But Will It Preach?: T.F. Torrance, H.R. Mackintosh, and the Intrinsic Connection between Theology and Mission (Reformission Monday)

It comes as no surprise to readers of Reformissio that I have a great deal of admiration and respect for Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance. Among the many reasons for which I esteem him so highly, perhaps the greatest is the fact that his theological work was a means that served the greater end of his missionary vocation. Although primarily remembered and studied as an academic theologian, Torrance himself attested many times to the fact that he was fundamentally driven by an torrance-as-a-childevangelistic zeal to proclaim the gospel to the world. Indeed, as Torrance recollected, the birth of this zeal could almost be said to have coincided with his own birth to missionary parents in China:

Through my missionary parents I was imbued from my earliest days with a vivid belief in God…. Moreover, as long as I can recall my religious outlook was essentially biblical and evangelical, and indeed evangelistic…. I was deeply conscious of the task to which my parents had been called by God to preach the Gospel to heathen people and win them for Christ. This orientation to mission was built into the fabric of my mind, and has never faded – by its essential nature Christian theology has always had for me an evangelistic thrust.[1]

Elsewhere, Torrance succinctly described the primary aim and driving passion of his life in this way:

I look upon my life as dedicated to the spreading of the gospel, evangelizing in different areas of human life and thought, and I think that is undoubtedly derived from my parents and from my upbringing.[2]

What is so fascinating to me about this is that among the growing number of articles, studies, and monographs being written about Torrance today, very few have been dedicated to this area of his life and thought. Much work has been done in relation to his epistemology, his theory of hermeneutics, his dialogue with the natural sciences, his theological methodology, his retrieval of patristics, and his constructive dogmatics, particularly in the areas of trinitarian theology, Christology, and soteriology. While all of these certainly represent critical elements in Torrance’s thought, it seems to me that, in light of his own personal testimony, they are merely parts of a much bigger whole, the various branches that grew from the vine of his underlying sense of a missionary vocation. Thus, whether he was lecturing in dogmatics, or dialoguing with scientists, or surveying the course of historical theology and philosophy, his ultimate goal was to proclaim the gospel in fulfillment of the great commission to make disciples of all nations.

Alister McGrath is one scholar who has helped to bring this aspect of Torrance’s life and work to greater light. In his intellectual biography of Torrance, McGrath not only traces the development of Torrance’s sense of a missionary vocation back to his upbringing but also to the time he spent under the teaching of Hugh Ross Mackintosh at New College in Edinburgh, Scotland. As McGrath observes, Mackintosh was to prove a decisive influence in the direction that Torrance’s calling would ultimately take as a missionary theologian/theological missionary (i.e. reformissionary!):

Mackintosh envisaged a close link between theology and mission, arguing that a theology which failed to sustain and encourage a missionary or evangelistic attitude was not a theology worthy of the name. He often posed a simple question as a litmus test to some theological account of a doctrine: ‘How would that be received and understood on the mission field?’ … Mackintosh’s clear concern to relate theology and mission would have a powerful impact upon Torrance and opened the way to a new understanding of his future as a missionary.[3]

For the young Torrance, Mackintosh had a profound effect on the deep integration of theology and mission that would indelibly mark the rest of Torrance’s career. While often held apart in isolation from each other – theology confined to the domain of the l1430944844academy and mission confined to the domain of the church/missionary – Mackintosh affirmed and crystallized Torrance’s instincts regarding the intrinsic and necessary correlation between the two. For Mackintosh, a theology that does not result in mission is no theology at all. The litmus test of all theology was not only “Is it biblical?” but “Will it preach on the mission field?” On Mackintosh’s influence Torrance wrote further:

In New College I was more than ever drawn to [Mackintosh’s] deeply evangelical and missionary outlook in theology, and to his presentation of Christ and the gospel of salvation through the cross in ways that struck home so simply and directly to the conscience of sinners. Here was a theology that matched and promised to deepen that in which I had been brought up by my missionary parents. I was far from being disappointed. To study with H. R. Mackintosh was a spiritual and theological benediction, for he was above all a man of God, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. His exposition of biblical and evangelical truth in the classical tradition of the great patristic theologians and of the Reformers was as lucid as it was profound, but it was always acutely relevant, for the central thrust of the Christian message was brought to bear trenchantly and illuminatingly upon the great movements of thought that agitated the modern world. We were made to see everything in the light of the revelation of God’s infinite love and grace in Jesus Christ and of the world mission of the gospel.[4]

Here we see one of the reasons why Torrance understood all of his work, even the most scholarly and scientific, as serving his primary calling as a missionary of the gospel. As Mackintosh instilled in the young Torrance, the gospel that itself proclaimed the mission of God to the world in Jesus Christ could not be compartmentalized and safely quarantined within certain sections of the church’s faith and practice, as though “mission” was an occupation reserved for a very limited number of Christians. Neither could the gospel be sealed up within the ambiguous realm of “religion”, as though its relevance pertained only to the church and its affairs, having no bearing on science, philosophy, politics, religion, culture, society, and so on. As the revelation of the divine intention to transform all the kingdoms of the earth into the kingdom of God and of his Christ, Torrance believed that the mission of proclaiming that revelation in every earthly sphere was the indispensable and central task of every single Christian and of the church as a whole. In Christ God has set all of reality on an entirely new basis, and the message of that new reality – the new creation – was to be proclaimed far and wide, even to the uttermost parts of the earth.

This indissoluble bond between theology and mission was not one that Mackintosh merely taught as some sort of theoretical idea but was something that he himself modeled as a professor of theology. Torrance recalls that

The lectures he gave us were often a form of what St. Paul called logike latreia, “rational worship”. And they were always evangelical and redemptive in their import. Many a would-be theological student was converted in his classes, although some, as I well remember, used to get very angry for they found themselves questioned down to the bottom of their being. Mackintosh was immensely modest and never arrogant, but he left no room for compromise in the way his lectures drew us out under the searching light of the holy love of God incarnate in Christ. Mackintosh himself was so consumed with the moral passion of the Father revealed in the death of Jesus on the cross, that in his lecture-room we often felt we were in a sanctuary where the holiness and nearness of God were indistinguishable.[5]

Considering a potential chair of theology of his own, Torrance would later refuse to comply with the request to conduct his dogmatic lectures in a “dispassionate” way, and here we can see why. As he had learned from Mackintosh, theology that was truly theology could never be dispassionate, for it dealt with “the holy love of God incarnate in Christ”, proclaiming the name above all names that every tongue will one day confess and before which every knee will one day bow. If theology is the knowledge of God in Christ, then how could it ultimately aim to do anything less than summon people to anticipate that day by falling down in the present in holy reverence and adoration before the throne of God? For Mackintosh, the lecture hall was not a dry, dispassionate t-f-torrance-1946place; it was, as Torrance remembered, a “sanctuary” in which the students were drawn into a personal encounter with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. This profound interweaving of theology and mission – the theology of mission and the mission of theology – would be the lodestar guiding the Torrance throughout the rest of his life.

It is for this reason that McGrath appopriately closes out his biography of Torrance by writing the following:

Perhaps this is a fitting note on which to end this account of the theological achievement of Thomas F. Torrance. His massive contributions to the discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity, to the developments of the Reformed heritage, and to the dialogue between Christian theology and the natural sciences ensure that he will be a voice to be reckoned with in the next century. Yet perhaps Torrance himself might prefer to be remembered as one who both knew and proclaimed the faithfulness of God in the midst of the uncertainties and anxieties of this world…[6]

To conclude, I would simply like to say that I write this not to exalt Torrance or Mackintosh, but to set them before us as compelling examples of how each and every Christian is called to be a theologian and a missionary, for the gospel calls us all to plumb the depths of the knowledge of God in Christ and to spread that knowledge to the uttermost reaches of the context to which he has called us. Our voice may not have the reach or influence that Torrance or Mackintosh had, but that should not matter. What matters is that we remain faithful to the task that God has laid on each one of us.


[1] Quoted in Alister E. McGrath, TF Torrance: An Intellectual Biography. (London/New York: T&T Clark, 1999), p.13.

[2] Hesselink, I.J., 1984. ‘A Pilgrimage in the School of Christ: An Interview with T.F. Torrance’ in Reformed Review 38(1), p.49.

[3] Alister E. McGrath, TF Torrance: An Intellectual Biography. (London/New York: T&T Clark, 1999), pp.29-31.

[4] T.F. Torrance, “Hugh Ross Mackintosh: Theologian of the Cross” in H.R. Mackintosh, The Person of Jesus Christ. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 200), pp.71-2.

[5] Ibid., p.75.

[6] Alister E. McGrath, TF Torrance: An Intellectual Biography. (London/New York: T&T Clark, 1999), pp.240-1.


4 thoughts on “But Will It Preach?: T.F. Torrance, H.R. Mackintosh, and the Intrinsic Connection between Theology and Mission (Reformission Monday)

  1. Steve 16 February 2017 / 02:08

    This was a great post, both encouraging and convicting. I believe it contains a message the academic community needs to hear. I do have a pause any time I read or hear something that says that “all Christians” should do something, but your last sentence tempers such thoughts.

    BTW, I was impressed with the quotes from HRM’s book and looked it up. That small book is available but it seems to be taken from HRM’s large book (586 pages) titled The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (long out of print). I found it here: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31175014137726;view=1up;seq=9. The small book has the Torrance stuff, so probably worth the price, the large book valuable on its own. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Kleis 16 February 2017 / 16:04

      Thanks for the feedback and encouragement Steve! It is indeed an important message for the academic community. As for Mackintosh, I have read the little book to which you referred, and I have since purchased a used copy of the longer version (then downloaded a PDF as I waited for it to arrive!), and have started into that one as well. Good stuff! And yes, the smaller book as a good forward but an even better concluding essay by TFT. Definitely worth the price.


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