Thomas F. Torrance and the Problem of Universalism

If you have access to the Scottish Journal of Theology (probably through your school library) and are into T.F. Torrance then I recommend that you take a look at Paul Molnar’s article Thomas F. Torrance and the problem of universalism.

You can find it in the May 2015 issue. Here’s the abstract:

While Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance both believed in the possibility of universal salvation, they also rejected the idea that we could make a final determination about this possibility prior to the second coming of Jesus Christ. Hence, both theologians rejected what may be called a doctrine of universal salvation in the interest of respecting God’s freedom to determine the outcome of salvation history in accordance with the love which was revealed in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. This article explores Torrance’s reasons for holding that ‘the voice of the Catholic Church . . . throughout all ages has consistently judged universalism a heresy for faith and a menace to the Gospel’. Torrance expressly believed in the ‘universality of Christ’s saving work’ but rejected ‘universalism’ and any idea of ‘limited atonement’. He considered both of these views to be rationalistic approaches which ignore the need for eschatological reserve when thinking about what happens at the end when Christ comes again and consequently tend to read back logical necessities into the gospel of free grace. Whenever this happens, Torrance held that the true meaning of election as the basis for Christian hope is lost and some version of limited atonement or determinism invariably follows. The ultimate problem with universalism then, from Torrance’s perspective, can be traced to a form of Nestorian thinking with respect to christology and to a theoretical and practical separation of the person of Christ from his atoning work for us. What I hope to show in this article is that those who advance a ‘doctrine of universalism’ as opposed to its possibility also have an inadequate understanding of the Trinity. Interestingly, Torrance objected to the thinking of John A. T. Robinson and Rudolf Bultmann because both theologians, in their own way, separated knowledge of God for us from knowledge of who God is ‘in himself’. Any such thinking transfers our knowledge of God and of salvation from the objective knowledge of God given in revelation to a type of symbolic, mythological or existential knowledge projected from one’s experience of faith and this once again opens the door to both limited atonement and to universalism. Against this Torrance insisted that we cannot speak objectively about what God is doing for us unless we can speak analogically about who God is in himself.



Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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