Alan Torrance: The future of theology lies with the body of Christ

Host, chalice, Bible, and statue of Jesus

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The future of theology doesn't lie in the agendas and biases of theologians but with the body of Christ and the one who is the Word of God, says the chair of systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews.

Every theologian is tempted to be a kind of “philosopher-king” who makes God fit into his or her own categories or agendas, says Alan Torrance.

That’s why one of the theologian’s most important tasks, Torrance said, is “to challenge all the ways in which we want to commandeer and distort and impose our own foreign categories and concepts on God’s self-disclosure.”

“There’s only one Lord before whom we bend our knee,” said Torrance, a professor and the chair of systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews. “There’s only one who authorizes and initiates an authentic theology, and that’s Jesus Christ.”

Alan TorrancePart of a family of prominent Scottish theologians, Torrance teaches and publishes in Christian doctrine and theology with particular respect to issues of personhood, political reconciliation and philosophical theology.

He was at Duke Divinity School in April 2014 for the conference “Sounding the Passion: Encounters in Poetry, Theology, and Music” and spoke with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You come from a family of well-known theologians, including your grandfather, Thomas Torrance, your father, James, and his brother Thomas. How did that shape you growing up?

It’s these mutant genes in my grandparents that caused this chaos.

Yes, both my grandparents were missionaries to China. They left as young people and went to remote China where no one had ever met a white person before. My granny had just turned 20 when she set off, and the day she arrived, she was robbed and left with nothing but her Bible and her toothbrush. They were two amazing, remarkable people.

My grandfather was a missionary for decades there, and around 1930, it became so dangerous for the family -- there were six children -- that my grandmother and the three boys and three girls escaped home.

My father never saw his father for seven years, between the ages of 7 and 14. His father stayed behind, to continue preaching the gospel in remote west China.

Just last week -- both my parents have passed away -- I found the letters that my father had written to his dad in China. Every Sunday he wrote a letter after church, and it was heart-rending -- a young lad’s longing for his father and to see his dad again.

I’m telling you this because, for my parents, my father, his brothers and sisters, there was this profound sense of how important the gospel was, and that it claimed our lives. That’s been passed on in some sense to the next generation. There are heaps of us in my generation who are in ministry or in theology.

I have several cousins in ministry, and two of my sons are now -- one is a postdoc in theology, and the other is studying for his Ph.D. in theology at Cambridge and training for the ministry.

My father, James Torrance, had this wonderfully joyful, enthusiastic commitment to the gospel. He felt it was liberating. It was invigorating. It had unparalleled, expansive power, and he lived from that center.

For Dad, there was nothing oppressive about it, so my parents’ family life was incredibly happy. There was a sense of belonging that for my dad stemmed from the gospel.

I remember him citing Matthew -- “call no man father” -- and saying, “Biologically I’m your dad, but in Christ we are brothers.”

My teenage years and on, he always treated me like his brother. I mean, he would discuss issues, financial issues, in an open, dialogical way. It was staggeringly affirming. We had an enormously rich relationship, and it stemmed from the gospel.

Dad was very keen on Romans 12:2, that we are to “be transformed,” not schematized by the secular order and secular concepts of family or society, but to be transformed and think out of Christ for the sake of the discernment of truth.

My dad sought rigorously in every facet of family life to do that, and it made for an extraordinary, joyful, happy, liberative childhood. It set a vision. Both my sisters are extremely keen Christians. One is a missionary, and I’m in the ministry and I’m a professor of theology, of course, and I hope that my sons have caught something of that.

Q: You’ll probably reject this label, but I’ve read references to “Torrance theology.” What does that mean, Torrance theology?

We should never use that term. The agent of theology and the context of theology is the body of Christ.

That’s the body of people who have been metamorphosed, re-schematized, through the discernment of God’s self-disclosure as Jesus Christ -- not in Jesus Christ, as Jesus Christ -- where the divine life is open to us to share. Paul says we are to share, to participate in that bond of inconceivable love between the Son and the Father by the Spirit.

So theology begins there. It doesn’t begin anywhere else. That is where God intends us to understand God and to understand God’s purpose. When we start there and think of God’s self-disclosure out of the biblical witness, what do we see?

First -- and this is what the Torrances are keen to emphasize, but it’s not because they’ve got a particular agenda -- in the Old Testament, the heart of God’s relationship to Israel and to humanity is covenantal. That’s an unconditioned and unconditional promise grounded in love, a promise to be faithful. That’s the context.

What do we see in the new covenant?

Not a contract but a remarkable, once-and-for-all statement of God’s covenant faith in us and God’s fulfilling on our behalf the obligations that stem from that covenant, that we by the Spirit might be set free to share, free from condemnation, in that inclusive and dynamic love that stems from the Triune being of God.

That was the vision of my father, and indeed of T.F. Torrance, but I don’t think it’s Torrancian theology. That seems to be what we have to affirm when we try to think of God’s self-disclosure out of the biblical witness.

Q: You’re part of a panel discussion later today on the future of theology. So what’s the future of theology?

I was asked to speak for 10 minutes on the future of theology, and of course, one’s immediate reaction is, “Wow, what fun! I’ve got the chance now to vent all my ambitions for the discipline.”

And I was about to do that. I sat down with my laptop, and I suddenly thought, “Well, wait a minute, Torrance. What exactly would this be? What would you be doing?”

I’m a later-middle-aged, middle-class white male Scotsman. I’m privileged. I’m secure. I live in a democratic context. I’ve got all sorts of agendas, biases, vested interests and so on.

Is it really my task to come to Duke and vent all that? Clearly not. Indeed, one of the problems with theology is there are all these testosterone-driven theologians out there trying to pull people in the direction of their own agendas and biases.

I found myself thinking, “Where does the future of theology lie?” The future of theology lies with the body of Christ. It lies with the one who is the Word of God, and it is that that generates theology.

How? By gathering a body of people who are reconciled in their thinking, who are re-schematized by it in their worldview and so are given to interpreting the prevailing cultural issues and so on from that center.

That’s where the future of theology lies -- not with Alan Torrance and his agendas. So it becomes a question of, “How can I contribute to that?”

I think the main contribution I have to make is, one, of course, seeking to do what I’m doing now, trying to articulate and witness to the body of Christ. But also, and this is perhaps the greater task, to challenge all the ways in which we want to commandeer and distort and impose our own foreign categories and concepts on God’s self-disclosure.

Because the temptation of every theologian, myself included, is to be the kind of philosopher-king who controls the subject matter, fits it into his prior categories. There’s only one Lord before whom we bend our knee. There’s only one who authorizes and initiates an authentic theology, and that’s Jesus Christ.

So the future of theology lies with our being reconciled to his word reverently and faithfully.

Q: So theology grows out of the body of Christ -- it grows out of a particular body of believers, out of the church, and not the other way around?

Absolutely it does. Totally.

The direction of the pressure of interpretation must always be from God’s self-disclosure to our categories of thought, and not from our prior categories of thought to God’s self-disclosure. My fundamental role as a theologian is working as hard as I can to ensure that I serve the church by ensuring that that is the directionality in the process of interpretation.

That’s very abstract, but to be practical, when we see the word “law” come up in Paul, we don’t just read into that what we mean by law -- civil law, moral law and so on.

No. We ask, what did Paul mean?

He meant Torah. What is Torah?

Torah is the articulation of our response to God’s covenant faith in us: “I am the Lord thy God, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. As I am unconditionally faithful to you, so be faithful to me and to each other.”

That’s what Torah means. So when we are understanding God’s relationship to the world, we need to understand our obligations as response to God first, and not to ourselves. And that means Jesus was just being a good Jew in summarizing the law in this way -- loving God and our neighbors, ourselves, the disabled, the poor, the marginalized, our enemies and so on. There’s only one law that God endorses, and that’s the law.

The whole history of Western theology has been to reverse that, to try to interpret God’s self-disclosure in the light of foreign concepts of law -- natural law, civil law, moral law and so on -- which have not been re-schematized by God’s self-disclosure.

Or we talk about the covenant. The covenant has become, in the West, “contract.” We think in terms of not an unconditional promise on the part of God to humanity, proposing an unconditional love like in a marriage covenant -- we promise to love the other for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer.

That’s what God’s covenant means. But we interpret it as a contract between God and humanity.

Why? Because we’ve taken a concept from our un-schematized or un-re-schematized civil context and imposed it on God’s covenantal self-disclosure, or God’s righteousness. Similarly, we interpret that in terms of concepts of retributive justice.

That’s foreign.

The one theological task of the theologian is to serve the gospel by ensuring that at every point we are thinking and rethinking all our conceptual frameworks from that center.