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The Role of the Theologian: an Interview with Alan Torrance

“The agent of theology and the context of theology is the body of Christ,” according to Alan Torrance, the chair of systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. In an interview conducted during a visit to Duke Divinity School in 2014, the grandson, nephew and son of prominent Scottish theologians Thomas, James and Thomas F. Torrance said, “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.”

It is that sense of being claimed by the Gospel that helps clarify the Torrance family take on theology: “There is only one Lord before whom we bend our knee. There is only one who authorizes and initiates an authentic theology, and that’s Jesus Christ.” At the heart of that divine self-disclosure is the Old Testament covenant relationship that God initiates with Israel and humanity. “That’s an unconditioned and unconditional promise grounded in love, a promise [by God] to be faithful,” Torrance maintained, and it leads to the new covenant in Jesus.

“What do we see in the new covenant?” he asked. “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.” It is a concept that Torrance said needs to be reaffirmed in the face of so many modern “testosterone-driven theologians out there trying to pull people in the direction of their own agendas and biases.”

Recognizing his own all-too-human tendency to advance his own agendas and biases, in the interview archived on Faith & Leadership, an online offering of Duke Divinity School, Torrance said, “The future of theology lies with the body of Christ. The question for theologians, as well as for every Christian, is “How can I contribute to that?” Faithful theology, he said, recognizes that “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.”

In practice, that means for example that when we read in Paul the word “law,” we cannot import into it what we mean by “law.” Rather, we have to ask what Paul meant by the word; he meant Torah. That pushes us to understand what Torah is — and what it isn’t. When we have the interpretation correct and we properly understand God’s relationship to the world, he said, we are led to understand our obligations as first of all a response to God before any obligation to ourselves. For more on faithfully responding to God, see our feature article, “Best Resources on Worship.”

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