T Torrance, The Grammatico-Historico Biblical Exegete: With Reference to John Webster

What I want to continue to engage with in this post will be in reference to, Thomas Torrance’s hermeneutics; and this time instead of focusing simply on his revelational/ontic frame towards Scripture we will get further into what Torrance had to say about grammatical-historical-literary exegesis of the text. Sometimes the impression can be given that Torrance may have had no place glossbiblefor such consideration in his approach; the impression might be that he was so consumed with the Dogmatics of things that everything else is simply swallowed up, including thinking about the importance of actual concrete biblical exegesis and practice. John Webster writes this of Torrance:

For Torrance, questions about the nature and interpretation of Scripture are subordinate to questions about divine revelation; bibliology and hermeneutics are derivatives from principles about the active, intelligible presence of the triune God to his rational creatures. This way of ordering matters not only explains a certain reluctance on his part to spell out much by way of a doctrine of Holy Scripture (attempts to do so, he fears, risk isolating Scripture from its setting in the divine economy), but also sheds light on the fact that what he has to say about the nature and interpretation of the Bible is concerned only secondarily with Scripture as literary-historical text and primarily with Scripture as sign – that is, with Scripture’s ostensive functions rather than with its literary surface or the historical processes of its production. A theological account of the nature of Scripture and its interpretation takes its rise, not in observations of immanent religious and literary processes, as if the texts could be understood as self-articulations on the part of believing communities, but in the doctrine of the self-revealing triune God.[1]

The latter part of Webster’s thoughts is what we covered somewhat in this post; it is this reality, indeed, that I think sets Torrance’s approach apart from many other approaches to Holy Scripture. And yet, as Webster also notes, there does seem to be a ‘reluctance on his part to spell out much by way of a doctrine of Holy Scripture,’ and we might add his apparent commitment to see the literary-historical features present in most accounts of biblical hermeneutics as secondary to Scripture’s reality and/or ontology relative to its givenness within the economy of God’s life. I have had these concerns myself with Torrance’s apparent lack of engagement with concrete exegetical questions, and more pointedly with wonderment about how he actually interpreted Scripture itself (i.e. did he actually use literary-historical-grammatical-rhetorical tools, etc.). If you read his (TF Torrance’s) book Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics you might be pushed further into the impression that indeed Torrance really had no room for getting into the nitty-gritty details of literary driven biblical exegesis (Webster in another essay voices the same concern in regard to TF Torrance’s approach to things as presented in Divine Meaning). Of course, it would be too quick to conclude that Torrance really has nothing to say about such things; and too quick to conclude that Torrance does not engage in a type of “concrete” biblical exegesis in any of his works—with his posthumously published volumes Incarnation&Atonement (his Edinburgh, New College Lectures) we have a demonstration that this is not the case.

With all of the above noted, I was encouraged to come across some things he had to say about this in his 1981 published Payton lectures from Fuller under the title Reality and Evangelical Theology: A fresh and challenging approach to Christian revelation. While what he writes does not undercut Webster’s insights into his (TFT’s) secondary concern with literary-historical issues related to biblical exegesis; what it does do is show how Torrance actually does have a place for using these types of grammatico-historico-literary-rhetorico tools towards engaging with the text of Scripture. Of course as you will see he sees these as the necessary and instrumental supports, and natural-flowing realties present in the text, given its given nature by God in Christ. In other words, as you will see, he does not see this type of engagement with the text as an terminus in itself, but in service of the signum (or ‘sign’) function of the text; so he doesn’t see such engagement with the text as a foreclosing upon and/or harnessing of God’s Self-revelation (which funds the reality of the text), but instead in service of this Self-revelation and within the accommodating movement of God and embodiment of created media within the economy of His life of incarnation in Jesus Christ. Torrance writes:

In view of the way in which the primary reference of biblical statements to God relies upon the secondary reference of those statements to one another in coherent sequences, a great deal of attention must also be given to how the statements in biblical texts are to be read within their own syntactical or formal-logical structures and within the whole context in which they are found. This must be done if reasonable interpretation is to be offered and any rational account of the meaning to be assigned to them is to be given. In fact, only if we pay careful attention to the orderly connections built up by words, sentences, and continuous reports may we be in a position to discern how, through their objective reference, the Holy Scriptures may yield their own interpretation. Moreover, it is when we allow the biblical texts to declare their own syntactical meaning to us in this way that we are restrained from imposing upon them an objective meaning alien to what they actually say.

Determination of the coherent patterns of sense and meaning in biblical passages and documents is not so easy as it might at first appear on the syntactic and semantic surface. Much hard thought and work is required in exegetical and critical inquiry to lay bare what we call their inner rational sequence. The interpreter must seek to clarify rather more than the grammatico-syntactical sense of passages. He must probe into the reasonable ground underlying their linguistic signification, and that needs a comparative examination of their signifying components including the many images, analogies, figures, representations, and idioms that are employed, in order to determine as far as possible their exact sense and then to distill out of them and bring to consistent expression the basic conceptuality they carry. Analytical and synthetical work of this kind calls for a deep perception and judgment on the part of the interpreter in deciding what is finally irrelevant overtone and what is essential to the real meaning intended. It is only as the linguistic and conceptual forms are matched to one another that their inner rational sequence may be disclosed in an adequate and semantically helpful way.[2]


Much more could and should be said, but suffice it to say: Thomas F. Torrance, while always the consonant Christian Dogmatician, certainly had place in his approach and thinking for deploying the ‘regular’ and even historical exegetical tools of grammatico-historico analysis of the text of Scripture. While I am encouraged by this, what ought to be kept at the forefront, is that TF Torrance, while committed to regular exegetical practice, always saw such endeavor from a unitary theological vision starting with an order of God’s being leading to an order of knowing within the context of a Christ concentrated doctrine of creation. This is where he saw Scripture located within God’s economy, and this is the frame of reference within which the literary-grammatical-historical realties of the text of Scripture find their inner-logical/inner-theological-meaning from. If context determines meaning, for Torrance, then the context of Scripture is Jesus Christ!

[1] John Webster, The Domain Of The Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark International, 2012), 89.

[2] T.F. Torrance, Reality and Evangelical Theology: A fresh and challenging approach to Christian revelation (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982), 114-15.