Thomas Torrance: Reality and Evangelical Theology


Torrance, T. F. Reality and Evangelical Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsityPress, reprint 1999.

There is an ontological connection between our minds and reality. Whenever we sever these with dualisms, we will see the effects of the breach. Rather, evangelical theology should seek to repair “the ontological relation of the mind to reality, so that a structural kinship arises between human knowing and what is known” (Torrance 10).

Chapter 1: The Bounds of Christian Theology

What is the nature of the correlation between our knowledge of God and our knowledge of ourselves? Our knowledge of God must be real but it cannot be cut off from our own modes of knowing as contingent creatures. God the Father has opened himself to us in the economy of Jesus Christ, whose work (and knowledge) was undertaken within our own space and time restrictions.

There is no intermediary in this knowledge. Jesus isn’t an intermediary (in a Neoplatonic sense, although he is a mediator in a soteriological sense) between us and the Father. He eternally inheres in the Being of God.

This is fairly standard stuff, yet Torrance advances a new line: although Jesus mediates this knowledge to us, he does in the context of our world. We have the following triad of relations: God/ourselves/world or God/man/world (25). If theology is simply reduced to a God-man relation, we run the risk of an epistemological dualism.

And if this triad holds, then it implies a necessary relation between theological and physical concepts (27). This allows us to get beyond primitive man’s mode of knowing as observations and phenomena, which when applied to theology becomes symbol.

When we study things, we study them according to their natures and their intrinsic relations. We move from subject/object looking at object/object, yet our own subjectivity is controlled from “Beyond….by reference to the ontological structures of the realities investigated” (28).

The God/man/world triad forces the knowing subject outside himself into the “open field of God’s creative interaction with the world of space and time” (29).

The Movement of Knowledge

Following Michael Polanyi, Torrance says that scientific knowledge comprises three levels: the base level of experience, the actual level of science, and a meta-scientific level. Theology is the same. The base level is Scripture and liturgy, the second level is the economic relations of Jesus, and the highest level is the ontological controlling concepts (36).

God’s being is person-constituting (43). Following cues from Athanasius, Torrance sees person as an “onto-relational reality.

The Nature of Realism

At its most basic level, there is a real relation between sign and referent (58). Torrance writes, “The lesson that is constantly being taught is that there can be no satisfactory theory of truth within the brackets of a dualist frame of thought, for it can only yield the oscillating dialectic between coherence and correspondence” (60). If we overly privilege the subject pole of knowledge, we get idealism and coherence. If the object pole, then correspondence and mechanistic modes of thought.

Torrance sharpens the definition to mean “a unitary relation between the empirical and theoretical ingredients in the structure of the real world and our knowledge of it” (60).

Any sort of realism has to address the problems Plato mentioned in Cratylus. To what extent, if any, do names correspond with their referents? If there is no real relation, we have nominalism. If the relation, however, is too strong, then we have no need of the referent and are dialectically thrust back onto nominalism.

The key is seeing that there must be some detachment between names and referents. Torrance writes, “Our concepts are to be transparent, open structures of thought, forged under the impact of divine revelation in the Scriptures, structures through which the Truth of God is allowed to disclose itself to us in ways appropriate to it” (71).


Some have suggested this is the best place to begin with Torrance. I’m not so sure. True, all of Torrance’s favorite talking points are here: Athanasius, Newtonian space = bad, unity of being and act, etc. All that’s good, but he is offering them as conclusions, rather than arguments (which arguments are found in other writings). With that said, it is a good, quick read that is operating at some of the highest levels of human thought


About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
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