Graduate Studies

Excerpt from “Torrance’s Life and Achievement,” in Elmer Colyer, How to Read T. F. Torrance: Understanding His Trinitarian & Scientific Theology (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001); #2001-EMC-1a. All rights reserved; used by permission of Elmer Colyer and InterVarsity Press.

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Here he concentrated on systematic theology, though the first two years (1934-1936) were largely devoted to Greek, Hebrew and biblical studies. Torrance’s proficiency in all phases of Greek–classical, septuagintal, New Testament, patristic and modern–earned him a John Stuart Blackie Fellowship and enabled Torrance to pursue studies in the Middle East, three months in Palestine and the Arab countries, and in Turkey and Greece for an additional three months. 15

At New College, Torrance’s influential mentors were H. R. Mackintosh and Daniel Lamont. 16 Mackintosh introduced Torrance to the theology of Karl Barth in 1935. Torrance purchased and read Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1 as soon as it came out in English translation in 1936. 17 This was an “immensely exhilarating” experience and Torrance found himself captivated by Barth’s insight into the ontology and objectivity of the Word of God, God himself in his revelation. What especially gripped Torrance, was Barth’s “account of the Trinitarian content, structure and dynamism of God’s self-revelation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, expounded in terms of the biblical roots of our Christian faith and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.” 18

At this early stage of his theological development Torrance became utterly convinced that any rigorous scientific approach to Christian theology must begin with actual knowledge of God reached through God’s self-revelation in Christ and the Holy Spirit. Theology’s task is to inquire into the essential connections embodied in this knowledge of God as it arises out of God’s self-revelation and self-communication to us. 19 This implied for Torrance “that the Incarnation constitutes the ontological ground of our knowledge of God and must be allowed to occupy its controlling centre. But it also meant that if the activity of the Holy Spirit is to be taken seriously both divine revelation and our understanding of it must be thought out in dynamic and not in static terms.” 20 Despite his intense interest in these kinds of fundamental theological questions, Torrance’s intention at this point was still to enter the mission field. During his second year at New College, he had organized a large meeting (a missionary conference) with students and invited Robert Wilder, one of the founders of the Student Volunteer Movement, from the United States as a speaker in order to recruit others for missionary service. 21

However, Torrance won a scholarship for three years of postgraduate work and decided to study in Basel with Barth. So in 1937 he went off first to the Hegelhaus in Berlin to work on his German. He stayed for only a month since Mussolini was coming to Berlin and Torrance sensed that he was already under suspicion. 22 From there he traveled to Marburg where he continued his German studies and met Rudolf Bultmann. When Torrance finally arrived in Basel to study with Karl Barth, he “proposed as a thesis to work out a scientific account of Christian dogmatics from its Christological and soteriological center and in the light of its constitutive Trinitarian structure.” 23 Barth thought this was a bit ambitious! After Torrance told Barth that he saw the inner bond giving coherence to the whole structure of Christian theology in “the unique kind of connection found in Grace,” Barth suggested that Torrance look at the way in which grace came to be understood in the second century. 24 The result was Torrance’s thesis, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers (#1948-017). 25

The two semesters spent with Barth “made an immense impact” on Torrance. 26 He heard Barth’s lectures on the doctrine of God that later became Church Dogmatics II/1, read I/2 and engaged in intense theological discussion with his Doktorvater (academic supervisor) in public and private seminars. 27 Many years later Torrance commented that Barth’s “doctrine of God is simply the best thing of its kind.” 28

15) Ibid., p. 52 (#1984-443). Back
16) Ibid. (#1984-443). Also see D. Torrance, “T. F. Torrance,”​​​​​​​ pp. 6-7 (#2001-DWT-1). Mackintosh died while Torrance was in Syria. Back
17) Thomas F. Torrance, “​​​​​​​My Interaction with Karl Barth,”​​​​​​​ in How Karl Barth Changed My Mind, ed. Donald K. McKim (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986; #1986-473). Back
18) Ibid. (#1984-443). Back
19) Ibid., p. 52-56 (#1984-443). Back
20) Ibid., p. 53 (#1984-443). Back
21) Ibid.​​​​​​​ p. 52 (#1984-443). Back
22) Ibid., pp. 52-53 (#1984-443). Back
23) Torrance, “​​​​​​​My Interaction,”​​​​​​​ p. 54 (#1986-473). There is an irony to this, since Torrance has spent his life preparing the ground for this kind of Christian dogmatics, yet he has been unable to complete the three-volume dogmatics that has been his ambition since his early encounter with Barth. See Hesselink, “A Pilgrimage,”​​​​​​​ p. 61 (#1984-443). Back
24) Torrance, “My Interaction,”​​​​​​​ pp. 54-55. Also see Hesselink, “A Pilgrimage,”​​​​​​​ p. 53 (#1984-443). Back
25) Thomas F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1948; #1948-017). Back
26) Torrance, “My Interaction,”​​​​​​​ p. 54 (#1986-473). Back
27) Ibid. (#1986-473). Back
28) Bauman, Roundtable, p. 112 (#1990-530). Torrance views the doctrine of God in Church Dogmatics II/1, 2 as the high point of Barth’s Dogmatics. See Torrance, “​​​​​​​My Interaction,”​​​​​​​ p. 54 (#1986-473). Back