T. F. Torrance: Godly Patristic Theologian with Holy Ghost Logic

Feast of St Pelagia the Nun-martyr of Tarsus

Torrance_for_HoM_blog.jpgI FIRST MET Dr. Chris Kettler, Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Friends University, while working at Eighth Day Books almost twenty years ago. I now consider him a dear friend and an academic mentor. It was therefore a true honor and joy to have him present once again at the Hall of Men.

For this third presentation, Dr. Kettler completed the presentation of an important chain of twentieth-century Protestant theologians. He is not only deeply shaped by this chain of heroes, but also deeply connected to them personally. Kettler studied under Ray Anderson (presented on Aug. 26, 2010), who studied under T. F. Torrance (presented on this occasion, Apr. 23, 2015), who studied under Karl Barth (presented on Sep. 24, 2009).

Kettler also had the opportunity to study under Torrance, a Scottish Reformed theologian, for a limited time. In 1981, Torrance visited Fuller Theological Seminary to present a month-long theology course. Since no Ph.D. students had any interest in Torrance, as a second-year M.A. student, Kettler volunteered to serve as a Teacher’s Assistant for Torrance. In addition to standard duties such as grading papers, Kettler was able to sit in on Torrance’s course “The Ground and Grammar of Theology.” (The material for this course would later be published as two books: Christian Theology and Scientific Culture and The Trinitarian Faith.) Kettler also had the honor of spending many hours with Torrance while transporting him around southern California for countless events and meetings. Through this personal interaction, in Kettler’s words, he came to know Torrance not only as a theologian, but as a “godly theologian.”

For this lecture, Kettler presented Torrance as a theologian characterized by four titles. First, Torrance was a Scientific Theologian. According to Torrance, “science refers to the kind of knowledge which is forced upon us when we are true to the facts we are up against.” Theology is a science, then, insofar as it is bound to its object, God’s Word, and “develops its understanding of it in accordance with its nature and with the way in which it is actually disclosed to us in history.” But, as Kettler noted, Torrance acknowledged that we are up against a mystery who baffles us. Torrance thus insists that scientific theology requires a Holy Ghost logic.

Second, Kettler presented Torrance as a Biblical Theologian. Torrance loved the scriptures. He was steeped in the scriptures and had what his Orthodox friend Fr. Georges Florovsky called a “scriptural mind.” As a theologian, he interpreted the scriptures theologically. In other words, Torrance didn’t hold scripture and theology apart as two distinct fields of study. Instead, he integrated them by thinking theologically with a scriptural mind and by reading scripture with a theological mind.

Third, Kettler presented Torrance as a Historical Theologian. Torrance also had what Florovsky called a “patristic mind.” In other words, Torrance was not steeped in scripture alone, but also in the early Christian Fathers. Of particular importance to Torrance were the Greek Fathers who were so instrumental in the development of the Nicene Creed at the first two Ecumenical Councils in 325 and 381 A.D. As an authentically ecumenical confession of faith accepted by both Eastern and Western churches, Torrance insisted that the Nicene Creed was the only creed needed for Christians today. He also believed it was the key to the renewal of the Christian Church in the twentieth century in that it offered an ecumenical way forward.

Finally, Kettler presented Torrance as a Dogmatic Theologian. Influenced immensely by St. Athanasius and the Nicene Creed, Torrance had a passionate incarnational and Trinitarian theology. Torrance argued that the atonement was not just a single event, i.e. the vicarious death of Christ for the salvation of man. Instead, like the Greek Fathers whom he loved so dearly, he insisted on the whole of Christ’s humanity—from His birth through His earthly ministry, passion, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension—as the atoning work of salvation. And it was this doctrine, the vicarious humanity of Christ, on which Kettler would eventually write his Ph.D. dissertation and then, later, three more books on the same topic.

Kettler brought the evening to an end with a story and a gesture of generosity. On his last evening at Fuller, Torrance called Kettler to invite him over for dinner. Kettler was surprised and honored. Naturally, he accepted Torrance’s kind invitation. And they had a wonderful evening. Over dinner, Torrance opened a bottle of Port to share with Kettler. He said this was a common tradition at Oxford. “But that’s why,” Torrance continued, “they never get anything done at Oxford!”

Continuing this Oxford tradition, Kettler presented a bottle of Port to the men gathered in the Hall. So the evening ended with a toast over Port to honor the memory of T. F. Torrance.

“To T. F. Torrance, the Godly Patristic Theologian with a Holy Ghost Logic!”

“Here, Here!”


 

Excerpts from Matthew Baker, “The Correspondence between T. F. Torrance and Georges Florovsky (1950-1973)” in Participatio: Journal of the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship, Vol. 4 (2013):

“One of the burning points here is where Church Order concerns the Eucharist. You are right to put your finger on this point! I do wish I could spend several days with you going over all the relevant passages in the Scriptures and the Fathers of the first four centuries on these matters—that is the only way to come to a closer understanding, is it not?”

—T. F. Torrance to Fr. Georges Florovsky, 1950

“While there is little to gauge the possible influence of Torrance’s thinking over Florovsky (whose basic thinking was already well established before the two met), there is plenty to suggest that Florovsky’s influence and example were important for Torrance. Torrance’s student, longstanding friend, and collaborator Father George Dragas has recalled how Torrance once remarked to him that Florovsky was one of the few who could force him to reconsider his position on a given theological point. Such a change of mind is certainly evident in Torrance’s view of the Greek patristic teaching on theosis. In the first letter of Torrance reproduced below, written in Jan. 1950, Torrance registers his rejection of the doctrine of theosis as ‘un-Hebraic and un-biblical.’ By 1964, however, he would address the World Alliance of Reformed Churches with a plea ‘for a reconsideration by the Reformed Church of what the Greek Fathers called theosis.’ In his 1970 lecture ‘The Relevance of Orthodoxy,’ Torrance described theosis as the experience of ‘our participation in the Holy Spirit, in which we come under the direct impact of God’s uncreated energies in all their holiness and majesty, and are sanctified and renewed by them . . . God Himself acting upon us personally and creatively.’ It was surely no coincidence that in this same published sermon, when remarking on how ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox had often led him to reconsider his Reformed presuppositions in his reading of the Bible, Torrance stressed the crucial influence of Florovsky in particular. He would later cite Florovsky’s essay on ‘St Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers’ approvingly for its understanding of theosis in terms of ‘personal encounter.’”

—Matthew Baker

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