The Reformed Theology of T.F. Torrance

Last week, Bobby Grow offered some thoughts on his blog The Evangelical Calvinist about his experiences in the infamous “Reformed Pub” discussion group on Facebook after he had been permanently expelled. I can empathize, not because I myself have been banned from the Pub (though I have been warned!), but because back when I was advocating specifically for Evangelical Calvinism, I too had been summarily dismissed from a number of Reformed/Calvinist groups for reasons similar to those recounted by Bobby. One of those reasons is that T.F. Torrance (like Karl Barth) is often considered in such circles as decidedly not Reformed, if not downright heretical. This saddens me, not only because it betrays a profound ignorance of the rich diversity present within the Reformed tradition (something capably demonstrated by Bobby on his blog), but also because it fails to grasp the deep connection that Torrance manifested throughout his life with his Reformed, and particularly Scottish Reformed, heritage. This, in turn, robs many Reformed Christians of the incalculable benefit (both critical and constructive) that Torrance’s theology brings to their shared tradition.

In light of this, I would like to quote (at length) from an article written by Robert J. Palma for the Reformed Review entitled “Thomas F. Torrance’s Reformed Theology”. As can be expected from an article with a title such as this, Palma begins by locating Torrance squarely within the distinguishable confines of the historic Reformed faith:

On the Christian theological landscape, Torrance’s theology is clearly situated within the Reformed tradition, very much bearing the imprint of the sixteenth century Reformation theology which gave birth to this tradition. Variations within the latter do, of course, demand a more exact fixing of his position. Ecclesiastically speaking, Torrance is a Reformed theologian in that he is a minister in the Kirk of Scotland, which he has also served as Moderator of the General Assembly (1976-77). However, torrance_2-1he would add that such does not insure that one is indeed a Reformed theologian, for “there is scarcely a Church that claims to be ecclesia reformata that can truthfully claim to be semper reformanda.”

Speaking historically and in terms of pedigree, and therefore more definitively, Torrance’s theology is to be called Reformed by virtue of its great indebtedness to John Calvin, to a lesser but significant extent to the Scottish Reformers, John Knox, John Craig, and Robert Bruce, and to the Swiss Reformed theologian, Karl Barth, called by Torrance “the one theological giant of the modern era.” But lest it be thought that he draws only upon Reformed theologians, it should be noted that he also makes considerable appeal to other major figures such as the Greek fathers, St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Athanasius the Great, his “favourite theologian,” and also the great mediaeval theologians, St. Anselm, with whom “scientific theology in the modern sense began,” and John Duns Scotus.

Speaking more substantively, and as a consequence of the above indebtedness, Torrance’s theology is distinctly Reformed in terms of the great weight he gives to classical Reformed doctrines. These doctrines include the primacy of God’s grace and the Covenant of Grace, election, justification by Christ atones and the supremacy of the Word of God. Although major components of the Reformed nature of Torrance’s theology have already been noted, to stop here would be to leave out what for Torrance is the sine qua non of a theology that is genuinely Reformed.

It is in terms of theological method that Torrance is so emphatically Reformed. Methodologically speaking, Torrance would have us above all attend to his striving to form and re-form theological formulations and conceptions out of obedience to the triune God, “the basic grammar of theology,” and to the “ruthless questioning of the Word of God.” He states that the “Reformers gave primacy to the Word, to hearing, and to the obedient response of the mind to God speaking personally through the Scriptures.” In keeping with the Reformers’ posture, “a true Reformed Church is subject only to the Word and is therefore the lord over its tradition because the Word is lord over its tradition.” The Reformed theologizing at which Professor Torrance has worked for many years was expressed in the 1981 Payton Lectures, given at Fuller Theological Seminary, as a “fluid dogmatics,” which he describes as follows:

Rather it is the kind of theology that develops under the compelling claims of the Word and Truth of God’s self-revelation and their demand for unceasing renewal and reform so that it may be a theology that serves the Word and Truth of God beyond itself with increasing fidelity and appropriateness.

What a Reformed method really and finally calls for then is that Reformation “passion for the truth from the side of the object which inculcated a repentant readiness to rethink all preconceptions and presuppositions, to put all traditional ideas to the test face to face with the object, and therefore a readiness to submit to radical testing and clarification.” Torrance states that “Reformed theology adopted as its systematic principle consistent obedience to Jesus Christ.” This is the primary sense in which Torrance would have his theology taken as a theology reformed.[1]

As Palma makes clear, Torrance evidenced a strong fidelity to the historic convictions of the Reformed tradition. Even when he seemed to push the boundaries of that tradition, he always did so in a way that embodied the central commitments that those boundaries were originally intended to safeguard. To be sure, he was not afraid to criticize aspects of confessional Reformed theology (especially when it came to the Westminster Confession), but his purpose in doing so was always to push further and deeper into the very essence of what made Reformed theology truly reformed. That is to say, whenever Torrance critiqued Reformed theology, it was in the name and for the good of Reformed theology. If the heart of the Reformed tradition is an unswerving commitment to the supreme authority of the Word of God, then, as Palma points out, Reformed theology can never harden itself into an immutable form without surrendering the very thing that makes it what it is – always reforming according to the Word of God. In this sense, Torrance was a Reformed theologian of Reformed theologians.

However, ultimately what matters is not whether Torrance was Reformed, but whether he was faithful to the Word of God. In the last day, we will not be required to give an account of our faithfulness to Reformed theology but of our faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, this was Torrance’s own primary objective, and it should be ours as well, even if it means critiquing and reconstructing aspects of the historic tradition to which we belong.

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[1] Robert J. Palma, “Thomas F. Torrance’s Reformed Theology” in Reformed Review, 38(1), 1984, pp.1-2. See Palma’s article for bibliographic information on the works of Torrance that he cites.

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