Theology: A Visit With Tom Torrance, Master Theologian

John McKenna first met his mentor, Tom Torrance, in 1982 at Fuller Theological Seminary, when the visiting professor delivered the Payton Lectures.

At the start of my June 17 to 24 trip to visit my mentor, Tom Torrance, in Scotland, on British Airways flight 282 from Los Angeles to London, I sat beside an English girl whose father left Baghdad as a Muslim years ago and now lives in England as an Anglican.

One of his sons had become a producer in Hollywood, and Ellie, his young daughter, was still seeking for her way in life. She took my business card and promised to read books written by Tom Torrance before too long.

On the plane from Heathrow Airport in London to Edinburgh, George Harrow, a real estate broker, sat beside me. He was a truly Scot businessman and gentleman. Surprisingly, he offered me a ride from the airport to my hotel. I promised to send him in the way of thanks something from Pasadena, California. He hoped I would enjoy my visit with my old mentor.

Arriving in Edinburgh

The Braid Hills Hotel overlooks one of the seven hills of Edinburgh and a green and windy golf course. On one of these hills rests the Royal Castle, overlooking the old city’s baroque architecture. The trees wave in the wind upon the hills, the clouds move swiftly above in a sky that brings rain and sun quickly. With nothing else to do, you can watch them write in rain and sun God’s own secrets above you.

The waves of light and darkness move across this good earth at Edinburgh’s latitude bringing long days and short nights with them, and the unpredictable cycles of the weather. The hotel is used by Scottish golfers and international tourists alike.

The halls of the hotel are lined with portraits of golfers Frederick Guthrie Tate and John White Melville, as well as those of great personages such as Sir Walter Scott, Mary, Queen of Scots, Flora MacDonald, Lady Charlotte Campbell, Prince Charles Edward Stewart and James VII. The stained glass windows along the hallways contain images not of saints but golfers. It is a truly civilized place, with small well-kept rooms just right for the traveler.

I begin my stay through some hours of anxiety. When Tom left the hospital after being treated for his stroke, he did not go home to his family, but to the Braid Hills Nursing Home. There he had a fall, bruising himself but not breaking any bones. I must wait to see him. I feel sick.

The next day, Tom’s brother James and James’ wife Mary picked me up at the hotel and took me for lunch at a wonderful country pub. We ate Scottish salmon, boiled white potatoes and fresh vegetables, and James taught me his Trinitarian Theology.

James and Mary Torrance with John McKenna
at an Edinburgh country pub.

Professor James B. Torrance bears heavily the burden of the Christian church’s tendency to interpret legalistically the grace of our Lord for us. Legalism thus confines congregations all over the world to a worship that is cut off from real union and communion with our Creator and Redeemer. Communion with the Blessed Trinity, not truly realized, breeds a nominalism that imprisons people in a religion alienated from the real power of the gospel. The believer is not truly free for the gift of God’s freedom for his people.

Legalistic repentance is not biblical, he goes on. It turns upside down the relationship of grace to repentance. Whole congregations can become alienated who worship God in this manner. They remain fragmented in their faith, unable to participate actually in the divine nature and being of our Lord. The church then becomes absorbed by the world’s agenda. Once Professor Torrance makes sure you understand these things, then you may move on to speak of family, friends and far countries.

After the good food, James and Mary drove to their home for tea. Mary showed me pictures of their clan, their children and their children’s children dressed at a wedding party together in full kilts. A wonderful family indeed! The grandchildren possessed considerable musical abilities, she boasted. James gave me two books that his students had written, students now pastoring churches. He was happy to hear about our transformation and liberation from legalism, about a community seeking truly by the grace of God to worship in Spirit and truth the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of the Blessed Trinity. After tea, James drove me to the nursing home to greet Tom.

Seeing Tom in nursing home

I hate nursing homes, because I once served as an intern in them in Los Angeles. It was not easy for me to contemplate the Very Reverend Professor Thomas Forsyth Torrance living in one of them. But the Braid Hills Nursing Home was pleasantly laid out and surprisingly free of the smell of sickness, and full of an aroma that only comes with great care.

Tom looked up at us from his bed in his room, much older than I had ever seen him, and smiled a smile at me and said, “John, how are you?” I was delighted. Whatever his stroke meant for his arms and legs, however much he had to live with his short-term memory loss, it was clear to me immediately that there was plenty of life in him yet.

Tom Torrance (left)
and John McKenna in Edinburgh, Scotland.

James did not need to reintroduce me to his brother. “How is [your wife] Mickey?” “How is [Mickey’s son] Paul?” I showed my old mentor their greeting cards. I gave him a Coptic newspaper published in Cairo, Egypt, in which appeared my article on John Philoponos, the sixth-century Alexandrian scientist Tom has championed.

But the man whom I consider to be our greatest living theologian seemed unable to attend all at once to all these things. (His eyes may be failing him.) We simply agreed then to begin our meetings together the next morning. As we left the room, James told me that I was fortunate that Tom had recognized me right away. Fortunate, indeed, I was to be able to visit with the Torrances of Scotland, champions of trinitarian theology in the Church of Jesus Christ and its relationship to our scientific cultures.

I felt that my visiting with Tom might have a good effect on him. I believed we would be able to cut beneath his problems and get to that which remained substantial for him. I looked forward to our times together. Driving back to the hotel, James pointed out the Hermitage Park, where I might walk in the evening. I took the hint and that evening met a Scot with his dog along the wonderful park’s path. We exchanged words easily. I learned that dogs in Edinburgh are never aggressive, unlike so many in Los Angeles.

The walk took me mysteriously through the woods farther from the hotel than I realized, and I found myself back at the Braid Hills Nursing Home. Yes, tomorrow Tom and I would begin our visits there. I had the home call me a cab. I was too tired to retrace my steps. From my hotel room I called Mickey. She was as excited as I was.

In the morning, at 10 a.m., I was back in the nursing home. Tom was sitting up next to his bed finishing his breakfast. He moved his old body to his bed to give me his chair. I put on a tape recorder and he said hello to Mickey into it. But he is not really up to confronting things thrust upon him like that.

I spent some time showing him the latest results from Kip Thorne’s LIGO project with the California Institute for Technology. We looked at how gravitational waves would open up for us a new window on the universe, take us all the way back to Planck time just after the original Big Bang.

We remembered together John Archibald Wheeler and Jim McCord of Princeton University, and then others we have known, Geoffrey Bromiley, friend of Barth’s Dogmatics, Lloyd Ogilvie, a former student just retired as U.S. Senate chaplain, Ray Anderson and more.

He talks easily about his childhood in China. He remembers his visits to Fuller Theological Seminary. He speaks about Elmer Colyer’s book, and we agree that the Methodist theologian has done an admirable job apprehending and explaining the scope of Tom’s works.

It seemed that Tom could readily recover from the effects of the stroke. He could go home again. But when I asked him about his stroke, he says he can remember nothing of it. He describes his problem as follows: “If I can get back enough independence, I will go home. If I cannot, I am ready to go to heaven. I am looking forward to it.”

Back in my hotel room, I read in Tom’s Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons. The “hypostatic union” cannot be properly understood except in the context of the “homoousial relation” between the persons of the Father and the Son.

Love comes for us in this way and no other, exposing the mystery of God’s being for us as this man that he truly is in the world. Love never fails. Nothing can separate us from his love. Even in all of our grief and sorrow, there is this love of God for us in Christ. This is the God who is love. This is the God we need to know.

When I spoke again with Mickey on the phone, I was delighted to hear that Paul Drew, her son, had agreed to come to Scotland to take care of Tom, if that would help. Paul is a caregiver, and he said it would be for him, an artist, like taking care of Picasso. But when I speak about this with Tom’s wife, Margaret, genuinely pleased for my visit with her husband, she is sure it will not be necessary. But she was happy for my visit. It was most kind of me. She felt sure, she says, that it was good for both of us. Yes, divine love conquers all.

There lived a somewhat demented woman next to Tom in the nursing home. She cries out loudly at times: “Help me! Where am I? Help me! Where am I?” Tom refers to her as a “poor soul.” After a number of visits, I thought he actually looked forward to having lunch with his new colleagues in the home. I believed, with plenty of the old pluck in him, he pastored them.

Tom was still the evangelist at heart whom I first met when he delivered, in 1982, the Payton Lectures at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. We had ample opportunity to speak again and again of our Lord and the worship of His Blessed Trinity and the wonderful theology of grace which we must develop through our communion with him in our time.

The third evening, Thomas Spear Torrance, Tom’s youngest son, visited me at the hotel. I was surprised by the range of his interests. He is an investment banker who likes to talk about black holes and multiple universes and mathematics. He explains to me the algorithms of prime numbers employed to protect the business of the banking community.

He informs me that both he and his brother Ian started out studying philosophy in Edinburgh. Ian has become the moderator of the Church of Scotland. Thomas, besides his banking career, handles the family affairs at 37 Braid Farm Rd. In the midst of our conversation, Mickey calls, and also speaks with him. He seems happy with us.

Thomas Spear Torrance gives me Tom’s latest book, Theological and Natural Science, and we discuss Tom’s final studies of the relationship between theology and science. His dad traces in this book, from John Philoponos through James Clerk Maxwell to Albert Einstein and Michael Polanyi, his lifelong engagement with the epistemological development of this relationship. This, for Tom, is the way to follow Christ, when the church will be relevant to the way the world is going.

In the morning, Tom looked better than the day before. His short-term memory loss is not a problem for us. We talked about Philoponos and Maxwell. They both wrestled with the problem of light and the nothingness of the creation. Both impetus and light theory were important to understand not only for physics, but also for theology.

I pointed out that, if the gravitational waves took us back to Planck time and electromagnetic waves to 100,000 years after the Big Bang, the invisible structure of an “impetus” theory had to provide the context in which light became what it is. Perhaps Philoponos and Maxwell wait still for the ultimate justification of the meaning of their physics? Tom said he would think about it.

Also, we spoke about our imageless knowing. I told him how last night at the hotel, Thomas had suggested I use the square root of minus one as an illustration for it. Tom simply replied that no one pictures a soul or a mind either. We know ourselves and God without image finally or we do not know either at all, except in fragmented forms. We shook hands then and I left him to his nap and lunch.

Because Tom had suggested I go and visit Professor David Ritchie at Maxwell’s home, now a museum for the great Scottish scientist and a active center for mathematical physics, I made my way to downtown Edinburgh. The Maxwell home was closed on Sunday, but I found a pub near the castle just off the Royal Mile. The waitress was a girl from Paris. She was in Edinburgh to learn English. It was a friendly city, she said. But John Philoponos’ “impetus” theory kept ringing in my ears, its embrace of a light theory was new in my imagination. I felt grateful to God for this place.

Tom appeared even better the next morning. He smiles with deep satisfaction in his eyes. He was successful in gaining some independence of movement. He talks easily of people again. Even if we go over some things two or three times, I do not find it merely repetition. There is a melody being played with him in a rather grand symphony.

He signs the book Thomas gave me and we talk about its essays. He agrees with me that the overlapping in the essays is no mere repetition. How often and in how many contexts must we hear before we truly hear what it truly is that is being said? It is more like a melody in a symphony.

He spoke about some trouble he had with a dream, his boyhood in China, and he recalled his confrontations with Dan Fuller. He spoke then of Pannenberg and Moltmann, disappointed in their tendencies toward reductionism.

Finally, he mused about what Karl Barth would think of what he has done. He is adamant about the natural theology to which he has pointed us. It is not the natural theology to which Barth had uttered his “Nein.” He wags his head strongly against those who would think to use it as such for their apologetics.

The natural theology for which he seeks is real only within the light of the revelation of God’s reconciliation of the race to himself as the Creator and Redeemer of the world. The fact that we must allow the Incarnation to inform us as to the justification of the creation out of nothing in the beginning cannot escape our attention, if we are going to get things right.

We speak then about the “perichoresis” in the relations of the Son with the Father, the differentiation that must be understood between that of the “hypostatic union” of the divine and human natures of the Person of the Lord and that of His “homoousial relation” with the Father by the Spirit. The spacetime of the Incarnation cannot be separated in these relations from the eternity of God Himself. It is under the compelling reality of this One that science has been developed in our world. Everything must be understood in this light or not at all.

We speak again of Mickey and Paul, of Margaret, Alison, Ian and Thomas. We speak of his brother James and Mary, and he says he is tired. We exchange places again—he to his bed, me to his chair. On the bed, he is soon ready for his nap. I remind him about the chocolate fudge cake I brought for Alison from the Buckstone, where once he and Barth lunched and talked together. Then I say good-bye.

Beside the nursing home, horses feed in a green field. The winds move the clouds across the sky speedily, and it is sometimes rain, sometimes sun one after another too quickly for me to walk back to the hotel. I call a cab. I never leave him without feeling a vague regret in my soul. I remember his smile. Once back at the hotel, I plan to read his Christian Doctrine of God again.

But I tell the cabbie to drive me to downtown Edinburgh. I wandered the city in the rain and sun, watched three young men formed into a rock and roll band playing beside a statue of General Wellington reared up on his horse near the Jenners department store. Edinburgh is at once Medieval and modern. Here Christian memory still produces a respect for intelligence. Self-destruction appears restrained. I liked wandering purposelessly its streets.

Tired at last, I stopped at a bar-restaurant near the cabstand that would get me back to the Braid Hills Hotel. I ate fresh baked Scottish salmon and drank some wine. My waitress is from New York, so we talked a bit. She is here just for the experience like the girl from Paris.

Somehow we get round to speaking about Israel and Israel’s great Shema: “Hear O Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” When I write the words down in my journal, she leans over and we recite them together. She tells me she has not said them for many years.

Thomas Spear Torrance had asked me why it seems the church is losing its members so steadily, why the church appears so irrelevant to the modern world. I thought how that Jesus is way out ahead of us all the while, calling his people to himself. No matter if it is Hollywood, Broadway, Paris or the others, we need to be able, do we not, to look forward to going to heaven? Everywhere, we need, do we not, divine forgiveness? The regret I felt to leave Tom was now long gone from me.

This morning, June 23, Thomas called me just before I was about to leave the hotel for Tom’s room at the nursing home to inform him that his dad had fallen again. They had taken him to the infirmary for X rays. I would not be able to see him again before I left for California. I caught a cab for downtown and found the Maxwell house again. XIV India Street is a Centre for Mathematical Sciences in his honor. I spend an hour looking at the place of his birth and memorabilia of his science.

Today, the science of this radiation is much devoted to medical uses. I leave a card on which I put Tom’s greetings to Professor Ritchie. I walk the streets again, buy a shirt for Paul Drew at the Hard Rock Cafe and then find the Guildford Arms, where men are still men and they stand at the bar hanging on the brass rail under the well lit dark wood and ales provided for their conversations. Time and space sometimes curve in such a way that even what seems lost may be found. The human race is lost and found, like the long days and short nights of Edinburgh, like the sun and the rain the winds with the clouds bring, like our good-byes and our hellos.

The last time I visited him, Tom Torrance asked me to tell him about our denomination. What do I do for it? How is it doing? Both James and he are happy to hear that we are committed to learning to worship by his grace the Blessed Trinity of God in Christ. It is the Truth that sets us free, indeed. It is the Truth that makes the church always relevant in the world.

On behalf of our denomination, I said good-bye to the Torrances in Scotland, knowing full well we would say hello again, even if it is sometime in heaven. It was good to know on the plane back to Los Angeles that they are praying for us.

Author: John McKenna


Help us provide more content like this by giving today