Was T.F. Torrance a Mere Barthian? Nein!

It is fairly safe to say that those who appreciate Karl Barth also appreciate T.F. Torrance, and vice versa. Although some may prefer either Barth or Torrance for various reasons, I think it would be a rare occurrence to find someone who likes one and yet at the same time dislikes the other. Having said that, however, those who have extensively studied the writings of both know, contrary to the opinions of some, that Torrance was not a blindt-f-torrance-sketch follower of so-called Barthianism. Torrance was no “Barthian” (he actually preferred, if anything, to be called “Athanasian”), nor did Barth later become “Torrancean”, evidenced by the fact that he did not retract, for example, his statements about baptism even after Torrance challenged him on his position.

Andrew Purves helps to dispel the misguided accusation (made by Richard Muller, among others) that Torrance was simply Barth repackaged in a British form. He writes:

Torrance is frequently labeled a “Barthian.” The implication is that he more or less uncritically follows Karl Barth in method and content. However, as Daniel W. Hardy points out, he is attracted to Barth (and to Calvin) because his theology exemplifies a scientific theology. This is an important insight because it establishes the ground of Torrance’s theology in the attempt to think of God in a manner appropriate to, and corresponding to, God, which he finds in Calvin and Barth, but which he develops in his own way. Torrance continues the tradition, which he traces back beyond Barth and Calvin to Athanasius, of seeking to ground theology on its own subject matter, and to think out the doctrine of Jesus Christ in particular in the light of the incarnation understood in terms of the being and act of God.[1]

What Purves articulates here is very helpful, because he uncovers the primary reason for which Torrance gravitated to and admired the work of Barth. It wasn’t so much because Torrance was slavishly committed to Barth as such, but rather because in Barth Torrance found an exemplary model of a ‘repentant’ theology carried out under the intense scrutiny and questioning of the Word of God itself. As in Calvin and Athanasius, Torrance held up Barth as a truly ‘biblical and evangelical theologian’ insofar as Barth endeavoured to strictly conform all dogmatic thinking to the actual way in which God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, despite the many (and there are many!) points of agreement between them, it still remains that Torrance departed from his Swiss teacher in some significant ways. Since those who have not undertaken a comparative study of Barth and Torrance may not penciledbarth2be fully aware of their divergences (or if they are aware, they may not know what those disagreements are), I thought it might be helpful to highlight five areas of disagreement that Paul Molnar identifies in his masterful book Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity:

[Early in] his career Torrance basically agreed with Barth’s critique of natural theology. Later he formulated his own “new” natural theology which he viewed as a bridge between theology and natural science in the sense that both sciences operated in ways that undermined dualistic ways of thinking about reality and tended to reinforce the idea that accurate thinking could only occur when ideas were thought in accordance with the nature of the reality being investigated…Other areas where Torrance eventually disagree with Barth concerned 1) Barth’s view of the sacraments, which Torrance considered to be a reversion to a dualism that Barth had rejected earlier in the Church Dogmatics; 2) Barth’s failure to emphasize sufficiently Christ’s high priestly mediation later in the Church Dogmatics, which for Torrance accounted for difficulties in Barth’s treatment of the ascension…; 3) what he deemed to be an “element of ‘subordinationism’ in [Barth’s] doctrine of the Holy Trinity”…; 4) Torrance also wondered whether Barth’s treatment of creation was as thoroughly trinitarian as it might have been; he was also critical of the fact that Barth limited his treatment of creation to “man in the cosmos” and did not treat the cosmos itself except in his discussions of time and providence. According to Alister McGrath, Torrance regarded Barth’s most serious weakness as his “failure to engage with the natural sciences”, and, for McGrath, this fact “offers a significant criterion of dissimilarity between Torrance and Barth”.[2]

My purpose in this post is not to weigh in either way on these points of disagreement (although, for the record, I would tend to side with Torrance over Barth). I simply wanted to show that Torrance was by no means a mere Barthian clone. If I could simply add a few of my own observations to what Molnar has pointed out, I would say (at the risk of being a bit oversimplistic) that whereas Barth developed his theology largely over against the post-Reformation Protestant orthodox, liberal, and Roman Catholic dogmatics of the 17th-20th centuries, Torrance developed his theology primarily (though of course not exclusively) under the tutelage of the patristic fathers, particularly Irenaeus, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Cyril of Alexandria, as well as in conversation with modern science. In my opinion, Barth’s theology bears a much stronger impress of Western thought, whereas Torrance demonstrated more affinity (besides his obvious connection to Scottish Reformed theology) with the Greek fathers and Eastern Orthodoxy in general. I think that this is why we find in Torrance, for instance, a greater emphasis on the vicarious humanity of Christ, especially in relation to his high priestly ministry in heaven, and on the role of the cosmos in the Creator-creation relationship.

If I could succinctly summarize all of this, I would simply say that it is my suspicion that even had Barth never been Barth, Torrance would still have been, in large measure, Torrance.


[1] Purves, A., 2001. ‘The Christology of Thomas F. Torrance’ in The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T. F. Torrance, ed. E.M. Colyer. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, p.71.

[2] Molnar, P.D., 2009. Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity. Surrey/Burlington: Ashgate, pp.7-8. See Molnar for bibliographic information on citations