Young Thomas Torrance on Scripture, And Me on Me

Thomas Torrance has become for me something of a posthumous mentor (indirectly of course, through his writings); I can’t say that I uncritically accept everything that TF Torrance communicates, but I will say that the torranceyounggeneral thrust of his theological method and heart for evangelism and discipleship through theological education resonate with me deeply. I have read a lot of his writings over the past few years now, and also have read secondary voices on his theology, as well is his biography; from Paul Molnar’s more recent book on TFT as the Trinitarian Theologian, or Elmer Coyler’s book on the structure of Torrance’s theology, and currently (and finally) I am reading Alister McGrath’s T.F. Torrance, An Intellectual Biography (I should also mention Myk Habet’s PhD dissertation Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance, Christian Kettler’s book on the Vicarious humanity of Christ with special focus on Torrance’s understanding, and then other theological journal articles on Torrance’s theology and method). That said, I would like to share something that McGrath shares from Torrance’s personal reflection on scripture and other things (i.e. Calvinism) as he was working on the doctrine of revelation in a class that he was taking on ecclesiastical history in 1934 (he was focusing on Augustine, when this reflection was penned):

[S]o far as my view of Holy Scripture was concerned, I had been brought up to believe in its verbal inspiration, but my mother had taught me to have an objective and not a subjective understanding of the Word of God. This did not lessen but rather deepened my sense of the divine authority and verbal inspiration of the Bible which mediated to us the Gospel of salvation. She taught us to adopt a Christ-centred approach to the Holy Scriptures, for Christ was the Word made flesh. In him Word and Person are one, and it is therefore in terms of the living personal Word of God incarnate in Christ that we are to hear God addressing us in the Bible. My epistemological realism did not detract from that fact, but it did lead me to object to a crudely fundamentalist and objectivist understanding of the Scriptures and to mechanistic and rationalistic concepts and propositions in theology, as it had done in my understanding of the laws of nature brought to light and given human formalisation in natural science. I could not think of the book of nature or of the Bible, albeit in different ways, as a transcription, far less a codification, of the mind of God, so that for one to think scientifically or theologically was necessarily to think the thoughts of God after him. That would be to impose upon nature rigid logico-deterministic patterns and to project on to God the kind of logico-causal relations which appeared to obtain in the world. A deeper, more dynamic and personal, yet objective way, was needed in relating God to nature and in relating the Word of God to the Holy Scriptures. That is what I hoped to find in the Faculty of Divinity, which indeed H. R. Mackintosh and Karl Barth helped me to do. After I entered New College my dear mother wisely gave me a copy of Barth’s Credo to help me. Hence I found myself in conflict not only with the rationalistic liberalism of some of my teachers, but with the rather rationalistic and fundamentalistic way of interpreting the Bible being advocated in Inter-Varsity Fellowship circles together with a rather deterministic Calvinism which was then mistakenly being imported into the thinking of the Christian union. [Thomas F. Torrance, Intinerarium mentis in Deum, 9 cited by Alister McGrath, An Intellectual Biography, 25.]

I hope you find this insightful into the inner-thinking of a young Thomas Torrance; he does not ever really veer from this little manifesto, indeed we have all of the lineaments in seminal-summary that would capture the rest of Torrance’s development through his years of teaching and writing.

I personally think of doctrine of Scripture is in the right direction, but still a bit lacking and Barthian in need of more Evangelical “depth,” in the sense that I like to see Scripture more closely aligned with the objective component of God’s Self-revelation of Jesus Christ and the analogy of the Incarnation. It is important, I think, to emphasize that Scripture is an aspect of God’s triune speech act (and thus capturing exactly what He wanted and wants to communicate in literary form). John Webster helps what I perceive as a lacunae in both Barth and Torrance in this regard. That said, the general thrust and trajectory of Torrance’s purview is refreshing and one that finds its ultimate orbit and reality in the eternal Word, Himself, Jesus Christ; this is an ‘Evangelical’ as one can get, I think.

Let me make this post an occasion to share something else—since we are already in the mood of hearing rather fundamental points of departure for most of our Evangelical and Reformed ears in regard to Scripture—I have been sensing this tension in my own theological life in pretty intense ways lately. As most of you know (and as most of you who read here—by the way I have 96 actual subscribers to the blog) I grew up in what Torrance would consider a Fundamentalist, and then Evangelical sub-culture, and I was educated (formally) from this tradition of things. Interestingly my orbit of connections (as a result of blogging) has brought me into a network of people who have a different orientation from mine; who aren’t what we might consider, “Evangelical,” necessarily. And yet, I still have many (and almost all of my personal face-to-face) connections with people who are true blue American Evangelicals; I would still count myself as one of them. And this is the source of tension for me. I read people, like Torrance (who on the non-Evangelical side of connections would be considered QUITE traditional and conservative), and Barth, and some others who are these guys students; and this places me, in many instances, on a collision course with my Evangelical inclined brethren and sistren. Not only that, but it places me on a collision course with my own ingrained Evangelical sentiments. Maybe the best analogy I can think of off the top is that my theological development looks something like the ongoing volcanic activity that is constantly occurring on the Hawaiian islands. As I engage with Barthian, Torrancian (and other’s) ideas, this is like the hot lava flow streaming down to the colder ocean waters. Along the way, like the lava, my ideas are burning with freshness, and yet a jumble of things being transformed swallowed up and felt as I flow along through the cavernous turns of the channels of my own pre-understandings. Once the lava hits the cooler waters of the Pacific, the lava is cooled and becomes new land, but not finished land, it is land that is continuing to be constructed in shapely ways that finally solidify in a solid form. This somewhat resembles the process I feel that I am in. A dynamic and lively process; there is this fire hot mix going on in my theological development, and yet I am finding that my Evangelical sentiments are something like the cooler waters of the Pacific (they help provide articulation for me), and even so, this hot lava mix of ideas is something that is ongoing and constructively moving forward building upon the pre-existing land mass (i.e. the Tradition).

Anyway, I just wanted to share this to let people know that like Torrance (but never really like Torrance, at his level) I am learning and growing, but within certain parameters that have been instilled in my life that are given shape by “Evangelical” tendencies, and Traditional commitments (i.e. to who God is, who Jesus is, what the Bible is, etc.). I know my volcano analogy breaks down, and I didn’t explain that exactly as I wanted to, but it is. I also wanted people to know (not that I have to, but I want to) that I won’t be apologetic for my development or ideas. This is part of the rub, it seems, as if the Evangelicals (and Reformed more particularly) have an iron-clad hold on Gospel reality. No you don’t (no I don’t!)! All most Evangelicals have is an inherited belief system that is static and based upon a fear to venture out into uncomfortable spaces. Please, I am not referring to questioning who God is, who Jesus is, or what the Bible is; I am simply referring to how we think of such things (i.e. the grammar we use etc.). When push comes to shove, I am no Liberal, but then I am no Fundamentalist. I am what I am.