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The Truth of Tradition: Critical Realism in the Thought of Alasdair MacIntyre and T. F. Torrance

  • P. Mark Achtemeier (a1)

I have found myself very much drawn to the epistemological realism which T.F. Torrance puts forward in his 1985 book, Reality and Scientific Theology. Torrance's claim, that true knowledge represents a genuine disclosure to the mind of that which is objectively real, seems to me an indispensable presupposition for the church's proclamation of the Gospel. If the knowledge, ‘That I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself but to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ’, is to be capable of offering concrete assurance about the eternal destiny of ordinary believers, such knowledge must of necessity be grounded in a reality (Jesus Christ) which transcends the particularities of the believer's own body, soul, and historical circumstances. A realism like Torrance's would seem to be essential if the church's witness is to be taken seriously.

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1 The Heidelberg Catechism, question 1.

2 Reality and Scientific Theology, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985 (Hereafter RST), p. 13.

3 Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988 (Hereafter WJ), pp. 357358.

4 WJ, 144.

5 WJ 134.

6 See MacIntyre's account on pp. 79–80.

7 WJ 133.

8 WJ 318–325.

9 WJ 333.

10 In RST, Chapter four.

11 RST 103.

12 RST 102.

13 RST 112.

14 RST 109. For specific application of this insight to the theologian and the church community, see also p. 121.

15 RST 26. For a striking parallel to Torrance's points concerning the necessity of openness in framing dialectical questions and the ability of such questions to disclose objective reality, see MacIntyre's discussion of Plato's dialectic (which forms the foundation of his own understanding) in WJ, p. 78: ‘To avoid this latter risk of failure it is necessary to frame one's theses so that they are as open to refutation as adequacy of formulation will allow: that is to say. so that we may have as much opportunity as possible to discover whether or not they are false. And what we want to learn is indeed whether or not they are false and not merely whether or not they are false from such and such a point of view, or in such and such circumstances, or if exemplified in such and such a way.’

16 RST 78. See pp. 85–86 for a description of the dialectical refinement of such axioms in the context of theological inquiry.

17 RST 104–105.

18 RST 114.

19 That notwithstanding Torrance's occasional sloppiness in his use of the language of ‘fact’ (cf. the quote reproduced on page 1 above!). Torrance's tendency to ride roughshod over the sorts of fine semantic distinctions which MacIntyre would like to maintain in this area I would attribute to fundamental differences between his and MacIntyre's intellectual agendas — see the discussion in Section IV below.

20 WJ 224. See also 356ff.

21 RST 76.

22 RST 9–10.

23 See, Tor example, RST 58, 77ff.

24 RST 13–14; cf. 45.

25 WJ 357.

26 WJ 363f.

27 WJ 356, 363; RST 15.

28 Consider for example this quote from page 144: ‘The truth of signification, then, is noi located in the statement itself, for since it signifies what is the case, it depends for its truth on the truth of what it signifies independent of it. It signifies rightly when it signifies what it ought by signifying what is in accordance with the facts.’

29 RST 76, 148.

30 RST 136f.

31 WJ 358.

32 WJ For his rejection of truth warranted assertibility, see his discussion of Hilary Putnam, 169. His critique of relativism and perspectivism can be found on 352ff., and his case for the rational resolution of conflict among competing traditions can be followed through chapters I, X, XVIII, XIX, and XX.

33 cf. his discussion of the advance of the scientific outlook in the west, 148ff.

34 WJ 361–362.

35 For a sampling of MacIntyre's work in this area, see his discussion of epistemological crises (361ff.); his account of Aquinas’ theology as a dialectical resolution of the conflict between the Augustinian and Aristotelian traditions (ch. X); and his treatment of the problem of translation among rival traditions (ch. XIX).

36 RST 73–77.

37 RST 150–153.

38 RST 152. See the general discussion on 147ff.

39 WJ 175

40 WJ 252. Cf. also MacIntyre's argument (WJ 172) that the rational confidence which Aquinas places in individual answers can be stronger than what would be warranted by the arguments he adduces in their support — that by virtue of the fact that they derive their force from the overall strength of the theoretical structure to which they contribute.

41 RST 49f.

42 WJ 334.

43 MacIntyre also offers historical arguments to justify his choice of tradition centered ethics over the a-rational accounts of relativism and perspectivism. See pp. 352–369, esp. 366–7.

44 See the arguments in RST ch. 1, esp. pp. 20–22.

45 WJ 1–6. Cf. also his discussion of the modern university in ch. XX.

46 RST ch. 1 is devoted to an exposition of this characteristically ‘modern’ attitude.

47 RST 8ff.

48 RST 45.

49 RST 98ff.

50 RST 19.

51 RST 35.

52 WJ 366f.

53 RST 10ff.

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Scottish Journal of Theology
  • ISSN: 0036-9306
  • EISSN: 1475-3065
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