Thomas F. Torrance - not an "ivory tower" theologian

On this blog we've often referred to the writings of trinitarian theologian Thomas F. Torrance (pictured right). In this post, worship leader Mike Hale shares interesting information concerning Torrance's life - illustrating that he was no "ivory tower" theologian.

Sometimes theologians are dismissed as living in the ivory towers of academia, far from the harsh realities of life. Thought of as having their head in the clouds, their theology might be dismissed as having little or no relevance in the "real" world, including the world of Christian living and ministry. However, the life of  Thomas F. Torrance (arguably one of the premier theologians of the second half of the twentieth century) stands in stark contrast to any such notion.

Elmer Colyer states that Torrance’s theology arose out of the evangelical and doxological life of family and the church, including pastoral ministry and personal experience in numerous life-threatening situations, beginning with his parents as a missionary family in China, and including attempts on his life in the Middle East, and as an army chaplain on the front lines of war in Italy, ministering the gospel to wounded and dying soldiers.

In “How to Read T.F Torrance,” Colyer states, “Experiences like these crystallized for Torrance that Christian theology has to be able to ground one’s existence amidst the most acute moments of life and death. Torrance later called theologies without this kind of existential depth “paper theology”-- interesting reading, but inadequate for living and dying.”

Following the death of Torrance in late 2007, his youngest brother David, himself a retired parish minister of the Church of Scotland, described numerous experiences that served as formative influences on T.F. and his theology.
  • T.F. was the oldest of six children born in China to missionary parents during turbulent times. Armies of warlords killed and plundered at will, and bandits and robbers frequented the treacherous mountain paths of West China. As a young teen, T.F. accompanied his father through those mountain valleys in distributing Scripture to peasant Buddhist farmers. 
  • Constant danger made the family rely on God and continue in prayer, and there was joy and thanksgiving over answered prayer.
  • In 1927, West China was in a state of civil war and “the family saw people have their heads whipped off by swords in the streets. A missionary friend of our mother was beheaded in the street near our home in Chengdu.”
  • The British Consul ordered British subjects to leave and the family journeyed by boat down the Yangste to Shanghai as bullets were hitting the steel balustrade behind which the family was sheltering on deck.
  • In 1936, while still a student in New College, Edinburgh, T.F. traveled to the troubled Middle East after studying Arabic for use in visiting historical and archaeological sites. He traveled (often alone) through Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Greece. Traveling by donkey with an Arab guide in the mountains of Moab, he was suddenly surrounded by armed Bedouins, and it took some while to persuade them he was not a Jew but a Scot.
  • Not long back in Jerusalem, he and 70 others were given rifles, police armbands, and asked to temporarily join the Palestinian Police, as Hitler had spread anti-Jewish propaganda and provoked an Arab revolt while most British troops were in Egypt, and not enough troops were stationed in Palestine. T.F. was continuously on duty for several weeks until he could be released to continue his educational travel and studies.
  • As anti-Semitism spread, T.F. kept running into hostility and kept being mistaken for a Jew. An attempt was made on his life when a knife was flung at him that sailed over his shoulder.  
  • In Jordan, while traveling in a taxi with two nuns, they stopped to pick up a Bedouin, who suddenly pointed a revolver at Tom and shouted “Jew!” Tom shouted in Arabic, “Not Jewish! Scottish!” and as the Bedouin hesitated, Tom and the driver were able to throw him out.
  • Traveling by train through southern Iraq, Tom was arrested on suspicion of being a Jewish spy. After questioning, he tried to escape to find his way to the British Consulate but was caught and taken back to police Headquarters, was refused to see the British Consulate and was sentenced to death, until one of the judges was mercifully tempted to believe Tom was not Jewish and put him on a train to Damascus. 
  • In 1943 he joined the army and served the next two years in Italy as a chaplain until the end of the war. He insisted that whenever possible he be with the soldiers in the most forward positions.
  • On one occasion when being shelled by enemy fire they were sheltered in a ditch. Tom’s helmet was touching the boots of one solder in front while his boots touched the helmet of the soldier behind. Both the soldier in front and behind were killed, and Tom was unscathed.
  • As chaplain, Tom was given his own army truck that he normally slept in. One night he chose to sleep outside behind a wall and that night a German shell passed through where his head would have normally been.
Tom’s work at the font lines, ministering to the wounded and dying, strengthened his conviction of the need to preach Christ and the message of the cross, and persuaded him of the futility of any theology that does not present God as what we see in Jesus, a God who loves, is present with us in our suffering and forgives and redeems us. Tom told his brother David that he felt God had protected him and had a purpose for his life, and in prayer and thanksgiving he rededicated his life to God for the furtherance of the Gospel. Years later in Tom’s lectures to students, he often mentioned the lessons that he learned as a chaplain on the battlefield.

In 1994 at the age of 80, T.F. traveled back to the remote mountains of China where his family had once served. Coming full circle, he was traveling as a Christian emissary carrying money for the rebuilding of churches destroyed by the communist takeover in 1935. Though a respected theologian’s theologian, he was still, and had always been, a minister of the gospel with a concern for serving and evangelizing all people.