Speaking of Creation:
Modes of Doctrinal Exposition in Torrance and Tanner
by John Drury
What is the doctrine of creation? What does it mean when Christians say God created the world out of nothing? How are we to speak of creation? Thomas Torrance and Kathryn Tanner both offer unique responses to these questions. A close reading reveals a great deal about the creation as well as how doctrines are explained. Torrance and Tanner’s similar conclusions about the doctrine come to them by radically dissimilar ways. This paper aims to analyze and assess what they gain or lose along the way.
In their expositions of the doctrine of creation, Torrance and Tanner hold in common a purpose and a pattern. Their common purpose is to increase the credibility of the doctrine by means of ad hoc apologetics. They explain the meaning of the doctrine, and even block arguments against it.[i] Their common pattern is the relationship of God and the world as expressed by the doctrine. They speak of a transcendent yet creative God, and also the integrity of creation. Torrance refers to this integrity as contingent order and freedom, while Tanner calls it created efficacy.[ii] They also speak of the interaction of God and creation as different levels or orders.[iii]
The one major difference between the two is that Torrance draws a close connection between the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of the incarnation. It is on this basis alone that he argues for the above pattern. Despite her similar pattern, Tanner does not draw on Christology in order to center the doctrine of creation. Why is this so? I submit that their different methodological commitments regarding truth, doctrine and argumentation lead them down these divergent paths.
To argue my case, I will first overview Torrance and Tanner’s exposition of the doctrine of creation. The common pattern and some of their methodological differences will unfold throughout the overview. This overview will be followed by an examination and evaluation of their respective theories of truth, approaches to doctrine and modes of argumentation.
I. Torrance and Tanner’s Exposition of the Doctrine
A. Thomas F. Torrance
In Divine and Contingent Order (1979), Torrance aims to clarify the “notions of contingence and contingent order.”[iv] Scientists, more than theologians, constitute his intended audience.[v] This is especially the case since contingency has received increased credibility in the context of modern science. Torrance wishes to reintroduce the uniquely Christian notion of contingent order into these favorable conditions, and contends that must science must necessarily presume it.
What is the meaning of the terms “contingence” and “contingent order?” Something that is contingent has no necessity or stability of its own. The Christian doctrine of creation applies the descriptive predicate of contingence to the universe. Furthermore, the universe is not only contingent, but it has an order of its own. The universe is “not self-sufficient or ultimately self-explaining but is given a rationality and reliability in its orderliness.”[vi] Hence Torrance refers to creation as “contingent order.”
The notion of contingency modifies the force of the term “order.” The rationality and stability of creation is fully dependent on God’s rationality.[vii] Because this order is contingent, God’s interaction with it is entirely free. The freedom of the universe is therefore also grounded in God’s freedom.[viii] For this reason, creation has only a “contingent freedom.”[ix] Its freedom is not only contingent, but also ordered; it is far from arbitrary.[x] Torrance regulates all predicates for creation by the notion of contingent order.
Torrance exposits the doctrine of creation as contingent order by a historical narration of its prominence in various contexts. He first points to its rise in opposition to Greek mind. The ancient Greeks could not formulate this notion of contingence without some kind of necessity lurking behind it. Nicene Christianity solved this problem with “a radical doctrine of creation.”[xi] The radicalization was possible “through thinking out ... the relation of the creation to the incarnation of God’s Word.”[xii] The doctrine of incarnation implies the rational integrity of the physical world. Although there is an asymmetrical and irreversible relation between the two,[xiii] God and creation represent two kinds of rational order.
Torrance traces the struggles this idea faced throughout history. The medieval period saw a hangover of Greek science that diminished its understanding of contingency. The greatest damage, however, came after Newton. The world-view perpetuated in the wake of his work was mechanistic and deterministic. Necessity once again ruled the scientific understanding of the universe.
Only in the modern period has a notion of contingence been regained. Torrance points to Einstein’s work as crucial. Einstein moved away from the necessities of Newton to a more open world-view. He reminded science that “its internal consistency must finally depend on relation to an objective ground of rationality beyond the boundaries of the contingent universe itself.”[xiv] Einstein understood the universe as dynamically rational rather than statically causal; “in terms of reasons rather than causes.”[xv] Therefore, Einstein reintroduced the notion of contingent order to modern science.
Torrance goes on to argue that contingency is a tacit presupposition of natural science and even an essential belief.[xvi] This has been established by modern science in its encounter with the boundaries of its own knowledge. Although it operates with a methodological secularism,[xvii] science will nevertheless face theological questions. Torrance explains this phenomenon by the two facets of contingency: it points both toward and away from God.[xviii] Theological science is concerned with the former orientation, natural science the latter.[xix] Although each is its own autonomous enterprise, the study of one will necessarily impinge on the other. The two facets of contingency, therefore, form the basis of dialogue between science and theology.[xx]
Torrance concludes with a turn to the question of disorder and evil. A belief in the orderliness of creation renders the presence of disorder problematic.[xxi] Torrance insists that disorder is not just a part of contingency or a privation of ordered goodness;[xxii] rather, he takes his cue from Karl Barth to speak of evil as anti-being.[xxiii] The disruption of contingent order sets the two facets of contingence at variance with one another.[xxiv] In the face of this disorder, God is overruling. God overrules by the interaction of higher levels with lower levels.[xxv] Humanity is the focal point of this interaction. Torrance refers to this as humanity’s priestly and redemptive role.[xxvi] Humanity, too, is in need of redemption, and so God became incarnate in Jesus Christ to reorder humanity.[xxvii] On the basis of this healing, humans may perform their mission to the rest of the creation.[xxviii]
B. Kathryn Tanner
Tanner’s 1988 work, God and Creation in Christian Theology, “concerns Christian talk about God as an agent in relation to created beings, particularly those assumed to have their own power and efficacy.”[xxix] She is responding to the charge that such talk is incoherent. Tanner proposes that if theologians follow the historic rules of discourse, this charge will be dropped.
Tanner’s methodological sophistication is remarkable. She begins with a thorough explanation and defense of her project. She plans to study historical cases in order to “isolate ruled structures” of theological discourse.[xxx] Her attention is on theological language rather than the object of theological discourse, such as God and creation.[xxxi] Such a linguistic turn is justified by an apophatic posture toward theological language. If talk about God is informational vacuous, then a focus on formal rather than material concerns is appropriate.[xxxii] Under this linguistic emphasis, the theologian’s task is to regulate Christian language. This regulation will ensure speaker’s attitudes and actions are proper.[xxxiii]
Tanner locates the problem in speaking of creation in the apparent incoherence of the doctrine of creation.[xxxiv] It is difficult to understand how God’s all-pervasion agency does not preclude the agency of humans. She utilizes Kant’s first type of transcendental argument to establish the conditions of possibility for particular statements.[xxxv] Tanner’s goal is to exhibit the internal coherence of Christian talk so that its affirmations will gain credibility.[xxxvi]
Tanner’s exposition plays out in three movements: (1) God’s transcendence and creative agency, (2) God and creaturely agency, and (3) the modern breakdown of this discourse. In the first movement, Tanner explains the doctrine of creation as a solution to Greek philosophical problems. To the Greeks, divinity was either too closely identified with the world or too sharply contrasted with it.[xxxvii] Christian theology affirmed both God’s transcendence and involvement in the world. Such an affirmation can be coherent as long as God’s transcendence is not defined “contrastively.”[xxxviii] God is above the distinctions within the created order and therefore may be fully involved in the world without becoming a part of it. Tanner concludes with two rules for discourse: “avoid both a simple univocal attribution of predicates to God and world and a simple contrast of divine and non-divine predicates” and “avoid in talk about God’s creative agency all suggestions of limitation in scope or manner.”[xxxix] Tanner points to exemplars of this coherent talk in Irenaeus, Tertullian, Aquinas and Barth.
In the second movement, Tanner turns to coherence of Christian talk about God’s unlimited agency and the efficacy of creatures. The same two rules apply in this case.[xl] Since God and creatures are not defined in opposition, a creature may have its own power and efficacy without diminishing the unlimited agency of God.[xli] Tanner unearths a subset of four rules for this situation: (1) “The theologian should talk of created efficacy as immediately and entirely grounded in the creative agency of God,”[xlii] (2) “God’s agency is not to be talked about as partial, or as composed or mixed with created causality,”[xliii] (3) prohibit “talk about the influence of divine agency as any sort of working on created operations already in act,”[xliv] and (4) created agency cannot influence divine agency in any strong sense.[xlv] Tanner envisions these rules as “resources of complexity.”[xlvi] There is a positive side of the rules that affirms the efficacy of creatures, as well as a negative side that reminds us that the creature is radically dependent on God. The two sides of the rules explain the presence of theological diversity: different theologians can be identified as emphasizing different sides of the rules depending on their context, method or practical agenda.[xlvii]
Tanner’s third and final movement discusses the modern breakdown of the coherency of Christian talk. Major problems have emerged in the modern context that theology has been unable to overcome. The first is the “emphasis on the referential adequacy of discourse.”[xlviii] Theologians are tempted by modern rationalism to treat their language about God as actual descriptions of God. The result is theologians stress either the negative side of the rules so that God’s agency precludes human agency (determinism), or the positive side so that human activity is entirely independent of God (Pelagianism).[xlix] Modern theology has been predominately Pelagian in its orientation.[l] Tanner proposes a strategy for faithfulness in response: theologians must block Pelagianism by use of the negative side of the rules.[li] Only on this basis can theologians then affirm the efficacy of creatures by the positive side of rules.[lii]
II. Truth, Doctrine and Argumentation
As the above overview shows, Torrance and Tanner arrive at similar conclusions regarding the doctrine of creation. God is transcendent and an all-pervasive agent, yet creation has its own integrity and order. The overview begins to indicate the different paths each take to reach such conclusions. For the sake of understanding, I will now explore the commitments that lead these two theologians down divergent paths. The commitments are their theories of truth, approaches to doctrine, and resultant modes of argumentation. For the purpose of evaluation, I will examine the approximate success of each author at connecting his or her notion of creation with Jesus Christ.
A. Theories of Truth
What could be more basic than one’s theory of truth? If Torrance and Tanner ascribe the same sentences to God and creation yet subscribe to different theories of truth, then they are not actually saying the same thing. Both indicate their theories of truth at the outset. Torrance places himself “in the tradition of Scottish realist” thought,[liii] while Tanner describes her work as having a “pragmatist focus.”[liv]
What does it mean for Torrance to call himself a realist? Simply put, realism believes in the referential correspondence between a statement and reality. Such semantic realism can be found in Torrance’s criticism of Satre. For Sartre, the notion of contingence is deprived of “any semantic reference to intelligibility beyond itself,” and therefore the universe is left in disorder.[lv] Torrance thinks it necessary for contingence to have a real reference to the rational order. He therefore praises Einstein’s “new realism in science” in contrast to some forms of quantum theory.[lvi] For Torrance, real cognitive and referential knowledge is possible.[lvii]
Torrance’s realism can be contrasted to Tanner’s pragmatism. Tanner places great weight on the rhetorical function of theology. A theological statement “recommends certain attitudes and actions.”[lviii] A theological statement is therefore subject to critique for its “potentially harmful practical consequences for Christian behaviours and attitudes.”[lix] In certain contexts, then, a typically true statement would actually be false.[lx] According to Tanner, the primary referent of a theologian’s talk is the religious language of Christians, so that theological language about divine activity refers to the speaker as much if not more than to God.
A pragmatic focus does not commit one to an anti-realist position. It would be possible to simply accentuate the pragmatic import of realistically true statements. Such a mediating position, however, is not found in Tanner. She explicitly contrasts her pragmatism with more realist theories of truth. She follows Lindbeck’s reading of Aquinas to argue that humans must remain agnostic about the modus significandi of theological statements.[lxi] She also critiques the modern period’s appeal for adequate reference in theological discourse.[lxii] Although Tanner does not criticize Torrance directly, such a criticism would necessarily apply to Torrance’s realism.
Tanner’s pragmatism is theologically justified by her appeal to analogical language. Does Torrance’s realism violate this theological posture? Torrance is not so literal that he ignores the relevance of mystery for theological language. He calls himself a “critical realist.”[lxiii] He asserts the incomprehensibility of contingence.[lxiv] Theology offers only a partial account of that which is “mysterious and baffling.”[lxv] For Torrance, revelation is so closely identified with the incarnation that he easily comprehends the analogical nature of theological language. Torrance is a case in point that an apophatic theological posture does not necessitate a pragmatic theory of truth.
How do these divergent theories of truth shape Tanner and Torrance’s doctrinal exposition? For Torrance, speaking of creation involves the natural sciences. Since theological language realistically refers to God and the world, science and theology make reference to the same universe.[lxvi] He claims that science and theology share in the same God-given rationality.[lxvii] Tanner, on the other hand, does not discuss modern empirical science at all. Such a dialogue is unnecessary if theological truth is pragmatic.
If we can roughly categorize Torrance as a realist and Tanner as a pragmatist, how can we weigh their theological projects? Although they are both explaining the doctrine of creation and making very similar affirmations, they are referring to two different things. When Torrance is speaking of creation, he refers to God and the created order. When Tanner speaks of creation, she is referring to people’s language and corresponding forms of life. A ‘common sense’ evaluation would favor Torrance, for it seems reasonable that when one speaks of creation he or she is referring to creation.
However, a more explicitly theological evaluation can be made. Can either make a serious connection between the doctrine of creation and the center of Christian theology, Jesus Christ? Torrance makes this very move: revealed knowledge about creation is rooted in the actuality of the incarnation.[lxviii] He can make this move because the contingent order defined by the doctrine of creation refers to the same order into which God becomes incarnate. For Tanner, theological statements ultimately refer to the speaker and not the object. Therefore, there is little basis for turning to the incarnation as a source for solving theological problems. She is able to hammer out a coherent doctrine of creation without connection to the incarnation.
B. Approaches to Doctrine
Since Tanner and Torrance are explaining a doctrine, it is crucial to determine their approach to doctrine. How does each define doctrine? What do they think doctrines say? How do they use doctrine? Torrance treats doctrines as substantive truth-claims. They carry actual information, and can be used as basic or maximal beliefs. Tanner, on the other hand, approaches doctrines as rules. They are formal placeholders to regulate religious talk. They perform a prohibiting and minimalist function.
Torrance’s view of doctrine is rooted in his realist theory of truth. Doctrines are permitted to refer to reality. This material mode is Torrance’s primary use of doctrines. The doctrine of creation conveys information that describes the universe as a contingent order. However, this apparent positivism is tempered by the doctrine’s grounding in the transcendent rationality of God.[lxix] Its cognitive content is rooted in the God’s own knowledge, and therefore not the property of doctrines per se.
Tanner extends George Lindbeck’s rule theory of doctrine. Doctrinal exposition and theological discourse can be mined, she claims, for rules. Unlike the material mode of doctrine, these formal rules are universal.[lxx] They are “place-holders” that can be filled with material, linguistic content in particular situations.[lxxi] Their primary function is to regulate the way Christians speak. A theologian does not gain information from doctrines, but rather uncovers and executes rules so that Christian speech is faithful and coherent.
Is Tanner’s approach to doctrine sharply distinct from Torrance’s? Could it be that they are merely two sides of the same coin? One might utilize the regulative function of doctrines without disparaging their material content. However, Tanner regards doctrines as informationally vacuous.[lxxii] Even when doctrines are formulated substantively, their function is regulative: “Statements in a first-order mode that work as rules are often instantiations or applications of the rules for discourse; they work as rules by becoming paradigmatic instances of a rule’s use.”[lxxiii] Tanner is not simply adding to the material side of doctrines a formal corollary; she is supplanting it.
Must the regulative function of doctrine overtake the informative mode? Can a doctrine be both material and formal? Although Torrance’s primary mode of doctrinal exposition is material, he is capable of making formal, ruled use of doctrines. To explain the relation of God to the universe, he turns to revelation in its “concrete form of Jesus Christ” in order to “formulate and test such statements.”[lxxiv] The difference is that the material actuality grounds the formal rule. The incarnation is a rule because it is true; it is a heuristic device not instead but because of its substantive status. God, therefore, is the regulator of knowledge: “our knowledge of him is controlled beyond itself in the rationality of God.”[lxxv] Torrance could incorporate the methodological sophistication of Tanner’s rule studies, but nevertheless retain the material content of doctrines.
Once again, Torrance’s commitments allow and even encourage the connection between the incarnation and the doctrine of creation. Tanner’s minimalist approach to doctrine, on the other hand, limits such a connection. If the doctrine of creation is a rule for talk, then one ought to be able to talk coherently about God and the world without turning to the Christological center of theology. Tanner believes such a Christocentric turn is another way of doing the same thing: “Karl Barth uses the unity of God and humanity in Jesus Christ as a rule.”[lxxvi] In her recent book, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, Tanner does make the connection, yet in the opposite direction: she uses the rules of the doctrine of creation to solve Christological conundrums. She admits this is strange, but nevertheless gives preference to the general over the particular.[lxxvii]
Torrance, on the other hand, draws extensively on the tie between the doctrines of creation and incarnation.[lxxviii] The two doctrines have overlapping material content, and so the one necessarily sheds light on the other. Torrance borrows Norman Kempt Smith’s concept of a “maximum belief.” The belief in contingence commits Christians to the belief that all the acts of God are contingent. Yet such a belief is actually grounded in those very acts.[lxxix] The content of doctrine is thus rooted in the actuality of the incarnation. Torrance makes this connection as serious and tight as possible.
A weakness in Torrance may be noted at this point by way of excursus. Although he makes the aforementioned connection serious and tight, it is incomplete. Why? He gives disproportionate weight to the incarnation within the story of Jesus. Although the incarnation could serve as shorthand for the whole narrative of Jesus, Torrance’s soteriology indicates that such is not the case. His preferred metaphor for salvation is healing.[lxxx] If we are to understand the doctrine of creation by its center in Jesus Christ, then the whole of Jesus’ story must be taken into account. Creation is not only affirmed (incarnation), but also negated (crucifixion), and only then reconstituted (resurrection).[lxxxi]
C. Modes of Argumentation
Tanner and Torrance clearly have divergent commitments regarding truth and doctrine. What do these commitments imply for their modes of argumentation? What do they aim to show in their exposition of the doctrine of creation? How do they go about their task?
Torrance’s realist theory of truth and material approach to doctrine does not lead him to simply repristinate theology. He aims to clarify the contingence in the context of modern science. Such an explanation is not meant to be systematic or strongly apologetic. He does not ‘prove’ the doctrine. Furthermore, he allows for the “baffling” and “incomprehensible” character of contingence.[lxxxii] Since the basis of truth is God’s rationality and not human discourse, Torrance is able to cope with paradox.
Tanner aims to exhibit the coherence of Christian discourse. She wants to solve apparent inconsistencies. Although her apophatic stance leads her to a strong minimalist position on truth and doctrine, she demands thoroughgoing coherence from theological discourse. There is an apologetic slant to her work, for she hopes a coherent doctrine will gain public credibility.[lxxxiii] This is not an ad hoc apologetics of simply explaining the internal meaning of a doctrine. Properly regulated theological statements for her are “not merely logically consistent.... They imply one another and therefore meet requirements for a stronger kind of intelligibility, systematic coherence.”[lxxxiv] This systematic orientation renders her averse to paradox.
The difference between Torrance and Tanner’s modes of argumentation can be exemplified by the divergent philosophical categories they employ. When discussing the breaking point or boundary of scientific knowledge, Torrance turns to Godel:
What is needed is something like a Godelian theorem of the universe as an intelligible whole or of the scientific enterprise as an intelligible whole, but that would still not carry us on to the actual transcendent ground from which all our intramundane knowledge would gain its ultimate consistence or coherence.[lxxxv]
Torrance agrees with Godel that consistence and completeness are mutually exclusive.[lxxxvi]
In contrast, Tanner favors Kant’s transcendental arguments. Her expressed purpose is to determine the conditions for possibility to form coherent statements.[lxxxvii] Tanner violates Godel’s proof by the strong declaration of both the consistence and systematic coherence of theological discourse.[lxxxviii] Tanner’s insightful exposition is minimally referential or material, while being maximally coherentist. Maybe she could have carved logical space for mystery in her exposition of the doctrine of creation.
Tanner may have thought drawing too strongly on the particular mystery of the incarnation would have spoiled her stress on coherence. Torrance’s mode of argumentation, on the other hand, allows him to connect creation and Jesus Christ. He rests ultimate rationality and coherence on God’s shoulders. The condition for possibility is not the coherence of theological discourse but the actuality of the incarnation. His doctrinal exposition is an exercise in ‘thinking after,’ for the incarnation is “unthinkable except on the ground its actual happening has established.”[lxxxix] Such a methodological appreciation for mystery is expressed well by Hans Frei:
The Incarnation of God in Christ does not belong to a general ‘meaning’ class, including ‘paradox’ ... it is not a logical contradiction--How it is possible for a person to be once human and divine is not intrinsically irrational, but the condition of its possibility, or rationality, is one we cannot know in this present finite state.[xc]
On the basis of these radically different commitments, Torrance and Tanner try to make common affirmations about the doctrine of creation. Torrance’s realist theory of truth, material approach to doctrine, and Godelian-paradox mode of argumentation are all in sharp distinction to Tanner’s pragmatism, formal-regulative approach to doctrine, and strong Kantian-coherentist argumentation. Since truth, doctrine and logic are such basic matters, whatever they hold in common is nearly nullified. As we saw, it is Tanner’s method that gives up too much. Torrance could learn much from her while holding on to his commitments. The insights of Tanner’s study could also be reaped if her polemics were softened. The pragmatic and formal do not need to replace the realistic and material. Finally, the strength of Torrance’s position is revealed by the Christocentric connections his method allows, for what good is a Christian doctrine of creation if it does not refer to Christ?
Kathryn Tanner, God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or Empowerment? (Oxford: Basil Blackwell,1988) 25, 164.
[lxxxvi] Torrance explains his use of Godel more thoroughly elsewhere; see The Ground and Grammar of Theology (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980) 70, and The Christian Frame of Mind (Colorado Springs: Helmers and Howard, 1989) 47.