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David Torrance, the Reluctant Minister (1924-)

torrance   Torrance, David W. The Reluctant Minister: Memoirs by David W. Torrance. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2015

No family had more influence on the Church of Scotland in the last half of the Twentieth Century than the Torrance dynasty. Of the six children of China missionary Thomas Torrance, the three sons all became distinguished ministers of the Kirk and the three daughters all married clergy. Now the last surviving son has written his Memoirs. It makes for fascinating reading and provides valuable insight as to where and why the Church of Scotland is where it is today.

My personal debt to the Torrance family is incalculable, for I owe my very life to them. In the autumn of 1937, when my parents were boarding at the Torrance home at 12 Chalmers Crescent. Dad was concluding his doctoral studies at the University of Edinburgh. His father (from the Isle of Lewis) and Mr Torrance had set out from Scotland for China under the auspices of the China Inland Mission months apart in 1896/7 and were in language school together. My mother became pregnant, her third pregnancy after two previous attempts had ended in near-term miscarriages, and those failures had taken a heavy emotional toll. In the warm embrace of experienced Annie Torrance she was encouraged to believe all would be well. Under the skilled care of Dr Graham Brown, a well-known Edinburgh obstetrician and friend of missionaries, Mother was sent home in the middle of her second trimester, deemed fit enough to take the boat to America where I was duly born in early May, appropriately on Mother’s Day. Twenty-eight years later, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon (24 July 1966), my parents and I reconnected with Tom and James and their Mother, then 83 and sprightly, over tea at the familiar Torrance home in Edinburgh and had a friendly chat, reminiscing and discussing the state of the church. Mrs. Torrance was rightly proud of her distinguished family, had lost none of her warm evangelical fervour, but showed little awareness of the mixed theological legacy her sons would leave the Kirk.

The youngest of the Torrance sextet was entering adolescence when my parents were living with the family. And now David, at the age of 90, has just completed his Memoirs. Titled The Reluctant Minister it details the nature of his call to ministry in spite of every effort to turn away from what many of us, looking at the family record, would regard as his inevitable destiny.  David became a Christian at his mother’s knee as a toddler. His father had returned to China, leaving the family in Scotland for seven years. In spite of that seven-year separation as a family it appears that his childhood was an idyllic one, as was his parents’ marriage. He and his two brothers were close in spite of a significant difference in their ages, Tom being almost a surrogate parent. After a year at University, David joined the Royal Scots in 1942 and was posted to India. He was demobbed four years later and resumed his academic work.

The Memoirs shed interesting light on the Torrance’s perspective on a sad incident with the Inter-Varsity Fellowship’s Evangelical Union at the University of Edinburgh which resulted in its breakup. For the academic year 1947-8 David was elected President, succeeding his brother James, and according to his recollection set about to modify the statement of faith from Scripture as “the infallible Word of God” to read “The Bible is the Word of God” as “simpler and more Biblical.” He was surprised when “DJ” (Douglas Johnson, General Secretary of the IVF) came charging up from London two or three weeks later and met with him inquiring “why I wished to lower the evangelical flag and seek to accommodate the Student Christian Movement.” His reaction is astonishing and naïve, to say the least. He was happy with the full statement about inspiration in II Timothy 3:16 but it was too long to print in the CU’s invitation programme. Personally he “accepted and believed that all Scripture as inspired of God” and then rather unhelpfully and in a rare instance of sarcasm in the book he added “I was happy to say if they wished that I also believed the covers!” He seems to have no idea how the resulting split of the Inter-Varsity chapter in Edinburgh affected the future of evangelicalism in Scotland and, on a personal level, impacted some students’ subsequent effectiveness as evangelicals. Of course his justification was that “It was wrong to talk of the inspired Word of God just as it is wrong to say that Jesus is the inspired Son of God” which reeks of Schleiermacher’s subjectivism and Karl Barth as his heir. Far from being unable to argue against Torrance’s position, as he states in the memoir, “DJ” saw in him a highly motivated Christian evangelist and hoped that as he mixed with other students on the executive committee in London they would help him to a more consistent evangelical position.

David stakes out a distinctly Scottish chauvinistic stance: the Scottish IVF travelling secretary was Irish and the English on the committee were intimidated by the Scottish students’ superior theological expertise! Brother Tom’s influence can be clearly detected. It is too bad that Michael Griffiths’ projected biography of Douglas Johnson may now never appear due to Michael’s diminished health. Michael was student chair of the IVF committee at the time. Oliver Barclay, DJ’s #2, is cited as a player in the drama who, as always, treated David with courtesy and respect while in fundamental disagreement. After almost seventy years the old wounds still rankle.  Somehow his father’s advice to pray together with those with whom one may have theological differences is understood as a willingness to cooperate with the liberal Student Christian Movement and even compromise the group’s commitment. Augustine’s motto “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity,” is not a license to capitulate on essentials when the gospel is at stake as one can see, with hindsight, it was. It was a pivotal moment.

From university David went on to serve as an understudy to the famous D. P. Thomson towards the end of the Tell Scotland movement, initiated by Tom Allen. Again DP’s (as he was always known) self-described “centrist” theological position proved very congenial to David. The story of David’s evangelistic forays among the office blocks of Edinburgh, asking time off for employees to attend Billy Graham rallies, and amid the rural landscape of Sutherland, make one aware of how drastically the culture has changed in the intervening years. As with DP’s great model Dwight L Moody, Billy Graham brought together a wide assortment of Christians under the banner of “evangelism” without in his case any clear idea as to what the evangel really was. David deplores the disappearance of the family altar in the homes of Scotland, the decline of Sunday School and youth nvolvement in the kirk with the rise of Sunday sport. He is also remarkably outspoken about his distaste for homosexuality as a Christian option (in spite of or perhaps because of his pastoral heart for homosexuals) but it was his own nephew Ian, brother Tom’s son, who as Moderator of the General Assembly spoke out in a notorious Christmas 2003 sermon in St Machar’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, against so called “homophobia” and became the cheerleader for the homosexual lobby in the Church of Scotland that has now secured its agenda and split and severed the church. Subsequently as President of Princeton Seminary Ian carried his views to America and provided legitimacy for the same innovation that has also roiled the PC(USA).

David Torrance served three congregations with great devotion, pastoral passion, and a ministry that brought many into the Kingdom. He would never leave a pastoral visit – of which there were many – without a prayer and usually a Bible reading. He was tireless in his ministry, exemplary as a presbyter, and diligent in his administration. He did not take pulpit “plums” but was willing to serve small and endangered congregations and build them up into, from his account, vital centres of spiritual life: from ordination in 1955 to1969, Livingston parish church where a new housing estate made the community a suburb of Edinburgh; from 1969-1977, Summerhill Aberdeen, a post-war extension congregation where most of the Session when he came were non-church attenders; and finally from 1977 to 1991, the more settled and historic church of Earlston, a border town, where he also worked in the local mental hospital which helped, with its chaplain’s stipend of £2000, to give the couple some financial freedom and made possible holidays overseas.  This in spite of the fact that his wife was a medical practitioner and, by all accounts, a remarkable woman who has predeceased him in 2008. One would like to have known more about her and about his family. A son, to whom he refers, has followed in the family tradition and is a minister in Glasgow.

This should be required reading for anyone interested in taking the pulse of today’s Church of Scotland. It provides a beautiful picture of pastoral ministry that has been almost completely abandoned: deeply committed to the preaching of the Word twice a Sunday in a scholarly but practical manner, the regular pastoral responsibility of pastor and elders in their districts, the personal work that obviously brought many people to faith in Christ and new life in Him. It is also a reminded of how much has been lost and provides some clues as to why that is so. But at the end of the day, as David Torrance would agree, we clergy are ultimately only unprofitable servants.

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