On the Nature of Theological Statements

Meantime let us return to the fact that theological statements have a reference beyond and above themselves, and are not true in themselves but have their truth beyond them. Here critical philosophers have several things to say, to which we must listen.

(a) If we make this claim for theological statements that means that there is a real discrepancy between the statements themselves which are human and this-wordly and that to which they intend ultimately to refer which is divine and other-worldly. How can statements truthfully refer to what is utterly transcendent and beyond them, infinitely beyond the limits of all ‘experience’ in this world?

(b) We must say that theological statements refer to an eternal world and are related to it, but even if they did relate to it, we could not say how they are related to it, for what we cannot represent in language is the relation of language to the external facts–that is, in the language of Wittgenstein, we cannot produce a picture of the relation of a picture to that which is pictured.

(c) Bound up and overlapping with both of these critical observations is another. If we claim that theological statements are analogical, do we not need an objective standard by which to measure them, and if we are to claim that all theological statements are analogical, how are we to get the required objective standard? We cannot get outside our own thinking or speak outside of our own human language.

These critical observations are to be taken seriously, and, we believe, admitted from the side of the critical reason. Indeed they are to be reinforced from the side of the theological reason. We grant that considered entirely and only in themselves theological statements have no real truth and we admit that we cannot just say how they are related to the reality which they indicate, for they have no claim on God that He must be their object or their content. It is, however, the very nature of the Truth that demands of us these acknowledgements, while it is because the Truth comes to us that we are delivered out of the circle of our own autonomous thinking, and are given a relation to what is outside of it and beyond what we can say to ourselves or think out for ourselves.

In regard to these observations it should be noted that they do not apply to theological statements only, that is, to the case where the referent is infinitely beyond the statement itself, but also to the basic statements of empirical science where the referent is an existent or a process and not an idea, that is, where it is quite another thing than the statement itself. If the critical observations are meant to demolish theology, they also demolish empirical science and lead to pure scepticism. If they are meant to be sceptical, they involve a serious error, in presuming that thinking of a thing is identical with making actual contact with it. Or to put it otherwise, as sceptical observations they assert the primacy of bare thought, they abstract thinking form existence, disconnecting mind from matter, and so create a gap which it is impossible to bridge by thinking alone. Then to question the reality of an existent beyond the gap would be a contradictory movement of thought. But the observations need not be taken in a sceptical sense, for their truth lies in the fact that they reveal that in our knowledge of external reality, creaturely or divine, we cannot account for its comprehensibility; there is no purely theoretical bridge between our thinking and the objective reality of existence. Rightly taken, then, this does not produce scepticism but what Einstein called ‘awe’ before a mystery which we shall never understand. That is no less applicable to the mystery of the knowledge of God by human creatures.

-Thomas F. Torrance, Theological Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 183-184.

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2 thoughts on “On the Nature of Theological Statements

  1. I had to read it 2.5 times to really get it. Good, but dense argument and I understand the brunt of the argument. Here’s what I still don’t get:
    “These critical observations are to be taken seriously, and, we believe, admitted from the side of the critical reason. Indeed they are to be reinforced from the side of the theological reason. We grant that considered entirely and only in themselves theological statements have no real truth and we admit that we cannot just say how they are related to the reality which they indicate, for they have no claim on God that He must be their object or their content. It is, however, the very nature of the Truth that demands of us these acknowledgements, which it is because the Truth comes to us that we are delivered out of the circle of our own autonomous thinking, and are given a relation to what is outside of it and beyond what we can say to ourselves or think out for ourselves.” (especially the sentence beginning, “It is, however…”)

  2. I noticed that there was a typo, and I wonder if that made it difficult. It should read: “It is, however, the very nature of the Truth that demands of us these acknowledgements, while it is because…”

    Does that help? I think his main point is that because God is personal and not a mere object of creation, we do not approach Him with our questions. His revelation of himself always precedes our questions of him (and indeed, often asks questions of us first). Thus, theological statements have no truth in themselves (i.e., they are not self-referential) and it is not easy to pin them down to their objective realities (i.e., the nature of revelation). The fact that God comes to us from outside of ourselves is the sole reason we can transcend our own subjectivities in regards to the knowledge of God. We can not reason from ourselves (i.e., generalized possibilities) to what God is like (i.e., actuality).

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