Space, Time, and Incarnation (Torrance)

At barely 90 pages of text, Thomas Torrance wrote a book on cosmology that shocked the theological world.  If his arguments in this book obtain, then all of modern Protestant theology (and Catholic modernists like Schillebeeckx) are not only biblically wrong, but scientifically wrong (which compounds the irony, given that they gut the faith to make it scientifically relevant).

Plato: Spoke of space as a receptacle, but only metaphorically.  It is that in which events take place.  A formless and passive medium (Torrance 4). The problem is that Plato had to use spatial terminology to refer to a world that was beyond space and time.

Aristotle: container notion of space (Physics, Book IV).  He saw the Platonic separation (χωρισμός) as the stuff or substrate.  It is associated with the category of quantity. It is a vessel (αγγειον).  There is a “relation of interdependence between the container and its contents” (7).  There is no void or empty space since the container is always in contact with that which it contains.

Problems: “in equating being in place with a particular volume, it also equated the volume with a spatial magnitude” (8).

Stoics: Space moves as the body or agent fills it.  Much closer to the biblical view, yet ended up making God part of the world, or the active principle of the world.  Degenerated.

Origen: accepted the Stoic contention that limit and comprehension go together.  God’s comprehending all things limits them.  He begins to form a relational notion of space.

Athanasius: doesn’t operate with the bifurcated worldview of Plato and Origen (the separation of cosmos aesthetos and cosmos noetos).  Torrance writes, “for the linking together incarnation and creation in the manner of Nicea made that impossible” (15).

The mediator who is also homoousion fulfils the space relations between God and man.   Mere creatures are unable to make room for God. Torrance writes, “The inter-relations of the Father and the Son must be thought in terms of ‘abiding’ and ‘dwelling’ in which each wholly rests in the other” (15).

The Son for us is the place (topos) where the Father is.  Therefore “place” “is here stretched beyond its ordinary use and must be interpreted elastically” (16).  Torrance then drops a cosmological hammer: “This forces theology into the construction of a sort of topological language in order to express the dispositional and dynamic inter-connection between topos and topos, or place and place” (16).

This requires, to use another Athanasian term, different paradeigma under the impact of divine revelation.  Space “is here a differential concept that is essentially open-ended” (18).  Torrance continues with the mathematical language: “It is treated as a sort of coordinate system (to use a later expression) between two horizontal dimensions, space and time, and one vertical dimension, relation to God” (18).

Modern and Reformation Conceptions

What is the “receptacle” mode of thought?  It is when we think of x being in y.  This works well on some level in classical physics.

For the ancient Greeks “finite,” “comprehensible,” and “limit” were all bound together.  An actual infinite was inconceivable.  This had to give once Christian revelation came on the scene, since God is infinite and maker of heaven and earth.  This “meant that God does not stand in a spatial or temporal relation to the universe” (23). 

The receptacle notion of space was applied to the sacraments.  Grace operates as though it is in a vessel.

Patristic notion of space: seat of relations or meeting place between God’s activity and the world.  It is a differential or open concept of space, as opposed to the closed Aristotelian system of limited bodies (24-25).                                                                                                                    

Duns Scotus began to correct the medieval problems by focusing on God’s creative will (29).

Extra Calvinisticum

One of the Lutherans’ problems with Calvinist Christology arose due to the former’s “container” notion of space (30ff). The Reformed were able to speak of Christ’s ascending to heaven or leaving heaven without abandoning his governance of the universe because they saw space in relational, and not quantitative terms.

Eternal Simultaneity in Luther

For God’s presence all spatial relations are reduced to a mathematical point (34). To his credit Luther recovered the biblical idea of the living and active God, yet Luther never escaped from the dualism embedded in a receptacle notion of space.

The problem: “If we posit any kind of spatial relation without extension in time we make it impossible to discern any real difference between the real presence of Christ in the days of his flesh, in the Eucharist, and at the Last Day” (35).


He held to the receptacle view but made it infinite.  Space and time are in God as in a container (38).  And since space and time are now infinite, they are now attributes of God.  This further mean that if God is the container, he can’t really become Incarnate.  A box cannot become one of the several objects it contains” (39).  This is partly why Newton was always suspected of being an Arian.

Incarnation and Space and Time


Receptacle notion: finite receptacle (Aristotle) and infinite (Newton).

Relational notion: Maybe Plato and the Stoics. Nicene and Reformers.

God’s relation to the world is an infinite differential, but the world’s relation to God is a created necessity (66). This means God is free from any spatio-temporal or causal necessity in relation to his creation.

Back to Einstein: the flow of time and the extent of material bodies depends on the velocity at which those bodies move.  The geometrical structures change according to the accumulation of mass within the field. If Einstein (or James Clerk Maxwell) is even remotely correct, then the old dualisms are necessarily false.

Theological Geometry: The Incarnation must create for us the field of organic connections “within which we are to develop our thought and language about it” (70-71).  “The interaction of God with us in the space and time of this world sets up, as it were, a coordinate system between two horizontal dimensions (space and time) and one vertical dimension (relation of God through his Spirit)” (72).

Economy: the orderly purpose and control of God as introduced by the Incarnation (79).

The analogy of topological language: we have to connect the different ways in which we must speak about topos and place in accordance witht he human and divine natures of Christ (81).

“Mind is not in time and space in the same sense in which ……


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