Recovering the meaning of baptism in Westminster Calvinism in critical dialogue with Thomas F. Torrance
Scott, John Andrew
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This thesis examines and critiques the doctrine of baptism in the theology of Thomas Torrance and utilises aspects of Torrance’s doctrine to recover and enrich the meaning of baptism in Westminster theology. Torrance’s doctrine of baptism has suffered from misunderstanding and has been widely neglected. This arises from Torrance introducing a new soteriological paradigm, that is claimed by Torrance, to be both new, and at the same time to be a recovery of the work of the early church fathers and Calvin. It is the contention of this thesis that Torrance’s soteriological paradigm is more ‘new’ than it is a recovery of either the early church fathers or Calvin. Torrance’s new paradigm is not easily identified as ‘new’ because of Torrance’s creative use of Irenaeus, Athanasius and Calvin. His theology is further misunderstood by many because it is partly seen to derive from his criticism of a caricature of Westminster theology. The purpose here is to provide an exposition of Torrance’s doctrine of baptism, identifying union with Christ and Christ’s vicarious humanity as key doctrines that inform his theology of baptism. Torrance has a distinct and unique soteriological paradigm based on an ontological healing in the incarnation. He refers to this as a ‘dimension in depth’ where the atonement takes place from the virgin birth through to the ascension, where the work of Christ is the person of Christ. It will be argued that Torrance exaggerates the degree to which his views may be found in the early church fathers and in Calvin. It is also suggested that many of his criticisms of Westminster theology have some basis, but that his detailed arguments diminishes his more valid general criticisms. The thesis identifies Torrance’s distinct voice from the early church fathers and Calvin and attempts to dismiss Torrance’s caricature of Westminster theology, so that Torrance’s distinct soteriology can be recognised, his genuine criticisms of Westminster theology considered, and the contribution that he has made on baptism be recovered. The doctrine of baptism that emerges from incorporating many of Torrance’s insights is a reformed covenantal doctrine of baptism that stresses the importance of ontological union for covenantal solidarity, but will reject Torrance’s redemptive understanding of ontological healing. Torrance centres the meaning of baptism in Christ and Christ’s one vicarious baptism for the church, and serves to identify how the church has lost its focus on what lies at the centre of baptism. However Torrance’s doctrine of baptism that argues for the theological primacy of infant baptism lost the debate in the Church of Scotland, which now places a greater emphasis on adult baptism. It is suggested that the reasons for this failure is that Torrance’s doctrine of baptism was developed outside of the framework of covenant theology, and that his doctrine of soteriology on which his doctrine of baptism was based left little room for the human response. The thesis concludes that Torrance’s doctrine of baptism can serve as a model for the recovery of the meaning of baptism. While the central thrust of Torrance’s redemptive ontological union with Christ is rejected, Torrance’s emphasis on union with Christ, the incarnation, the person and work of Christ, and Christ’s vicarious baptism can be incorporated into the reformed doctrine of baptism to recover its meaning.