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The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T.F. Torrance (Elmer M. Colyer, ed.

 

(book review to be published in the Fall 2002 issue of
CANADIAN EVANGELICAL REVIEW.)

The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T.F. Torrance (Elmer M. Colyer, ed. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001. Pp. xi+355. ISBN 0 7425 1293 2

 

Colyer’s third book on Torrance (following How to Read T.F. Torrance: Understanding His Trinitarian & Scientific Theology and The Nature of Doctrine in T.F. Torrance’s Theology) is a collection of essays by eight American scholars, two British, and one of British extraction (Alasdair Heron, for many years now professor of Reformed theology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.)

The purpose of the book is multiform: to provide an introduction to Torrance and his theology; to acquaint readers with Torrance’s career, publications, and the secondary literature he has precipitated; to provide a comprehensive analysis and evaluation of Torrance’s theology; to be a theological event itself through engaging a major thinker of the twentieth century; to assist theologians and natural scientists in their common membership in realist-determined disciplines; to provide resources for historians and historical theologians concerned with Scottish, ecumenical or Reformed theology; to trace the appropriation of Karl Barth’s theology in the English-speaking world.

David Torrance, a younger brother, opens the discussion by acquainting the reader with the influences that helped mould Torrance’s faith, character and missionary zeal as a minister of the gospel. Born to Scottish missionaries in China, Torrance remained throughout his life sensitive to the difficulties surrounding the prosecution of the gospel there, visiting the country several times following retirement. Although an academic theologian throughout most of his working life (he was a pastor for ten years before his appointment to Edinburgh), Torrance thrived on his vocation to the ministry and his commission as missionary to a world whose mind-set was dominated by the natural sciences. This chapter is crucial if Torrance is to be repatriated with those from whom he is currently alienated, for the public image of Torrance is that he is an intellectually reclusive theoretician with no interest in the turbulence of people’s everyday lives, a one-sided cerebralist who, despite his oft-proffered disclaimer, seems to substitute doctrinal refinement for the one to whom it points, an abstract thinker who has never faced concrete danger. Torrance’s wartime decoration (the MBE for bravery) contradicts the lattermost point, while David’s disclosure of the sheer humanness, pastoral concern, and warm heart of Torrance evaporates remaining criticisms.

Alasdair Heron comments on Torrance’s relation to Reformed theology, correctly pointing out that while Torrance cherishes the sixteenth century Reformers he does not follow them slavishly, and wholly distances himself from seventeenth century Reformed scholasticism with its Aristotelian underlay, its notion of limited atonement, its schematizing distortions, and its doctrine of predestination (all of which, Torrance laments, adversely affected Scottish Church life.)

Andrew Purves highlights Torrance’s characteristic use of the homoousion, especially his identification of its epistemological and soteriological significance (as well as deployment of this significance), the relation of incarnation to atonement, and the twofold mediation of Christ (humanward and Godward.)

Gary Deddo provides the only published discussion of Torrance’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Here he dispels the myth that Torrance is a crypto rationalist in Reformed disguise. Deddo speaks of the Spirit’s place in the intra-Trinitarian relations as well as in the triune God’s relation to the world. Concerning the former it is apparent that the being of God, for Torrance, has to be “onto-relationality.” Concerning the latter it is evident that according to Torrance Holy Spirit entails the sovereign lordship of God over the creation, thereby forestalling any confusion between Holy Spirit and human spirit, experiences, or subjectivity — even as Spirit ad extra is God most profoundly relating himself to the specifically human.

Colin Gunton explores Torrance’s doctrine of God, drawing attention to three major items. The first is the triune economy where Torrance insists on the homoousion of the Spirit, apart from which there would be an epistemological hiatus between God’s economic action and God’s eternal being. The second is the eternal trinity. Here Gunton describes Torrance’s use of the Cappodocian Fathers, preferring Gregory of Nazianzus to Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea inasmuch as the latter two have about them a trace of Origenist subordination. The third is the help Torrance has rendered to the churches of the east and the west by insisting that the Spirit proceeds from the Father’s being, not merely the Father’s person, rending the question of procession “‘from the Father and the Son’ or ‘from the Father through the Son” superfluous, and thereby undercutting the filioque standoff. (It might be noted that while Torrance is gracious and irenic as he responds to contributors in turn, he is uncharacteristically sharp in his reply to Gunton. Repeatedly he says, for instance, “Gunton’s faulty contrast at this point…”; “I wonder whether Gunton is aware…”; and “Prof. Gunton gives little attention to the way in which I have sought to clarify the issues involved….”)

George Hunsinger investigates Torrance’s approach to the sacraments, noting that the vicarious humanity of Christ is the central element in Torrance’s understanding of baptism and the key to his view of the Eucharist. The priesthood of the incarnate Son is the “hinge” as Christ both gives himself to us perpetually in the Eucharist and offers us eternally to the Father. Hunsinger praises Torrance for his improvement on the sacramental positions of both Calvin and Barth. Since Torrance’s reply to Hunsinger is the briefest in the book, it would appear that Torrance has little to add to what Hunsinger has said on his behalf.

Ray Anderson plumbs Torrance as practical theologian, insisting that Torrance’s reputation as practically irrelevant is groundless. Insisting rather that Torrance is “a practical theologian par excellence” on account of the latter’s love for and assistance to the multidimensional praxis of the Church, Anderson also draws attention to Torrance’s rich experience of Christ and his readiness to speak of it. Evangelicals will note that when Anderson concludes his chapter by asking Torrance if he wouldn’t ordain homosexual persons in light of the “new humanity” of Christ that permits the ordination of women, Torrance unambiguously replies that homosexual activity is sin and therefore must be repented of and forsaken.

Kurt Richardson advances a thesis concerning the mystical apprehension of God in the context of revelation and scripture. While Richardson qualifies “mystical” so as to accommodate Torrance on this topic, Torrance is gentle yet firm in his disagreement: “Dr. Richardson seems to presuppose the very notion of mysticism or the mystical which I set aside. What I am concerned with is humility before God, not with some special or esoteric way of thinking.”

Elmer Colyer reviews Torrance’s juxtaposition of “science” and “theology”, reflected most pointedly in the award-winning book, Theological Science. Here Colyer reminds the reader of Torrance’s insistence that any discipline is wissenschaftlich when the specific subject matter governs how we know it, how we think about it, and how we formulate knowledge of it in accordance with its nature and reality. Torrance claims no novelty here, gladly acknowledging his debt to the Alexandrian theologians, especially the sixth century John Philoponos.

The final two chapters examine closely the relationship of Torrance’s thought to that of natural scientists, particularly Albert Einstein. Christopher Kaiser, holding a doctorate in astrophysics, compares Torrance and Einstein on the intelligibility of the cosmos and its correspondence with the structures of human rationality. Mark Achtemeier notes the places where Torrance charts the relationship of theology to science, and concludes by comparing Nicene Christology’s dissonance with Newtonian science and Nicene Christology’s vindication in the newer (Einsteinian) science. In his comments Torrance acknowledges his debt to James Clerk Maxwell’s earlier work in electromagnetism and force fields, even as Einstein admitted Maxwell to underlie his notion of relativity.

Despite having published several volumes on the doctrine of God and despite his scholarship in Reformation theology, Torrance was never allowed to lecture on the doctrine of God at New College, Edinburgh, and upon his retirement was succeeded by a Roman Catholic. Thanks to Colyer’s indefatigable work in the United States, however, Torrance may have found, in the twilight years of his life, an appreciation seemingly denied him in his native Scotland.

Victor Shepherd, Tyndale Seminary