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T. F. Torrance on Scripture

  • John Webster (a1)

Although it was never completed and has had only slight impact, T. F. Torrance's work on the nature and interpretation of scripture is a primary element in his theology, though largely unstudied. For Torrance, a theology of scripture and its interpretation derive from a theology of revelation; revelation takes creaturely form in the incarnate Word, out of which is generated the apostolic community and its witness, which in turn generates scripture, the human word which ministers the divine Word. Scripture is the divine Word accommodated to human form, and so a sacrament or sign which refers to revelation; its social location is the life of the apostolic community. Interpretation of scripture is properly ‘depth-interpretation’, following the semantics of scripture by which reference to divine reality is made, rather than terminating on scripture's syntactical surface. Fitting interpretative practice follows the text's reference, penetrates to the thing signified, indwells its subject matters and listens to the divine Word. The interpreter is summoned to mortification of prejudice and constantly renewed attentiveness. Torrance's most impressive contribution to bibliology and hermeneutics was his insistence that both are ingredients within a theology of God's economic presence. There are some historical limitations to his work, along with a lack of interest in the Christian literary culture and lack of extended exegesis. However, his writings in the field constitute one of the most impressive Protestant accounts of the field in the last half-century.

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1 Torrance, T. F., Reality and Evangelical Theology: The Realism of Christian Revelation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003), p. 10.

3 Berkouwer, G. C., Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975).

4 The more important treatments include: Langford, T., ‘T. F. Torrance's Theological Science: A Reaction’, Scottish Journal of Theology 25 (1973), pp. 155–70; Gray, B. J., ‘Towards Better Ways of Reading the Bible’, Scottish Journal of Theology 33 (1980), pp. 301–15; Morrison, J. D., Knowledge of the Self-Revealing God in the Thought of Thomas Forsyth Torrance (New York: Lang, 1997), pp. 285352; Colyer, E., How to Read T. F. Torrance. Understanding his Trinitarian and Scientific Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), pp. 107–9, 227–9, 345–51; Colyer, E., The Nature of Doctrine in T. F. Torrance's Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2001), pp. 5591, 152–65; Richardson, K., ‘Revelation, Scripture, and Mystical Apprehension of Divine Knowledge’, in Colyer, E. (ed.), The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T. F. Torrance (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), pp. 185203; Sarisky, D., ‘T. F. Torrance on Biblical Interpretation’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 11 (2009), pp. 332–46.

5 de Lubac, H., Medieval Exegesis, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998–2000).

6 Frei, H., The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974).

7 Torrance's work on patristic exegesis is almost completely passed over in major revisionary accounts of the territory such as Young, F., Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Cambridge: CUP, 1997); Young, F., Ayres, L. and Louth, A. (eds), The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature (Cambridge: CUP, 2004); Ayres, L., Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: OUP, 2004). His work on the theology of scripture and on theological hermeneutics is scarcely mentioned in recent accounts such as Work, T., Living and Active. Scripture and the Economy of Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002); Levering, M., Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2008); Treier, D. J., Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008); Billings, T., The Word of God for the People of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010). A. Paddison makes some use of Torrance in ‘Scriptural Reading and Revelation: A Contribution to Local Hermeneutics’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 8 (2006), pp. 433–48.

8 Torrance, T. F., ‘Scientific Hermeneutics according to St Thomas Aquinas’, Journal of Theological Studies ns 13 (1962), pp. 259–89; Torrance, T. F., ‘Hermeneutics According to F. D. E. Schleiermacher’, Scottish Journal of Theology 21 (1968), pp. 257–67; Torrance, T. F., ‘The Hermeneutics of John Reuchlin, 1455–1522’, in Bradley, J. E. and Muller, R. A. (eds), Church, Word and Spirit: Historical and Theological Essays in Honor of Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), pp. 107–21; Torrance, T. F., The Hermeneutics of John Calvin (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1988); Torrance, T. F., ‘The Hermeneutics of Erasmus’, in McKee, E. A. and Armstrong, B. G. (eds), Probing the Reformed Tradition: Historical Studies in Honor of Edward A. Dowey, Jr. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989), pp. 4876; Torrance, T. F., Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1995).

9 Torrance, T. F., Space, Time and Resurrection (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 126.

10 Torrance, T. F., Karl Barth: An Introduction to his Early Theology (London: SCM, 1962), pp. 118–24; Torrance, T. F., ‘The Place of Christology in Biblical and Dogmatic Theology’, in Theology in Reconstruction (London: SCM, 1965), pp. 128–49; Torrance, T. F., Theological Science (Oxford: OUP, 1969), pp. 191–3, 332–7; Torrance, T. F., ‘The Word of God and the Response of Man’, in God and Rationality (Oxford: OUP, 1971), pp. 137–64; Torrance, T. F., ‘“The Historical Jesus”: From the Perspective of a Theologian’, in Weinrich, W. C. (ed.), The New Testament Age: Essays in Honor of Bo Reicke (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984), vol. 2, pp. 511–26; Torrance, T. F., Reality and Scientific Theology (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985), pp. 8293; Torrance, T. F., Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1990), pp. 83120; Torrance, T. F., Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 140; Torrance, T. F., The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons (London: T. & T. Clark, 2001), pp. 3272.

11 Torrance, T. F., Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), pp. 315–40.

12 Space, Time and Resurrection, p. 1.

13 The Christian Doctrine of God, p. 34.

14 Divine Meaning, p. 5.

15 Reality and Evangelical Theology, p. 84.

16 Ibid., p. 85.

17 Ibid., p. 91.

19 Ibid., pp. 92–3.

20 ‘The Word of God and the Response of Man’, pp. 151–2.

21 Ibid., p. 151.

22 Atonement, p. 322.

23 Ibid., p. 328.

24 Ibid., pp. 334–5.

25 The Christian Doctrine of God, p. 34.

27 Ibid., p. 35.

28 Divine Meaning, p. 6.

29 Ibid., p. 7.

30 The Christian Doctrine of God, pp. 36–7.

31 Ibid., p. 36.

32 Theological Science, p. 192.

33 The Christian Doctrine of God, p. 35.

34 ‘The Place of Christology in Biblical and Dogmatic Theology’, p. 139.

35 Divine Meaning, p. 8. The closing of the eschatological gap between the Word and the words troubled Torrance as he read Warfield (a theologian of whose excellence he was by no means unappreciative): see his review of Warfield's The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, Scottish Journal of Theology 7 (1954), pp. 106–7.

36 See Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian, pp. 104–5.

37 Reality and Evangelical Theology, p. 94.

38 Divine Meaning, p. 7. See also the discussion of the communicatio idiomatum in the doctrines of incarnation and scripture in Atonement, pp. 336–9.

39 Reality and Evangelical Theology, p. 17.

40 Ibid., p. 16.

41 The Hermeneutics of John Calvin, p. 50.

42 Divine Meaning, p. 232.

43 Ibid., p. 250.

44 Ibid., p. 252.

45 Ibid., p. 54.

46 Ibid., p. 272.

47 Reality and Evangelical Theology, p. 46. See also the account of the ecclesial and doxological elements of knowledge of God through scripture in Reality and Scientific Theology, pp. 83–5.

48 Divine Meaning, p. 241.

50 Torrance, T. F., ‘The Deposit of Faith’, Scottish Journal of Theology 36 (1983), p. 3.

51 Ibid., p. 7.

52 ‘The Place of Christology in Biblical and Dogmatic Theology’, p. 137.

53 The Christian Doctrine of God, p. 43.

54 Divine Meaning, p. 1.

55 Ibid., p. 11.

56 In his ‘Introduction’ to Manson's posthumous Jesus and the Christian (Edinburgh: James Clarke, 1967), Torrance writes that ‘it was Manson's “persistent spiritual judgement” [H. R. Mackintosh's characterisation of Manson] that enabled him to penetrate through the surface treatment of pattern and form to the “substance” of which they were but the “shadow”, and so to see the deeper involutions of truth that come to light in the pages of the New Testament rather than what comes to view when the literary forms are held to be little more than the modes in which the creative spirituality of the primitive Christian community expressed itself. Hence for all its undoubted importance Manson found Form-criticism finally superficial and called for a “depth-exegesis” in which the literary forms are interpreted in their historical actuality, without divorce either from the spiritual realities to which they refer us or from the prophetic religion and culture stemming from the Old Testament to which they go back’ (p. 10). See here D. Sarisky, ‘T. F. Torrance on Biblical Interpretation’.

57 The Christian Doctrine of God, p. 37.

59 Divine Meaning, p. 1.

60 Ibid., p. 282.

61 Ibid., p. 235.

63 Ibid., p. 236.

64 Reality and Evangelical Theology, p. 115.

65 Ibid., p. 116.

66 Ibid., p. 117.

67 The Christian Doctrine of God, p. 44.

68 Reality and Evangelical Theology, p. 56.

69 Ibid., p. 57. See further the critique in The Ground and Grammar of Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 20012), pp. 110–19.

70 ‘The Historical Jesus’, p. 524; Preaching Christ Today presents the same objection in a distinctly hectoring tone.

71 Space, Time and Resurrection, p. 168.

72 Reality and Evangelical Theology, p. 64.

74 Barr, J., The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: OUP, 1961).

75 Torrance, T. F., Royal Priesthood (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1955).

76 Barr might be excused on this score by the fact that Torrance had published little on this matter when Semantics of Biblical Language appeared, though his contribution to the 1956 English-language Barth Festschrift, ‘The Place of Christology in Biblical and Dogmatic Theology’ made a start.

77 Torrance, T. F., Royal Priesthood (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1993 2), p. x.

78 Torrance, T. F., ‘The Epistemological Relevance of the Holy Spirit’, in God and Rationality (Oxford: OUP, 1971), p. 186.

79 It is not insignificant that Torrance is attracted by Reuchlin's notion of veritas hebraica, the distinctive idioms of Hebrew and what they express, because ‘through study of the idiomata and proprietes of the Hebrew scriptures we are paying attention to the sign language which they employ to direct us beyond to the unique and ineffable speech of God . . . We can get the Word of God no more through etymological or philological examination of the Hebrew than through the logical argumentations of the Schoolmen. But we must allow ourselves to be guided by the nature of what is actually and literally written to hear God speaking – it is in that act of hearing, which is essentially a miracle, that we really hear the Word of God’: ‘The Hermeneutics of John Reuchlin’, p. 113.

80 Reality and Evangelical Theology, p. 73.

81 Ibid., p. 74.

82 Ibid., p. 69.

83 Ibid., p. 109.

84 Ibid., p. 104.

85 Ibid., pp. 104–5.

86 The Christian Doctrine of God, p. 43.

87 T. F. Torrance, ‘Scientific Hermeneutics According to St Thomas Aquinas’, p. 263. In this connection, Torrance argues that Erasmus’ failure was precisely that he ‘never managed to penetrate far behind organized language to the inner connection of the realities denoted’ (‘The Hermeneutics of Erasmus’, p. 49).

88 The Christian Doctrine of God, p. 281.

89 Ibid., p. 37.

91 Theological Science, p. 23.

93 The Christian Doctrine of God, p. 39.

94 Reality and Evangelical Theology, p. 53.

95 Ibid., p. 117.

97 Ibid., p. 118. See also the account of theological knowledge in Reality and Scientific Theology, pp. 85–6.

98 Divine Meaning, p. 385.

99 Ibid., p. 377.

100 Reality and Evangelical Theology, p. 104. Torrance believed Schleiermacher failed to observe the rule, and countered him by proposing that ‘interpretation of a biblical text involves the setting up of a polar relation to a subject-matter which by its very nature entails a polar relation between the witness and God himself. No hermeneutical method or art can be justified which neglects the objective pole in the text and absorbs the subjective pole into its own polar movement’: ‘Hermeneutics According to F. D. E. Schleiermacher’, p. 265. Erasmus is criticised along similar lines for interiorising meaning, thinking of language ‘not so much . . . as significant of things or events but as expression of mental states and moral attitudes’ (‘The Hermeneutics of Erasmus’, p. 51), such that he is ‘the great forerunner of liberal and romantic hermeneutics’ (p. 72).

101 Divine Meaning, p. 8; the permanently conflict-laden character of our dealings with scripture is a pervasive theme in Armin Wenz's (unjustly neglected) book Das Wort Gottes: Gericht und Rettung. Untersuchungen zur Autorität der Heiligen Schrift in Bekenntnis und Lehre der Kirche (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996).

102 The Hermeneutics of John Calvin, p. 164.

103 For recent overviews, see Bowald, M., Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: Mapping Divine and Human Agency (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007); Paddison, A., Scripture: A Very Theological Proposal (London: T. & T. Clark, 2009).

104 Wenz's Das Wort Gottes is, again, a striking example.

105 For example, Wolterstorff, N., Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge: CUP, 1995); Vanhoozer, K., Is there a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Leicester: Apollos, 1998); Vanhoozer, K., First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (Leicester: Apollos, 2002); Ward, T., Word and Supplement: Speech Acts, Biblical Texts, and the Sufficiency of Scripture (Oxford: OUP, 2002).

106 Torrance, T. F., ‘Theological Realism’, in Hebblethwaite, B. and Sutherland, S. (eds), The Philosophical Frontiers of Christian Theology: Essays Presented to D. M. MacKinnon (Cambridge: CUP, 1982), p. 170.

107 A comparative reading of Divine Meaning and Frances Young's Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture displays this point.

108 Funkenstein, A., Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), pp. 206–10.

109 ‘The Place of Christology in Biblical and Dogmatic Theology’, pp. 141–2.

110 Ibid., p. 142.

111 Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian, p. 116.

112 Ibid., p. 116.

113 Ibid., p. 117.

114 Ibid.

115 Ibid., pp. 117–18.

116 ‘The Hermeneutics of Erasmus’, p. 66.

117 Morrison, Knowledge of the Self-Revealing God, pp. 286, 318. Morrison's genealogy of this in Kierkegaard and the early Barth is insecure.

118 Reality and Evangelical Theology, p. 74.

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