New Princeton Seminary Head Envisions Growth and Civility

The sixth president of Princeton Theological Seminary envisions growth and civility for the nation’s largest and oldest Presbyterian institution.

The Rev. Iain Torrance, who was installed formally last month, shared his hopes and visions for the historic Protestant school in a recent interview.

According to the Star-Ledger, the new leader sees a massive potential in the 192-year-old institution to help solve problems facing the denomination, which he hopes in turn will help improve the society.

"Why did I come to Princeton? I believe in its potential," Torrence told the Star-Ledger.

"This seminary has an enormous potential to do good, to be at the forefront of changing the agenda in theological education," he said.

A native Scottish, Torrence served as moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland from 2003 to spring 2004 -- a position that helped place him at the center of the operation of the Church of Scotland, the mother church of Presbyterian Church USA.

An advocate of interfaith dialogue and open discussions, Torrance says he abstains from taking any one particular side when it comes to controversial issues and hopes the seminary can help “civilize the tone of public debate in society.”

For instance, when asked for his views over the issue of homosexuality, he said, "The posing of that question is itself part of the issue. That Americans are extremely hungry for single answers and solutions, and a search for 'one side or the other' is not going to lead to an improvement here.

"I am chiefly concerned by the divisiveness that such debates have produced and the way in which either side demonizes the other," he added.

Regarding the membership decline that Presbyterian and other mainline Protestant denominations have faced over decades, Torrance said “there are no quick fixes” to counter the problem.

"When I visit alumni gatherings, often people ask me, 'How are you going to prevent the institutional church's decline?' There is no simple answer to that."

However, he sees an opportunity to learn from nondenominational "megachurches," which are growing at a phenomenal rate.

"The growth of the megachurches is a testimony to the vitality of Christian spirituality in America. ... I am very interested in engaging in dialogue with them. ... I believe that institutions like this one have much to say to the megachurches, but we also have much to learn."

Torrance, who started his service at the seminary last July, also expressed his excitement on the school's Hispanic Theological Initiative, which seeks to attract more Hispanic people to teach at seminaries. Only 135 of 3,000 Christian seminary faculties in the United States and Canada are Hispanic, he said.

Over the past year, Torrance has acquired popularity among the school faculty.

David Mace, a seminary trustee who chaired the presidential search committee, said the school will benefit from Torrance's administrative experience, and that his European contacts will help it become more internationally-oriented.

"He has a whole set of contacts and experience in Europe that a local person in this country would not have," Mace said. "That appealed to us because Princeton Theological Seminary really is a worldwide seminary. We bring students from Africa, Asia and more recently Latin America, and our students are placed virtually everywhere in the world."

George Newlands, a professor of divinity and systematic theology at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, said Torrance has a modest demeanor that he predicted the faculty will come to appreciate.

"He thinks you can only move forward on the basis of consensus -- you can't rush things," said Newlands, who has known Torrance for decades. "That's a part of his diplomatic ability; he's able to sense that you're not to be stuck forever with past passions, but equally you don't rush in to immediately change."

"He's an intellectual, clearly one of the smartest people I ever met, and there's probably no one on the faculty that is his intellectual superior," said James Kay, professor of homiletics and liturgics at the school.

The Rev. Torrance earned an M.A. in mental philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and a B.D. in New Testament languages and literature at St. Andrews University, and moved on to Oriel College, Oxford University where he received a D.Phil in Syriac patristics (study of Early Church fathers).

After serving a Church of Scotland parish in the Shetland Islands from 1982 to 1985, Torrance lectured in New Testament and Christian ethics at Queen's Theological College and the University of Birmingham. In 2001, he was named dean of the Faculty of Arts and Divinity at the University of Aberdeen where he taught patristics and Christian ethics.

He has written and edited books on Christian history, rituals and ethics: "Christology after Chalcedon," "To Glorify God: Essays on Modern Reformed Liturgy" and "Human Genetics: A Christian Perspective." With interest in ecumenics, he is a member of the international dialogue between the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Orthodox Church.