Revamping Natural Theology

Let’s explore a different angle. I went over some of my notes on Torrance, Einstein, Polanyi, and the like.

With the natural theology guys, we agree that there is a rationality in nature that points towards God and to which even the unbeliever has access.

Against the natural theology guys, this rationality is more along the lines of post-Newtonian models and not simply Aristotle’s causality.

With the Van Tillians I agree that without God this rationality would be impossible, as it would no longer be contingent.

Against the Van Tillians, it is better to pursue this as seeing a God-given rationality within nature rather than bizarre transcendental models.

Bottom line: the extreme Van Tillians are wrong to reject natural theology as proposed above. The classical theists, although correct on the doctrine of God, need to move beyond Plato and Aristotle.

A Little Manual for Knowing (Meek)

Meek, Esther Lightcap.  A Little Manual for Knowing. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014.

Meek resists the claim that knowledge is reducible to information. If knowledge is just about information, then “how do we come to know in the first place?”  We must have some knowledge to begin the “knowledge journey,” but if knowledge is just information, then we can’t even begin.  This is why Plato reduced knowledge to remembrance (particularly of past lives).

A consequence of the “knowledge-as-fact” approach is that it divides the knower.  It assumes one can detach himself from the act of knowing.

Covenant epistemology: the knower “pledges himself to the yet-to-be-known, the way a groom pledges himself to a bride.”  This is quite different from when the postmodernist attacks rationalism.  The postmodernist quite correctly says that all knowing is done from a finite standpoint, with the implication that knowledge is relativised.  The covenantal knower, by contrast, sees knowledge in an almost eschatological light. In Meek’s words, knowledge is a “pilgrimage” in which “we journey together.”  “All knowing is a coming-to-know.”

Polanyi: “subsidiary-focal integration”

This book is unique among Christian epistemology texts in that she gives exercises at the end of each chapter.

Knowledge as love implies that knowing ← → Being go hand in hand. Reality is person-like, not an amalgamation of bits of information.  Meek argues, by contrast, that reality is a gift.  When I look at a thing, on first glance we see it as it is.  But in a Creator universe, the thing is also “what-it-promises-to-be” and “what-it-ought-to-be.”

Promise language then is covenant language. This is tied with the notion of “reality as gift.

Her thesis is “we love in order to know.” I don’t think this works as a global thesis, but in terms of some knowledge-situations it is probably accurate. This type of loving is an “active receptivity.”

There are some good thoughts on “cultivating wonder” as a mental habit.  In her nice phrase, “it is a trained readiness to be astounded.”

Covenantal knowledge involves a “pledge,” which is the “I do” of love. In this knowledge “we give ourselves to be known,” to pledge to the Other’s “being.” This is what Torrance and Polanyi mean by knowing “kataphysically,” according to the nature of the thing known.  The thing presses its reality upon your mind. Granted, this makes more sense in terms of religion, philosophy, and politics than it would in looking at a blank wall.

If these things about knowledge are true, then knowing also involves a “maturity in love.” This is where knowing’s “interpersonal” dimension is clearly seen.  We need other persons to help us mature and be the person’s we are.

She has a neat section on “The Void.”  The void doesn’t have to be evil.  It can just be the realization of non-being.  It can be how healing can begin.  It’s sort of like having the law preached to you.  She has a neat diagram on the four dimensions of humanness.


Self ——- ——–         ————–   Situation


In a moving line, Meek writes, “In the Void, we must cry out in hope for the gracious deliverance and inbreaking of new being.  This is a key act of inviting the real.”  In another diagram, she calls this “the knowing event.” “The Holy is the gracious possibility of new being.”  It is where “epiphany” happens.

Now we are going to add persons to the picture

Meek gives good guidelines for cultivating the real:  choose wise guides, for one.  Beginners don’t know a lot about philosophy.  I personally wasted years on dead-ends.  You must also “place yourself where reality is likely to show up.”

Knowledge as Indwelling

Now Meek moves into the territory of the Hungarian chemist Michael Polanyi and his idea of “Subsidiary-Focal Integration” (SFI). We will go back to Plato’s Meno.  If knowledge is simply about transfer of propositions, that which we do not know, then we can never cross the Platonic chasm between Knowledge and Becoming, since we are in the realm of Becoming.

Perhaps we are getting too far afield.  Meek’s point is that knowledge also involves a “subsidiary” dimension that happens below the surface of the focal. Perhaps we can reframe the above-mentioned Platonic problem this way:  let’s take Heidegger’s question on being.  What is being?  To ask that question presupposes some knowledge of being, otherwise we couldn’t use the word “is.”  Let’s say a toddler is learning.  He needs sentences to learn, yet he doesn’t know what a sentence is, so how can he learn?

“All knowledge and knowing has a ‘from-to’ structure.”  It is not “a linear relation.” Think in terms of clues and patterns.  There is no linear connection, yet your mind is already seeing the evidence for patterns.  It then makes a proleptic jump, which Meek calls “integration.” It’s like playing “Wheel of Fortune.”  Her conclusion: “As we indwell the subsidiaries, we creatively integrate to a sustained focal pattern…We actively shape clues to the pattern; and we passively submit to the pattern.”

And then comes the moment of epiphany: [it] feels very much like a gracious gift from outside us.”  Indeed, “embedded in epiphany is the shift from active to passive, from giving to receiving.  It feels like a shift from knowing to being known.”

Knowing as shalom: we know shalom when the tension in the knowing encounter is brought to a proper resolution.  It is the joy we experience in seeing the “natural fittingness” of something that was put together.  She has some interesting–but only tantalizing–suggestions on shalom and healing.  That definitely needs to be developed.

Catchy sayings:

* Covenantal knowledge is commitment, not curiosity.
* Knowing is inviting the real, welcoming the yet-to-be-known.

* We seek to indwell and be indwelt by the yet-to-be-known.
* Coming to know proves to be a process of moving from looking at to looking from in order to see transformatively beyond.

* IFM = indeterminate future manifestation.”  Any good integrative pattern promises future unfoldings of dimensions and horizons.

* Insight isn’t informational–it is transformational.


This is a dynamic little book.  Not all of her arguments are sufficiently developed, but I think she knows that, as she intends this to be a gateway to her larger works on epistemology.  This book succeeds where so many epistemology texts from post-evangelicals have failed.  Too often we hear that rationality ought to be “Embodied” or “situated.”  Fair enough.  Few really say what that means.  In other words, granted that knowledge is embodied, what would mechanism or the knowing act look like?  Meek actually develops an answer.

It’s also fashionable, especially among Reformed, to advocate a “coventanal epistemology.”  That usually means quoting Bible verses such as “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  That’s true, but by itself it tells me nothing of how knowledge works.  If I preface a trigonometry problem with “Fear of the Lord,” I still have to work the problem and the answer will be the same as if I didn’t say “The Fear of the Lord.” Meek’s approach reshapes the covenant question in terms of knowledge as gift, pledge, promise, etc.  Which is actually what a covenant is.

Notes on Polanyi, part 2

You Know More than You Can Say

The scientist, or any knower, observes “a set of rules which are not known as such to the person following them” (49).  There are rules to an art, but they do not always determine how you practice that art.  Polanyi gives the example of practicing a piano.  On one hand, a certain sequence of keys have to be hit, but they also have to be hit in a certain way, or “touch.”  The element of “touch” remains surprisingly resistant to analysis.

This type of learning is tradition, or that of a master/apprentice relationship. The apprentice watches the master and imitates him.  In doing so, he not only learns the technical process of the craft, but he also picks up the rule of the art which aren’t always known to the master himself (53).

Focal Awareness vs. Subsidiary Awareness

I hit a hammer with a nail. In doing so, I attend to both the hammer and the nail, but not in the same way. My focal awareness is on driving the nail.  My subsidiary awareness is on the feeling the hammer has on my hand.  I am “watch[ing] something else while keeping intensely aware of [it]” (55).

Polanyi concludes this chapter noting that “personal knowledge in science is not made but discovered, and as such it claims contact with reality beyond the clues on which it relies. It commits us, passionately and far beyond our comprehension, to a vision of reality” (64).  This is what Thomas Torrance calls “kataphysic knowledge.” It is where we submit as knower to the object known, which then impresses itself into our mode of knowing.

Notes on Polanyi, Personal Knowledge Part 1

Main Idea: Pythagoras saw numbers and rationality inherent in nature. Science moved from this inherent rationality to seeing itself as a tool or instrument.

Copernicus elevated theory over senses (Polanyi 3). He still remained anthropocentric.

Shift from Pythagorean to Ionian knowledge: “Numbers and geometrical forms are no longer assumed to be inherent as such in Nature” (8). Mathematics is now divorced from experience.  Math is now a mere instrument. We have the mathematical version of “Lessing’s Ditch.” Mathematics is necessary while reality is contingent.  While they may overlap, one isn’t inherent in the other.

With Einstein we see a beginning attack on this type of thinking.  His 1905 essays “discovered rationality in nature, unaided by observation” (11).

Theological Science (Torrance)

The Nature of Knowledge

Knowledge of God is a rational event (Torrance 11). It is knowledge in the proper sense of the word, understanding knowledge to be a “conscious relation to an object which we recognize to be distinct from ourselves but toward which we direct our thought as something intelligible and ascertainable” (13).

Open and closed concepts:

A closed concept is something we “can reduce to clipped propositional ideas.  An open concept is a reality that keeps on disclosing itself to us in such a way that it continually overflows all our statements about it” (15).

Classical mechanics is similar to closed concepts.  Their field is delimited by what is perceptible. Objectivity is thus bound to a certain causal determinism (295).

Theological concepts are open-ended toward God.

We must keep knowing and being together

Three Moments in the nature of knowledge

(1) God reveals himself to us in Jesus Christ in the media of our own creaturely existence and contingency (46).

(2) Christ’s work reconciles man and delivers him from his epistemological self-enclosure and restores him to true objectivity in God.

(3) Jesus provides us full and adequate reception of the truth (50).

The Interaction of Theology with Scientific Development

Theological science has God as its object, but not God in the abstract.  It deals with the heavenly father who enters into loving communion with his children (56).

Change in the doctrine of God

Medieval theology held to Aristotle’s unmoved mover.  This view of impassibility led to creation being seen as only objects of the eternal knowing and willing of God.  This fit in with a hierarchy of being which made it hard to deny the eternality of the world.

Nature, as a result, “was impregnated with ultimate causes” (60). You could read an eternal pattern of it.  That sounds good, but it left little room for the “contingency of nature,” making modern scientific experiments difficult.  As Francis Bacon pointed out, this overemphasis on final causes diminished the importance of physical causes.

Nature and Grace

The medieval world saw the nature sacramentally: we look through it to eternal realities.  This means, sadly, that nature has no scientific value in itself.

Knowing the Phantasms

Medieval Roman theology saw an active and passive intellect.  When I look at an object (species), I form an intelligible impression or phantasm (77). This might be inevitable to an extent, but what happens is that the phantasm forms a wall between my mind and the object.

The nature of scientific activity

Methods of Knowledge

Aristotle: science is characterized by unity and plurality (108). Problem of one and many.

Descartes: scientia universalis.  Apply geometry to all other special sciences. This led to a sharp distinction between observation and thought

Husserl: epoche, disconnecting phenomena from the objet, in order to acquire clear grasp of it.  It is a suspending of judgment.  Does not imply Cartesian doubt.

Dialogical Theology

The object of scientific theology is God in His Revelation (131).  “We know only as we are known….knowledge of God entails an epistemological inversion in the order of our knowing, corresponding to the order of the divine action in revealing Himself to us.”

God as object is still “the indissoluble Subject.”  “He is the Lord of our knowing even when it is we who know, so that our knowing is taken under command of the lordship of the Object, the Creator Himself.  We can only follow through the determination of our knowing by the Object known who yet remains pure Subject” (131-132).

God as Subject does not dissolve into subjectivity (as we understand the term).  Torrance: “The order is in the Object before it is in our minds, and therefore it is as we allow the Object to impose itself upon our minds that our knowledge of it gains coherence” (138).

The Nature of Truth

The Truth of God

Truth: the reality of things as they necessarily are, and as they ought to be known and expressed by us (142).  Yet it is not purely intellectualist.  We must avoid reducing truth to ideas and the reduction of truth to statements (142ff).

Truth as Personal Being.  Jesus as Truth is incarnate. This Truth is in identity with the Being and Act of God (144).

Calvin: Christ is clothed in his gospel (Inst. 2.9.3).  Christ does not come to us apart from his own self-revelation in word and deed (Torrance 146). Since Truth is both Being and Act, he communicates and interprets Himself.

Knowledge of God: it is given to us in this Man, Jesus, but we do not leave this Man behind when we know him in his divine nature (149).

Jesus as concrete universal: he is the eternal Son but in concrete terms (182).  When we know a concrete universal, we are not beginning with abstractions, but rather “with a focal awareness of it in its own power and wholeness, aided by analogical reasoning that directs us away from symbolic formality to what is concretely real and self-evidencing” (243).

Thesis: “theological statements have a reference beyond and above themselves, and are not true in themselves but have their truth beyond them” (183).  This is basically correct.  A true statement about the Trinity is not the Trinity.  To miss this point is to affirm nominalism.  This is like Wittgenstein’s observation that we cannot produce a picture of the relation of a picture to that which is pictured” (Tractatus 4.01ff). 

N.B.: “Knowledge is real only as it is in accordance with the nature of the object, but the nature of the object prescribes the mode of rationality we have to adopt towards it in our knowing” (198).

Problems of Logic

Problem: What is the relation of knowledge or speech to being (204)?

The Logic of God

The Logic of God is the eternal Logos in the flesh.  Torrance: “Knowing the truth involves on our part a corresponding movement in space and time, a dynamic, living, active relationship…with the Truth increasingly, so that there can be no genuine knowing the Truth or speaking the Truth without doing the Truth” (209).

This chapter is probably the most difficult in the book.  Torrance explores numerous themes in philosophy of mind, mathematics, and logic.  Many of these discussions are quite fascinating, and Torrance’s grasp of the literature of mid-20th century philosophy of mind discussions is nigh encyclopedic.  Unfortunately, I think he attempts too much.  One point of interest, however, is his use of Godel’s incompleteness theorem.

Every system is necessarily incomplete since it contains within it propositions or sequences that are not definable from within the system.  This is why mathematics must always resort to another form of rationality:  that of language.  We are always moving between different logical levels.  For example, Aristotelian logic is workable to an extent, but it has to be transcended.  Something similar is at play with the dynamic between Euclidian and non-Euclidian geometry.

There is the natural logic of everyday speech.  Then there is the meta-language of symbolic logic, which then gives rise to a meta-meta-language.  This top-tier language is useless for communication, but quite powerful in pursuing deductions (259).

This might be a way to save Kierkegaard’s poorly-phrased “leap of faith.”  In these logical systems one must always take a “trans-logical step” (261).

Bonhoeffer’s Apollinarianism: he desired to maintain the independence of the Lordship of God as subject.  Insists that knowledge of God is possible “only if God is also the subject of the knowing of revelation since, if man knew, then it was not God that he knew” (Act and Being, 92).  This is Apollinarian when applied to the humanity of Christ (Torrance 292 n1).

Subject, Object, and Person

Torrance gives an illuminating account of how the concept of person has shifted over the centuries:

Patristics:  he actually doesn’t define it here, but you can piece it together from his other writings.

Augustine: the person is realized in the interior of the soul.

Boethius: the person is a logically derived concept from a specific philosophy. The idea of substance is now a logical subject.

Descartes: the subject is now split off from the object and person is now self-consciousness.

More Biblical Notions of Person

Richard of St Victor: Person is ontologically derived from the Trinity.  (Ironically, for all of Richard’s rejection of the Greek term hypostasis, he comes to about the same position with person being a unique entity).

Duns Scotus: Active agent, voluntary object of thought.


Reality and Evangelical Theology (Thomas Torrance)

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