2013 marks the centenary of the birth of one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, Thomas F. Torrance, an orthodox, ecumenical, and pastoral theologian. Although he held many academic and ecclesial credentials—including a doctor of theology degree under Karl Barth, several honorary doctorates, co-editor with Geoffrey Bromiley of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, author of dozens of books, Chair of Ecclesiastical History and then of Christian Dogmatics in New College at the University of Edinburgh, co-founder of the Scottish Journal of Theology, and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland—he considered his primary calling to be a minister of the Gospel and an evangelist to theologians. Modern western theology, he believed, has been trapped in an obsolete, dualist mindset that detaches Jesus Christ from God, worship and mission from Christ, and biblical and theological study from fellowship and communion with the living God.
Torrance’s sense of mission, formed by his experience as the child of a missionary family in China, guided him throughout his career. As a chaplain during World War II, he came across a young soldier, scarcely twenty years old, who was mortally wounded. “Padre,” he asked Torrance, “Is God really like Jesus?” Torrance assured him, “He is the only God that there is, the God who has come to us in Jesus, shown his face to us, and poured out his love to us as our Savior.” As he prayed and commended him to the Lord, the young man passed away.
A few years later, one of his parishioners in Aberdeen, a dying, elderly lady asked him the same question: “Dr. Torrance, is God really like Jesus?” That this doubt arose from among believers within the Church itself troubled Torrance deeply. He wondered how the Church distorted its message and created obstacles for its members that kept them from joyous participation in communion with the living God that was theirs in Christ by the Spirit.
The question of the dying soldier and woman suggested to Torrance that people believed there was a God “behind the back” of Jesus. But for Torrance, God has already established communion with men in Christ, and the Church is the community of witness to God’s reconciling activity in this creaturely world of space and time. The Church proclaims that through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit we have access to God the Father. This message, for Torrance, is the heart of the Gospel, the essence of the Church, and the sole foundation for all theological activity.
Torrance believed that modern theology remained trapped within dualist habits of thought that have plagued the mind of the Church since ancient times, damaging and disrupting its apprehension of the reality of our union with Christ. Dualism both ancient and modern resulted in an unfortunate conception of the universe as a closed, mechanistic continuum of cause and effect in which we cannot know things in themselves, but only as they appear to us.
Within this so-called “scientific” outlook, the Incarnation became unthinkable, and theology as a rigorous intellectual discipline became impossible. Theological statements could only have meaning by way of reference to other statements, or to the human subject making them, but never in any real, substantial way to God in his own inherent reality. The modern theological mind, informed by this dualistic outlook, so often merely recapitulated ancient Arian heresies. John Hick’s pluralistic theology, for example, substitutes a modern emphasis on the homo-agape of the world’s many faiths in place of the Nicene homoousion, the linchpin of the Christian Gospel and of a realist or scientific theology.
For Torrance, the ancient Nicene faith of the Church, and now the modern physical sciences, have both definitively illustrated the obsolescence of this outlook. The Great Ecumenical Councils confessed the oneness of being and agency of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit with God the Father. As the Eternal Son and Creator Word of the Father, Jesus Christ is the One by, through, and for whom the entire created order—space and time, structure and matter, form and being—came into being ex nihilo, as well as the One in whom it is ultimately sustained and redeemed. Because Jesus is homoousios with the Father and the Spirit, he is the very revelation of God, and as the risen, ascended, and advent Lord, he continues to heal the humanity he assumed so that we may live in union with the triune God. Christ is also homoousios with us, healing our minds and enabling us to think from a center in God rather than in ourselves. We can again do theology as a truly scientific enterprise, one faithful to its own true object: God known in Christ by the Spirit within the context of the created order of space and time.
Torrance acknowledged a mutual benefit of dialogue between theological and natural sciences about scientific methodology. The fourth and fifth century Greek Fathers had forged an entirely new conception of the cosmos as a contingent, dynamic order possessing its own inherent intelligibility and freedom. This concept of contingency is a foundational principle for modern empirical science, and has become even more central to the physical sciences since James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein liberated them from mechanist, determinist, and observationist beliefs and practices. It is to the Christian notion of the contingent freedom and intelligibility of the universe that modern science owes its own theory-laden experimentation.
Furthermore, in the relatively new field of cosmology, Torrance believed science has relentlessly pressed its inquiries to the limits of being, and is now grappling with a concept of the universe as a whole, especially concerning its initial conditions and ultimate future. Though confronted by an absolute limit to its own methods of inquiry, it cannot help but seek after the sufficient reason for this state of affairs. At this crucial point, however, natural science is faced with the temptation to treat the universe as a self-sustaining and self-explaining necessary system, thereby inadvertently cutting itself off from the basic belief of contingency that underpins genuine empirical science. In this respect, natural science needs theology to help keep it open toward the kind of free and open universe that is its proper object.
And yet, because Christian theology holds that God interacts with humanity within the physical reality and order of the cosmos, Christian theologians can benefit heuristically from the realist orientation of natural science helping to keep their feet firmly planted within the objectivities and intelligibilities of the created order. So for Torrance, both theological and natural sciences operate within the context of the same created, contingent order.
When I first heard Torrance lecture at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1981, he was also lecturing at Caltech, and he claimed that the scientists understood his realistic theology better than the theologians! His lectures at Fuller (published as Reality and Evangelical Theology) analyzed how entire biblical and theological departments (including those of an evangelical seminary, as he duly noted) operated with outmoded and unscientific patterns of thought. A properly evangelical theology commits itself to understanding God’s self-disclosure in space and time on an objective, intelligible, and unitary basis. Hermeneutics, for example, should not simply dissect the roots and relations of words to one another, since the words and statements of Scripture refer beyond themselves to divine truths and realities. Doctrinal formulations, likewise, best serve as a transparent medium pointing beyond human speech and rationality to the very reality of God himself and his mission in the world, and so our words and acts participate through the Spirit in God’s ongoing self-revealing and reconciling activity.
The ramifications and consequences of a realist Christian theology are many, not least of which were Torrance’s labors for overcoming divisions within the Church. A properly ecumenical theology, Torrance believed, would help the church recover a prayerful and repentant cast of mind that could and should discern the ministering presence of Christ who is the only source and reality of its own unity. Its only hope for unity therefore must be discovered in him, unveiled to the Church, rather than pieced together and manufactured through ecumenical slogans and well-meaning intentions. Acting on this belief, Torrance proposed in 1977 to the Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios of Constantinople that the Reformed and Orthodox Churches enter into an international dialogue. This process culminated on March 13, 1991, when the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Orthodox Church issued a ground-breaking joint statement of agreement concerning the Trinity. Based on the twin doctrines of the homoousion (the identity of Being of the Three Persons) and perichoresis (mutual co-inherence of the three Persons), each Person was recognized as fully God in a formulation that Torrance believed heralded an historic advance beyond the filioque controversy that has divided East and West for a millennium.
In recognition of his ecumenical work with the Eastern Orthodox Church based on his common love and study of the Alexandrian Fathers Saints Athanasius and Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, Nicholas VI, took the highly unusual step of bestowing upon Torrance, an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland, the title of honorary protopresbyter, while Torrance was in Addis Ababa during his trip to Ethiopia as a guest of the Orthodox Church in 1973. Methodios Fouyas, Archbishop of Axum (Ethiopia) and a dear friend, gave Torrance a pectoral cross to mark this occasion. When Archbishop Athenagoras Kokkinakis of Thyateira and Great Britain asked Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios of Constantinople whether the Patriarch of Alexandria’s bestowal of the honor upon a non-Orthodox churchman was proper, the Ecumenical Patriarch supported this act of ecclesiastical economy as a sign of things to come. Torrance was recognized as a person who worked with passion for the theological reintegration of Western and Eastern traditions on a classical patristic foundation.
Given Torrance’s unusual status as a creative and positive theologian who engaged in dialogue with theologians and scientists alike, especially in articulating deep and profound connections between the ancient Fathers and modern physicists, he deserves a serious reading by thoughtful Christians across the ecumenical spectrum. Torrance was a substantial and creative theologian in his own right, who made his own unique and wide-ranging contributions to articulate a Trinitarian–incarnational theology in the modern ecumenical world. May the centennial year of this one Scottish churchman, evangelist, ecumenist, and theologian be a call to the unity and renewal of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
Todd Speidell is editor of Participatio: The Journal of the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship.