Re: [asa] Thomas Torrance, Neo-orthodoxy and Evangelicalism

From: Clarke Morledge <chmorl@wm.edu>
Date: Sun May 06 2007 - 21:59:43 EDT

David,

You are tackling a REALLY GOOD QUESTION. The folks at Fuller Seminary who
follow Torrance would argue that reports of Torrance's "neo-orthodoxy" are
overblown. But then there are quite a few in the Westminster Theological
Seminary circle who think that reports of Fuller Seminary's
"evangelicalism" are overblown. So there is clearly a gap here and I'm
not sure how/if it can be bridged.

Torrance, along with Barth, is very concerned about theological method.
The criticism is that the theological method employed by the Puritan
divines responsible for the Westminster Catechism is well-intentioned but
flawed -- a type of "Protestant Scholasticism". The Torrance/Barth view
is that seventeenth century Calvinism fell prey to the Enlightenment
critique in such a way that evangelicalism as never been able to fully
recover. The only way to recover is to start with Jesus as the Word of
God, as opposed to starting off with the Bible as the Word of God --
however crucial the Bible is in its own infallible authority. Where
Torrance leads off from Barth is by really looking at the scientific
character of theology as grounded in the Nicean patristic view of the
Trinity and Christology.

George is right to clarify Torrance on the criticism of Barth's rejection
of natural theology (admittedly, I was a bit too terse). The point
Torrance is making is that the Trinitarian logic of our faith is in-line
with a mature, philosophical approach to modern science. For example,
Torrance is fond of showing how James Clerk Maxwell's reflection on the
Trinity helped him to see things Newton, who was more Arian in theology,
could not see concerning the nature of physical reality. Torrance has
been able to grab onto this insight in such a way that Barth never was
able to do.

I think this is why Alister McGrath is so enamored with Torrance. McGrath
thinks Torrance is really onto something here (I do, too).

The problem is whether or not the Van Til/Reformed crowd is able to see
past the "neo-orthodox" problems of Barth to appreciate Torrance in his
nuanced correctives concerning Barth. I think British evangelicals like
McGrath see it, but it remains to be seen whether or not the likes of
Frame and Poythress will.

I would hope so, but then, I went to Fuller Seminary so perhaps this is
just wishful thinking on my part.

Clarke Morledge
College of William and Mary
Information Technology - Network Engineering
Jones Hall (Room 18)
Williamsburg VA 23187

On Sat, 5 May 2007, David Opderbeck wrote:

> Thanks for these insights everyone. Clarke's mention of how Van Til
> Reformed evangelicals would view Torrance is exactly what I'm trying to get
> at.
>
> This past week I skimmed through Vern Poythress' book "Redeeming Science."
> Poythress is a Westminster guy who's a direct heir of Van Til. (Poythress
> and John Frame seem to be the "one-two" Van Tilian punch.) I liked many
> things about Poythress' approach. He's not willing to dismiss at least some
> sort of TE, and he has lots of things to say about epistemology and
> presuppositions that I resonate with me (though he's too soft on
> "appearance of age" or what he calls "mature creation" as a possibility,
> IMHO, even though he ultimately doesn't take that approach).
>
> He does, however, take a swipe here and there at neoorthodoxy, at one point
> basically suggesting that at least some neoorthodox thinkers adopt a posture
> of unbelief. He is also critical, but I think in maybe some helpful
> ways, of critical realism -- essentially he wants to coopt aspects of
> critical realism into a broader Van Tilian view. But the book is written at
> a popular level, and he never mentions Torrance or even McGrath.
>
> Yet, reading Torrance's "Reality and Evangelical Theology," it seems to me
> there's a significant amount of consonance between Torrance's epistemology
> and Poythress'. It seems to me that Torrance also is coopting critical
> realism into a broader theological framework. Yet, Pothress and Torrance,
> I'm sure, clearly diverge at many points, one being their theology of
> revelation. Torrance seems to be more in the neoorthodox camp in that
> regard -- scripture pointing beyond itself to Christ -- while Poythress is
> more in the fundamentalist camp -- revelation consisting in the very words
> of scripture in addition to what lies beyond the words.
>
> So, what I'm trying to work out, and just might to do more reading about, is
> where exactly, and how sharply, would the approaches exemplified by Pothress
> and Torrance diverge? If one becomes a Torrance fan, to what "camp" is one
> committing? Are there bridges to be built between these approaches -- or
> has someone like McGrath done that already? Or, when, Poythress criticizes
> neoorthodoxy, does he have folks other than someone like Torrance in mind?
>
> (BTW, I've tried to email Poythress directly with some of these questions;
> interesting to see what if anything he says).

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Received on Sun May 6 22:00:24 2007

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