Sunday, October 11, 2009

All Things Torrance: An Introductory Post

OK, gang. Here we go with "all things Torrance." Starting with this post, we are going to probe deeply into "the mediation of Jesus Christ" in the "scientific" theology of T. F. Torrance.
If you have tried to read Torrance, you have made an inevitable discovery: this brother is hard to read. For a while, I thought it must be me. Then I discovered that Torrance is notorious for his "difficult writing style" and "overly-compressed prose" that is "dense to the point of obscurity" (as Elmer Colyer puts it). No mistake, Torrance will compress an entire chapter into a paragraph! So don't feel bad if you have trouble with Tom Torrance. His writing style is not only difficult, but the content of his thought presupposes a working knowledge of the history of theology, the history of philosophy, and the history of science. If you have struggled with Torrance, join the club.
In coming posts, I hope to untangle some of Torrance's intricate, highly complex thought and perhaps even shed some light on an evangelical, doxological view of the mediation of Jesus Christ that is unparalleled since Athanasius.
So kick back, light up a big cigar, and let's get started.
(In today's post, I will introduce some fundamental concepts in Torrance's thought. These will be developed in detail in future posts.)
While T. F. Torrance was widely known throughout his career for his interest in the relation between theology and the natural sciences, a number of Torrance's works, arguably his greatest, were published relatively late in his long life, after the end of his formal academic career. These books are concerned primarily with the nature of God, particularly as revealed in the economy of salvation in the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. Among his most compelling books (at least for the present writer) are: The Mediation of Christ (1983; rev. ed. 1992), which introduces readers to a number of important themes in Torrance's christocentric theology, including his understanding of Israel as "the womb of the incarnation" as well as his vision of the one simultaneous activity of revelation and reconciliation in the incarnation of Jesus Christ; The Trinitarian Faith (1988), which, as it subtitle indicates, is a thoroughly evangelical exposition of the ancient catholic faith as expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and is also an excellent introduction to the Patristic roots of Torrance's theology, especially as found in Athanasius; Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (1990), which describes Torrance's relation to his great teacher and introduces Torrance's own theological vision, and his last book, and one that has been regarded as his masterpiece, The Christian Doctrine of God (1996a). Published when Torrance was in his early eighties, this book is a thorough articulation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity grounded in God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ, implicit in the New Testament and articulated in the doxology and theology of the early church. This important work should serve as a classic treatise on the Holy Trinity well into the third millennium (and perhaps beyond). These late works, combining the intellectual rigor of the accomplished theologian with the compassionate heart of the son of Scottish missionary parents, reveal the doxological, evangelical, and thoroughly christocentric content of Torrance's theology.
Despite his life-long interest in the interface between theology and the natural sciences, Torrance remained a deeply devotional man of faith. In his introduction to Theological Science (1969:v), he wrote:
If I may be allowed to speak personally for a moment, I find the presence and being of God bearing upon my experience and thought so powerfully that I cannot but be convinced of His overwhelming reality and rationality. To doubt the existence of God would be an act of sheer irrationality, for it would mean that my reason had become unhinged from its bond with real being. Yet in knowing God I am deeply aware that my relation to him has been damaged, that disorder has resulted in my mind, and that it is I who obstruct knowledge of God by getting in between Him and myself as it were. But I am also aware that His presence presses unrelentingly upon me through the disorder of my mind, for He will not let Himself be thwarted by it, challenging and repairing it, and requiring of me on my part to yield my thoughts to His healing and controlling revelation.
Despite his intellectual rigor, Torrance insisted that accurate knowledge of God cannot be developed in a detached, merely academic way. To know God intimately requires that we enter into a personal and saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Hence, revelation and reconciliation are inseparable in Torrance's theology, for we cannot know God in a detached, impersonal manner without regard for his purpose for our lives (Torrance, 1988:3; 1996b:132). For Torrance, theology is one aspect of the church's response to grace in obedience and worship; thus, theology can never be more than a refinement and extension of the knowledge of God as it arises in the liturgy and doxology of the community of faith and in the believer's living personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Throughout his work, Torrance intertwines theology and worship, so that the theology of T. F. Torrance is not only rigorously scientific and intellectually challenging but devotional and evangelical as well (Colyer, 2001a:25, 28).
Torrance's theology, including his doctrine of the mediation of Jesus Christ, is strongly influenced by the methodology of the natural sciences. For Torrance, the basic methodological principle of scientific theology, like that of the natural sciences, is that knowledge in any field of inquiry must be developed according to the nature (kata physin) of the reality under study. Thus, a scientific theological method is one in which every aspect of its inquiry is governed by, and proceeds in accordance with, the nature of the 'object' in question: "God in Jesus Christ as the Truth" (Torrance, 1969:112, 113; cf. 1988:51).
In relation to its object of inquiry, a rigorous scientific approach to theology must be informed by actual knowledge of God as revealed to us in the economy (oikonomia) of salvation, that is, in God's historical dialogue with Israel and particularly through the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit. God's self-revelation in Christ and the Spirit calls into question "all alien presuppositions and antecedently reached conceptual frameworks" regarding knowledge of God. For Torrance, this necessitated the development of a rigorous, scientific epistemology that was governed from beginning to end by the 'nature' of its object of inquiry: "God in his self-communication to us within the structures of our human and worldly existence" (Torrance, 1990:122).
Because God has given himself to be known in Jesus, "the central and pivotal point of all genuine theological knowledge" is found in christology. Scientific theology, therefore, will operate on a christological basis, for christology is critical to the understanding of the nature of God. Rather than go "behind the back" of Jesus to develop knowledge of God, christology teaches us to know God in strict accordance with the steps he has taken to make himself known to us and, therefore, to test our knowledge of God in accordance with the steps in which knowledge of him has actually arisen in space and time (Torrance, 1990:71). Hence, for Torrance, the incarnation of Jesus Christ is the "actual source" and "controlling center" for the Christian doctrine of God (Torrance, 1996a:18). To know God through the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, who is of "one substance with the Father" (homoousios to Patri) is to know God in strict accordance with God's nature (kata physin) and, hence, in a theologically scientific way (cf. Torrance, 1969:110-113; 1988:3, 51, 52).
In addition to the basic methodological principle that knowledge of God must be developed in his strict accordance with the divine nature as revealed in Jesus Christ, an important aspect of Torrance's scientific approach to theology is his attempt to reduce a vast amount of theological data to a few "elemental forms," that is, basic concepts that have the effect of illuminating and simplifying an otherwise incomprehensible array of data (Torrance, 1969:116-119). A grasp of these constitutive concepts is essential to an understanding of Torrance's overall vision of the mediation of Jesus Christ.
Two central concepts on which Torrance builds his doctrine of the mediation of Christ are the Nicene homoousion, that is, the creedal assertion that Jesus Christ is "of one being with the Father" (homoousios to Patri), and the doctrine of the 'hypostatic union' of the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. After studying Barth, Torrance realized that concepts such as the Nicene homoousion and the hypostatic union provide a framework for embodying the "essential connections" of the material content of our knowledge of God, so that a "coherent and consistent account of Christian theology as an organic whole" might be developed in a rigorously scientific way in terms of its own "objective truth and inner logic" (Torrance, 1990: 123). Torrance believes that basic theological concepts such as the homoousion and the hypostatic union enable us to apprehend and articulate the inner matrix of relations revealed to us in the economy of God's self-revelation (oikonomia) in the Old and New Testaments. Together, these concepts provide a "disclosure model," or conceptual "lens," through which we allow realities to reveal themselves to us in a progressive way (always subject to revision as realities unfold) that simplifies and clarifies our knowledge of God and enables us to integrate the complexity of Scripture in a way that illumines God's self-revelation in the economy of salvation while strengthening our faith and experience (Torrance, 1980:125, 126; Colyer, 2001b:225).
For Torrance, the Nicene homoousion is the epistemological and ontological "linchpin" of revelation and reconciliation, and, therefore, of the entire enterprise of a Christian scientific theology. The homoousion is of the utmost evangelical significance. It is essential to our salvation that Jesus is of one nature with God, for only God can save. In light of the orthodox creedal assertion that Jesus Christ is "of one being with the Father," the homoousion "crystallizes" the Christian conviction that while the incarnation falls within historical time and space, it also falls within the eternal life and being of God (Torrance, 1980:160, 161; 1988:110ff; 1996a:30; 1996b:128). As noted above, a rigorous scientific theology must be developed in light of the nature of God as it comes into view in God's actual self-revelation. This is precisely what takes place when we develop our knowledge of God in accordance with the divine self-revelation in the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, who is homoousios to Patri (Torrance, 1988:52).
In addition to the Nicene homoousion, the 'hypostatic union' of the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ is a constitutive elemental form in Torrance's doctrine of the mediation of Christ. While it is essential to our salvation that Jesus Christ is of one nature with God, it is also essential that he is of the same being and nature as humanity. If Jesus is not human as we are, then the gospel is emptied of soteriological content, for his actions have no connection to us and God has not bridged the gulf between himself and humanity created by sin (Torrance, 1988:4, 8, 146, 147; 1992:56-59). Yet the Patristic doctrine of the hypostatic union asserts that God has joined himself to human flesh in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ. In the "God-humanward" movement of the incarnation, God reveals himself within the limits of our creaturely existence (i.e., the mediation of revelation). The eternal Logos takes the form of a servant (Jn 1:1,14; Phil 2:5ff) and assumes our actual diseased, sinful humanity, not only atoning for it, but healing it and bending it back to the Father (Torrance, 1988:153, 157, 161ff). Because the incarnate Son is both fully divine and fully human, he encompasses both sides of the mediating relationship between God and man in his one incarnate person. Thus, the hypostatic union itself is the atoning reconciliation between God and humanity (i.e., the mediation of reconciliation) (Torrance, 1992:56-59).
Closely related to the above is another elemental form that constitutes Torrance's vision of the mediation of Christ: the important concept of "incarnational redemption." For Torrance, the incarnation and the atonement are intimately connected: the incarnation is inherently redemptive and redemption is inherently incarnational. Atoning salvation is not an "external" transaction, as in a forensic concept of atonement; rather, atoning reconciliation occurs "within" the incarnate constitution of the person of Jesus Christ. In the incarnate life of the Mediator there occurs an "agonising union" between God the Judge and man under judgment in a continuous movement of atoning reconciliation running throughout the life of Jesus, from his virgin birth through his resurrection and ascension. Hence, Jesus does not merely "mediate" a reconciliation that is other than himself, as though he were merely an instrument of reconciliation. Rather, Jesus embodies what he mediates, for what he 'is' and what he mediates are the same. He is the reality and content of divine reconciliation. He does not merely propitiate, redeem, and justify; he is our propitiation, redemption, and justification. In the identity of the Mediator and mediation the heart of the gospel is to be found (Torrance, 1986:476-478; 1988:155, 159; 1992:62-67; Colyer, 2001a:85).
A final and particularly characteristic feature of Torrance's understanding of the mediation of Christ is his important concept of the "vicarious humanity" of Jesus Christ. Here Torrance stresses the "human-Godward" movement of Christ, wherein, throughout his entire incarnate life ‒ from birth through death, resurrection, and ascension ‒ Jesus "vicariously" makes the perfect filial response of faith and obedience to the Father on behalf of, and in the place of, all humanity, in such as way as to undergird, rather than undermine, the integrity of our own human response to God in faith, repentance, and obedience (Torrance, 1988:149-154; 1992:73ff; 1996b:132; Colyer, 2001a:28, 29).
In summary, the Nicene homoousion, the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures of Christ, the doctrine of incarnational redemption, and the "vicarious humanity" of Jesus Christ are among the elemental forms of Torrance's vision of the mediation of Christ. Torrance weaves these basic constitutive concepts together into an intricate coherent whole, so that they are not easily conceptually separated from one another. These concepts are closely related, interpenetrating one another because they are all functions of the being and life of Jesus Christ, who in his one incarnate person is the mediation of God to man and man to God.
The coherence of these basic elemental forms is related to another essential aspect of Torrance's thought: his theological "holism." Inspired by his reading of natural scientists such as James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein, Torrance's theological holism is rooted in his basic convictions concerning the "dynamic interrelationality" of reality and the kind of inquiry needed to grasp this interrelatedness. These interrelations, or "onto-relations," as Torrance calls them, are relations so basic they are inseparable from, and characteristic of, the realities they constitute. If we are to understand the nature of various realities, they must be investigated within the nexus of the interrelations of which they are a part. Realities must not be studied in isolation, for they are what they are by virtue of the relations wherein they are embedded (Torrance, 1984:215ff; 1992:2, 3, 47-50; Colyer, 2001a:55, 56).
The holism of Torrance's thought is related to the elemental forms described above, for each basic concept in Torrance's thought is inherently relational. The Nicene homoousion describes the Son's eternal, ontological relationship with the Father. The 'hypostatic union' articulates the nature of the relationship between the divine and human natures "within" the one incarnate person of Jesus Christ. The doctrine of "incarnational redemption" connects the incarnation and atonement in a holistic rather than dichotomous manner. The doctrine of the 'vicarious humanity' of Christ describes the incarnate Son's relationship with the Father as man. Thus, an understanding of the constitutive concepts of Torrance's theological vision arises as they are investigated within the nexus of interrelations that constitute them.
Because the fundamental aspects of reality are 'relational' rather than atomistic, the goal of theology, for Torrance, is to investigate and to coherently articulate the essential interrelations embodied in our knowledge of God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Therefore, to understand Jesus Christ and the mediation of revelation and reconciliation, we must view Jesus within the nexus of interrelations that disclose his identity and mission: that is, we must adopt a two-fold approach in which we examine Christ 1) within the matrix of his interrelations with the history and people of Israel in covenant with God and 2) in light of Christ's internal relations with both God and humanity. As theology investigates and articulates these inner relations as disclosed in God's self-communication to us in word and deed as reflected in the gospel, it enables us to grasp the "organic structure" of our knowledge of God and of God's relation to us in creation and redemption. Torrance finds this kind of approach in the early church, wherein the followers of Jesus sought to understand his significance within the dynamic field of God's covenant interaction with Israel and also in light of Christ's relationship to the one he called "Father." Within this complex of interrelations, the early church found itself coming to grips with the essential message of the gospel, a message of salvation for all mankind, embodied in Jesus himself, in continuity with the message of God that had been worked out in covenant partnership with historic Israel. "In that mediation of God's saving revelation, the startling events in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus fell into place within a divinely ordered pattern of grace and truth, and the bewildering enigma of Jesus himself became disclosed: he was incarnate Son of God and Saviour of the world" (Torrance, 1992:1-5, 47-50; cf. Colyer, 2001a:55-57, 345).
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References (All references listed may not be used in every post).
Colyer, E.M. 2001a. How to Read T.F. Torrance: Understanding His Trinitarian & Scientific Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 393pp.
Colyer, E.M (ed). 2001b. The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T. F. Torrance. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 354pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1969. Theological Science. Oxford: OUP. 368pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1976. Theology in Reconciliation: Essays toward Evangelical and Catholic Unity in East and West. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 302pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1980. The Ground and Grammar of Theology: Consonance Between Theology and Science. (Preface to new edition by T.F. Torrance, 2001). Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 256pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1981. Divine and Contingent Order. (Preface to new edition, 1998). Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 162pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1982. Reality and Evangelical Theology: The Realism of Christian Revelation. (Forward by K.A. Richardson, 1999). Downers Grove, IL: IVP. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster. 174pp.
Torrance, T. F. 1984. Transformation & Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge: Explorations in the Interrelations of Scientific and Theological Enterprise. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 353pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1988. The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church. London: T & T Clark. 345pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1989. The Christian Frame of Mind: Reason, Order, and Openness in Theology and Natural Science. Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard Publishers. 164pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1990. Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 256pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1992. (orig. ed. 1983). The Mediation of Christ. Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard. 126pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 71pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1996a. The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons. London: T & T Clark. 260pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1996b. (orig. ed. 1965). Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers. 288pp.


  1. Your writing has been theology with training wheels for me. It has brought me to the place where I can talk so much more coherently about what I know experientially.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  2. Thank you, Diane. Words of appreciation and encouragement are very helpful to me. I put a lot of work into what I write and it strengthens me to receive a kind comment such as yours. Thanks again.

  3. Congrats on one year of excellent blog posts! The year has raced by...and I'm looking forward to reading more about "All Things Torrance." One more of our "great cloud of witnesses!" The Good News really is GOOD. Looking forward to more. I read an article by Torrance about his time as a WW2 chaplain in harms way. The man wasn't just an academic, he put his beliefs on the line. Here is an awesome quote from that article, describing an event during the Allied conquest of Italy: "When daylight filtered through I came across a young soldier (private Phillips) scarcely twenty years old lying mortally wounded on the ground, who clearly had not long to live. As I knelt down and bent over him, he said “Padre, is God really like Jesus?” I assured him that he was … As I prayed and commended him to the Lord Jesus he passed away."

  4. Right on, Jerome. While Torrance can be difficult to read, his writing is very inspiring because there is a devotional element that runs all through it. While he was a giant among academic theologians, Torrance never lost the compassionate heart of the pastor and missionary. He loved the church and was committed to sharing the good news about Jesus with anyone and everyone. If you get a chance, read his Introduction to his book The Christian Doctrine of God (T&T Clark, 1996). That alone is worth buying the book. It will make you stand up and cheer!

  5. That is why you are one of my favorite theologians. You are gifted at helping us to understand difficult concepts in theology and difficult to read theologians. I can't wait to sink my teeth into more of Torrance's Christ saturated writings. I so enjoy the labors of Jesus Christ through you brother! Thank you!

  6. You really helped me in this one. I have been reading Torrance for the past year or so and really thought it was me the reason to have to work so hard to understand him. But as we do understand him it is well worth the extra concentration. Many many times over. Ron


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