Introduction to T.F. Torrance's theology (part 2): foundational understandings

This post continues a series exploring T.F. Torrance in Recollection and Reappraisal by Bruce Ritchie. For other posts in this series, click a number: 1, 34.

Last time, we began with Ritchie's recap of Torrance's life, followed by his overview of a key element in T.F.'s theology--the central role that Jesus' entire life has in accomplishing the atonement of humanity. This time we'll look at Ritchie's overview of additional foundational understandings in Torrance's incarnational and Trinitarian theology.

Professor Torrance

Begin with the "Who?" question

Ritchie points out that T.F. was well-known for emphasizing that the basis for good theology is to begin with the "Who?" question. Why? Ritchie answers (quoting his notes taken in one of T.F.'s lectures):

This is because in theology we deal with personal being (God), and not with impersonal objects. Therefore, the primary theological question is the question "Who?" But, this question has to be asked within the context of an actual encounter with God. Therefore, we have to start with the concrete question, and so any theoretical questions about the existence of God arise afterwards, not before. This is because we are concerned with the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and not with the theoretical God of the philosophers. (p. 20)

Approach theology scientifically

Ritchie then notes another key to T.F.'s theology--approaching theology as a science, which means, "allowing the nature of the object to determine the manner in which that object is known" (p. 26). Ritchie comments:

In theological science, which involves knowing God who is transcendent Person, the object of examination (God) is also Lord, and thus not subject to human questioning in the same way as human persons are. Hence, with God, the scientific mode of knowing is worship.... In knowing God we are not in the driving-seat, and never can be. On the contrary, knowing God scientifically depends upon God's voluntary self-revelation of himself. As Emil Brunner put it, "Through God alone can God be known." Or as Torrance's teacher, H.R. Mackintosh, states, "All religious knowledge of God, wherever existing, comes by revelation; otherwise we should be committed to the incredible position that man can know God without his willing to be known." ...Knowing God in a scientific manner involves knowing God in a way consistent with his nature; but God's nature is such that knowledge of him depends necessarily upon God's voluntary self-revelation. Moreover, since God is himself personal being, then any knowledge which he does give of himself will be within a relationship of person to person. Furthermore, because he is God and lord, then this person-to-person relationship must also --and...necessarily--involve worship and prayer. (pp. 26, 27)

Reinforcing that theology necessarily involves worship, Ritchie shares that Torrance's lectures at New College always opened and closed with prayer. Such personal details about T.F., including his approach to teaching, is part of what makes Ritchie's book so compelling.

Who is this God who has chosen to reveal himself? Ritchie answers, noting that T.F. constantly emphasized that it is the God revealed fully and finally in the person of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. T.F. famously taught that "there is no God apart from the God whom we meet in Jesus Christ" and that "God is known in and through Jesus Christ" (p. 30). Moreover, T.F. emphasized that "both revelation [who God is--his being] and reconciliation [what God does--his act] are based in the oneness of being (homoousion) of the Father and the Son" (p. 30). 

Hold incarnation and atonement together

As Ritchie points out, T.F. emphasized that "the whole of the Christian Gospel centers on the incarnation and the atonement, in so far as these are taken together.... All of Christian theology coheres in that core" (p. 31). Ritchie elaborates: 

For Torrance, the person of Christ is itself an atoning reality. Thus being and act are to be understood in their inter-relationship. This lay at the very center of Torrance's thinking. He emphasized repeatedly that in theological science there must be an integration of form and content, being and act. For Torrance, such an integration should be characteristic of all proper scientific work in any discipline; and, when applied to theology, it meant that the work of Christ is achieved in the person of Christ, and not simply through the actions of Christ. Hence the incarnation of the Son of God is not simply a means, or a stage, or a process, or an event, which took place merely to enable Jesus to live on earth, so that, after thirty-three years he might be qualified for Calvary where the 'real event' of the atonement could take place. Rather, atonement is achieved in the very person of Jesus Christ.... It was this inter-relationship of incarnation and atonement which Torrance wanted his students to grasp. (pp. 32-33)

As Ritchie notes, some mistakenly take T.F.'s explanation of the atonement as somehow de-emphasizing the centrality of the Cross of Christ. But that is not the case. In T.F.'s thinking, to understand the full scope of the atonement in Jesus does not dilute "the centrality of the specific historical event of Calvary" (pp. 32-33). However, T.F. goes out of his way to explain the important interrelationship of Christmas (the incarnation) with Good Friday (the crucifixion).  

Understand the need for repentance

Ritchie concludes his overview of T.F.'s approach to theology by noting the important place repentance has in coming to know God as he truly is: "In order to engage with God in his voluntary self-revelation through his Word [both Living and written], the minds of man and woman need to repent" (p. 35). Ritchie shares how T.F. emphasized this to his students by telling a story of a renowned concert-pianist who asked a maestro to help him develop his skills:

After several sessions, the maestro confronted the concert-pianist. He told him bluntly, that to progress then even the muscles of the concert-pianist's hands would have to repent of all they had ever been accustomed to. His hands would have to unlearn every habit. They would have to unlearn every familiar action. Only then could he become what he wanted to become.... What he needed was a radical repentance of tendon, and muscle, involving the very structure of his hands. (pp. 35-36)

Recalling T.F.'s telling of this story, Ritchie adds this:

I remember Torrance leaning on his lectern clasping and unclasping his fingers as he made his point. For Torrance this [story] illustrated the extent to which the human mind and human habits of thought, however lofty and intellectually powerful they may have become, need to be transformed and redirected by the Word of God. (p. 36)