T.F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction – not quite a review

Posted: May 26, 2014 by J in General

Today I have decided to stop reading T. F. Torrance’s Theology in Reconstruction. It is a book of many profound insights into Christian faith. I have struggled through 190 pages of it over the past year, it has taken me too long.

Torrance is writing in a context of ecumenical concerns. He is in touch with the theological trends and discussions across Western and Eastern traditions, and thinks we can learn from them all. TF sees our disunity as partly the result of the different forms in which we express our theology. He pleads for ‘a critical and scientific approach to the basic forms of theological thinking’, leading to ‘positive reconstruction in accordance with them’. He seems to mean a fresh articulation of our Christian faith in a shape and a language derived from the incarnation of Christ. His hope is that as this project of reconstruction is advanced, ‘unity and logical simplicity [will] emerge, theological disagreements begin to fall away, and a steady advance in coherent understanding takes places in continuity with the whole history of Christian thought.’ (Preface).

Torrance’s book is clearly an attempt to reconstruct, at least in outline, some of these ‘basic forms of theological thinking.’ Part 1 deals with methodological issues. Part 2 with Christology – the incarnation seems to be Torrance’s most basic theological category. And Part 3 with the Spirit. This last part I have just skimmed, and decided not to plough through.

It’s an interesting and attractive thesis: that if we could just rephrase and rearticulate our faith in ways more consistent with the revelation God has given us, then we would all find our differences much smaller than we imagined they were.

Anyway, TF has a go at it. I’m not up to writing a proper review, this material is a bit beyond me. But I’ll give some impressions.

What I love about Torrance is his fresh perspective on so many aspects of Christian faith. He keeps pushing me to think differently, and especially to think Christologically, about everything. It’s amazing how many aspects of the faith I am in the habit of thinking about non-Christologically. Repentance, for example.

Torrance’s project is an ambitious one indeed!

I love his emphasis on the incarnation of Jesus, how he brings it to bear on every matter, and gets new insights and structures of thought from it. I think his favourite word is homoousion. Torrance sees deep problems caused by our lack of emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. This theme in the book is very valuable, and really stretching for evangelicals like me.

TiR is chock full of interesting insights. If you’re feeling a bit stale and need stirring up, it may be just the thing for you.

It’s interesting to see him interacting with other traditions such as the Roman Church. He’s not afraid to be blunt about errors he sees there. But he is also willing to affirm the RC tradition and sympathise with some of its objections to Protestantism. TF is just as willing to criticise his own guys as he is the other guys. That’s gotta be good.

I do not love his writing style. Torrance is a bad writer. He is unclear. It takes a lot of effort to follow his train of thought. TF frequently takes apparent logical leaps, which in reality are probably just him not showing us all his working, just giving us the conclusion. Thanks for the brevity, but really it’s hard to be convinced about what he’s saying, without a bit more linear coherence to the argument. He sounds a times like he is making lots of assertions without bothering  to back them up (let alone explain what they mean for the dummies!).

Torrance tends to write in long sentences, laden down with latinized word-forms. It all gets a bit heavy. I often have to read his sentences twice to get the hang of them.

He also assumes a pretty high level of knowledge re philosophy and theology through the ages. Often mentions people and references their doctrinal ideas, without explaining what they were. ‘After what Ockham did to Augustine’s theory of illumination…’  – that sort of thing.

In fact you so often feel like you’re wading through thick swamp with TF.

There is also the question of Torrance’s use of Reformation figures like Calvin and Knox. He tends to quote or reference them as sources of his ideas. But often the ideas sound more like Barth than like Reformers. When there are quotes, it’s not often easy to see how the Reformer is saying what Torrance says he is saying. There are frequent references to the Scottish Reformation writings, which to be honest after a while becomes a little wearing. I think this is mainly because one is left pretty unconvinced about these sources. Torrance would like to present himself as rediscovering the Reformation. But my feeling is he’s extending, sifting and adjusting it. Why not? – that’s a great thing to do, but just, say so. Anyway that was my frequent feeling as I read.

Overall, it’s a bit of a question whether TiR is worth the effort. If there was nothing else to read, I’d say yes it is. But given you could be reading Gunton, Webster, Hauerwas or Gaffin – all of whom are easier to read than Torrance here – and given I’m a slow reader who will only read a finite number of books before I drop off the perch,  I’d say I’m not sure Reconstructing Theology  is worth my time.

I think it’s not one for the dummies. If you are clever and quick and well read in philosophy, it would probably be great.

And now I’m going to read some easier books!

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