Iain R. Torrance, a former moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, a scholar and writer with a deep interest in ecumenical concerns, was inaugurated and installed on March 11 as the sixth president of Princeton Theological Seminary.
In structuring his inauguration, Torrance clearly paid attention to today’s ecumenical realities. The inaugural events included presentations from Christian, Muslim and Jewish theologians. And the audience as Torrance gave his inaugural address included a Greek Orthodox leader from New Jersey and more than 60 representatives from institutions of higher education, including the four ancient universities of Scotland as well as U.S. schools not directly connected with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), such as the divinity schools of Yale and Howard universities.
“The congregation in front of me is ecumenical and international,” Torrance said in his inaugural address, adding: “We are honored by the presence of believers from the other Abrahamic faiths.”
Torrance also used his address as a way to raise up concerns he sees affecting both the PC(USA) and Christians more broadly — including how North Americans read the Bible so individualistically, and how he hopes Princeton seminary can be a force in moving Christians beyond locked-in positions on controversial issues such as ordaining gays and lesbians.
Torrance quoted Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian at Duke University Divinity School, who has said: “No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America . . . North American Christians are trained to believe they are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation. They read the Bible not as Christians, not as a people set apart, but as democratic citizens who think their common sense is sufficient for the understanding of scripture.”
Torrance wove through his remarks a basketful of complex theological threads. Among them:
The Christian tradition “has reached virtual deadlock over a whole series of issues, a zero sum game in which if there are winners there are losers also. There are certain questions which we seem incapable of resolving so long as those questions are posed legalistically.” Torrance called for theological imagination in reading the Bible — not locking oneself into a single dimension, not using just one sense, one tradition, one approach.
The seminary can play a role in providing that imagination. “We can pay critical attention to our curriculum so as to prepare people who do not fear or demonize difference; we can provide a context within which that which is controversial may be debated safely,” Torrance said. And “we can teach the virtues which militate against slippage from appropriate defense to crusade, from moral stance to demonisation of the other, from caution before the evidence to intransigence and prejudice.”
The full text of Torrance’s inaugural address, well as biographical information, can be found at the Princeton seminary website http://www.ptsem.edu/inaugural/ .