Thomas Forsyth Torrance
“If we ourselves are in Christ we cannot fail to discern His Body in others whom he is pleased to call His own and whose Sacrament He is pleased to honour with His own real Presence and Spirit.”
Thomas Torrance recognized the true nature of the church as existing only in Christ and spent his life seeking the theological renewal of the church. In this process, his life and work has become known as one of the largest theological dynasties Great Britain has ever produced.
Missionary Kid to Pastor
From birth, he was destined for full-time ministry. He was born in Chengdu, China, on August 30, 1913, the second of six children to Rev. Thomas Torrance and Annie Elizabeth Torrance, who were missionaries with China Inland Mission. His parents began his theological training at a young age, and he fondly recalls his parents as his “first and best teachers in theology.” He went on to attend the universities of Edinburgh, Basel, and Oxford studying under theologians such as H. R. Mackintosh, Daniel Lamont, and Karl Barth. Mackintosh instilled in him the importance of theology as the foundation and center of every aspect of the Christian life, causing him to rethink his desire to be a missionary and instead enter into academic theology. Mackintosh’s influence led Torrance to see theology as a way to participate in the Great Commission and thus, mission work, by serving the church.
After serving a year as a professor at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York from 1938 to 1939, he returned to Scotland, accepting a position as the pastor of the parish in Alyth. During these first three years as a pastor, he pointed out that the church has a tendency to conform to human culture and civilization and thus lose its distinctive identity and mission. This resulted in many lectures and articles such as “The Place and Function of the Church in the World” which argues for the recovery of the church’s identity in Christ.
From 1943 to 1945 Torrance took a leave from his parish in Alyth to be a chaplain in the military during World War II. While he was never fighting combatants himself, war and death surrounded him. At one point his platoon came under heavy German fire and only he and one other soldier made it out alive. These experiences and questions from dying soldiers, such as “Is God really like Jesus?” made him realize the importance of the centrality of Jesus in Christian theology. He became convinced that it is this facet of Christian theology that is the driving force behind the recovery of the church’s identity and mission.
After the war ended, he returned to his church in Alyth where he continued working for the theological renewal of the church’s identity and mission. During this period of his pastorship, he founded the Scottish Church Theology Society in 1945 and then the Scottish Journal of Theology in 1948 to aid in that process. In 1946, he rekindled a relationship with Margaret Spear whom he had met at the University of Edinburgh. They were married in October 1946 and had three children: Thomas Spear, Iain Richard, and Alison Meta Elizabeth. The growth of the Torrance family made the stipend from his church in Alyth too small to care for his family. He was offered a position at Beechgrove Church in Aberdeen, and by November 1947 he accepted the position and the Torrance family moved to Aberdeen. As he continued to seek the recovery of the church’s identity, he realized that he did not have the time to research and write as he would have liked while at Beechgrove Church. So Torrance used his sermons as avenues for theology, producing When Christ Comes and Comes Again in 1957, his attempt to “bring the preaching of the Church to the bar of the Word of God.”
Pastor to Professor
T. F. Torrance’s long-term desire was to have an academic career in service of the church. In 1950, this began to be a reality when he accepted the position of chair of church history at the University of Edinburgh and came to full fruition when he became the chair of dogmatics by 1952. He used this position to make significant contributions to the movement to recover church unity that was taking place during this time. While interest in ecumenism emerged from the Edinburgh Missionary Movement in 1910, it gained traction after World War II ended when the World Council of Churches was formed in 1948. Torrance was appointed to represent the Church of Scotland in these conversations, but his main contribution did not lie so much in his participation in these conversations but his research into the foundational theological principles that made these conversations possible.
His work for the World Council of Churches, which met in Amsterdam in 1948, and the Third World Council on Faith and Order, which met in Lund in 1952, resulted in many articles such as “The Atonement and the Oneness of the Church” and “Where Do We Go From Lund.” It also resulted in the publication of works such as Conflict and Agreement in the Church, Vol. I & II. In response to the disunity that was present in the church at the time, he wrote his volume Royal Priesthood, which argued for a biblical understanding of church leadership.
For Torrance, disunity came from misunderstood identity. The church had lost its identity and was therefore “vulnerable to corruption and distortion through an improper immersion in the world—and immersion which could compromise its God-given mission.” He found that the church was placing its identity in the way that it did ministry, in its method for doing ministry. He argued that these “old ways and habits” must be set aside in order to recover the true identity of the church. If the identity of the church remains in its practice and not in its very nature as the body of Christ, then the church will remain in disunity. But if the church can recover its true identity as the body of Christ, then church unity is possible.
While he addressed many issues throughout his time as a professor, his main focus was the church and ministry, always arguing that proper church practice comes from a proper understanding of identity. He argues in Conflict and Agreement in the Church that the “great shame and disorder of the church is that she has collaborated with the disorder of the world and clothed herself with so many of its forms and fashions that so often she is too committed to the world and too compromised with it to be able to deliver the revolutionary Word of the Gospel with conviction and power.” To fix this issue, the church must be “prepared as part of her dying and rising with Christ to mortify the deeds of the body, to lay her worldly form upon the altar of the cross and in shedding of old ways and habits, in the refashioning of her order, to release the Gospel effectively to the world of today.”
During the 1950s and ’60s, his involvement in church unity primarily focused on conversations between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland and different aspects of the World Council of Churches. Thus, he was present at the Faith and Order conference at Lund in 1952, the Faith and Order Commission from 1952 to 1962, and the World Council of Churches in Evanston, Illinois, in 1954. He also served on the Reformed–Roman Catholic Study Commission on the Eucharist in the Netherlands.
Because of his heavy involvement in ecumenism, it is no wonder that he was invited to become the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1976, a one year position. Torrance did not squander this opportunity, but used this position to influence the church toward “serious theological reflection.” Convinced that pastoral ministry not informed by theology will inevitably lead to the church clothing itself in worldly ways, Torrance pushed the Church of Scotland to understand that theology was meant to enable and inform biblical pastoral ministry.
Torrance retired from his position as University of Edinburgh’s chair of dogmatics in 1979, which is arguably when his most important work with the church began. A meeting concerning the Trinity with the ecumenical patriarch and other leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church on behalf of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches led to a series of meetings between 1979 and 1983 in Istanbul, Turkey. By 1986–1990, these meetings had expanded to Geneva, Leuenburg, and Minsk. These meetings resulted in the document “Agreed Statement on the Holy Trinity.” Torrance narrated the dialogue process and sought to popularize this statement in his work Theological Dialogue Between Orthodox and Reformed Churches, vol I & II.
According to theologian Alister McGrath, Torrance’s work in Christian theology and church unity not only “established Edinburgh as one of the most significant centres in the world for the study of Christian theology,” it also earned him the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1978. While retirement usually means the end of a career, for Torrance this was not the case. While he published 320 works during his time at the University of Edinburgh, he added over 260 additional publications after he retired, including two of his most significant: The Trinitarian Faith (1988) and The Christian Doctrine of God (1996). He passed away in Edinburgh in December 2007.
T. F. Torrance understood that Jesus loved the church so much that he died for it and, thus, the church must be fought for. Torrance used his position in the academy to do just that. He fought for the theological renewal of the church so that its witness in the world might not be tarnished, and through that witness, the world would come to know God in Christ.
Daniel J. Cameron is adjunct professor of theology at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. His most recent book is entitled Flesh and Blood: A Dogmatic Sketch Concerning the Fallen Nature View of Christ’s Human Nature (Wipf and Stock).