Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Torrance on the Appropriate Circularity of Christian Thinking

I have again been quite negligent with you, my precious blog. Here is a bit of Torrance just to show I still care. This paragraph (yep, its a single paragraph) captures quite well what I was unable to say well to my friend Andy last night on the phone about why atheists prove that they just don't get it when they reject Christianity on the grounds that they find no evidence for God. Have a read:
Now it may be objected, quite understandably, that by claiming to interpret the resurrection within a framework of thought, of which the resurrection, along with the incarnation, is itself a constitutive determinant, I am operating with an essentially circular procedure. I agree, but reject the implication that this is a vicious circularity artificially intruded into the ground of knowledge. What we are concerned with here is the proper circularity inherent in any coherent system operating with ultimate axioms or beliefs which cannot be derived or justified from any other ground than that which they themselves constitute. It is the case, of course, that the primary axioms of any deductive system are held to be justified if they are included within the consistency of all the axioms and propositions of the system, but, as Kurt Godel has demonstrated, any such consistent formal system must have one or more propositions that are not provable within it but may be proved with reference to a wider and higher system. However, when we are concerned with a conceptual system or a framework of thought which includes among its constitutive axioms one or more ultimates, for which, in the nature of the case, there is no higher and wider system with reference to which they can be proved, then we cannot but operate with a complete circularity of the conceptual system. This must be a proper form of circularity, however, for the system must be one which is internally consistent and which rests upon the grounds posited by the constitutive axioms, without any alien additions, so that the conclusions we reach are found to be anticipated in the basic presuppositions. Such a system, of course, even if entirely consistent with itself, could conceivably be false, and must therefore be open to reasonable doubt: but that means that the system stands or falls with respect to its power as a whole to command our acceptance. And here another important factor must also be taken into account, the capacity of the system to function as a heuristic instrument in opening up new avenues of knowledge which could not otherwise be anticipated, and as an interpretative frame of thought to cope with a wider range of elements not originally in view. Nevertheless, in the last analysis we are thrown back upon the question whether we are prepared to commit ourselves to belief in the ultimates which are constitutive of the system. (Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection, pp. 14-15)
What adds difficulty to understanding this passage is that Torrance is otherwise a good Barthian and rejects the notion of a comprehensive theological 'system', so how is one to be persuaded by the Christian conceptual system as a whole if the Word of God is impossible to humanly systematize? That difficulty aside, I find this account of the inherent circularity in all conceptual systems built upon axioms having to do with ultimate reality very compelling.

In the paragraphs that follow (I considered including them, but I didn't want to overtax my loyal readership) Torrance draws on logic and physics as conceptual systems that fit the description he has given and then discusses what happens when an ultimate reality is newly recognized but cannot be fitted into the conceptual system in current use. In that context, says Torrance, 'we are faced with a serious dilemma, of rejecting what has thus become disclosed as absurd, or committing ourselves to a radical reconstruction of that conceptual system, indeed a logical reconstruction of the axiomatic premises of that system.' Such a reconstruction has occurred in the last century in the field of physics in its difficult transition from the Newtonian to the Einsteinian conceptual framework. Torrance argues that it was something similar to this which happened as the early Church came to acknowledge the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These were realities that could not be fitted into their current ways of thinking, indeed appeared ridiculous in their current ways of thinking, but because of their inherent persuasive power demanded that the Church revise its entire way of thinking around these new realities as its basic starting point. The new wine needed new wineskins.


  1. I like the "stands or falls with respect to its power as a whole" etc. A long way to say faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. There's nothing wrong of course with discussing the existence and/or relevance of God, but it's only a beginning. It's a ladder that's to short to reach the goal.

  2. Torrance's discussion here isn't meant to be a ladder by which one can climb up to proof of God's existence, but an explanation of why its not illogical for Christians to base their entire way of thinking and living on the resurrection of the incarnate Christ when that reality itself cannot be proved. Rather than building a ladder from below in order to climb up, he's pointing from below to the ladder dropped down to us from above and noting that though it reaches down to us, its foundation is not to be found on our ground but with God in heaven from whom it hangs. You're right though; it is basically a wordy and nerdy way of saying faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God, but I think in our context we are likely to take that kind of statement in a foundationalist way, thinking we can move from an undoubtable premise to a logically firm conclusion. Torrance is showing how the resurrection of Christ moves human reason out of a place of primacy and gives it its proper role in the new creation.

    On a side note, this conversation would be way more fun at your dining room table. Looking forward to the day.

  3. Oh man I am too.
    That's kind of what I meant by the ladder thing. So many atheists I read and hear keep saying I need a fact or a proof or a vision or something, when all along the fact is already there in the resurrection. In the West we lean on logic too much, but there is this logic--either the resurrection happened or it didnt'. If it did, it was supernatural in the most emphatic way. If it didn't why are we wasting time talking about the existence of God. As George MacDonald says "as if God has nothing more to do than exist."
    Glad to see the blog active again, although the sheer amount of reading you refer to makes me want to go lie down.

  4. Ah, my mistake. I thought you were thinking Torrance was building the ladder, rather than commenting on the futility of trying. Anyway, lying down does sound nice right now.