A Year in the States

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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Upon returning home to Scotland in 1938 after his first two semesters with Barth, Torrance was persuaded by John Baillie to take over his old position at Auburn Seminary in upstate New York. This provided an opportunity for Torrance to work through all that he had learned from Barth in the context of preparing lectures to seminarians.

At the same time Torrance lectured on the interrelation between Christian theology and natural science and “began to clear the ground for a rigorous Christian dogmatics expressed within the contingent rational order with which the Creator has marvelously endowed the universe.” 29 It was an extremely enjoyable year and Torrance made many life-long friends, which helps account for his numerous trips to the United States over the years.

This early emphasis on the interrelations between theology and science is crucial since it reveals a theme that runs throughout Torrance’s career and his publications: the need for dialogue between theology and natural science and for a scientific theology as methodologically rigorous as the hard sciences. 30

Part of the impetus behind Torrance’s concern here is the fact that he had relatives who were scientists, like Sir Bernard Lovell, a cousin of Torrance’s wife. In the course of a conversation about science and theology, Lovell asked Torrance about his scientific method in theology. Torrance found that he had a lot of work to do to even be able to talk with Lovell about the interrelations between science and theology. This led Torrance into twenty years of hard study of modern science, particularly physics and philosophy of science, and has marked him as one of the most knowledgeable theologians in this area. 31 Toward the end of the academic year (1939) Princeton University contacted Torrance (now twenty-five years old) concerning their new Department of Religion which was to be the first such department at any university in the United States. 32 He met with the committee; Theodore Green, the professor of philosophy, told Torrance that he would have students from diverse backgrounds–unbelievers and believers, agnostics and atheists, Christians and Jews–and that he would have to teach in a disinterested and detached kind of way so as not to offend anyone. Green added, “There must be no proselytizing.” 33 Torrance responded that he would rather “teach theology as a science” where you do not “think in a detached, disinterested way; you think as you are compelled to think by the evidential grounds upon which you work.” 34 Torrance further explained what he meant and added that he could not guarantee that if he taught theology in this way no one would be converted!

Much to Torrance’s surprise, they offered him the position. But it was well after Easter in the spring of 1939 and the situation in Europe was ominous. After breakfast one morning, as he and Emil Brunner (who had been lecturing at Princeton) walked past the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton discussing all of this, Brunner turned to Torrance and said, “I think we should both return [to Europe] before the submarines start!” 35 Torrance immediately decided to turn down the position at Princeton and shortly thereafter left for Scotland intent on becoming an army chaplain. 36

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
29) Torrance, “My Interaction,” p. 55 (#1986-473). Back
30) Thus a significant element of Torrance’s intent as a theologian has been “​​​​​​​to clear the ground for a dogmatics in the modern era, because the kind of dogmatics that we have learned from Calvin and Barth needs to be thought out and expressed more succinctly within the rigorous scientific context in which we work and which will undoubtedly dominate the whole future”​​​​​​​ (Hesselink, “A Pilgrimage,”​​​​​​​ p. 60; #1984-443). Back
31) Ibid., p. 62 (#1984-443). Also see Torrance, “​​​​​​​My Interaction,”​​​​​​​ p. 125 (#1986-473). Back
32) Hesselink, “​​​​​​​Pilgrimage,”​​​​​​​ p. 54 (#1984-443). Back
33) Torrance, “​​​​​​​My Interaction,”​​​​​​​ p. 56 (#1986-473). Back
34) Hesselink, “​​​​​​​Pilgrimage,”​​​​​​​ pp. 54-55 (#1984-443). Back
35) Torrance, “My Interaction,”​​​​​​​ p. 56 (#1986-473). Back
36) Hesselink, “Pilgrimage,”​​​​​​​ p. 55 (#1984-443). Back