Friday, December 7, 2007

Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007)

I wish I had more time to write about the death of Thomas F. Torrance this past Sunday. Well, not so much about his death but about his life and writings. His work has made a big impact on me. But he is not always appreciated by contemporary conservative Reformed pastors and theologians. If you know anything about the current controversies that plague our little corner of Christendom, you know that's an understatement. Presbyterians that appreciate Torrance's insights have to be careful.

A number of years ago a respected member of the Reformed academic community preached at our presbytery's Reformation day worship service. At one point in the sermon he told a story about a chaplain in WWII. He also quoted that chaplain. Of course, I immediately recognized that he was talking about Thomas F. Torrance. But he never mentioned him by name. And I understood why. After the service I spoke with him and told him I appreciated the story about Torrance. He tensed up and looked at me sideways with a bit of suspicion. I assured him that my appreciation was genuine. I had learned a lot from reading Torrance, etc. I listed the books I had read and loved. Then he winked and said something like, "Well, you can't be too careful these days."

That incident still makes me mad. I'm not angry with the speaker. I understand his situation. What burns me up is the petty little index of approved and disapproved authors and theologians that most conservative presbyters use to judge another man's theological commitments. Oh, you've read and liked portions of Karl Barth. You are dangerous. So you say you've read Pannenberg and learned something from him, too. Hmmm, that can't be good. You are recommending books by Thomas F. Torrance on the trinity? How dare you support someone who denies the covenant of works!

Spare me. Deliver me. Better yet: O Lord, deliver us all.

Torrance was a giant of a theologian, surely the greatest British theologian of the 20th century. Sure, he got things wrong. At least, I believe he did. He was on the wrong side of women's ordination debate. No question about it. When his masterful little book on the theology of the ordained ministry The Royal Priesthood was republished with a new forward by him promoting the ordination of women, I was very disappointed. The book is still worth reading. Sometimes his philosophical presuppositions restricted his theological vision. But after all, who can claim to be free from this error?

His studies of the history of Reformed theology were a bit one-sided. Even so, his Scottish Theology provides us with a anti-hagiographic account that so many American conservative Presbyterians so desperately need.

But above all, his works on theology proper, the doctrine of God, are priceless. I cut my trinitarian teeth reading Torrance's works on the Trinity. He's not usually easy to read. But it's grade A prime red meat for those who wish to theologize on the Trinity. Torrance's work inspired a trinitarian theological revival in recent years.

It was a delight to read Alister McGrath's intellectual biography of Torrance a few years ago. It's worth reading.

Like I said, I wish I had more time to talk about Thomas F. Torrance. Here and there on the net eulogies will be available. When I find them, I'll post them here.

George Hunsinger on Torrance

Thomas F. Torrance

6 comments:

Michael said...

I remember reading "The Trinitarian Faith" about 7 years ago. That was my introduction to Torrance, as well as a much deeper reflection on the Trinity. Until that time, the Trinity was mostly something that demarcated Christian orthodoxy - I'd never seriously considered God's triune being in any serious way, nor considered the implications of Trinitarian faith.

Wayne said...

Oh My! You're praising Torrance? (Covering my ears with my hands...) La la la la la la! I Can't hear you!!!

Gregory Soderberg said...

At RTS, I really appreciated Douglas Kelly's judicious use of Torrance. Of course, Kelly studied under Torrance at Edinburgh, and is living proof that appreciating Torrance is compatible with Reformed orthodoxy. When Kelly criticizes the Federal Vision, I pay attention, precisely because I know he appreciates people like Torrance. That deserves our respect.

Jeff Meyers said...

Gregory: Where has Doug Kelly criticized Federal Vision ideas? Thanks.

Gregory Soderberg said...

You know, I had second thoughts about that after I wrote it. I remember a piece years ago (when the FV controversy was just starting), published on the PCA site. I think it was actually a critique of the New Perspective, but I don't remember if the FV came under explicit scrutiny. The timing of it created an impression.

I know he spoke at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary on the current controversies, and my blurb I read (in the GPTS newsletter) made me think he was critical of the FV.

I guess I'm furthering the "guilt by association" problem, by not distinguishing the NP from the FV. I'll be more careful in the future :-)

I suppose I should e-mail him and ask directly before assuming anything else!

Here's the piece criticzing the NP:

http://sites.silaspartners.com/CC/article/0,,PTID23682%7CCHID125043%7CCIID1521174,00.html

Jeff Meyers said...

Gregory: Thanks for responding. I remembered that essay, too. But it really has little or nothing to do with FV matters. As you say, the two theological agendas need to be clearly distinguished. I don't carry any water for the formulations of the NPP guys, especially Sanders, Dunn, etc. Wright is interesting and helpful in many spots; but in others I'm aggin 'im, as they would say in Georgia. That being said, I'm not very comfortable with Kelly's handling of NTW in this old essay. Perhaps he'd say something different now that more theological water has passed under the bridge. I don't know.

Of course, many people are highly critical of the FV because all they know is what they have heard secondhand, and that's usually enough to curl the ends of anyone's hair.

Just today someone informed one of my parishioners at an athletic event that the word was that our church and pastors preached "salvation by works." Sigh. If that's what's floating around out there, no wonder people are against "us." I guess it doesn't matter how often I preach on salvation as a free gift, justification by faith alone, etc. If I say something more about baptism than is commonly said in pop evangelical circles, if I stress the necessity of obedience for those who are saved by grace through faith, or if I have the wrong friends, then I must teach "salvation by works"! Unbelievable.