An evangelist to theologians

This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of a theologian I had never heard of but whose Christ-centered approach to theology sounds very promising:  Thomas F. Torrance of the Church of Scotland, described in First Things as “an orthodox, ecumenical, and pastoral theologian”:

He considered his primary calling to be a minister of the Gospel and an evangelist to theologians. Modern western theology, he believed, has been trapped in an obsolete, dualist mindset that detaches Jesus Christ from God, worship and mission from Christ, and biblical and theological study from fellowship and communion with the living God.

Torrance’s sense of mission, formed by his experience as the child of a missionary family in China, guided him throughout his career. As a chaplain during World War II, he came across a young soldier, scarcely twenty years old, who was mortally wounded. “Padre,” he asked Torrance, “Is God really like Jesus?” Torrance assured him, “He is the only God that there is, the God who has come to us in Jesus, shown his face to us, and poured out his love to us as our Savior.” As he prayed and commended him to the Lord, the young man passed away.

A few years later, one of his parishioners in Aberdeen, a dying, elderly lady asked him the same question: “Dr. Torrance, is God really like Jesus?” That this doubt arose from among believers within the Church itself troubled Torrance deeply. He wondered how the Church distorted its message and created obstacles for its members that kept them from joyous participation in communion with the living God that was theirs in Christ by the Spirit.

The question of the dying soldier and woman suggested to Torrance that people believed there was a God “behind the back” of Jesus. But for Torrance, God has already established communion with men in Christ, and the Church is the community of witness to God’s reconciling activity in this creaturely world of space and time. The Church proclaims that through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit we have access to God the Father. This message, for Torrance, is the heart of the Gospel, the essence of the Church, and the sole foundation for all theological activity.

Torrance believed that modern theology remained trapped within dualist habits of thought that have plagued the mind of the Church since ancient times, damaging and disrupting its apprehension of the reality of our union with Christ. Dualism both ancient and modern resulted in an unfortunate conception of the universe as a closed, mechanistic continuum of cause and effect in which we cannot know things in themselves, but only as they appear to us.

Within this so-called “scientific” outlook, the Incarnation became unthinkable, and theology as a rigorous intellectual discipline became impossible. Theological statements could only have meaning by way of reference to other statements, or to the human subject making them, but never in any real, substantial way to God in his own inherent reality. The modern theological mind, informed by this dualistic outlook, so often merely recapitulated ancient Arian heresies. John Hick’s pluralistic theology, for example, substitutes a modern emphasis on the homo-agape of the world’s many faiths in place of the Nicene homoousion, the linchpin of the Christian Gospel and of a realist or scientific theology.

For Torrance, the ancient Nicene faith of the Church, and now the modern physical sciences, have both definitively illustrated the obsolescence of this outlook. The Great Ecumenical Councils confessed the oneness of being and agency of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit with God the Father. As the Eternal Son and Creator Word of the Father, Jesus Christ is the One by, through, and for whom the entire created order—space and time, structure and matter, form and being—came into being ex nihilo, as well as the One in whom it is ultimately sustained and redeemed. Because Jesus is homoousios with the Father and the Spirit, he is the very revelation of God, and as the risen, ascended, and advent Lord, he continues to heal the humanity he assumed so that we may live in union with the triune God. Christ is also homoousios with us, healing our minds and enabling us to think from a center in God rather than in ourselves. We can again do theology as a truly scientific enterprise, one faithful to its own true object: God known in Christ by the Spirit within the context of the created order of space and time.

For his books go here.

 

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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