"T.F. Torrance in Plain English" by Stephen D. Morrison: REVIEW

Morrison, Stephen D. T.F. Torrance in Plain English.
Columbus, OH: Beloved Publishing, 2017.
Paperback. 253 pages. ISBN: 9781631741685.

That we inhabit ecclesial landscapes demarcated by the sexy “theologies of”, to use D. J. Hall’s phrase, in many ways signifies the strained unity (and often marked disunity) of the Body of Christ. Few church leaders and still fewer theologians have been able to bridge the gaps which internally divide the Church. As evidenced in Stephen D. Morrison’s newest volume in his Plain Language series, T.F. Torrance in Plain English, T. F. Torrance was one of the few. Morrison, a freelance ecumenical writer and theologian currently living in Sweden, masterfully exposes the challenging genius and grace-filled theology of T.F. Torrance for the beginner (or even, presumably, the veteran).

As in his first book in the series on Karl Barth, Morrison confesses that “this book was written from one amateur to another – it is yet again for beginners, by a beginner” (7). Regardless, Morrison offers an accessible and synthetic account of the major thrusts behind the theological work of T.F. Torrance without losing the power and complexity of the latter’s thought. Torrance – a student of Karl Barth, a prolific theologian in his own right, and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland from 1976-1977 – was broad in his scope and deep in his detail, making any endeavour to summarize him difficult. However, here Morrison chooses nine specific major facets of Torrance’s thought to give the reader a sense of his scientific, evangelical theology.

The first three chapters covering Torrance’s scientific theology, kata physin, and his reformulated natural theology, set the epistemological tone of the book’s exposition of Torrance’s work. Torrance’s emphasis on “epistemological repentance” (43) – that is, the conforming of one’s intellect to God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit – is the theological conviction which renders intelligible the balance of his work. While at times Morrison’s book can seem repetitive in its exposition of Torrance’s thought, it is precisely because of Torrance’s commitment to epistemological repentance that Morrison is so emphatic in his book that our thought and subsequent speech of God must be disciplined by the reality of revelation. For this, to Torrance, involves more than changing what we know but, in fact, how we know it.

Having established this epistemological grounding for Torrance’s work, Morrison continues on to illuminate several other key pillars of his work. Among these, the “vicarious humanity” of Jesus Christ (Torrance’s deepening of the theology of homoousion) serves as the centre which pulls together the latter portion of Morrison’s account. Morrison defines Torrance’s “vicarious humanity of Christ” as “the faith, obedience, worship, prayer, repentance, and life of the Son of God lived as a human being before the Father on our behalf. He fulfills our human response to the Father by perfectly doing what we cannot do: living a life of true fellowship with God from within our sinful humanity.” (157)

According to Torrance, this is precisely that which makes both the work and the life of Jesus Christ intrinsically salvific and therefore inseparable; that is, the soteriological work of the Cross is not superseded or negated but enhanced by the hypostatic union of Jesus Christ according to the Patristic principle that “what is not assumed cannot be saved”. In taking on not some neutral humanity but our fallen humanity (138), “Jesus Christ is the true mediator for both God to humanity and as a human before God.” (138-139) In this way, Morrison exposes one of Torrance’s grounding convictions: “that Jesus Christ acts at once humanward and Godward, that is, both as God towards humanity and as a human being towards God in twofold mediation.” (136)

This has large implications. As Morrison points out, means that our humanity is already sealed in Christ’s own humanity and thus already reconciled and brought fully to the Triune life. This means that while culminated on the Cross, the saving event of Christ is not uniquely found on the Cross – but in his very being. This means that Jesus Christ continues to mediate for humanity to the Godhead as human and continues to mediate the Godhead to humanity by the Holy Spirit as God. This means that God did not act merely to save us from something (sin and death), but ultimately to save us for something: “union and communion with the Triune God.” (211)

While Morrison does not approach this topic, I believe that given the distrust of some for social trinitarianism – distrust grounded in the belief that social trinitarianism overly emphasizes the particularity of the three Persons over their unity – I believe that Morrison shows that T. F. Torrance can be a helpful guide and corrective. For Torrance, homoousion is not a doctrine to which one must pay lip service and thereafter ignore, but the lynchpin of the Christian faith. While in his divinity Christ is assuredly of one substance with the Father and the Spirit, he remains nonetheless incarnate. This dialectic results not in a unity which obliterates any divine difference, but embraces it. Nor does Torrance overly emphasize the disunity of the Trinity so to give the impression of three mutually friendly gods simply enjoying each other’s company! Situated within the doctrine of perichoresis, Torrance affirms that

“No divine Person is who he is without essential relation to the other two, and yet each divine Person is other than and distinct from the other two… The relations between the divine Persons belong to what they are as Persons – they are constitutive onto-relations. ‘Person’ is an onto-relational concept.” (The Christian Doctrine of God, 102)

Who each Person is is dependent upon who they are to the two other divine Persons. (As a friend once said to me, “The Father is the Father because he is the Father of the Son.”) Drawing upon Patristic sources as well as time-honoured Catholic and Protestant theology, Morrison shows how Torrance highlights the biblical nature of this onto-relational God. Indeed, as I stated above, it is precisely on this score that Torrance soars as an ecumenical theologian. As Morrison explains in his book, Torrance retained this approach in an ecumenical commission on the doctrine of the Trinity between the Orthodox Church and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in 1991. Among other things, the joint agreement resulted in a new approach to the infamous filioque clause: affirming the procession of the Spirit “from the Father through the Son” in periochoretic fashion. In introducing the reader to these concepts, Morrison shows how Torrance’s theology is not conciliatory (even if he was a Presbyterian), but robustly biblical; not a lowest-common-denominator via media for unity’s sake, but endlessly seeking further conformity to the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

In sum, Stephen D. Morrison has done an outstanding job in proving to the reader perhaps unacquainted with T. F. Torrance that he is a theologian we cannot afford to ignore. I believe that Morrison, in an accessible-yet-faithful (and sometimes humorously folksy!) way, shows that even more than the theological ideas which Torrance developed, the posture with which he approached theology is indispensable for this post-Christendom age; for it is a posture that is humbly and graciously subordinate to the love of God in Jesus Christ.