Essay / Theology

“Uninhibited Theology on the Grand Scale” (Webster on Torrance)

british academy gif no bgT. F. Torrance was a Fellow of the British Academy, and his fellow-Fellow John Webster recently published a 20-page biographical memoir of him: ‘Thomas Forsyth Torrance, 1913-2007,” in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the British Academy 13 (2014), pp. 417-36 (click here for automatic download of the pdf).

The sketch of Torrance’s life is informative, but theologians will probably want to read this piece primarily for Webster’s summary judgments and characterizations of how Torrance’s work stands in relation to the contemporary theological climate. Here are some notes and quotes on that.

Torrance was a man of “seemingly limitless drive and industry,” says Webster, and “animateur of all manner of scholarly and collaborative projects.” Pondering how early the mind of T.F. Torrance was formed in its characteristic modes, Webster notes:

In an unpublished autobiographical account from his retirement years, Torrance presented his undergraduate self already assembling a set of philosophical and theological judgements and attitudes which would stay with him for the rest of his career: he never seriously qualified his early antipathy to Augustine and Schleiermacher, for example. …Even when one allows for some retrospective simplification and imposition of order, the picture that emerges is one of remarkable intellectual energy, as well as of an early instinct for synthesis…

By chance, one of the earliest Torrance books I ever read was the book based on his dissertation under Barth: The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers. It’s a strange book that fits poorly in Torrance’s oeuvre, since its thesis is that the New Testament doctrine of free grace was lost and misunderstood by the generation immediately following. Torrance’s readers generally expect him to champion the early Greek fathers as thinkers who worked out the metaphysical implications of biblical categories; instead this first book sounds Harnackian in its judgement on the first Greek theologians. I suppose at the time I didn’t register the clash, since I was reading for historical help on the Apostolic Fathers and wasn’t aware of Torrance’s other work. But later I noticed the contrast. Perhaps Torrance thought there was an early and brief “fall of the church” in soteriology before a recovery in, say, Ireneaus or even Melito. If so, what a brief “dark ages” that was!

For whatever it’s worth, it turns out Torrance had proposed a very different sort of project to Barth: “Torrance wanted to write a dissertation which would explicate the Trinitarian and Christological structure of Christian dogmatics in relation to the theology of grace,” which would have been one heck of a first book! Sort of a dissertation about everything. “Barth wisely trimmed his ambitions and set him to work on the doctrine of grace in the apostolic fathers of the second century.” I’m trying to imagine an alternative history of twentieth-century theology in which Torrance got his mega-project rolling at an earlier age and with less preparation; from this alternative history, for good or ill, doktorvater Barth diverted us.

Watching Torrance’s options move one way and another, Webster makes an insightful observation:

The choice of teaching over continuing immersion in doctoral work is characteristic: he relished a busy, external vocation, even if it meant forgoing the opportunity to acquire advanced scholarly training. From the beginning, Torrance’s intellectual powers were more those of the innovative thinker and advocate than those of the pure Wissenschaftler.

There are several such remarks throughout the piece, and Webster manages to deliver them without suggesting that it’s any kind of backhanded compliment. Torrance was always in construction-and-connection mode, where he excelled, and had fairly modest powers of historical investigation.

In fact, in Webster’s re-telling of the famous James-Barr-Goes-All-Semantically-Ballistic-on-Torrance episode, one conclusion he draws is this:

Torrance and Barr represented divergent theological cultures… Torrance was to devote much time over the next four decades to advancing reasons for the divergence and its effect on theological science and hermeneutics.

Even though I count myself as one of those who would have preferred a little more tightening-up in Torrance’s argumentation, and who learned a lot from Barr’s critique, it’s still an easy decision to make between theological cultures. Barr’s has neither recourse to a past nor access to a future, except by being parasitic on Torrance’s.

Since we’re doing inside baseball, here’s Webster on Torrance on Barth:

He brought his own interests to his reading of Barth. He was much preoccupied by Barth’s thinking about the nature of divine revelation and human knowledge of God, and was captivated by Barth’s orientation of all Christian teaching towards the person and work of Christ, as well as by Barth’s integration of the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation. Barth represented the contemporary possibility of uninhibited theology on the grand scale, all the more impressive when set alongside what Torrance regarded as the dreary sceptical revisions of Christian doctrine on offer in mainstream British theology in the 1960s and 1970s.

Considering Torrance’s role in translating the Church Dogmatics, Webster says “the impact of the translation is difficult to exaggerate,” and that “Barth’s secure place in the canon of modern theology for English readers would be unthinkable without Torrance’s determined advocacy,” even if certain “aspects of Torrance’s interpretation of Barth have not stood the test of time.”

Interesting observation: Torrance’s book publishing was fairly modest until retirement. I hadn’t thought of this, but in fact TFT did sort of specialize in essays until fairly late, and some of his central themes waited until then to find expression. “Even the doctrine of the Trinity, in whose primacy Torrance was deeply invested, did not become a matter for extensive consideration in published work until the 1980s.”

Near the end of the essay, Webster comes through with a number of excellent evaluative paragraphs that I’m simply cutting and pasting here.

On the lay of the theological land during Torrance’s career:

A good deal of British theological writing of the period around 1960 to 1990, especially the work of some distinguished patristic historians, was sceptical about the permanent validity of conciliar trinitarian and incarnational thought, its confidence eroded by biblical and doctrinal criticism and by a sometimes inchoate sense that the metaphysical principles assumed by classical Christian thought had been rendered untenable by modern philosophy. Torrance stood apart from that theological culture, and did not share its inhibitions; he criticised it variously as nominalist, dualist or phenomenalist, and considered the favoured alternatives— exemplarist Christology and non-trinitarian theism—wholly deficient.

On the alternative Torrance worked to establish:

His intellect and imagination, as well as his religious affections, were profoundly stirred by the ideas of those theologians whose writings formed the canon out of which he generated his own understanding of Christian teaching, and by which he judged other accounts: Athanasius, the Cappadocians and Cyril of Alexandria among the fathers, Calvin among the Reformers, Barth among the moderns. Each afforded access to an immensely spacious and satisfying world of thought, free from the cramping effects of over-zealous attention to modern scruples, and provided a stock of concepts and patterns of argument which formed the matter of the extensive description of Christian doctrine to which some of his later writings were devoted.

On how T.F.Torrance’s writing style grew out of his theological passion:

Torrance’s dogmatic writing commonly took the form of positive explication and commendation of the articles of the catholic creeds, and of some Reformation distinctives in the theology of grace and salvation. As he reached out to the great matters which seized his attention, his rhetoric often took on a measure of urgency, pressing the reader to share his sense of the spiritual import and explanatory power of a range of theological ideas and arguments. He wrote from within a set of traditions by which he was captivated; his texts are saturated with quotation and allusion. On occasions, analytical and logical order, as well as elegance and economy of phrasing, were compromised in the rush of ideas. The reader is persuaded by accumulation of concepts and description, with frequent restatement and amplification, the style bearing some resemblance to that of Barth, who also wrote in extenso, though usually less loosely than Torrance. The result is one of the most stirring, consistent and conceptually innovative bodies of theological writing in English from the last fifty years.

On the Trinity:

Torrance considered the doctrine of the Trinity a confession of the identity and nature of the one who works in the world in Christ and the Spirit. From this, much follows: the correspondence of God’s inner being to God’s external acts; the definition of each divine person by reference to that person’s relations to the others (for which Torrance coined the term ‘onto-relations’); the trinitarian order of divine action upon created things. Torrance was one of a number of theologians who contributed to the sea-change in English-language theology in the final two decades of the last century, by which trinitarian doctrine came to be considered not a problem but a resource.

On Torrance’s interest in natural science (“highly unusual for one so indebted to Barth”) and approach to natural theology:

If Barth’s rejection of natural theology is the obverse of deist natural religion, Torrance’s account of the matter recalls earlier theologies of nature in which ‘positive’ and ‘natural’ theologies are not competing but complementary.

On why Torrance did not produce a complete systematic theology:

Torrance’s intellectual urgency did not suit him for a large-scale systematic exercise in which proportion and a sense of the whole are of great conse­quence.

The piece concludes with an illuminating comparison of T.F. Torrance to two other “near-contempoary Scottish divines of similar distinction:” John Macquarrie and Donald MacKinnon. But if you want to read that, you should go read it.

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