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Thomas Torrance (1913 – )


Thomas Torrance

1913 —

Torrance is the weightiest living theologian in the English-speaking world. His written output is prodigious. Prior to his retirement in 1979 he had authored, edited or translated 360 items; 250 have swelled his curriculum vitae since.

Born to Scottish missionaries in China, Torrance received his early education from Canadians who schooled “mish-kids” in accordance with Province of Ontario standards (and found, when political upheaval sent the 14-year old’s family home, that he was woefully deficient in Latin and Greek.)

While still an undergraduate he developed the discerning, analytical assessment of major theologians that would mark him for life. He noticed, for instance, that Schleiermacher, the progenitor of modern liberal theology (“liberal” meaning that the world’s self-understanding is the starting point and controlling principle of the church’s understanding of the faith) forced Jesus of Nazareth into an ideational mould utterly foreign to that of prophet and apostle. The result was that Schleiermacher’s “theology” was little more than the world talking to itself.

Torrance’s mother gave him a copy of Credo, Karl Barth’s exposition of the Apostles’ Creed. The book confirmed Torrance in a conviction that was gaining strength within him and would find expression in everything he wrote; namely, the method of investigating any subject is mandated by the nature of the subject under investigation. Since the nature of microbes differs from the nature of stars, the methods of microbiology and astronomy differ accordingly. Theology too is “scientific” in this sense, as the nature of the subject, the living God who overtakes a wayward creation in Christ Jesus his Son, “takes over” our understanding and forges within us categories for understanding his salvific work and a vocabulary for speaking of it. To say the same thing differently, the nature of what we apprehend supplies us with the manner and means of apprehending it. Therefore we come to know God not by “educated guesswork” or by projecting the best in our culture or by speculating philosophically; we come to know God as God includes us in his knowing (and correcting) us in Christ Jesus.

An academic prize transported Torrance to Basel. There he studied under Barth, the only Protestant theologian of our century whom the Roman Catholic Church as recognized as doctor ecclesiae, a teacher of the church universal. Auburn Seminary in upstate New York conscripted him to teach theology, only to have him resign two years later when he saw that world war was inevitable. Upon returning to Scotland he served as a parish minister until enlisting in the British Army for service in Italy. On numerous battlefields he was horrified to find dying 20-year olds, raised in Christian homes and Sunday Schools, who knew much about Jesus but connected none of it with God. What they knew about Jesus was unrelated to a hidden “God” lurking behind the Nazarene and remaining forever unknowable. Now their last hours found them comfortless. Torrance realized that the truth of the Incarnation — Jesus Christ is God himself coming among us and living our frailty and the consequences of our sin — was a truth largely unknown in the church, however much the church spoke of the Master or reveled in Christmas. From this moment Torrance knew his life-work to be that of the theologian who rethinks rigorously the “faith once for all delivered to the saints”. (Jude 3) He would spend the rest of his life fortifying preachers and pastors, missionaries and evangelists who had been summoned to labour on behalf of God’s people.

Ten years of parish work prepared him for a professorship at the University of Edinburgh. Appointed at first to teach church history, Torrance soon occupied the chair of “Christian Dogmatics”, dogmatics being the major doctrines that constitute the essential building blocks of the Christian faith. His reputation in this field recommended him as successor to Barth upon the Swiss giant’s retirement — even as political chicanery in the Swiss church and civil government scotched the placement.

¬†Torrance’s contribution to the church’s theological understanding is huge. He introduced Barth to the English-speaking world. He apprised the Western Church, both Roman and Reformed, of the importance of the early Eastern Church Fathers, especially Athanasius. He grasped the theological genius of Calvin in a way that few others have and Calvin’s 17th century successors did not. Yet perhaps it is in the field of science that Torrance has most profoundly made his mark. While thoroughly schooled in arts and theology, Torrance spent fifteen years working relentlessly to acquaint himself with the logic of science and with contemporary physics. Two scientific affiliations have admitted him in recognition of his sophistication in this discipline.

In discussing the Incarnation, “the Word made flesh”, Torrance points out that logos, the Greek word for “word”, also means rationality or intelligibility. It means the inner principle of a thing, how a thing works. To say that Jesus is the logos of God is to say that Jesus embodies the rationality of God himself. The apostle John (John 1:1-18) insists both that Jesus Christ is the logos Incarnate and that everything was made through the word. Therefore the realm of nature that science investigates was made through the logos. Then the inner principle of God’s mind and being, the rationality of God himself, has been imprinted indelibly on the creation. In short, thanks to creation through the word, there is engraved upon all of nature a rationality, an intelligibility, that reflects the rationality of the Creator’s own mind.

Science is possible at all, Torrance saw, only because there is a correlation between patterns intrinsic to the scientist’s mind and intelligible patterns embodied in the physical world. Just because scientists themselves and the realm of nature have been created alike through the logos or word, the intelligibility inherent in nature and the intelligibility inherent in the structures of human knowing “match up.”

It all means that however much we may come to know of science, our scientific knowledge will never contradict the truth and reality of Jesus Christ; our scientific knowledge will never take us farther from God.

This is not to say that physics and chemistry and biology yield a knowledge of God. God alone can acquaint us with himself. But it is to say, Torrance exulted, that once we have come to know God through intimate acquaintance with the Creator-Incarnate, and as we continue to probe the splendour of the creation, we shall shout with the psalmist, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1)

Victor Shepherd
August 2000