James Torrance

The Rev Professor James B Torrance

Born: 23 February, 1923 Died: 15 November, 2003, aged 80.

"INSPIRING" may be an over-used word, but it is hard to avoid it when speaking of Professor James B Torrance, who recently died suddenly at his home in Edinburgh. As a theologian, teacher, preacher, colleague, father, husband and grandfather he modelled a way of life that proved to be an inspiration to thousands.

Born in 1923, he was the son of a remarkable missionary couple, Thomas and Annie Torrance, who travelled to China under the China Inland Mission. All six of their children either became, or married ministers in the Church of Scotland.

Educated in Edinburgh, James’ first degree at the University was interrupted by a call to the Royal Air Force in 1944. Returning to complete his MA, he took a first in philosophy and gained a Senior Medal in moral philosophy, logic and metaphysics. Especially influential here was the distinguished philosopher Professor John Macmurray, who held James in particularly high regard. A first in theology at Edinburgh followed, and from there he continued his studies in Marburg and in Basel. After a spell of research in Oxford, he entered parish ministry at Invergowrie, near Dundee, where many came to a living faith through his ministry.

In 1963, he returned to Edinburgh University, and was appointed first to a lectureship in the history of Christian thought, and then as senior lecturer in Christian dogmatics in the Faculty of Divinity. Sixteen fruitful years there led to his appointment as professor of systematic theology at the University of Aberdeen. On the day he left Edinburgh, a packed Rainey Hall at New College honoured him with tumultuous applause.

There can be little doubt that the buoyancy and vibrancy of Aberdeen’s Faculty of Divinity in the late 70s owed a vast amount to his inspiring teaching, and to his bold leadership as Dean. He travelled widely, especially to the United States, Canada, South Africa and Australia, teaching and preaching up to five times a day. As a result, students flocked to study with him from all over the world.

On retirement in 1989, with unstoppable energy he continued to travel widely, and encapsulated the heart his convictions in a remarkable book, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace. In 2001 he was invited to deliver the prestigious Warfield Lectures at Princeton Seminary (soon to be published).

No-one could miss the secret of his inspiration: he lived and breathed what he believed. His life was marked by an open-hearted generosity born of his own conviction that he had been welcomed unconditionally by an open-hearted, generous God. Few who knew him will forget the extraordinary hospitality he and his wife, Mary, showed in their home.

Although blessed with a very acute intellect, never once would he use this to hurt, or put down, or show off. He believed that a pastor should use intelligence not to dazzle but to turn the spotlight on a God, who is prepared to accept us whatever our intelligence. He was famous for making the most complex theological ideas instantly understandable and relevant. Needless anxieties were dissolved by a memorable story, a lucid diagram, or a simple phrase you could take away and chew over.

In an age of ever-narrowing party lines, his hospitality was thoroughly ecumenical. There was never any doubt about his commitment to the Church of Scotland. Devoted to his local Church at Greenbank, he was for a number of years chair of the Church’s panel on doctrine, and unswerving in his dedication to the Kirk in countless other ways. But this did not stop him overseeing official conversations between the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Roman Catholic Church, and representing his Church in intensive conversations with Lutherans and Anglicans.

There was, however, nothing sentimental about his generosity. If he felt that Christian truth was being compromised in any way, he would say so, and say so boldly. In South Africa, he was fearless in highlighting why apartheid was such an affront to the God of Jesus Christ. He engaged directly with such figures as Gerry Adams and FW de Klerk. In academia, he will be best remembered for tirelessly disentangling Calvin from some brands of Calvinism, so concerned was he that the Reformed tradition would not be wrongly caricatured as legalistic, melancholic and fatalistic. Not everyone shared his views. Sparks could fly, and many times he found himself under attack. Invariably, however, his opponents were treated with grace, gentleness and patience.

Although he published extensively, including some critical work in the history of Reformed theology, many longed that he would write more. His greatest legacy, however, are the people he inspired. As a teacher, he offered a vision of what theology could be - not something to be stored away in some dusty attic of the intellect, but something to be lived out in every part of one’s life. Scores of teachers all over the world found their vocation through him, many of them now in prestigious academic and Church posts - in Cambridge, Seattle, Vancouver, Montreal, South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, California, as well as all over South Africa, New Zealand, Australia. His own son, Alan, is currently professor of systematic theology at the University of St Andrews. Hundreds of ministers recovered through him a confidence that they had something to preach and pass on to a world in need.

Scotland has lost one of its most able and exceptional Christian leaders, but his inspiration will reverberate down the generations. That is a legacy beyond price.

He is survived by his wife, Mary, his son, Alan, and two daughters, Heather and Marion.