Two Problems With Torrance 

David F. Siemens, Jr.

Professor of Philosophy Emeritus
Los Angeles Pierce College


From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (June 1991): 112-113.

If Neidhardt correctly represents Professor Torrance's views in Thomas F. Torrance's Integration of Judeo-Christian Theology & Natural Science: Some Key Themes," Perspectives, June 1989, I see two problems. First, there is a question about restricting analogy to a God-created correspondence" (p. 92, emphasis omitted). If I am to understand that only divinely revealed analogies are binding for theological interpretations, that is no more than to return to the reformers' sola scriptura with an irrelevant qualification. Especially when God appears on one side of the comparison, the relationship of the familiar terrestrial experience to the revealed information must transcend logical and ontological levels. On this truism, Martin Buber's "I-thou" and "I-it" distinctions are relevant. His discussion is not normative for theology, but it is explanatory. For purposes of communication, we should have no problem with Patrick's reported use of the shamrock to illustrate the trinity, or butterflies and lilies as symbols of the resurrection. So the restriction of analogy either belabors the obvious or inappropriately restricts its use.  

In addition, there are markedly different levels of inspired metaphors. The Father-Son and Father-child comparisons are obviously basic to theology, as the Groom-bride is to ecclesiology. Living stones and mustard seeds are surely less important to doctrinal discussions. 

A more difficult problem occurs in connection with note 15 (page 98): hearing is not a passive experience. In addition, the visual experience of reading is not that different from the auditory experience of listening to a speaker. This fact allows me to communicate here rather than looking everyone up to deliver the information orally. 

Listening and reading are so automatic, once we have passed the childhood hurdles, that we are not aware of all that is required. The lesson was learned when computers began to have enough memory to contain entire dictionaries. The programmers planned to have translations, say from Russian to English, by a simple process. Input sentence R, let the computer replace the Russian terms by referring to its dictionary, output sentence E. Only it did not work. With faster computers with more memory, they thought to solve the problem by including also the syntactical rules of the two languages, along with more sophisticated dictionaries. The programs still did not work, except for titles and simple captions. It was not merely that the syntax of any natural language is more complex than they first suspected. Investigators came up with a seemingly straightforward sentence: "Time flies like an arrow." It is, however, by the simplest syntactical patterns and assignments, three distinct sentences. The one we immediately grasp is a figurative description of the passage of time. The second states that a variety of flies is fond of arrows. The third commands that the apparatus for flies be set up as it would be for an arrow. We automatically exclude the latter two. On the one hand, we know that, although there are stable flies, house flies, fruit flies, sand flies, blow flies, horse flies, deer flies, blue bottle flies, and numerous other kinds of flies, there are no time flies. We also recognize that a fondness for arrows is not a plausible characteristic of insects. On the other hand, we recognize that we cannot time the usually erratic and unpredictable flight of flies by the techniques used for the regular flight of arrows, with other temporal considerations equally incommensurate. But all such considerations take us beyond language to a comprehensive knowledge of our world.  

The upshot of this is the recognition that the listener provides at least fifty per cent of the information necessary to decode an utterance. The requirement normally runs around seventy per cent, and may rise above ninety per cent - when all the phonemes are heard. But phonemes are often mispronounced, omitted, garbled, buried by noise, or otherwise lost. Then the listener must supplement the heard phonemes in order to be able to decipher what was said. However, we do not normally hear phonemes as such. Instead, we hear the larger units as units. Noting phonemes and, usually, separate words in familiar languages, generally requires a special kind of analytical attention.  

The problems in reading are essentially similar. However, the reader has the advantage of slowing or stopping at something unexpected, whether the word is misspelled or unfamiliar. For example, "periodic" is a term in chemistry. But I need to know the context, whether it refers to acids or to a table, before I know its pronunciation and meaning. Pausing and repeating is normally possible orally only with personally controlled recordings.  

Years ago many philosophers subscribed to sense data, with the view that the mind receives from the senses shape, color, temperature, tone, loudness, and other sensory bits, each a distinct datum. Many of these data bits, according to the theory, are coordinated by the mind to produce the complex images joined to concepts useful for recognition, communication and understanding. However, as scientists began to understand the levels of processing that go on in the sensory organs, it became evident that anything similar to sense data can be arrived at only by a complicated process of abstraction. Now it is generally recognized that we perceive "things," entities as units. We see chickens and clocks, not bits of sensations by which to construct them. 
 
The theory-dependence of vision is today widely recognized. We tend to see what we expect. We recognize the tendency in the older maps of Mars that showed elaborate canal systems. Unfortunately, the use of language does not preclude the same sort of bias. For example, C.S. Lewis became the subject of theses and dissertations during his life. He noted that he kept receiving earnest letters from serious young students asking if he really meant something or other when, he said, he had been at the utmost pains to reject that view. Unless one exercises extreme care to guard against it, the common human tendency is to assume that someone like Lewis is intelligent enough to see things my way. When this expectation is destroyed, amazement is expressed that someone so intelligent did not see things the right way - that is, my way. What language we hear is forced into a theoretical mold as much as what we see.  

What is relevant to theology is not the primacy of one or the other sense, but the matter of communication. It was originally oral in almost every instance. We are so dependent on written material that we do not easily grasp this fact. Yet this is not primary. The revelation, whether spoken or written, is verbal. Even what we recognize as divine lessons and chastisements depend vitally on the message of the prophets, the interpretation. For example, it appears that the writing on the wall was unintelligible until Daniel spoke. They could read the words, evidently, but they could not understand the message.  

There is another reason for what seems like the biblical emphasis on hearing. In both Hebrew and Greek, the roots of the terms referring to obedience mean to "hear" or to "listen." But, contrary to the claim that this is a distinctly Hebrew notion, the meaning of hupakouo as involving obedience goes back at least to Herodotus, antedating the Septuagint by two centuries. Even akouo, though not so translated in 1611, means to "obey" in some contexts. This sense is attested in Homer. So it is not possible to pinpoint when the usage began. Yet this almost absolutely guarantees that this sense was not borrowed by the Greeks from Israel or Judah.  

We tend to think of hearing, understanding and obeying as distinct. The original view joins hearing and obeying, so that I have not truly heard God's Word until I practice it. Indeed, understanding is also included. This coupling makes hearing the "sense" that is emphasized. So it is not a matter of the importance of a specific sensory input, but the primacy of making our wills comply with His revealed will.  

I have heard contemporary Christians say, "I know the Bible says that. But I don't believe it." This is diametrically opposed to scripturally hearing the Word. The contemporary attitude probably is relevant to our Lord's question, "Will the Son of man find faith on earth when he comes?" (Luke 18:8). God grant that we shall never contribute to such faithlessness, that we shall truly hear His Word.



Neidhardt Responds