sense) but incomplete description of concept-‘god’ in this metaphysical sense should be equated with knowledge of God in any Christian sense. I firmly maintain that even if you could reason your way to something that accurately corresponds to the Christian God (something that I deny on the basis of theological redefinition of language used of God based on God’s self-revelation), you would not in fact know God or have knowledge of God. Why? Because God is a personal being who exercises complete control over the knowledge of his being and has willed to reveal himself primarily through Jesus Christ and consequently through the history of the covenant.

I am done with this discussion for now, but I remember that I still owe you a post on the knowledge of God. So, perhaps that will come along sometime soon.

Shane said...

travis, you completely missed the point:

if there is "exactly one" being that is infinite, perfect, etc. then this description uniquely identifies God. (for an argument about why there is at most one of anything which is infinite, simple and perfect, cf. Thomas, ST 1a, q. 11, a. 3) here's my version of one of Thomas's arguments there:

suppose there are more than one beings who are infinite, perfect, and so forth. Now in order for there to be more than one of them, there must be some feature which they do not have in common. If this feature is something whose possession makes the possessor good, then if one deity has it and the other does not, then one deity is not perfect, since it lacks something good which the other possesses. If that feature which separates the deities from one another is a bad feature, then the one who possesses it will not be perfect by virtue of possessing some bad feature. But if there can exist no feature which would distinguish one deity from the other, then there are not really two deities, but really, at most one.

That one perfect infinite being I just made an argument about . . . he's also the one who was talking to moses and abraham, etc. Moses didn't know the argument i just made and not everybody who knows the argument knows that this divine being was talking to Moses, but that's just how it goes. . .


sw