As we all know, the dialectical-existential revolt against reason overtook the American religious scene with astonishing ease, although few evangelical centers capitulated.

Noteworthy indications are appearing, however, of a renewed interest in the scientific legitimacy of theology in view of the cognitive significance of its knowledge claims. There are signs of a new wrestling with the rational importance of Christianity. At long last the modern age of religious anti-intellectualism may be burning itself out.

A year ago Charles Scribner’s Sons published the Harvard scholar Gordon D. Kaufman’s Systematic Theology. Issuance of this title by a major publishing house, not on its general list of religious books but rather among volumes intended specifically for university use, is noteworthy. Although Kaufman’s work too much reflects H. Richard Niebuhr’s contrast of faith and reason to sustain a satisfactory evangelical theology, its shortcomings should not hide the importance of the appearance of a work of this nature at a time when theologians either have been running away from any vestige of a system or are still on the prowl for one.

Now Oxford University Press has published Thomas F. Torrance’s Theological Science, in which the Edinburgh theologian boldly champions what, as those of us recall who heard him lecture under the early fascination of Barthian theology, was surely at that time held to be in league with the world, the flesh, and the Devil rather than with God and faith. Professor Torrance had, in those years, shocked his evangelical friends by the reckless abandon with which he insisted that faith is self-vindicating, and by his disdain for all external evidences as a betrayal of justification by epistemological trust. His theology soon became a target of philosophers who rightly saw that such detouring of reason leads also to the end of the road for Christian faith.

Across recent years there have been indications that Dr. Torrance was pursuing a more cautious line, and the shift of emphasis is nowhere more evident than in his present insistance that faith is “the orientation of the reason towards God’s self-revelation, the rational response of man to the Word of God” (Theological Science, p. 33). We are told that knowledge of God is “essentially a rational event” (p. 11); that it is knowledge “in the proper sense of that word” just as every branch of science intends true knowledge of its special object (p. 12); and that knowledge of God is “conceptual both in its acts of cognition and in its acts of expression” (p. 13). It has been a long time since this commentator has been tempted to shout an “amen” loud enough to be heard in Auld Reekie. For its intention to vindicate theology as a rational science with its own thought-forms and language in view of its own proper object, and to relate its knowledge content to that of the other sciences, Torrance’s work is to be wholly commended.

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It is not, however, for all his high-sounding intentions, to an evangelical and biblical view of revelation that Torrance returns. Whoever stays through his exposition will discover that evangelical rational theism is left floating in epistemic mid-air. Torrance perpetrates Barth’s unjustifiable emphasis that revelation is salvific, and his corollary repudiation of general divine revelation. In flat contradiction of Romans 1, we are told that men “cannot truly know God without being reconciled and renewed in Jesus Christ” (p. 41).

While Torrance wants conceptual revelation and knowledge of God, he proposes a distinction between closed concepts and open concepts. Closed concepts are reducible to “clipped propositional ideas”; open concepts cannot fully conceive their object and are elastic. Our cognitive relation to God is “essentially and unceasingly dialogical” (p. 38), so that the “extent” to which theology can systematize knowledge of God in a conceptual framework is limited (p. 18).

The implication would seem to be that no assertions about God can claim to be finally true. Theology is a matter, not of knowing certain truths about God to be absolutely the case, but of holding beliefs open to revision. Curiously, Torrance seems to have stage-door access to the God who transcends revelational knowledge, for our provisional statements of ultimate Truth are said to be true “so far as” their reference is appropriate.

Torrance affirms the crucial centrality of the Logos in Judeo-Christian revelation, audition of the Divine Word as the medium of revelation, and the person Jesus Christ as the supreme and final revelation of God. But he insists on a distinction between the “inner” Word of God and the outer “words”—between the Word heard and the words used to communicate revelation—in disregard of the prophetic “Thus saith the Lord” in terms of specific verbal content, and of Jesus’ words identified with the content of revelation. Jesus Christ is God personally present in the identity of Word and Person (p. 147), but the Message is not received apart from personal relation to him (p. 148). Scripture is a pointer to rather than a carrier of revelation; truth is communicated in a mystery-form that cannot be reduced to clear-cut conceptions or systematized (pp. 150 f.).

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Man’s predicament, Torrance contends, is not simply that in sin his thoughts are “twisted into untruth and are resistant to the Truth,” but that man’s ideas and conceptions and words are inherently “too limited and narrow and poor for the knowledge of God” (p. 49). To know the Truth requires personal decision, and “knowledge of Jesus Christ as Eternal Truth in the form of historical being involves … a change in the logical structure of our consciousness” by “an action of Divine Grace” (pp. 153–55). Here Torrance surely shifts the meaning of the rationality of faith, for he exempts the Truth of revelation from universal validity, logical consistency, and the relevance of coherence as a test. If the validity of revelation depends on internal decision and requires a miraculous change in the logical structures of the mind, Torrance defeats the possibility of establishing theology as knowledge in the sense that other sciences claim to offer knowledge. Apparently God uses a different logic than that which serves man in all other knowledge relations.

We are told, moreover, that God’s revelation must not be turned into “propositions that have their truth timelessly” (p. 40). Apparently God is incapable of uttering what is permanently and universally true. Then are we not left with merely a situational theology? Would not even Torrance want to preserve the First Commandment as a timelessly true revelational imperative? Or is “no other God” also at the mercy of supposedly open concepts—perhaps sometimes open even to the Devil?


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