Review: ‘T.F. Torrance in Plain English’, by Stephen Morrison

In T.F. Torrance in Plain EnglishStephen D. Morrison offers an introduction to Thomas Torrance and thorough explorations into the main features of his theology. Morrison introduces Torrance, and structures the book in two parts around his epistemological foundations and his theological contributions.

Torrance was a Scottish theologian and pastor, a student of Karl Barth and professor of dogmatics in Edinburgh. Torrance’s theology was driven by the question, from a dying soldier and later from a dying parishioner, “Is God really like Jesus?” Torrance reported,

“That incident left an indelible impression on me. I kept wondering afterwards what modern theology and the Churches had done to drive some kind of wedge between God and Jesus… There is not hidden God, no Deus Absconditus, no God behind the back of the Lord Jesus, but only the one Lord God who became incarnate in him.” (quoted by Morrison, p. 14.)

Torrance’s Epistemology

Morrison spends the first three chapters discussing Torrance’s approach to science, theology, and scientific theology. Torrance viewed science as an approach to knowledge that is “clear and precise, not impersonal or abstract,” according to Morrison (p. 15). Torrance pursues a unified epistemology, a scientific approach to knowing in which natural science and theology are not seen to be in contrast, but rather both areas for exploring God’s created order, whether that of the world around us or God’s self-revelation. Science, for Torrance, is “a technical term concerning the way we acquire knowledge.” (p. 17) This scientific approach to theology is not an abandonment of revelation, but thinking clearly about how creatures are to receive revelation. Natural science and theological science are

Natural science and theological science both pursue objective reality, but they are fundamentally different in their approach to that reality. Natural science pursues, searches out, discovers truth about the world; theological science receives, is confronted by Truth. As Morrison says, “Theological science is therefore impossible if God has not first spoken to us. Nature, on the contrary, is mute and cannot speak for itself. Natural science discovers truth; theological science is encountered by the Truth.” (p. 19)

Theology is not an abstract, impersonal pursuit, but rather a personal encounter with the Creator that must lead to change on the part of the creature. This change of the creature conforming his thinking to the revelation of God Morrison terms epistemological repentance (p. 43). Chapter 2 discusses Torrance’s kata physin theme in his theology, that is, thinking about God according to His nature (and the nature of reality). In it, Morrison expounds well Torrance’s emphasis on thinking God’s thoughts after Him. God has revealed Himself in the person of His Son, and our task now is to understand God is light of His self-revelation. According to Torrance, this involves the recognition that true theology is to be thought out of a center in God, not ourselves.

Morrison wraps up the first part of the book discussing Torrance’s reformulation of natural theology. Torrance followed his teacher, Karl Barth, in rejecting natural theology as a stand-alone system for knowledge of God. He seeks to understand natural theology, though, as an unavoidable reality that can be understood in terms of revealed theology. For Torrance, natural theology has no place as an independent pursuit, but it is a fruitful category with revelation and grace as its foundation.

Evangelical Interests

Having covered Torrance’s epistemological foundations, Morrison moves on to Torrance’s positive theological pursuits. First is Torrance’s emphasis on the homoousion, the unity of being and act in the Father and Son. Torrance sees this unity of Father and Son as the foundation of the truth of the Gospel. If the Father and Son are not unbreakably united, then the incarnation of the Son is not truly a revelation of God, for there must still be something to God behind what we see in Jesus. According to Torrance, “Thee homoousion asserts that God is eternally in himself
what he is in Jesus Christ, and, therefore, that there is no dark unknown God behind the back of Jesus Christ, but only he who is made known to us in Jesus Christ.” (The Trinitarian Faith, quoted in Morrison, p. 80) Morrison highlights two important aspects of the homoousion: first, apart from the unity of the being and acts of Father and Son, we have no sure confidence that we truly know God; and second, if the Father and Son are one in being and act, then ” it was truly God who acted for us and with us in Jesus Christ.” (p. 85-86)

In view of the homoousion doctrine, Torrance’s Christology is elevated to center-stage, for it is in Christ that God is acting to reveal Himself, to redeem fallen humanity. Jesus is the God-man, both God for man, and man standing before God. His office of Mediator connects God and man “in such a way that in his incarnate Person he embraces both sides of the mediating relationship. He is God of the nature of God, and man of the nature of man, in one and the same Person.” (The Mediation of Christ, quoted in Morrison, p. 136) His humanity is thus a vicarious humanity, the true and faithful response of man to God in our place and for our sake. Morrison demonstrates how Torrance’s theology keep the person and work of Christ united as God’s provision for a faithful covenant response.

There are several areas of Torrance’s theology that seem to offer particularly fruitful ways forward for the church. I especially found the section on Torrance’s reconciliation of Barth and Calvin’s views on the sacraments intriguing and fruitful. His doctrines of atonement and union with Christ as well seems to offer bridges toward a catholic theology of Christ’s work. Morrison expounds well Torrance’s significant contributions in these areas.

Torrance

Conclusion

Stephen Morrison describes himself as an “amateur”, but his work shows a thorough and in-depth knowledge of Torrance’s theology and scholarship. He  has given us a wonderful introduction to a prolific and fruitful theologian. Morrison’s book leaves one somewhat unsatisfied, however, but that sense of longing for more is the very aim, I suppose, of this book: the moment one finishes T.F. Torrance in Plain English, one wants to next read as much T.F. Torrance as one can.

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