The Triune God and the stratification of truth

My previous two posts invite some reflection on where theological thought begins. Here I want to suggest (taking my cues from TF Torrance, and drawing heavily on McGrath’s less-than-brilliant biography on Torrance) that theological reflection, or theological science, begins by immersion within the Christian community and its practices of worship and prayer. Here the believer absorbs the grammar of Christian faith, shares what Torrance calls its ‘evangelical and doxological’ experience, and begins to appreciate the ‘evangelical pattern or economy of the redeeming acts of God in Jesus Christ’ (The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons, 98, 91). In other words, the basis upon which Christian theological reflection takes place concerns ecclesiology, christology and soteriology.

Consider the following statements about levels – or layers – of truth in the natural sciences:

… knowledge is gained not in the flat, as it were, by reading it off the surface of things, but in a multi-dimensional way in which we grapple with a range of intelligible structures that spread out far before us. In our theoretic constructions we rise through level after level of organized concepts and statements to their ultimate ontological ground, for our concepts and statements are true only as they rest in the last resort upon being itself. – Thomas F. Torrance, Reality and Scientific Theology (Theology and Science at the Frontiers of Knowledge; Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985), 136.

We start with our ordinary experience in which we operate already with some sort of order in our thought which is essential for our understanding of the world around us and for rational behaviour within it. We assume that the world is intelligible and accessible to rational knowledge … we operate on the assumption that by means of thought we can understand in some real measure the relations between events and grasp their orderly sequence and consistent structure. – Reality and Scientific Theology, 147.

This initial perception of orderedness and structure, however, turns out, for Torrance, to be a starting point for a more penetrating and discerning investigation in which successive layers of truth are identified and uncovered, and their inner relationships established. One of the most helpful areas explored by Torrance concerns how our knowing God differs from how we know anything else. Consider this (lengthy) quote:

[When it comes to our knowledge of God] we have to reckon with a considerable difference between the kind of knowledge that obtains in physical science, for the created universe does not disclose or declare itself to us as God does – otherwise it would not be the creaturely or contingent reality that it is. The universe does reveal itself to our inquiries in its own limited reality, in correspondingly limited ways, but it is quite unable to explain itself or to yield any final account of the fact of its astonishing intelligibility, and so at these limits the universe by its finite nature simply turns a blank face to our questions. In contrast, God opens himself to us and informs us of himself in a way that no created being can. Even though he retains behind a veil of ineffability the infinite mystery of his uncreated Being, he nevertheless unveils himself to us as the transcendent Source and sustaining Ground of all created being and created intelligibility, and therefore of all our knowing of him as well as of the universe he has made.

Moreover, the Being of God is made known to us as Subject-being, not just as Object-being over against us. As Subject-being he is the Creator and Ground of all other subject-beings, who sustains them in relation to himself as personal rational agents enabled to have communion with him. That is to say, God interacts personally and intelligibly with us and communicates himself to us in such a personalising or person-constituting way that he establishes relations of intimate reciprocity between us and himself, within which our knowing of God becomes interlocked with God’s knowing of us. In fact our knowledge of God thus mediated is allowed to share in God’s knowledge of himself. An ellipse of knowing, so to speak, is set up within which God’s uncreated Intelligibility and our creaturely intelligibility, God’s self-witness and our human understanding, are correlated, so that there arises among us within the conditions of our earthly and temporal existence authentic knowledge of God in which God’s self-revealing is met by human acknowledgment and reception, and in such a way that our knowing of him, however inadequate, is made to repose ultimately on the free creative ground of God’s own Subject-being.

Nevertheless when all this is admitted it still remains the case that God confronts and interacts with us as he who is utterly transcendent over all our knowing of him, infinitely inexhaustible in the Truth and Intelligibility of his own eternal Being. As such the Reality of God ever remains the Source of all our authentic concepts of him and the unchanging Ground of all our faithful formalisations of his revelation. God himself does not change, and in his unchanging Being is open to ever deepening understanding on our part, while our forms of thought and speech in which we articulate our knowledge of him are ever open to further clarification, fuller amplification, and change. The Truth of the divine Being cannot be enclosed within the embrace of our finite conceptualisations. In that God admits of recognition and understanding on our part we may indeed grasp him in some real measure, but we cannot contain him in the forms of our grasping. We may apprehend God but we cannot comprehend him. In so far as our concepts of God derive from him and terminate upon his Being, there is much more to them than the concepts themselves, more than the formal truths of conception, for the Reality conceived transcends conceptual control. Before the Reality and Majesty of the divine Being whom we are graciously allowed to know, we know that all our knowledge of him is at a comparatively elementary level, and all our articulation or formulation of divine revelation is a relatively insignificant reflection of its Truth. The knowledge and understanding of God, however, which we are allowed to have, and which in some measure we may bring to systematic expression, are what they are in their lowly forms because, in spite of their utter inadequacy, as the human end of the ellipse of knowing established by God and maintained between us and himself, they are locked into an infinite range of truth and intelligibility grounded finally in God’s own eternal Being.

The development of our knowledge of God evidently involves a multi-levelled structure in which our thought moves through various levels of concepts and statements, to the levels of created being through which God makes himself known to us in space and time, and then through them ultimately to the supreme level where God is the transcendent Source of all truth in the Truth of his own uncreated Being. Each lower level is governed by reference beyond itself to the level with which it is immediately coordinated, so that together the lower levels constitute a coherent semantic frame of reference through which we are directed to the ultimate Truth that God is in himself. Thus every lower level, in so far as it is true, must have the character of an open structure pointing us away from its own limited and relative status to its ontological ground in God who is ‘the norm for the truth of all beings’ [Clement of Alexandria]. In clarifying and deepening theological knowledge, therefore, we must learn to penetrate through the various levels of rational complexity that arise in the process of inquiry to the ultimate ground upon which they rest in the Being of God. Just as we do not think statements or even normally think thought but think things through them or by means of them, so the structures of the reason which arise in the process of gaining knowledge have to be treated as refined conceptual instruments through which we let reality shine across to us, in order that its own truth of being and inherent intelligibility can operate creatively in our understanding of it.

What are we to understand by ‘truth’ in a context like this? – Torrance, Reality and Scientific Theology, 138–40.

What are the implications of this for the task of theological reflection? At the very least, it means that our knowledge of God is dependent upon God’s gracious self-unveiling, i.e. epistemology is grounded in the divine economy and particularly in Jesus Christ who comes to us ‘clothed in the gospel’ (Calvin). Jesus Christ is the ‘cornerstone of all authentically Christian theological reflection’. But this process of reflection, like all scientific enquiry, is also is multi-levelled. Torrance identifies three levels: (i) evangelical and doxological level; (ii) theological level; and (iii) higher theological level.

The first level is the evangelical and doxological level. (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 88–90). This might be thought of as the basic level of Christian experience and living, ‘the level of our day-to-day worship and meeting with God in response to the proclamation of the Gospel’. At this level, God is apprehended intuitively, ‘without engaging in analytical or logical process of thought’ (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 89). At this level, the Christian believer has an experience of the reality of God as a ‘basic undefined cognition which informally shapes our faith and regulates our trinitarian understanding of God’ (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 89). The Christian experience of worship, reading of Scripture, and an intuitive awareness of the reality of God constitute the point of departure for further theological reflection.

From the very start of our believing experience and knowledge of the incarnate economy of redemption undertaken by Jesus Christ for our sakes, form and content are found fused together both in what we are given to know and in our experience and knowing of it. A child by the age of five has learned, we are told, an astonishing amount about the physical world to which he or she has become spontaneously and intuitively adapted – far more than the child could ever understand if he or she turned out to be the most brilliant of physicists. Likewise, I believe, we learn far more about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, into whose Name we have been baptised, within the family and fellowship and living tradition of the Church than we can ever say: it becomes built into the structure of our souls and minds, and we know much more than we can ever tell. This is what happens evangelically and personally to us within the membership of the Church, the Body of Christ in the world, when through the transforming power of his Word and Spirit our minds become inwardly and intuitively adapted to know the living God. We become spiritually and intellectually implicated in patterns of divine order that are beyond our powers fully to articulate in explicit terms, but we are aware of being apprehended by divine Truth as it is in Jesus which steadily presses for increasing realisation in our understanding, articulation and confession of faith. That is how Christian theology gains its initial impetus, and is then reinforced through constant reading and study of the Bible within the community of the faithful (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 89).

The second stage that Torrance identifies in this process of engagement is what he calls the theological level. This secondary level of engagement involves moving on from the primary level of ‘experiential apprehension’ of God, and towards discerning the structures which lie within it.

By forming appropriate intellectual instruments with which to lay bare the underlying epistemological patterns of thought, and by tracing the claims of connection throughout the coherent body of theological truths, [theologians] feel their way forward to a deeper and more precise knowledge of what God has revealed of himself, even to the extent of reaching a reverent and humble insight into the inner personal relations of his Being. Our concern at this secondary level, however, while distinctly theological, is not primarily with the organic body of theological knowledge, but with penetrating through it to apprehend more fully the economic and ontological and trinitarian structure of God’s revealing and saving acts in Jesus Christ as they are presented to us in the Gospel (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 91).

In the third level (or higher theological level) our thinking ‘enters more deeply into the self-communication of God in the saving and revealing activity of Christ and in his one Spirit’. At this level, Torrance continues, ‘we are explicitly concerned with the epistemological and ontological structure of our knowledge of the Holy Trinity, moving from a level of economic trinitarian relations in all that God is toward us in his self-revealing and self-giving activity to the level in which we discern the trinitarian relations immanent in God himself which lie behind, and are the sustaining ground of, the relations of the economic Trinity’. In other words, this level involves a move from ‘a level of economic trinitarian relations’ to ‘what [God] is ontically in himself’ (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 93, 98–107).

We might map Torrance’s trajectory of trinitarian theological reflection and formulation thus:

Experience of God → Economic Trinity → Essential Trinity

To be sure, Torrance’s distinguishing of different levels of reality must not be taken to mean that he is sponsoring their independence so that one or other may be dispensed with or treated as redundant or superseded. Rather, as McGrath notes, the ontological Trinity cannot be regarded as independent of the economic Trinity, nor of Christian trinitarian experience. Nor is Torrance suggesting that lower levels within the stratification of truth are to be regarded as false or redundant; they are all to be regarded as interconnected responses to their object. A failure to recognise the mutual interconnectedness of these levels of discourse can lead to theological reflection becoming divorced from Christian experience on the one hand, or from its proper ontological foundations on the other (McGrath, Torrance, 174).

2 comments

  1. Good stuff, Jason. I think Torrance’s understanding of the stratification theological knowledge is super helpful for articulating how the development of dogmatic theology is not an acquiring of more knowledge but a scientific clarification and articulation of what is already known in Jesus Christ. Torrance draws on Michael Polanyi several times in The Christian Doctrine of God to say that in the evangelical or doxological experience of God the worshipper knows more than he can tell or ever could; the progression through the theological and higher theological level then allow him to articulate more clearly what he knows in Christ, but cannot substantially add to that knowledge since God is fully revealed in Christ.

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