A Covenantal Correspondance Against A Sacramental Universe

T.F. Torrance followed his mentor Karl Barth in a strident rejection of natural theology as a factor in man’s knowledge of God. While both affirmed that both God and the world he created are perceptible or apprehensible, the way that they affirmed it was a marked departure from how it had been classically conceived. Torrance, in particular, spent a good deal of time working through classical natural theology, both its roots and its consequences, and though he was appreciative of it, he was for the most part quite critical of what he took to be serious problems inherent within it. For Torrance, natural theology as a way of arriving at a knowledge of God via abstracting from sensory experience was destined to die the same death as empiricism and logical positivism. Torrance held that the idea of that scientific knowledge proceeds via the abstraction from sensory or observational data (what Sellars might call ‘observation reports) was roughly equivalent to classical natural theology and so the same weaknesses in empiricism were weaknesses in classical natural theology.

What, exactly, did Torrance see as the problem that both positivism and classical natural theology were vulnerable to? The answer is twofold. First, just as, for the positivists, experience was (roughly) a logical construction out of sense-data, so classical natural theology was an attempt to abstract concepts from experience and transpose them into a kind of ‘logical bridge’ between creation and God. This isn’t to suggest that Torrance didn’t hold to an a posteriori method in both science and theology, only that he rejected what he took to be the shortcomings of the logical empiricism he saw in both positivism and classical natural theology.The second part of the answer has to do with the notion of ‘intelligibility’ that Torrance saw latent within the medieval tradition. The medieval universe, Torrance argued, was a symbolic and sacramental one, where visible things served as signs of things eternal. The idea of a sacramental universe was largely regarded by Torrance as a bad idea:

The arts and sciences were all deeply informed by a distinctive slant given to the classical attitude of mind through Augustinian metaphysics and eschatology, in accordance with which nature acquired significance only in so far as it provided the sensible medium in which eternal realities could be reflected and through which they might be discerned and enjoyed by men and women in their earthly pilgrimage to the heavenly city. This was a “sacramental universe” in which things outward, visible and temporal were regarded as signs of things inward, invisible and eternal. But this way of treating the natural order, only as a symbolic medium enabling the human mind to take off into a supernatural realm beyond, together with the radical dualism between the sensible and the intelligible orders of reality that lay behind it, had the effect of damaging the status and demoting the meaning of the creaturely world which it been given in the Christian reconstruction of Greek thought. (Reality and Scientific Theology, p. 34)

This kind of ‘inherent correspondence’, for Torrance, was dangerous ground. Essentially, what this mode of led to was a view of nature that denied actual intelligibility of nature, since nature could only be understood in reference to a source of rationality that didn’t belong to it. For Torrance there are serious consequences to the natural sciences in light of this view of nature, because he sees a sacramental view of nature as essentially bracketing off contingency, the very thing that makes the sciences possible:

For medieval theology, then, the world was seen as impregnated with final causes, so that not only could an eternal pattern be read off the face of nature, but apart from the understanding of the eternal pattern in God, there could be no ultimate knowledge of nature. Contingent things and events were seen to ‘obtain only under condition of extrinsic relation to what is necessary’, having no true identity or freedom in themselves. (Robert J. Stamps, The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh p. 39-40)

In other words, nature is not nature on a sacramental view of the universe. By allowing nature to have meaning only insofar as it refers to a source of rationality that isn’t its own, a sacramental view doesn’t allow nature to truly be nature. This inherent correspondence leaves nature with a rationality that is only divine, and thus divests nature of any real nature-ness. The solution, then, is a view of nature which can retain its own integrity, identity and freedom without falling prey to Torrance’s criticisms. For Torrance, following Barth, this solution was found in the idea of covenant and the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. These two ideas secure what is necessary for a view of nature that retains the integrity of nature as well as the other-ness of God: from creation ex nihilo, we have a concept of nature where nature is utterly distinct from God and is even given its own freedom:

In other words, when Torrance classifies the world as ‘utterly distinct’ from God, he is not saying that God has left the creation sufficient in itself to operate independently from him. He refers to this ontological, operational freedom or creation conferred upon it by God as contingency. The term carries its usual;y connotation, viz, ‘transience’, ‘temporal finitude’, and ‘having a beginning and end in time’, as well as freedom from all external, rational necessity , particularly that within the being of God. The implications of the cosmology which he is proposing entails, without contradiction, a world utterly distinct from God only because it is totally dependent on him. (p. 36)

While creation ex nihilo secures the freedom of nature to be nature (and Torrance sees this theme running deep in patristic and reformation thought), the notion of covenant  secures the way in which nature relates to God and vice versa. Over against a sacramental view which posits an inherent, divinely imposed order on nature such that nature’s rationality only obtains through reference to God out of necessity, Torrance follows Barth’s lead in making the covenant the way in which God relates to the world. Nature does not have an inherent correspondence or likeness to things divine, rather the relationship between nature and God obtains only because God in a free act of grace chooses to be related to it. The covenant here the internal basis of creation: the world is created to serve its place in God’s redeeming purpose for man, and within this purpose God enters into relation with world and presses nature into service, as it were, the world:

The whole world of signs which God in his covenant mercy has appointed to correspond to Him only has revealing significance and there can be interpreted only, in relation to His covenant will for man and in the actualization of that Covenant in the course of His redemptive acts in history (Torrance)

Put another way, nature refers to God not because of an inherent likeness but because God in his free grace enters into a relationship with the world within which the world can be made to refer to God. To be sure, nature has its own rationality: God created it in such a way. However, for Torrance, God’s rationality cannot be disclosed by the rationality of nature. Only God reveals God, and only within the sphere of His covenantal relation with creation can creation be understood in reference to God.

6 thoughts on “A Covenantal Correspondance Against A Sacramental Universe

  1. Kevin Davis October 27, 2016 / 9:56 pm

    “By allowing nature to have meaning only insofar as it refers to a source of rationality that isn’t its own, a sacramental view doesn’t allow nature to truly be nature. This inherent correspondence leaves nature with a rationality that is only divine, and thus divests nature of any real nature-ness.”

    I can perhaps see this in a certain type of enthusiastic Neoplatonist mysticism. It would be akin to an overzealous allegorizing of Scripture, wherein trascendent ends are discovered with tenuous connection to the reality of the text. But does this problem of “a sacramental universe” extend to, let’s say, Aquinas and high scholasticism more generally? If so, then how would TFT explain the burgeoning of science throughout the medieval West in the high middle ages? And this is an extraordinarily broad sweep of technical, scientific progress: law, politics, economics, architecture, accounting, medicine, etc., basically wherever the human mind is tasked with exploring and utilizing nature to its benefit. So we had to wait until the Reformed could show us how to do science without sacramental diversion? I hardly think so. Moreover, someone could say that a sacramental view of nature protected the Church from a Gnostic disregard for nature.

    Just some quick thoughts.


    • Joshua October 27, 2016 / 10:12 pm

      I agree that Torrance seems to have not paid much attention to medieval theories of God’s freedom (Scotus and Lombard as well) – O’donavan criticizes him on this as well. I think that, on a formal level anyway, Torrance is correct as far as the ‘impregnated with final causes’ bit goes. Materially, however, as you note, medieval science did quite well by attending to contingent phenomenon, and to the extent that Torrance can’t accomodate this, his thesis seems to be quite shaky.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Rod Lampard November 1, 2016 / 7:28 pm

    I wasn’t aware that Torrance was as hard-core in his rejection of Natural Theology as Barth was. How I’ve viewed Torrance’s position: God’s self-revelation can be reflected in nature, however, that reflection is not revelation itself. Another example might be iconography, the Eastern Orthodox practice of praying through art, not to the art itself. It ought not be viewed as being the full stop; placing the quintessential evidence for incarnation outside Christ, therefore creating another (an abstract) prime ontological essence of God’s self-revelation.


    • Joshua November 1, 2016 / 7:31 pm

      He was and he wasn’t. As far as natural theology as a system independent of revelation, he was quite serious in his rejection of it. But there is tension in his thought here, as Hunsinger notes, since Torrance believed that things such as contingency pointed to God.

      Liked by 1 person

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