Thomas F. Torrance, Reformed Theologian par excellence

Don’t get me wrong, I love that T.F. Torrance’s theology is being celebrated and devoured by many; that there are many ways into his theology—whether that be academically or popularly. But in some ways I sense that Torrance is often taken out of context; that his situatedness as a Reformed theologian is not appreciated like it should be. As such, when and if this happens, much of the weight and significance of Torrance’s theology can be lost. Just like any theologian Torrance was a product of his time, context, and circumstances. As a theologian and leader in the Church of Scotland (i.e. Reformed) he served as a representative and churchman from a certain theological orientation and predisposition; he operated as a Reformed theologian—even in his ecumenical and catholic activity in his discussions with the Eastern Orthodox.

Torrance was confessional. Torrance emphasized the primacy of God’s grace in Christ. Torrance emphasized God’s sovereignty given shape as it was in and from the Triune life of God as love. Torrance held to the unilateral move of God in salvation. Torrance held to the idea that God pre-destinates (albeit in reference to His own life to be for us in the election of His Son, Jesus Christ). Torrance forwarded a supralapsarian double predestination of election and reprobation (albeit grounded in Christ as both elect and reprobate for us/humanity). Torrance wrote books like Scottish Theology, which surveyed the theologies of many non-Westminsterian Reformed theologians in the Scottish Kirk; and The School of Faith, a book where he lays out a decisively Reformed orientation to things as he works out and explicates the implicates of various Reformed confessions and creeds.

There is more that we could appeal to to illustrate Torrance’s Reformed identity, but this ought to do for now. Why does this matter? Because in much of Torrance’s theology he is responding to something, and someone[s]. Along with his brother James, Thomas’s theology was in response to the Federal theology given its most heightened expression at the Westminster Assembly. Torrance used the material of his Trinitarian and Christologically oriented theology, within the context of his scientific/kata-physin approach, to correct the errors of classical Calvinism and Reformed theology in general. Errors that he would contend depersonalized God, and thus depersonalized God’s salvation in Christ.

There is much in Torrance that is rich and available that doesn’t need to pay too much attention to his Reformed theology, per se. In other words, folks can simply grab onto certain threads of his theology (i.e. Trinitarian, relational, etc.), and go no further; and they will be blessed, no doubt. But again, I think the weight of what Torrance has to offer is only fully appreciated when understood from within the context of his Reformed identity. Just think about the corrective, from that perspective, he has to offer to the resurgence of Reformed theology in the 21st century (i.e. the so called Young, Restless, and Reformed et al.). In North America we are inundated with just one expression of what Reformed theology entails, and that is highly unfortunate. Torrance’s theology, I would argue, even more than Barth’s in some ways, has the capacity to meet classical Calvinism, and its resurgence, and offer an alternative to people that will be more fruitful for them spiritually and in other ways. Torrance’s theology, indeed, has the Reformed rigor people apparently are thirsty for, but of course, his is a theology that is grounded in his rich Trinitarian theology with its Christological focus on grace, salvation, etc. Torrance’s theology has deep continuity with Church history, historical theology, and the rich intellectual heritage that people are thirsty for; which is why they are turning to classical Calvinism in the droves. This is, of course, what we in Evangelical Calvinism are still seeking to point out to people; that the Reformed faith is deep and wide, and Thomas Torrance is a teacher within that tradition who has many riches to offer them. Riches that will benefit them from time and into eternity.

I want to see Torrance’s theology appreciated by all, because I think it actually can be revolutionary for some people’s walks with Jesus Christ. I want to see the resurgence of classical Calvinism tampered down, and marginalized, insofar as I believe if internalized, it will not set people on a good trajectory, spiritually speaking. I would also like to see those who attempt to abstract the good trinitarian theology from TF Torrance, to bear in mind that Torrance was a Reformed theologian par excellence; and that appreciating his context, in that way, will only enhance the richness that he has to offer in regard to the material theological places he provides for in his theological corpus.

Rant over.


6 thoughts on “Thomas F. Torrance, Reformed Theologian par excellence

  1. Pingback: Thomas F. Torrance, Reformed Theologian par excellence | The Evangelical Calvinist | Talmidimblogging

  2. I’m posting this comment here, since it’s closed the comments area in the thread which triggered my reaction. Sorry for this.

    Good afternoon Mr. Grow,

    please forgive my poor English, I’m not mother tongue and I don’t have many occasions to practice your language.

    I would like to discuss the substance of your thesis in the most respectful way from the opposite side of the argument. Being catholic I embrace natural theology as useful tool to talk about God in general, and about our Lord Jesus Christ in particular. Aquinas, Scholastics, Greek and Latin Church Fathers all together.

    I stumbled in your honest and clear post while looking for a picture of Eric Przywara, since I’m preparing a lecture on the concept of analogy both in protestant and catholic theology. So, from link to link, I’ve found myself reading your passionate defense of Barth’s “Scripture exclusivism”.

    It is simply not true, or heavily misunderstood, that Natural Theology “abstracts the person of Christ from the works of Christ”. Isn’t nature itself a work of Christ? Isn’t reason itself the work of Logos? Remember that Logos means reason, before meaning word. Is it not true that all the creation talks about its Creator? Why then exclude this whole set of arguments from the theological arena?
    Nature has always been part of theology, why now it should not be anymore?

    As it often happens in such schematic reconstruction the sketch you drawn of NTheology is almost a caricature. I see it has been done bona fide, but it misses the point. Despising, or at least excluding, the work of God as reliable source of knowledge about Him is not being for Christ. The idea of faith you convey, so totally disentangled from reason, is not evangelical. It was never said to believe eyes wide shut, all the contrary, all John’s Gospel is about seeing and then believe. Anything in order to be believed need to be firstly understood. The idea of a blind faith, totally uncompromised with reason, (I suppose since reason is tainted from original sin), is not biblical. Of course reason has been hurt from the original sin, but being hurt does not mean it was totally corrupted: it can be healed, while what is corrupted cannot.

    Human reason, although fallible, is not doomed to necessarily fail, to hold this idea is not Christian. This is why natural theology has always been practiced and has often resulted an useful tool to let Grace do Its job in converting people. In Middle Age Theologians called this line of arguments “preambula fidei” a sort of precondition of faith.

    Excuse me if I could have sounded harsh, it is not my intention at all.

    May God bless you,



  3. Giampaolo, thanks for the comment. This will just be a quick response to register that I saw your comment, and then I’ll follow up later with an actual response.

    To me what you’ve done is simply argue in a circle petitio principii. You’ve started with the premise that natural theology just is, and concluded in kind that natural theology just is. You mentioned the Gospel of John, but your gloss on it appeals to your circular reasoning; so that doesn’t work.

    You also appeal to a Thomist understanding of nature/grace; again, that’s not an argument, instead it’s just you laying your full hand out for me to see that you affirm a Thomist intellectualist anthroplogy. But there’s nothing self evident about that in Scripture; in fact Scripture is way more radical than just stating we need to be “healed;” instead it says we’re dead and thus idolaters.

    No, I disagree with you on many levels; your comment is too triumphalist.


  4. Giampaolo,

    I think I’ll let my first comment to you stand. You say I mischaracterize things, but you never really have shown how. Yes, you’ve shown from your own self-referential (Thomist) theological system how you think I’ve erred, but that’s different than me actually misconstruing things; maybe I’m just not saying them in the same way you are or would like me to. But in my observations I am speaking from reductio, and building the logical conclusions of Thomism into my analysis. For you, though, this is problematic because you have conflated Thomism and its categories with the clear prima facie teaching of Holy Scripture. Again all that is is petitio principii.


  5. Thanks for your reply, Bobby.

    It’s nothing but normal, I guess, to misunderstand each other given our different background.
    I take quite seriously the objection of petitio principii, so I’ll try to argue that it was not, knowing all too well that in this kind of exchanges that impression is hard to fade away.

    First of all, I did not lay down the premise that NT just is, I just asked few questions to show how inappropriate was the kind of portrait you pictured about it, quoting your words, according to which: “[NT] abstracts the person of Christ from the works of Christ”.
    The reference I did to the Gospel of John was meant to show the logic of “seeing, then believe” which is an argument in favor to NT. Nothing circular here.

    Of course I find Thomist anthropology perfectly fitting, I just would not depict it as intellectualist, it’s a too reductive way do describe it. There are hundreds of pages in Aquinas devoted to the will and Grace and their necessary relationship. But this is not the point. Not the main one at least.

    Let me provide a bit more of context. As I told you, I came across your pages looking for E. Przywara, whose picture I found on your post “Natural Theology is Untheology, And my Confession”.
    I studied Przywara, Tyn, St. Thomas of course, and many others on Analogy, and I considered the Barth’s objections, finding them not satisficing. I imagine this will be all the opposite on your perspective, but I doubt you had read those authors (if I’m wrong, I apologize in advance), so I see the way you portray this thesis is not accurate. Of course, as I already said, I don’t think this inaccuracy to be due to your will to misunderstand things, but it rests on a lack of knowledge of the thesis you are debating.
    It’s not about saying things in a way I like more, rather about saying them the way they are.

    Sticking to the substance of the argument: you say I’m too triumphalist; I guess in according to reason some degree of reliability in her quest for the truth. I reply that, if you don’t accord to reason this potency, since “we are dead and thus idolater” you are not just lowering the work of God, the most remarkable one, you are even making impossible for man to recognize what is true and what is false.

    On a final note, the Petitio Principii you are accusing me of, is a logical fallacy, being logic something you should not even consider from your position “not triumphalist”.



  6. Eh and bleh, Giampaolo,

    All you’ve done is convinced me that you don’t know Thomas like you claim to, and that you are unfamiliar with him in the literature. Thomist intellectualism is a category created just for Thomas’s theology in regard to his anthropology. I didn’t make it up, it is a well known category for his theology; the fact that you’re not aware of that is telling about your actual knowledge of such things.

    And no, your whole critique of me is very circular, you presuppose your own view and reading of things, use that as a normative conclusion and use it to evaluate my reading of things; that’s circular indeed.

    Aquinas’ understanding of grace is grounded in a substance metaphysic, one that is not correlative with the Bible. And you doubt I’d read those authors? I indeed have, I don’t misunderstand the basic rudiments of analogia entis that is common to them all; and I have no clue who you are, but quit speaking like you’re an authority—you’re not, at least not for me. And again, given what you’ve said about Thomas your actual knowledge of him is highly suspect to me, as is then the others you keep appealing to. And the interesting thing to me is that you’ve evinced nothing of material value in re to articulating what you think the analogy entails; again, your comments then are as far as I can tell nothing but posturing.

    So if you want to present an actual comment with material substance, detailing what you think the analogy entails, then we might be onto something. But until then I’m no longer interested in hearing from you. I don’t know who you are (and don’t really care), and I don’t have time to engage with someone who sets themselves up as an authority but then who only postures in your comments. Not impressed!

    As far as my use of modal logic; I have no problem employing that in proper perspective and as a tool.


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