Time to repent – the forgotten sermons of Thomas Torrance

T.F Torrance (1946)

T.F. Torrance (1946)

It is hard to tell which book of Thomas Forsyth Torrance is his most popular. His books on trinitarian theology, like The Trinitarian Faith and The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons, are perhaps among his best known publications.  At the other hand we might also think of his books on Science and Theology: Theological Science for example, or God and Rationality. How this exactly may be, it seems to me that his two collections of sermons, When Christ comes and comes again (1957) and The Apocalypse Today (1960) are largely forgotten nowadays. It’s a fate which they seem to share with other books of that particular period. The two volumes of Conflict and Agreement (1959/1960) for example are hardly ever mentioned in recent literature. In those years TFT was very productive, writing a lot about ecclesiological topics, like the sacraments. The edition of some of his sermons fit in this picture. In his Preface, Torrance indicates that he wanted to offer ‘some doctrinal material for the use of those actively engaged in the work of evangelism’ (When Christ comes…, p.7). Although Torrance would be a theologian of the church all of his life, he was probably at most so in the late fifties.

Alyth Parish Church - Old pulpit

Alyth Barony Church – interior (old situation)

The relative impopularity of his collections of sermons strikes me as odd. In fact, it was due to his book When Christ comes… I became interested in Torrance. About four years ago, I stumbled across this volume in a second hand book shop. At home again, I started reading and from the first page I read, I was struck by the power and intensity of these sermons. Shortly after, I bought The Apocalypse Today, containing, as the title already indicates, sermons about the last book of the New Testament. He preached those sermons during and after the war to the congregations of the Barony Church, Alyth and Beechgrove Church, Aberdeen. One remark about the sermons on the Apocalypse, shouldn’t be omitted: “…while seeking to understand the language of the visions from their Old Testament sources, I have sought throughout to give them the Christological interpretation they demanded”.

As far as I know, there are no other books with sermons of TFT, although a few of them were published in theological journals. In the Preface on The Apocalypse Today, Torrance seems almost as reluctant to publish his sermons as John Calvin was in his days. He writes that ‘…they were not intended for publication’, that ‘they are not meant for the scholar, but for the ordinary member of the Church, who (…) often finds little to guide his understanding outside the fantastic interpretations of the sects’ (The Apocalypse Today, p.5) In the remainder of this post I will offer you two passages from his sermons. Quoting from sermons is, of course, a very arbitrary enterprise. But these quotations both engage with the questions of time, eternity and the need for decision. I hope that, by doing so, it will become clear that – in spite of Torrance’s own proviso – they offer a wealth of theological, pastoral and homiletical reflection.

“God cannot hold Himself back for ever, or rather the sinner cannot live for ever entrenched in his independence, surrounded by all the defences which he builds around his mortal life, in order to protect himself from God. So long as he lives on earth, he can hide himself in time, for as long as he is in time, God waits to have mercy upon him. But when he passes out of time in eternity, all his defences fall away from him, and he stands naked before God. But in eternity he has no time for decision, for repentance, or for faith, for in time the voice of God calls to him and gives him time to make up his mind, and to answer. But when he passes from time into eternity, then all that has gone on in his soul comes to is ultimate crisis. Once that crisis begins, as so many of the parables of Jesus tell us, there is no time for preparation or action. It all happens in a flash, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye.”

Sermon ‘The approach to God’, on Exodus 3,1-15 and John 13,6-8 (When Christ comes and comes again, p.133)

“The Word of God towers over land and sea, and dominates the ages. In the presence of that mighty Word time stands still. Time, as it were, is no more in that hour – it is the moment of eternal decision.
How dearly we human beings love to cling to the passage of time, and how we love to take refuge in days and months and years to escape that decisive moment when we are dragged out of past and present and future to stand face to face with eternal God. Man loves to clothe himself with time. He hides himself behind it, and so hides from eternal God in the multitude of minutes and passing events. That hiding place is discovered when the Word of God falls upon man out of the blue of God’s Heaven, for man is interrupted in his life, dragged out of his hiding place behind procrastination. The Word of God refuses to let him drift aimlessly down the current of time any longer. He is confronted with Eternity and at last he must decide. He cannot bluff himself any longer. That is the divine stroke that suspends the flow of time – the moment of eternal destiny and predestination: mankind face to face in time with the eternal Word of God.”

Sermon ‘The Word of God and Time’ on Revelation 10 & 11:1-15 (The Apocalypse Today, p.83,84)

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