Most noted for his work at the intersection of theology and science, for which he was feted in 1978 with the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, and as co-editor of the English version of Karl Barth’s monumental Church Dogmatics , Thomas Forsyth Torrance was the greatest British Protestant theologian of his generation. Not only did he mediate Barth, in his own magisterial way, to the English-speaking world, he also produced a unique synthesis of biblical, pastoral, and philosophical thought. Theology as a science—engaged with other sciences in the progress of science—was his passion. He was equally at home with mathematicians, physicists, and philosophers of science on the one hand, and with classicists, patristics scholars, and churchmen on the other. In token of his work on the Alexandrian fathers and his contributions to a burgeoning ecumenical movement, Torrance—a Church of Scotland minister—was honored in 1973 with the title Protopresbyter in the Patriarchate of Alexandria, a rarer and higher sort of prize. 

Born a century ago in Chengdu, China, to missionary parents, Torrance began his education in a local mission school. Later, after advanced studies at Edinburgh, Oxford, and Basel; teaching in America; parish work in Scotland; and a stint as army chaplain in North Africa and Italy—where more than once he narrowly escaped with his life—Torrance assumed the chair of Christian Dogmatics at New College, Edinburgh. There he remained from 1952 until his retirement in 1979, declining an invitation to become Barth’s successor in Basel. He died in 2007, predeceased by his younger brother James, who held the corresponding chair in Aberdeen. (Tom’s son Iain, until recently president of Princeton Theological Seminary, and James’ son Alan, professor of ­theology at the University of St. Andrews, have extended the family tradition of reverend professors.) It is the work of weighty tomes, like those of Alister McGrath or Paul Molnar, to tell of his achievements; just to list his writings, now fully archived at Princeton, requires a small book.

I can’t think of a contemporary theologian who has made more of an impact on me than T. F. Torrance, unless it was Colin Gunton. Even his Germanic use of capitals found its way briefly into my writing. I was fortunate enough to spend a bit of time with him as a research student, walking the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver (though quite athletic, I could barely keep up physically, never mind intellectually), or sitting in a McDonald’s, of all places, in Oxford, or listening to him spar with skeptics at the Society for the Study of Theology (to the collective delight of Gunton’s Gurkhas, as one wag dubbed our London contingent). He was a formidable figure, known for his fierceness and tommy-gun style when exchanges got heated. On one famous occasion, well before my time, he was holding forth at the Society in the presence of John Hick, who calmly declared that he hadn’t understood a single word of what was being said. After further elaborations, punctuated by the same pointed rebuff from Hick, Torrance finally exclaimed in exasperation, “You will never understand, unless you repent!” 

Repentance or metanoia , conversion of mind, is a featured concept in Torrance’s epistemology. “To apprehend the new, old ways of apprehension must be left behind,” Reality and Scientific Theology reminds us. And perhaps it is in his epistemology—in his advance of a critical realism that eschews Kantian dualism and subjects the dynamics of knowing to the dynamics of being—that his main contribution should be located. Many would say, however, that it lies rather in the trinitarian theology that underpins the epistemology, and especially in his appropriation of patristic and Reformed insights into the priestly mediation of Jesus, which permits a still deeper form of metanoia. There is no need to argue the toss, for the two are seamlessly interwoven, as appears already in the opening paragraphs of The Mediation of Christ . A well-known New Testament scholar once told me that he wept when reading that book. I believe I did too, when I came to the passage in which Torrance recounts his visit to Yad Vashem, connecting the rupture between Jews and Christians to subsequent misunderstandings of atonement that contributed to the Holocaust, and linking the sacrifice of European Jewry to the sacrifice of Jesus.

One thing Torrance himself never repents of is his determination to expose and attack dualisms. For him the deadly sins of the intellect are all dualisms, whether epistemological or cosmological or theological. “It is a mark of [his] thinking,” says Molnar, “that he can summarize a thousand years of thought in one paragraph.” And when he does so, you can be sure that he has a “radical dualism” in his sights. His heroes (especially Polanyi in epistemology; Clerk Maxwell and Einstein in cosmology; and Athanasius, Calvin, and Barth in theology) are heroes in large part because they overcame systemically entrenched dualisms and so inaugurated new eras. His villains (Augustine, Descartes, and Newton, for example) are villains because they invented or perpetuated ­dualisms that limited or even corrupted their era. Of course, it is dangerous, if not absurd, to summarize a thousand years of thought in a paragraph; this is a characteristic that mars as well as marks his work. Moreover, there is at least one alleged dualism, or platoon of dualisms, that requires some defense from hostile fire—both his and Barth’s. That will be my objective here.

The problem must be seen in context. Like his famous teacher, Torrance was committed both to a theological reading of Scripture and to a Christological recentering of theology. He pursued this project by developing the thesis of the Catholic catechist and liturgist J. A. Jungmann, who argued that the exigencies of the Arian controversy diverted the Church’s eyes from the humanity of Christ and so from his function as mediator, and by attacking with Barth the dualisms at the heart of what he dubbed “the Latin heresy.” It is the latter move that concerns us, though the two are connected. And here I must ask the reader to buckle up while I attempt an absurdity of my own: summarizing Torrance on this subject in just a few paragraphs.

“Latent in the heart of Latin Christianity,” he claims in his 1986 essay “Karl Barth and the Latin Heresy,” “there was a rejection of the consubstantiality of the Word.” This had already manifested itself, East and West, in the Arian crisis and was repudiated by the adoption of the term homoousion. But resistance to recognition of the Word, especially the Incarnate Word, as belonging internally to the being of God, found refuge in the very attempt to uproot it. The liturgical shift that emphasized Christ’s deity encouraged a purely instrumental view of his humanity, thus driving a wedge between his person and his work.

In the West, this dualism between the person and the work of Christ (the accidental result of combat with a prior God-world dualism that rendered the Incarnation inconceivable) lodged itself in ­soteriology, among other places, and more specifically in the doctrine of the atonement. The atonement was understood as something Jesus did, not something he was. It was merely an external transaction—the payment of a debt, whether to God or to the devil or to both—that altered juridically, but not ontologically, the relation between God and man. Atonement, we might say, was an act by Christ without being also the self-enactment of Christ. Which cannot be if he is truly God, for in God person and act are one.

Torrance thought the “externalism” of both Catholic and Protestant atonement theory indicative of a general failure to think in the dynamic, relational terms that characterized Nicene theology. That is why Latins failed to grasp fully either the trinitarian doctrine of the Greek fathers or their soteriology, which emphasized the maxim that the unassumed is the unhealed. In particular, they failed to grasp that when God took our humanity he took it as it was—in its fallenness—and just so restored it to himself in himself. Instead, they began to think of the Incarnation as the assumption of an ideal pre-lapsarian humanity, not itself in need of healing or restoration but suitable as a spotless substitute for fallen humanity, in order to make offering to God and to absorb the divine wrath, thus purchasing immunity for us.

This approach, he was fond of saying, could never explain how we ourselves are healed and perfected. It could speak of sins and forgiveness of sins, but only in a rather forensic fashion that required various institutional mechanisms for dispensing the necessary pardon or grace—a grace equally external to Christ, commodified in discrete packages for addressing discrete sins or states of sin. Meanwhile, the dispensing institution, the Church, personified in the person of Mary, was gradually being assimilated to Christ in his untainted perfection. It became sinless and immaculate; faultless in faith and doctrine; already heavenly, set apart from its members; a mediator like Christ and in place of Christ, laying down the law of Christ and reproducing the sacrifice of Christ.

Hence there emerged a further dualism: that between the Church as mystical body, in which the members are fully, if invisibly, incorporated, and the Church as juridical institution, pontificating to its members through its clerical hierarchy, its magisterium, and its canon law. The Latin heresy, in other words, was Roman to the core, though after creating schisms East and West, it also produced Protestant or Evangelical analogs.

So: The Latin heresy (traced here only in part) grew up within a cosmological dualism that made it difficult to take the Incarnation with full seriousness and generated resistance to the Greek patristic maxim that the unassumed is the unhealed. The salvation wrought by Christ was interpreted in externalist categories, and ecclesiology followed suit. It tended toinstrumentalism and so to juridicalism, dogmatism, and, not surprisingly, schism. But, Torrance argued, it is possible to rise above all this where Nicene modes of thought prevail, as they did briefly in the great Reformers, particularly Calvin, and as they have again today in Karl Barth. The Nicenes saw that God himself was “the real content” of his revelation in Jesus Christ, that God’s being is in his act. The Reformers insisted that God’s continued acts of revelation and reconciliation belong to his being in Jesus Christ, who is the one true sacrament of our salvation. Being in act and act in being: That is the Barthian synthesis, the antidote to the Latin heresy. 

Torrance believed this easier to grasp today, since we live in an era in which the old dualist cosmology of the Greco-Roman era has collapsed, and in which the equally dualist cosmology of the Cartesian and Newtonian period has resolved itself into the more dynamic version of Maxwell and Einstein and their heirs, in which unitary modes of thought prevail. (Think “space-time” instead of space and time, for example, or “onto-relations”: relations integral to, and definitive of, being or beings.) The new cosmology, which owes something to the innovations of Greek thinkers such as St. Basil and John Philoponus, facilitates the task of recovering Nicene theology, repairing the damage of intervening centuries, and appropriating Barthian insights.

The era we now inhabit is a transitional one, in Torrance’s view, and as such quite chaotic, yet it is bright with promise. The Latin heresy is on its way out, and with it the dichotomy between the mystical body and the juridical society. The time is coming when we shall no more be torn between mere pietism, on the one hand, which has skeptical rationalism as its twin—liberalism being what you get when the two are joined at the hip—and hard institutional Romanism on the other. We can hope rather for a new and more authentically catholic Christianity, chastened but confident, united in its confession of Christ, unencumbered by instrumentalism and the will to power, hence less inclined to schism and better able to shape global as well as local culture.

Of this, Vatican II was one sign, Torrance thought, though he was dismayed at the post-conciliar canon law project as a further exercise in juridicalism. Perhaps, were he still alive, he would think Pope Francis a sign. From the Catholic side, one may think Torrance himself another. For he is capable, with Barth, of helping Protestants learn how to be critical of Protestantism as well as of Catholicism, and how to enrich themselves with patristic insights and resources. Moreover, Protestants can learn from Torrance something that Barth cannot teach them: a degree of respect for liturgy and sacraments and even for episcopal ministry. They can learn something else as well—something Torrance tried to teach Barth—namely, to find a place for natural theology and metaphysics within an evangelical framework.

It is true, of course, that Catholics may find Torrance less congenial than Barth in certain respects. It is easy to be put off by his sweeping judgments against the sins of dualism that are supposed to haunt medieval theology, tempting the Church into the commodification of grace and hardening the ecclesiastical arteries. Or by the fact that, for all his emphasis on the penetration of the Word into the structures of our fallen humanity, Torrance’s own discourse sometimes seems to hover “six thousand feet above time and man” (and that without benefit either of Nietzsche’s aphoristic brevity or of Barth’s lyrical prose cycles). Yet Catholics can hardly dismiss Torrance’s critiques as so much Protestant caricature. In Torrance, as in Barth, they are confronted by a Protestant who has taken Catholicism seriously and who forces them to think hard about the mediation of Christ in ways they are not accustomed to. On the other hand, in Torrance they can discover points of contact with the hieratic and liturgical dimensions missed by Barth, as my own work on the Ascension (which owes much to his) perhaps demonstrates.

What then is the problem to which I alluded, the problem bequeathed to Torrance by Barth? It is this: There is really no such thing as the Latin heresy, and supposing that there is makes a sound ecclesiology—hence also any real ecumenical advance—more or less impossible.

By saying that there is no such thing as the Latin heresy, I do not mean that debilitating forms of externalism have not arisen in the West. Unquestionably they have. Barth and Torrance inhabited a world badly deformed by them.

Liberal Protestantism—the religion shaped to no small extent by Barth’s teachers, Ritschl and Harnack—had more or less reduced theology to ethics, and the mediation of Christ to moral influence, which helped to explain its inability to distinguish between the city of God and the city of man. Barth began to perceive this problem already in 1914 and wrestled with it for the rest of his life, eventually producing an architecturally magnificent solution that was nothing short of a christological revival. (It was all there already in 1934, in the first two articles of the Barmen Declaration, on which the six million words of the Church Dogmatics were, so to say, a gloss.) Torrance followed up by further teasing out the epistemological dimensions of the problem and its solution.

We do not have to look far for other examples. In so-called high Calvinism, represented by the Synod of Dort, there had long been a severe instrumentalization of Christ, which both Barth and Torrance spent much energy resisting. Where salvation is eternally determined for particular individuals without any prior reference to Christ, it is altogether evident that what Christ contributes is a remedy external to the actual condition of man, rather than a remedy worked out in the depths of our humanity as such. Which in turn leaves much of life untouched by the gospel. This high-Calvinist nature-grace dualism was implicated, for example, in the apartheid system, as James Torrance tirelessly argued; it allowed political arrangements to be determined by arbitrary concepts of nature or providence that escaped evangelical scrutiny.

British and American Evangelicalism offers another illustration. Out of a hodgepodge of magisterial and radical Reformation resources—and, we may add, a frightful misreading of Anselm—it developed a penal substitution theory of the atonement that has its closest Catholic counterpart in Mel Gibson’s misbegotten The Passion of the Christ . The Torrances tackled this also, bringing Barth to bear in the conflict and converting more than a few to a far richer atonement theory.

Catholicism itself, naturally, was a further front. Torrance did not confine himself to doing battle with the dreaded analogia entis (analogy of being). Rather, as already intimated, he tried to trace out the sequence of steps or missteps by which “the Augustinian-Aristotelian framework” perfected by Aquinas had been constructed. That he regarded this framework as fundamentally dualistic explains why he did not find in it what contemporary Catholic theologians found: namely, an answer and a remedy to the externalism that did indeed rear its head both in the theological manuals and in the sacramental life of the Church during the same period that spawned liberal Protestantism.

But if externalism has been a problem in the West, why do I deny the existence of the Latin heresy? Am I merely objecting to the word “heresy,” which Torrance is using rather carelessly, almost as if theologians themselves could determine, in some freestanding fashion, what is heretical? Or do I mean simply that the “heresy” is not peculiarly Western? (It is hard to see how it could be, given that Apollinarian ways of thinking have proven quite durable in the East as well.) No. I mean that Barth and Torrance have, in part, misdiagnosed the problem and misconstrued the solution.

While it is quite true that the temptation to abstract the work from the person of Jesus is perennial—every trace of anti-Semitism already bears witness to this, as does every form of theology that attempts to slough off the Jewish “husk” in order to salvage some evangelical “kernel,” to use Kant’s language—it is not the case that the West, or more specifically the Catholic tradition, has habitually done so. On the other hand, it is the case that Barth has falsely conflated person and work, and that this conflation is a bar, both for him and for Torrance, to any deep appreciation of the Catholic tradition.

Even in Leo the Great’s Tome , of all places, Torrance finds fodder for the Latin heresy. He doesn’t like its emphasis on Mary’s purity and on the Son’s assumption (as Leo puts it) of “nature, not sin.” He objects to its presentation of Christ’s divine and human natures as possessions, as something out of which he acts on or for others, rather than as two movements in an event of reconciliation through which God and man are defined by and for each other. Torrance much prefers Barth’s actualist revision of Chalcedon, in which the two natures of Christ are interpreted in terms of a simultaneous dynamic of descending and ascending, a dual history of God abasing himself and man being exalted, united in and as one subject or person. “According to the translation which we have attempted,” says Barth, “this history itself, and in its dynamic, is the reality, the mysterium , the sacrament of the being of Jesus Christ . . . . The subject Jesus Christ is this history.”

Barth’s imposition on the doctrine of the Incarnation of an actualist ontology—an ontology that already contains and is soteriology—is seen by Torrance as a breakthrough that enables us to shake off the Latin heresy. But it can also be seen as a kind of theological oversteer that puts Christology into the ditch on the Eutychian side of the road. By joining the human to the divine nature in this way, Barth assimilates the former to the latter in its character as pure act.

But it does not belong to the creature that person and act, or being and act, should be one; that is, to be actus purus . It does not belong even to Jesus, whose humanity, on such a construct, is overcome by his divinity. Jesus’ acts are full and proper expressions of his person; there is no alienation in him between who he is and what he does. But Jesus is not a history. (Nor, for that matter, is God: That is the error of Rahnerians and neo-Barthians who have gone beyond Barth in this direction, or perhaps we should say behind Barth to Hegel, and begun collapsing the distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity.)

No small irony appears just here, in this unintended Eutychianism that obscures the humanity of Christ! And it has its own inevitable consequences for ecclesiology, as we must now observe, for it tends also to obscure the Marian and Petrine dimensions of the Church. It tends, that is, to occasionalism.

The first consequence of turning Jesus into a reconciling event, into a divine-human Happening that (unlike other happenings) is everywhere and always taking place, is that the Church becomes nothing more than a community of witnesses, a community of people who with the eyes of faith see and confess what is everywhere and always the case. The sacraments themselves become mere acts of confession. Torrance, to his credit, resisted Barth’s drift in this direction, even pleading with him not to publish the fragment of the final volume of the Dogmatics that rejected infant baptism. Yet Torrance himself could not quite allow the Church its sacramental concreteness. For if reconciliation is an event strictly internal to the being of Christ, and if Christ is without remainder the reconciliation he achieves, then the Church must be denied any reconciling or mediating function of its own, lest it somehow be confused with Christ. Thus the Eucharist, as traditionally understood both in the Latin and the Greek Churches, is incomprehensible—even idolatrous. And the Church remains something hidden. Even in the Eucharist it cannot be said, “Here is the Church.”

A second consequence is that one is forced to emphasize the petra of Peter’s act of confession at the expense of Petros himself, whose confession it is and to whom the keys are given. Keys imply jurisdiction, and jurisdiction canons, and canons of lawful succession, and so on. Confession and keys together imply magisterium. But again, this is all too concrete. The Church, in its pastoral function as in its proclamation, points to the reality that is Christ, but it only points. It possesses nothing. Torrance might be readier than Barth to allow that the Church, through its councils, does have power to declare what is orthodox and what is heterodox. Yet with Barth he is unafraid to tell the Church that it is guilty of “the Latin heresy”: that it does not know, or not as well as they, what is orthodox or heterodox. (Here I worry that Torrance is closer to Tertullian, whom he criticizes as one of the earliest sources of the Latin heresy, than to Irenaeus, whom he admires.)

A third consequence is the marginalization of Mary, who is not allowed to be what Irenaeus claimed she was, the new Eve. She cannot be that, because in the Barthian scheme it is her role to transmit to Jesus the fallenness of the old Eve. That the unassumed is the unhealed is not denied by the Catholic Church, but affirmed. It is denied, however, that Mary transmits fallenness to Jesus in the sense of original sin or the bondage of actual sin. What she passes on, what he takes up from her in partaking of her humanity, is her situation in “the land of sepulture,” her place under the Law, her place too under the shadow of Satan, beset by temptation, and her mortality. It was precisely to show solidarity with all those in this situation that the Son became incarnate so late in time, says Irenaeus—only at the end of history, rather than at the beginning, “being made like us in all things, sin excepted.”

Otherwise put: In the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Church does not say that Christ worked out our redemption without himself wrestling with our situation or condition. It says rather that what he accomplished in that respect he passed backwards to his mother through the Holy Spirit, so that she, like Eve, might be in a position to offer free consent to the divine will, and by his help and merits, unlike Eve, actually do so. As Torrance himself says in The Mediation of Christ , “Mary was not treated like an impersonal instrument in the hands of God but graciously blessed, sanctified and upheld in the freedom and integrity of her human being within the reciprocal relationship with God to which she belonged in Israel.”

To which we must add: That Mary might be the Mother of God in the very freedom of her Son and without any reservation inherited from Eve, that she might receive freely what God was giving freely, she was blessed ab initio with the fullness of grace. And this addition matters. For, in Mary, the whole question of what it means to participate in Christ is concentrated. In Mary, the possibility appears that the Church itself is graced, even in this world, with a certain fullness of grace. In Mary the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, who enables a true reception of God and of the Son of God that is otherwise impossible, comes to the fore.

Attention to Mary in this last connection is important, because a fourth consequence of the actualist scheme is its tendency to minimize pneumatology. This happens when the work of the Spirit is reduced to its epistemic dimension, which is a natural result of making the whole work of atonement or reconciliation internal to the person of Christ. Where the focus is on Jesus Christ as God-humbling-himself-and-man-being-exalted, rather than on the God-man abasing himself with the Spirit’s help to do the Father’s work and being exalted by the Spirit at the Father’s command, how far does the Spirit even come into view? What is left for the Spirit to do?

The Spirit enables people to confess Christ, yes, and so constitutes the Church as a community of confession. But the miracle that takes place in Mary’s womb, when the Son of God takes to himself our humanity through the mighty act of the Spirit, who overshadows a second time the formless void; the deep bonding of man to man and race to race when the same Spirit hovers over the followers of Jesus in the upper room or in the house of Cornelius; the shaping of the new-covenant community, through its ministers, its sacraments, its dogmas, and its laws, into a royal priesthood; the missions and miracles and sufferings by which the city of God is built; the raising of the dead at the parousia , when dark and stinking tombs are opened to the light of an everlasting Day—all of this stands somewhat awkwardly outside the actualist scheme, with its conflation of person and act. That is because it is the work of both “hands” of God, of two distinct divine persons, not of one only. And because it makes room for Mary and the Church as real agents in the narrative of salvation.

A new generation of Protestant scholars, rediscovering with Torrance’s help the ancient tradition, will need to wrestle with such things. As it does so, unless I miss my guess, it is not “the Latin heresy” that will gradually disappear but rather any further talk of a Latin heresy. For this wrestling, it will not be necessary to abandon Barth’s project altogether; far from it. Nor to step back from Torrance, who is better than Barth on many of these points and who deserves to be read more widely by Catholics and Protestants alike.

For my part, I wish to say in grateful tribute: It was he who began to open me to theology as a discipline, to Barth as its preeminent twentieth-century practitioner, and to critical realism as its appropriate epistemological mode. Like many others, I learned from Torrance how to find in Barth what his many detractors had missed or deliberately overlooked. From Torrance (as from Gunton), I learned to see some things that even Barth had overlooked, and so to think independently of Barth. The twentieth century was a century of great theologians, the likes of which we may not see again for a long while, and Torrance must be numbered among them. 

Douglas Farrow , a member of First Things ’ advisory council, is professor of Christian thought and Kennedy Smith Chair in Catholic Studies at McGill University.

Articles by Douglas Farrow

Loading...