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John Macmurray's influence on Thomas F. Torrance

  • Marty Folsom (a1)


The study of Thomas Torrance is undergoing a revival, but has neglected to highlight one significant influence: the insights of the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray. This article focuses on three respects in which Torrance affirmed Macmurray's work: in overcoming dualism, in creating an integrated realist philosophy and in expounding the form of the personal. This study will bring to light Macmurray's contributions to Torrance's thought, surveying the works of Torrance to reveal where Macmurray contributed key epistemic and systemic points to Torrance's developing scientific theology. This brief summary intends to reveal both Torrance's overt acknowledgement of Macmurray and the need for more exploration of their connections in order to enrich the study of both scholars.



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1 Fergusson, David, ‘The Influence of Macmurray on Scottish Theology’, Journal of Scottish Thought 1 (2007), pp. 145–7.

2 See the bibliographies in Costello, John, John Macmurray: A Biography (Edinburgh: Floris, 2002), pp. 242–5, and MacIntosh, Esther, John Macmurray's Religious Philosophy (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), pp. 213–53.

3 See complete bibliography in McGrath, Alister E., T. F. Torrance: An Intellectual Biography (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), pp. 249–96. Macmurray is first positively mentioned in the article ‘Faith and Philosophy’, The Hibbert Journal 45 (1948–9), pp. 237–46.

4 Freedom in the Modern World (FMW, 1932), Interpreting the Universe (IU, 1933), Reason and Emotion (RE, 1935), The Clue to History (CH, 1938), The Boundaries of Science (BS, 1939), The Self as Agent (SA, 1957) and Persons in Relation (PR, 1961).

5 Torrance, T. F., The Doctrine of Jesus Christ: The Auburn Lectures 1938–39 (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002). Torrance caricatures those who minimise Jesus by holding a view that ‘God chose this man [Jesus] to be the medium to convey certain ideas to mankind, so that when they learned these truths, the truth would set them free. Such, for example, seemed at one time at any rate, the basic principle behind the teaching of a man like John MacMurray [sic]’, p. 66.

6 Theology in Reconstruction (TRst, 1965), Theological Science (TS, 1969), God and Rationality (GR, 1971), Theology in Reconciliation (TRn, 1975), Space, Time and Resurrection (STR, 1976), Belief in Science and in Christian Life (BSCL, 1980), Divine and Contingent Order (DCO, 1981), Reality and Evangelical Theology (RET, 1982), Transformation & Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge (TCFK, 1984), Reality and Scientific Theology (RST, 1985), The Christian Frame of Mind (CFM, 1985/1989), Preaching Christ Today (PCT, 1994), The Doctrine of Jesus Christ: The Auburn Lectures 1938–39 (DJC, 2002).

7 In a personal letter from Torrance, ‘With warm regards to Tom Noble. Tell him I enjoyed his article on me in the Dictionary of Church History Theology, but also say I was NOT a pupil of John Macmurray! John and I were colleages [sic] in Edinburgh from 1950’. Quoted with permission.

8 Costello, John Macmurray, p. 363.

9 CFM, p. 43; cf. the preface, where he describes Macmurray as an ‘eminent thinker’ (p. viii).

10 PCT, p. 45.

11 Cf. Costello, John Macmurray, pp. 422–3. The letter was addressed to Kenneth Barnes, who was seeking the honour for Macmurray.

12 Ibid., p. 422.

13 Ibid., p. 423.

14 These include Maxwell, Einstein, Polanyi and Buber.

15 Colyer, Elmer, How to Read T. F. Torrance (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001), p. 20.

16 Molnar, Paul, Thomas F. Torrance (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), p. 191.

17 Habets, Myk, Theology in Transposition: A Constructive Appraisal of T. F. Torrance (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), p. vii.

18 Costello, John Macmurray, p. 422.

19 Ibid., p. 129.

20 Ibid., pp. 129–30.

21 TRn, p. 28.

22 STR, pp. 41–2.

23 For extended example, cf. TRn, pp. 26–30.

24 Fergusson, The Influence of Macmurray, p. 146, referring to TS, pp. 3–4.

25 Fergusson, ‘Torrance as a Scottish Theologian’, Participatio 2 (2010), p. 85.

26 TS, p. xii.

27 TS, pp. 3–4.

28 Ibid., cf. RST, p. 63, n. 30, where Torrance says, ‘The place of action and the model of active agency in science are recurring themes in the philosophy of John Macmurray’. Cf. RST, p. 57, for the discussion of how this orientation opens us to, or at least does not exclude, ‘a God who interacts with us and our world’.

29 TS, pp. 11–12.

30 TS, p. 11; IU, p. 131.

31 TS, pp. 11–12; RE, p. 19. This was previously asserted in Torrance, ‘Faith and Philosophy’, The Hibbert Journal 45 (1949), p. 243, the earliest positive utilisation of Macmurray. Having applied this axiomatic principle from Macmurray, Torrance begins the next paragraph: ‘That is the point at which we can begin to understand Christian Faith’. Todd Speidell recounted to me in personal correspondence, ‘J. B. Torrance told me that he shared with T. F. John Macmurray's theme that reason is the capacity to behave in terms of the nature of the object. James said when he shared this insight, Tom's eyes lit up and he then went on to formulate one of his key axioms: The nature of the object determines the mode of rationality’.

32 TS, p. 12, n. 4; RE, p. 32. He repeats the footnote on p. 208 in affirming the logic of love. I take repeated footnotes as a sign of permeated thinking.

33 TS, p. 22, He also makes this point in BSCL, p. 1, a book about Polanyi! This ‘opticizing of thought – thinking with our eyes’ is also revisited in RET, p. 75; both times Macmurray is named in association with Buber, affirming the Hebrew/Christian tradition over the Greek and Roman models.

34 FMW, pp. 74–5; CH, pp. 20–1; RE, p. 168.

35 TS, p. 31.

36 TS, p. 33, n. 2. Torrance thinks this is faith and notes that St Paul said that faith works through love. One might say that loving God is the reasonable response of faith to the gracious revelation of God in Christ.

37 TS, p. 35; BS, p. 85.

38 Macmurray missed this in Barth, thinking that crisis theology was an abstraction, speaking of a Wholly Other God who was not in this world, SA, p. 18; but Torrance made the connection.

39 TS, p. 76; FMW, pp. 33–4.

40 TS, p. 121. Here Torrance references Macmurray's FMW, pp. 120ff. and 130ff. with a discussion on ‘the sources of unreality’ and ‘on being real in our thinking’. This was a constant quest to restore Christianity and science to their proper tasks.

41 TS, p. 123. In making this critique of Cartesian quests for certainty, Torrance refers the reader to SA, p. 76.

42 TS, p. 124; SA, p. 21.

43 Costello, John Macmurray, pp. 422–3.

44 This is the argument of SA and PR.

45 TS, p. 174, echoing FMW, pp. 130ff.

46 TS, p. 208.

47 PR, pp. 216–24.

48 Costello, John Macmurray, p. 135.

49 GR, pp. 199–200. Colyer calls this the fundamental axiom of Torrance's theology (How to Read T. F. Torrance, p. 232).

50 GR, p. 200.

51 TS, pp. 300–1, and RE, pp. 185ff.

52 Costello, John Macmurray, p. 423.

53 TRn, pp. 270–1.

54 Macmurray saw the proper theological starting point early on. To escape the subjectivism of idealism, Macmurray contended in 1925 that we need ‘an objective revelation of God in a human personality’ (Costello, John Macmurray, p. 137). Thus, implicit in Macmurray is a directive towards a Christ-centred objectivity that would characterise the work of Torrance decades later.

55 PR, ch. 1.

56 PR, chs. 2–5.

57 ‘Faith and Philosophy’, p. 243. Cf. Barth, CD II/1, §25.1, Man before God.

58 ‘Faith and Philosophy’, p. 244, cf. TRn, p. 232, ‘In the language of Professor John Macmurray, reason is our capacity to behave consciously in terms of the nature of what is not ourselves, that is to say, the capacity to act in accordance with the nature of the object’; then, ‘Persons must be treated as persons if our thoughts of them are to be properly objective’. The whole page reflects on Macmurray's implications for appropriate relating to other persons. Finally, ‘That is why love occupies such an essential place in these inter-personal relations, for the capacity to love objectively is the capacity for which we live as persons’. Macmurray develops this in the human realm and Torrance takes us to the divine; we need them both.

59 TRn, p. 80.

60 Ibid., p. 81.

61 Costello, John Macmurray, p. 423.

62 CFM, p. xli.


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John Macmurray's influence on Thomas F. Torrance

  • Marty Folsom (a1)


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