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How to Read T.F. Torrance by Elmer M. Colyer


Elmer M. Colyer. How To Read T.F.Torrance: Understanding his Trinitarian & Scientific Theology. Downers Grove , IL : InterVarsity Press, 2001. Pp 393. Paper, n.p. ISBN 0-8308-1544-6.


This book is a comprehensive discussion of the work of a Scottish theologian whose output has been prodigious and profound. Thomas Torrance has long been recognized a seminal thinker in the Reformed tradition and the most important English-speaking theologian of the past fifty years.   Influenced particularly by Athanasius, Calvin and Barth, Torrance has yet eschewed becoming a clone of any of them and instead has forged a re-articulation of Protestant theology that has remained in constant dialogue with those whom Protestant theology has largely ignored (e.g., the Nicene Fathers), as well as with those with whom few theologians are able to converse: leading physicists. (In recognition of his competence Torrance has been admitted to several learned scientific societies.)

Introduced to Torrance as an undergraduate, and having wrestled with him for decades, Colyer assists both the new reader who needs an overview of the Torrance corpus as well as the experienced reader who wants an index to it. He displays a mastery (but not a domestication) that encourages readers to explore Torrance themselves, guides them through the focus and argument of thirty-plus books and three hundred articles, expounds in detail the major themes of his work, and provides a lexical aid to words and expressions that recur characteristically.

Colyer prefaces his exposition with a twenty-page biographical overview, noting the significance of Torrance’s early years with his missionary parents in China, his multi-faceted education, his military experience (including his decorations for service at the front in World War II), his academic achievements, publications and recognitions, and finally his preoccupation with the mission of the church and with the tenor of his work in light of his vocation as “theological evangelist.”

Recognizing the architectonic that the doctrine of the Trinity provides for all of Torrance’s work, Colyer apportions his book into four, equal-length sections: “The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (the discussion here including the mediation of Christ — the title of Torrance’s most widely-read book), “The Love of God the Father” (with an exploration of contingent being and its relation to the Creator), “The Communion of the Holy Spirit” (including a protracted comment on the church and its ordained ministry), and by way of integration and summation, “The Triunity of God & the Character of Theology.” (This lattermost section discusses such philosophers and scientists as Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Newton , Einstein, Polanyi.)

The book accurately and adequately treats the features of Torrance ‘s thought that readers have found illuminating on account of Torrance ‘s angle of vision and his “theological instinct.” The homoousion is pre-eminent among these because foundational of all else. Colyer concurs in Torrance ‘s pronouncement that this is “the ontological and epistemological linchpin of Christian theology.” Since the Father and the Son are of the same nature, Jesus Christ is the revelation of God and not merely a revelation of a truth concerning God or an aspect of God. In the same way, because the Spirit possesses the same nature as the Father (and the Son), we are united to God by God himself: nothing besides God can unite us to God.

Torrance ‘s absorption with the homoousion, of course, is one with his absorption with the doctrine of the Trinity, “the ground and grammar” of Christian thought, faith and discipleship. Here the exposition is exceedingly fruitful as the implications of the “onto-relations” in God are identified: what God is in himself he is toward us, and vice versa, there being no dark, arbitrary recesses in God; human knowledge of God can only be a predicate of God’s self-knowing; love is what God is (not merely what God expresses), since the eternal love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father renders unnecessary something other than God (the creation) for God to love; the Holy Spirit is that “objective inwardness” which forestalls the “evangelical rationalism” that is otherwise prone to arise as a rationalistic apologetic, rather than the action of God, is thought to render the gospel credible; the economic Trinity must be grounded in the ontological Trinity lest God’s acts fail to include God’s person.

The vicarious humanity of Christ is related to both the above, and is shown to ground the church and to contradict the specific distortion of the “Latin heresy” and the illogic of limited atonement.

Other characteristic aspects of Torrance ‘s work stand out. Among these is the aversion to all theological speculation concerning what God can do or cannot do in the light of what God has done: given himself up to humiliation, suffering, degradation and death in the Son — all of which means that the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, for instance, must be understood as the efficacy of the cross rather than as the capacity to coerce. Natural theology is exposed as the improper attempt at attaining a knowledge of God from a point outside God, thereby rendering the human the measure of the divine. Included here too is Torrance’s willingness to speak of a genuine novum in God’s life, since both the Incarnation and the creation of the world are nova for God, and as such force a reconsideration of such traditional notions as God’s impassivity and impassibility. Colyer succinctly acquaints the reader with the emphasis Torrance has always placed on theology as scientific, “scientific” being properly predicated of any discipline whose methodology is governed by the nature of the object it investigates.

Colyer’s presentation of the filioque controversy, allowing Torrance to familiarize us with what east and west each wanted to preserve as well as fend off, together with the correct meaning of theopoiesis, shows Torrance to be truly Reformed; i.e., thoroughly catholic.

Most profoundly Colyer brings us face-to-face with a servant of the gospel whose humility eclipses his massive learning, as Torrance gladly acknowledges that the simplest believer knows more of God than the most erudite theologian will ever be able to say.

Colyer mirrors as much himself, having learned from Torrance that theology and doxology ceaselessly imply each other. Our apprehension of God fosters gratitude even as our non-comprehension leaves us adoring.

Victor A. Shepherd

Tyndale Seminary



(Terry, the text of my review is 1005 words. You had allowed me 1000. Is this acceptable?)