Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Thomas Torrance (1913-2007)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

Thomas Forsyth Torrance was one of the greatest twentieth-century Protestant theologians in the English-speaking world. Born in 1913 to missionary parents in Chengtu, Szechuan, China, he has kept his passion for world evangelism and Biblical preaching throughout his life. A committed churchman, he serves faithfully as an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland. From 1976-1977 he served as the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. So Torrance has provided strong leadership to his national Church as well as led a multitude of young theologians in their study of theology as Professor of Christian Dogmatics from 1952 to 1979 at New College, Edinburgh.

Having studied Classics as an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, Torrance always brings a depth of linguistic and literary savvy to his Reformed biblical and theological exegesis. Echoes of John Calvin and Karl Barth are heard frequently in Torrance's theological discourse. Writing a doctorate in 1946 under the supervision of Karl Barth (1886-1968) at the University of Basel left an indelible impression on his theological method and style. Torrance went on to edit and translate the English version of Karl Barth's magnum opus, Church Dogmatics, with G. W. Bromiley (Barth 1956-1976). The Greek patristic tradition is another stream in Torrance's thought. The desire to preserve the apostolic deposit of faith is central to all of his theology. While studying at Basel, Torrance was intrigued by the debate on Grace between Barth and Brunner, inspiring him to write his dissertation on "Grace in the Apostolic Fathers" (Torrance 1948).

From this work through the rest of his books, Torrance always shows affection for the Fathers of the Church, often quoting them more freely than he does modern authors. Karl Barth called twentieth century Protestants back to the Fathers; and Torrance, an accomplished Patristic scholar, has been one theologian who has taken the charge seriously. Through his reading of Fathers like Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzus, and Hilary of Poitiers, Torrance observes and emphasizes the classical Trinitarian form of the Christian faith.

In Torrance's thought, the Trinity is the foundational doctrine for Christian theology and worship. He calls the Trinity "the innermost heart of the Christian faith, the central dogma of classical theology, [and] the fundamental grammar of our knowledge of God" (Torrance 1994, 1). Karl Rahner and Karl Barth resurrected this central, classical doctrine in early twentieth century Catholic and Protestant theology. Working out of the Reformed Protestant tradition, Torrance builds on Barth's foundational work and goes further in his interaction with and explication of the Patristic writings on the Trinity.

Thomas Torrance is not only a focused Patristic scholar, but a prolific theological writer on many topics. Second to theology, science is his great intellectual interest. In the past three decades Torrance has written over ten books on the interrelations between science and theology. He has been one of the pioneers in the new and burgeoning discipline of Science and Religion; and in 1978 the Duke of Edinburgh awarded him the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, given to "those who through original and pioneering ways advanced the knowledge and love of God." Yet, throughout Torrance's more scientific writings, theological passion remains his primary driving force. Two of Torrance's early books on the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ illustrate how important a Christological focus is in Christian theology (Torrance 1969, 76). Barth's Christocentric focus is incorporated and expanded by Torrance.

The incarnation is the entry into Christology, the doctrine of Christ. Christology is, in turn, the entry into the Trinity, the complete doctrine of God-"complete" in the sense that all three persons of the Trinity are understood together as one God. Writings on the Trinity span Torrance's career, with a sharper focus on this topic in recent years (1988-1999). Torrance's early Trinitarian writings were for his Church in Scotland, but soon he would write for a larger international audience.

Torrance is an ecumenical theologian. "Towards an Ecumenical Consensus on the Trinity," a critical article published in the mid 1970s, demonstrates Torrance's gracious ecumenical sensibilities when discussing Christian doctrine (Torrance 1975). His ecumenical concern can also be seen in his exercising of Church office. While Torrance was the moderator of the Church of Scotland he visited Orthodox Churches at three of the ancient Patriarchal Sees: Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople. This ecumenical sensibility enables Torrance to gain new insight through active dialogue with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians.

This ecumenism continued in the 1980s as Torrance initiated a theological dialogue between the Reformed and Orthodox Churches. Several meetings were held between clergy and scholars from both Christian traditions between 1985 and 1993. As a result, a statement of theological agreement was produced between the Reformed and Orthodox church. This statement and several of the papers written for this dialogue were published in a two volume set (Torrance 1985-1993).

In 1981 Torrance delivered the B.B. Warfield lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary on the theology of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which was published as The Trinitarian Faith (1988). The early 1990s have seen two collections of his essays through the years on the topics of the Trinity and patristic hermeneutics. Finally, 1996 witnessed the publishing of The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons.

2. Works (Selected List)

The Royal Priesthood (1955, 1999); Karl Barth: an Introduction to his Early Theology, 1910-1931 (1962); Theology in Reconstruction (1965); Space, Time and Incarnation (1969); Theological Science (1969); God and Rationality (1971); Theology and Reconciliation: Essays Towards Evangelical and Catholic Unity in East and West (1975); Space, Time and Resurrection (1976); Christian Theology and Scientific Culture (1980); The Ground and Grammar of Theology (1981); Reality and Evangelical Theology (1982); Transformation & Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge (1984); Reality and Scientific Theology (1986); The Hermeneutics of John Calvin (1988); The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (1988); Trinitarian Perspectives: Toward Doctrinal Agreement (1994); Divine Meaning (1995); The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (1996).

3. Themes

Reformed Theologian

Torrance writes theology from the classical Reformed Protestant tradition. Heavily indebted to the magisterial reformer John Calvin, Torrance expounds the central tenets of Reformed theology (e.g., sola gratia, sola Christo) with a Barthian cast. Many concepts employed by Calvin are particularly helpful in Torrance's Trinitarian theology. Torrance borrows Calvin's concept of in solidum, which like perichoresis synthesizes the three persons of the Trinity as three persons existing in one indivisible being of God. However, he does not approve of the way that Calvin was rigidly systematized by the seventeenth century Protestant scholastics. One tendency that he especially abhors is the dualism implied in Western scholasticism by dividing the doctrine of one God (de Deo uno) from the doctrine of the Trinity (de Deo trino).

Torrance prefers Karl Barth's more circular, holistic presentation of the Trinity in which the Christian God is revealed only in a threefold pattern. Barth writes, "just as in revelation, according to the Biblical witness, the one God may be known only in the Three and the Three only as the one God, so none of the Three may be known without the other Two but each of the Three only with the other Two" (Barth CD I/1 370). Unlike Schleiermacher who tacked on the doctrine of the Trinity as an addendum to his systematic theology, Barth began his Church Dogmatics with the doctrine of the Trinity in order that "its content be decisive and controlling for the whole of dogmatics (Barth CD I/1: 303)."

Barth's doctrine of God has been one of the most influential on Torrance's own exposition of the Christian doctrine of God. Torrance believes as does Barth that nothing is known of God but that which comes by his active self-disclosure. The Barthian claim that what God is in his revelation, he is antecedently and eternally in Himself has had a profound effect on Torrance's theology. If God's being is disclosed as Trinitarian in history, we can infer that it is also Trinitarian in eternity.

It is because God is knowable in and to Himself in the life of the Trinity that He can be known to us. Through the concept of the identity of the being and acts of God, Barth shows how the Triune revelation of God in the redemptive economy is the way God is in the immanent Trinity. As the Father, Son and Holy Spirit reveal themselves within the economy of salvation, so they exist in the ontological Trinity. In Torrance's words:

It is precisely the ontological Trinity that God has made known to us in his self-giving and self revealing as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in salvation history, and it is on the ontological Trinity that the evangelical nature of the economic Trinity entirely depends (Torrance 1996, 109).

God in his self-revelation is the same as his self-giving in salvation. God's being in relation to the human creature is no different from God's being in relation to Himself. Therefore, what we know of God revealed through His acts in redemptive history is God as He fully is in Himself.

The directness of this revelational objectivism takes on a certain poignancy when theology is placed in its proper context of Trinitarian worship. Today many theologians claim that theology has its basis in worship. This conception of theology as a form of pious worship is a basic Patristic understanding which was recovered in the Reformation and continues through Torrance. Although Torrance's theology is rigorous, high-level thinking, it is always heartfelt and worshipful. Torrance's description of his mother's worshipful piety and theological intuition is one of the most endearing, recurring images within his work, and it echoes Augustine's deep love for his mother Monica. For both theologians, their mother embodies a particular reverent godliness from which all good theology should flow. It is from an active personal relationship with the Lord that theology should be written. For Torrance, all theology is doxology. His approach embodies the worshipful devotion expressed in the ancient dictum which Torrance repeats in a dialectical and circular way—lex credendi, lex orandi; lex orandi, lex credendi.

Like Calvin and Barth, Torrance believes that it is only through faith that we can know God, comprehending Him and communing with Him through our theological contemplation and action. In this sense Torrance works out of Augustine's fides quaerens intellectum tradition of theological inquiry. We must attempt to understand and conceive of God in his deepest relations because of God's objective reality. God is knowable and therefore he is to be understood. We have a legitimate role in understanding him. As Barth says "if God becomes the object of man's knowledge, this necessarily means that He becomes the object of his consideration and conception" (Barth CD II/1: 14). Once we come to faith through God's gracious revelation of Himself, then we naturally begin a lifetime of seeking to understand this new object of our faith and affection. In this sense, we can all be called theological scientists.

Theological Scientist

As a theological scientist, Torrance seeks to find and understand the deeper rationality of the Trinity and of all Christian doctrine. To organize a progressive exploration of the Trinity, he develops a three-tiered framework of Trinitarian inquiry. This intricate framework, which some may see as unnecessarily complicated and extraneous, is Torrance's attempt to understand the inner relations of God. Theology for Torrance is always a posteriori (after an experience). First, we confront the active self-presentation of reality that is before us and then we press deeper to understand the order and interconnectedness of deeper structures of reality.

A Scottish Common Sense Realist in the spirit of Thomas Reid, Torrance believes that theological language is a primary discourse. In other words, what we say about God actually refers to God in all His reality. Daniel Hardy says, "His realism suggests that there is an actual correspondence between reality and thought or language if the thinker is conformed to the mode of rationality afforded by reality" (Hardy 1989, 77). This "realistic" approach to doing theology is quite different from Torrance's former teaching colleague at Edinburgh, John MacIntyre, who considers theology to be a secondary discourse. For MacIntyre, theology is deliberating what Augustine, Calvin and Barth said about God. It is a human discussion of a previous human discussion of God.

Torrance is immersed in the theologians of the grand tradition, but believes these theological statements are directly addressed to God, not a secondary discourse about God. Torrance's theology is written as if it was being prayed to God and in front of God. For Torrance the writing of theology is an encounter with a living, speaking God. An encounter implies reciprocity of communication. Theology is a prayer, an active dialogical encounter with God.

Torrance's realism does have qualifications, namely the difference between created and uncreated reality. The Creator/creature distinction has been made clear throughout the history of theology. Karl Barth says God is "distinct from everything that He is not in Himself" (CD II/1:264). Torrance acknowledges this gap between humans and God, which carries with it an inadequacy of human language and analogy to fully bridge the gap.

Theological language is conceived as the vehicle of analogical reference in the theology of Thomas Torrance. In itself it is radically unlike God, the extralinguistic object to which it refers, but by grace it is able to transcend itself, attaining a sufficient likeness or adequacy to its object. "The being of God is either known by grace or it is not known at all," writes Karl Barth (CD II/1: 27). Thus, by God's grace, our language by analogy truly refers to God in an actual way.

A Circular Hermeneutic

The fact that God reveals Himself fully to us through Jesus Christ has implications for the way that we understand Him and the method that we use to understand Him. In other words, the nature of the object prescribes the mode of rationality proper to its investigation. The implication for Torrance is that theological statements make real reference to the reality of God. Secondly, since God has revealed Himself as a Trinity, this reality is threefold. Therefore, we must constantly reaffirm His Unity and Triunity in a circular and dialectical way. The structure of God's revelation is Trinitarian, which necessitates a constant movement between Trinity and Unity. Thus, only a circular method can continually and successfully reveal God in His Triune wholeness.

Torrance describes Trinitarian theology as a circular movement which simultaneously affirms that God is three persons while remaining one. Torrance says:

Our knowing of God engages in a deep circular movement from Unity to Trinity and from Trinity to Unity, since we are unable to speak of the whole Trinity without already speaking of the three particular Persons of the Trinity or to speak of any of the three Persons, without presuming knowledge of the whole Triunity, for God is God only as he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and can not be conceived by us truly otherwise (Torrance 1996, 173).

Through using this kind of circular hermeneutic Torrance is able to avoid the heretical extremes of modalism and trithiesm. The hermeneutic that Torrance espouses is revolving; it constantly dips into the wisdom of the Biblical and Patristic sources, while being ordered by Torrance's own reason and theological reconstruction. As a theological scientist he believes there are precise ways of understanding and speaking about God which can be constructed in our current cultural-linguistic framework. But as a historical theologian he continually subjects these reformulations of doctrine to the Apostolic teachings of the Fathers.

Torrance is interested in mastering the tenets of Patristic theology and reconstructing them in a coherent fashion where all of the interconnections between the classical Christian doctrines can be made. There is an internal logic to all of the Christian faith that Torrance seeks to discover and in this way it is like the unitary reality that scientists try to discover in nature.

Christocentric Theology

The dialectical logic of the incarnation is always prominent in Torrance's Trinitarian theology. Although the two natures of the Son (fully God and fully human), would not strike most as a logically coherent statement, the way that the incarnation functions to organize the theologies of Barth and Torrance is quite coherent. The centrality of Jesus Christ, particularly in the incarnation, cannot be underestimated in the theology of Thomas Torrance. For Torrance the incarnation prescribes both the "proper matter and form" of Christian theology (1996, 1). Torrance says in Theological Science, "it is the whole life of the incarnate Son, the historical, crucified and risen Jesus Christ that forms the core or the axis of the body of Christian theology" (216). The union of God and Man in Jesus Christ is the starting point for his elaboration on the Triune nature of God.

For Torrance the incarnation has many implications. First, implicit in the incarnation is the redemption of humanity through the death and resurrection of Christ, our Lord and Savior. In the self-giving movement of God in Jesus Christ, God acts to redeem the world through the atonement. Secondly, since Christ entered into our humanity, He becomes the great mediator between God and mankind: "Through Christ we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father" (Eph. 2:8) Thirdly, an epistemological shift takes place in human knowledge as a result of Son entering into finite space-time reality (Torrance 1996, 1). Torrance says, "the basis for the real knowledge of God and the actual manifestations of his redemptive love for the world is then the hypostatic union, the indissoluble union of God and man in the one Person of Christ" (1981, 160). Thus, for Torrance, the incarnate Son of God is the basis of our religious belief and our religious knowledge.

The Three Levels of Theological Inquiry

The epistemological significance of the incarnation raises the question of Torrance's three-tiered theological epistemology. Torrance argues that human knowledge is multi-leveled and corresponds with the multi-leveled system of observable reality. According to Torrance, modern science has distilled this hierarchy of truths to three basic levels:

As Einstein, Polanyi, and others have shown us, the stratified structure of scientific knowledge usually comprises three levels of thought coordinated with one another: the primary or basic level, which is the level of our ordinary day-to-day experience and the loosely organised natural cognitions it involves; the secondary level of scientific theory with its search for a rigorous logical unity of empirical and conceptual factors; and the tertiary level where we develop a more refined and higher logical unity with a minimum of refined concepts and relations. (1996, 84)

This three-tiered structure of knowledge within science, can be applied in the same way to theology.

For Torrance the structure of theological inquiry has three levels: "evangelical and doxological," creedal formulations, and theological elaboration. Although the levels appear to be progressive, they do not compose a strict, logical, ascending progression. Rather, on any one level the content and concepts of the other two are present. In this way, this Trinitarian structure embodies a circular hermeneutic. As one moves from scripture to creed to theological elaboration in Torrance's theological structure, because of the ecclesial context of theology, they are simultaneously brought back into the Trinitarian passages of Scripture in the Church through proclamation, catechesis, liturgy and hymnody.

Thomas Torrance is one of the great Protestant theologians of our day. His theology is distinctly Protestant in terms of the great weight he gives to classical Protestant themes such as the primacy of God's grace, justification by Christ alone, and the supremacy of the Word of God. This Protestant heritage was mediated to Torrance through the Church of Scotland and the continental theology of Barth. It was especially Barth that made a lasting impression on his theology, particularly in Torrance's appropriation of his epistemology, Christocentrism, and Trinitarian/soteriological framework. However, Torrance has gone beyond Barth in many ways. The most significant is Torrance's restoration of a qualified natural theology, expanding God's revelatory power back to creation, a breadth that had been lost by Barth's harsh critique against the analogia entis. Torrance's work on Religion and Science continues to inspire a new generation of Protestant theologians to write cross-disciplinary theology, while remaining true to the distinctives of the Protestant tradition.

4. Outline of Major Works


5. Relation to Other Thinkers


6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Torrance Thomas, F. 1948. “The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers.” Thesis for Basel University. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1960. "Justification: Its Radical Nature and Place in Reformed Doctrine and Life," SJT 13: 240.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1962. Karl Barth: an Introduction to his Early Theology, 1910-1931. New York: Harper.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1965. Theology in Reconstruction. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1969. Space, Time and Incarnation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1969. Theological Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1971. God and Rationality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1974. "The Relation of the Incarnation to Space in Nicene Theology," The Ecumenical World of Orthodox Civilization: Russia and Orthodoxy. V. 3. (Essays in Honor of Georges Florovsky) ed. Andrew Blane. Paris: Mouton.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1975. Theology and Reconciliation: Essays Towards Evangelical and Catholic Unity in East and West. London: Chapman.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1975. "Toward Ecumenical Consensus on the Trinity," Theologische Zeitschrift 31: 337-50.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1976. Space, Time and Resurrection. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1980. Christian Theology and Scientific Culture. Belfast: Christian Journals.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1981. The Ground and Grammar of Theology. Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1982. Reality and Evangelical Theology. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1982. "Theological Realism." The Philosophical Frontiers of Christian Theology: Essays Presented to D. M. MacKinnon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 169-96.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1984. Transformation & Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Torrance Thomas, F.  1986. "Karl Barth and Patristic Theology," in Theology Beyond Christendom: Essays on the Centenary of the Birth of Karl Barth May 10, 1986. ed. John Thompson. Allison Park, PA: Pickwich. 215-39.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1986. "My Interactions with Karl Barth," How Karl Barth Changed My Mind, ed. Donald McKim. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1986. Reality and Scientific Theology. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1988. The Hermeneutics of John Calvin. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1988. The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1993 [1955]. The Royal Priesthood. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1994. Trinitarian Perspectives: Toward Doctrinal Agreement. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1995. Divine Meaning. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1995. "The Uniqueness of Divine Revelation and the Authority of the Scriptures: The Creed Association's Statement." Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 13: 97-101.

Torrance Thomas, F. 1996. The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

Torrance Thomas, F.  Ed. 1985-1993. Theological Dialogue between Orthodox and Reformed Churches, 2 Vols. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

7. Internet Resources

The Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship website

“Thomas Torrance” article on Wikipedia

Audio lectures by T. F. Torrance

8. Related Topics

Karl Barth (1886-1968)


Author: Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Peter Heltzel (1999).


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