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