Toward a Kataphysic Missiology: T.F. Torrance on Developing a “Scientific” Approach to the Task of Mission (Reformission Monday)

Reformission Monday is the time when I pause from writing in reformission to reflect on reformission itself. Reformission aims at fulfilling the church’s commission through reformation and renewal, bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to bear on every sphere of human thought, speech, and life. Reformission thus proceeds on the basis of the deep and unbreakable unity between didache and kerygma, between Evangel and evangelism, between message and method, between the Word enfleshed, written, and proclaimed.

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In last week’s Reformission Monday post, I examined how T.F. Torrance, reformissionary par excellence, repudiated the dichotomy often drawn between “theory” and “practice” (which in missiology leads to a separation between the message and the methodology used to deliver it) and sought to reinstate in its place the New Testament emphasis on the intrinsic unity between the didache — the theological teaching of the gospel — and the kerygma — the missional proclamation of the gospel. This post builds on that one and seeks to extend the argument even further. If it is indeed true that, as the Word of God incarnate is both the content and act of revelation in one person, the gospel message and the mode of its missional dissemination are indivisible, then it is also true that the latter must derive exclusively from and conform strictly to the former. Simply put, the message of mission determines the method of mission. This is what I would like to call, appropriating terminology from Torrance, a kataphysic or scientific missiology.

The adjective kataphysic comes from the Greek phrase kata physin which means “according to nature”. Torrance employed this phrase mainly in his work on epistemology and hermeneutics to designate a properly “scientific” approach to these disciplines: not artificial-intelligence-religion-not-goodscientific in the sense of what is commonly understood as the philosophical materialism that informs much of the modern research in the natural sciences, but scientific in the sense of an approach that demonstrates a strict fidelity to the nature of the object of which knowledge is being sought. In other words, a kataphysic (or scientific) method seeks to know any particular object according its own intrinsic logic that is disclosed during the course of investigation rather than by imposing on that object a predetermined framework of rationality. A kataphysic approach attempts to conform itself to the object of inquiry rather than making its object of inquiry conform to itself. For example, we do not seek to know a person like we seek to know a geological formation; as objects of inquiry they are fundamentally different from each other, and thus in order to properly know them we must approach them according to what they are, not according to what we might assume them to be.

Although Torrance did not (to my knowledge) explicitly apply the concept of kata physin to the area of missiology, I am convinced that this is in essence what he did. As demonstration of this, we can consider Torrance’s introduction to his essay “A Study in New Testament Communication”:

It is often claimed that the problem of communicating the Gospel is the major practical problem facing the Church to-day, as it may also be the major theological problem. This concern is a very healthy sign, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that we are part to be so concerned with devising new methods of evangelism as to forget the one factor of supreme importance: the burden of the Gospel itself, that is, to forget that the Gospel is not simply the message of divine love, but the actual way in which God communicates Himself to us in history. No technique that forgets that the Gospel has already been made supremely relevant to sinful humanity in the Incarnation and death of Jesus Christ will ever avail for the communication of the Gospel.[1]

Here Torrance uses the term “Gospel” to indicate more than simply the content of the New Testament’s teaching about Jesus Christ. For Torrance, the “Gospel” also encompasses the saving activity of God that reconciles even as it reveals. This, I think, is fully warranted by what Paul says in Romans 1:16-17 in reference to the fact that the gospel that reveals the saving righteousness of God is also the effectual power of God for salvation. The gospel is revelation that reconciles and reconciliation that reveals, and as such its mode of communication is determined by its content and action.

Torrance unpacks this idea more extensively in another essay entitled “Theological Education Today”:

It must ever be kept in mind that what we are concerned with in theology is the understanding and proclamation of the Gospel that is directed to human need. This involves both the bringing of the Gospel to man and the bringing of man to the Gospel, but in no circumstances can man and his need become the criteria for what the Gospel is or ought to be. We may express this in a more epistemological way by saying that in all knowledge of God we are concerned with the divine Truth and with a human knower. The communication of the Truth must take into account the nature of the receiver, and the mode of communication will be conditioned also by the mode of the reception, but that does not mean that the human knower or receiver may determine the content of the Truth.

On the other hand, the content of the Gospel is found in the Word made flesh, and in the Truth of God which is not only communicated to man but received by man and translated into human life in Jesus Christ. It is the nature of this Man that conditions both the content of the Gospel and the mode of its communication and reception by those to whom he is proclaimed and ministered. In Jesus Christ the Truth of God has already been made relevant to man and his need, and therefore does not need to be
made relevant by us. Because God has already accommodated or adapted his revelation to human t-f-torrancenature and human understanding in Jesus Christ, the closer theological instruction keeps to the humanity of Jesus Christ, the more relevant it is to the humanity of the receiver.

Thus in all theological activity, whether it be in the education of the Ministry or in the teaching of the people, we are concerned with two basic factors: with the nature of the Truth of God as it is in Jesus Christ, and therefore with a mode of communication appropriate to his unique nature; and with the nature of the human receiver, and therefore with a mode of reception appropriate to his human nature. These must never be separated from one another, for in the very nature of the Gospel they belong together, and indeed it is because they do that the Truth of God as it is in Jesus is really Gospel, good news to man in his need.

All true theology is thus intensely practical. That is why all theories purporting to show how the Gospel can be made relevant to man, even modern man, in his need, are by their very nature impossible, for they are substituting an intellectual relation for the practical relation which God himself has established in Jesus Christ. That is the epistemological relevance of justification by grace alone—no works of ours, carnal or mental, can establish a bridge between our understanding and the Truth of God. Knowledge of God is in accordance with his nature, that is in accordance with grace, and therefore takes its rise from God’s action in revealing himself and reconciling us to himself in Jesus Christ. The relation between our statements about God and God himself in his own Truth is not one that we can either forge or describe in statements, but one that we can only allow to happen to us through submitting obediently and gratefully to his saving and revealing acts. Full place for that action must be given in theological knowledge as in evangelical proclamation. Thus unless dogmatic and philosophical theology can be geared into practical theology they are pretty wide of the remark.

Here we see repeated the theme from last week’s post on the missional practicality of theology and the theological nature of our missional practice. This follows, once again, from the nature of the person and work of Christ himself: the saving truth of which the world has need is not merely about Christ but is actually in Christ. This, in turn, underlies the important point that Torrance makes regarding the relevance of the gospel: while we must keep in mind the “nature of the receiver” with whom we share the gospel (here we see kata physin already at work), it is not ultimately the nature of the receivers — the multiplicity of unreached nations, tribes, and tongues — that determines the means that must be used to communicate the gospel to them in a comprehensible way. The relevancy of the gospel and its proper mode of communication is governed by Christ, for he alone is both the saving Word of God to humanity and humanity’s proper reception of that Word.

This is the kataphysic significance of the incarnation to missiology: inasmuch as the truth of the gospel is embodied in the God-human mediator Jesus Christ, not only the content of that gospel but also the necessary mode of its communication is determined by nature of Christ himself. Any missiology that is not scientific, that is not kataphysic in relation to Christ (i.e. not formulated exclusively from and strictly according to the person of Christ himself as God and man indivisibly and inconfusedly united in one person) is doomed to be an irrelevant missiology, irrespective of the seeming wisdom or efficacy or pragmatic value that it might possess. To be truly faithful and fruitful, our missiology must be kataphysic, scientifically expounded and practiced such that it is relevant supremely to Christ who is both the revealer and the revelation of reconciliation between God and humanity.

Again to my knowledge, Torrance does not seem to have extensively developed these seminal insights into a fully-orbed missiology, although they no doubt suffused his thinking and led to, if not a thoroughly elaborated, at least an intuitively practiced theology of mission that provided the primary impetus for all of his labors, whether academic, scientific, ecumenical, dogmatic, pastoral, or otherwise. For this reason, this idea of kataphysic (or scientific) missiology seems to me to be a field of Torrancean theology that is ripe for the harvest, and it is what I hope to continue to work on in weeks to come.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, “A Study in New Testament Communication”, Scottish Journal of Theology, p.298

[2] T.F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction. (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1996), pp.25-27.

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