The Ecclesiology of Thomas Torrance

The Ecclesiology of Thomas Torrance January 7, 2020

Here is a guest article by Dr. Kate Tyler about her PhD Thesis now published as The Ecclesiology of Thomas F. Torrance (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2019).

In the early days of trying to define a research topic in order to apply to a PhD programme, I had grand plans to combine the narrative approach of biblical theology, a fulsome systematic engagement with ecclesiology, and various missiological insights. If I had been allowed to take that path, I would probably still be working on my doctorate now! Instead, my primary supervisor (Rev Dr Christopher Holmes – Otago University) encouraged me to narrow my vision with the assurance that whatever topic I picked to write a thesis on would not be the high point of my career,  but was rather the first step by which one entered the world of theological scholarship. Acknowledging that systematic theology seemed to offer the best tools for my interests, Chris suggested that it would be beneficial to undertake a robust thesis on the doctrine of the Church which would then provide ample ground for the future sort of writing I wanted to do, creating accessible resources for the Church, rather than only writing for fellow scholars.

The Ecclesiology of Thomas F. Torrance is the result of that advice, a streamlined-for-publication version of my thesis (submitted in 2016). At its simplest, it seeks to answer the question ‘How does the doctrine of the Trinity inform the doctrine of the Church?’ In developing my thoughts on this, I found Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance to be an insightful dialogue partner, particularly appreciating his emphasis that the nature of the Church and its mission can only be properly understood in the light of the God who calls, gathers and sustains his people. A theocentric vision of the Church, according to Torrance, begins with the triune self-revelation of God. Every aspect of the Church’s existence and mission must be shaped by the doctrine of the Trinity.

The book begins with a brief biographical chapter, exploring how aspects of Torrance’s upbringing and education shaped his commitment to write theology that served the mission of the Church, as well as an orientation to his theological methodology, which he termed ‘scientific theology.’ The second chapter introduces the doctrine of the Trinity as explained by Torrance, including comment on his use of Scripture, his interpretation of the Patristic writers, and his emphasis on the perichoretic communion of the triune persons.

The third chapter discusses Torrance’s ‘diachronic ecclesiology’ and insistence that there is only one people of God, although there are three distinct phases which mark out the development of God’s people: the history of Israel, the time of the Church, and the new creation. While acknowledging the importance of Israel’s story and also of having an eschatological perspective, the focus is mainly on the existence of the Church in the time between Christ’s ascension and return, for it is in this time that the Church witnesses to God’s redemptive plan. The next chapter draws the two previous chapters together to more fully discuss Torrance’s trinitarian ecclesiology, including his emphasis on the concept of koinonia, the relation of God’s oneness and threeness to the Church, and the role of the Church as a community where God is known.

The fifth chapter considers the shape of the Christian community between the ascension and return of Christ, including a section on the nature of order, as well as demonstrating that the ministry of the Church is intrinsically derived from and correlated with the ministry of Christ and so remains subordinate to Christ. The sixth chapter unpacks what this looks like practically, with a discussion of the word, sacraments and ordained ministry, undergirded by the confession that the Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The penultimate chapter describes Torrance’s involvement in the Church of Scotland and in the ecumenical movement, supported by unpacking the central truth that Torrance viewed as the impetus for all mission: because the Church is a reconciled community it must also be a reconciling community.

The extended discussion of Torrance’s theology concludes by bringing his trinitarian ecclesiology into dialogue with the trinitarian ecclesiology of Kathryn Tanner, Jürgen Moltmann and John Zizioulas. These primarily focus on the interaction of the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Church in each theologian’s work, highlighting the diverse expressions that trinitarian ecclesiology can take.

The Ecclesiology of Thomas Torrance is (in my biased opinion) a worthy read because it seeks to expand our vision of the Church by reminding us to look to the God to whom the Church belongs. Good theology fuels and supports the Church’s mission, and Torrance’s ecclesiology encourages us that ultimately redemption is not the responsibility of the Church, but the Lord. It’s my hope that the theological content which is unpacked throughout will inspire a renewed commitment to mission, witness, evangelism, worship and service – not because these are simply things that the Church does, but because of the greatness and goodness of the Triune God.

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