‘T.F. Torrance and Eastern Orthodoxy: Theology in Reconciliation‘, eds. Matthew Baker and Todd Speidell
Wipf & Stock, 360 pp. $33.60
With any luck, if you’re reading this blog, T.F. Torrance doesn’t need any introduction, but I’ll do a quick one anyway. Torrance was, quite simply, ‘the man’. That should suffice, I think.
Torrance’s proficiency in church history, philosophy, science and theology is well known, but if there was one thing that stands out about him, it’s his ecumenical work, and it’s that particular aspect of his accomplishments with which I am least familiar, so for me, this was a quite a fun learning experience.
This is an important volume, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a collection of substantial, critical, appreciative and respectful engagement. There has been lots of engagement with Torrance, but to have a single book with so much engagement is, to me pretty significant. Second, it’s critical. While it’s appreciative, it points out some serious issues in Torrance, ranging from theological to scientific. For my money, it’s this aspect that is the most important, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.
At 360 pages, and covering most of the issues Torrance is well known for, I’ll refrain from writing a summary of each individual essay and concentrate on a few broad factors that make this volume so important. Right off the bat, the third chapter by Jason Radcliffe, ‘T.F. Torrance and Reformed-Orthodox Dialogue’, gets my endorsement as the most useful chapter. Radcliffe gives you the cliffenotes version of a huge effort at reconciliation and dialogue, sketching broadly the major issues, such as divergence over which early Fathers are the most important, essence/energy, Augustine and Augustinianism, and the ‘Athanasius-Cyril axis’. Chock full of references to correspondences, official minutes and other sources, this essay is worth its weight in gold for a concise but thorough lay of the land.
There are two factors that get at what, to me anyway, form the crux on which so much of Torrance’s theology turns: his interpretation of Athanasius and his scientific realism. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Torrance’s theology stands or falls on his interpretation of Athanasius, and it’s just this interpretation that is criticized sharply by Vladimir Cvetković in his essay, ‘T.F. Torrance as an Interpreter of Athanasius’. You’ll have to read the book for the full story, but the main points of the critique are roughly this: Torrance’s insistence on the importance of the homoousios and perichoresis for Athanasius is not supported by the actual data, at least not in the way Torrance wants it to be (Cvetković notes that while Torrance wants the terms to apply to the relationship between the Father and the Son and the relations within the Trinity, for Athanasius the term is used to describe the relationship between the Son and the Father). Cvetković also notes that the terms were developed significantly after Athanasius’s death. The case is thus made that Torrance was reading these more developed terms back into Athanasius. This is, as far as Torrance’s theology goes, no small assertion.
The second factor, Torrance’s scientific realism, has both substantial as well as methodological import. Torrance’s realist method, argues Stoyan Tanev, in ‘The Concept of Energy in T.F. Torrance and in Orthodox Theology’, led him to oppose (what he took to be) everything dualistic, whether in physics, theology, or philosophy. His realist method formed the backbone of his scathing criticism of the ‘Latin Heresy‘, his rejection of the Orthodox distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies (this essay is also helpful) as well as his distrust of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. In all of these Torrance saw the same destructive dualism at work. Tanev astutely notes that, in the area of physics, Torrance’s commitment to realism as he saw in Einstein put him at odds with the latest developments in physics. Tanev traces this to a deep but ultimately narrow engagement with physics, a result of which is Torrance’s misunderstanding of the Copenhagen interpretation (as was held by, for example, Bohr), and shows how a sympathetic understanding of Copenhagen can actually be more ‘realist’ than Torrance’s own brand of realism. The fundamental issue here is that the dualism which Torrance saw himself in perpetual struggle against is more a dualism of his own making than a dualism-in-fact. This, to reiterate, is no small assertion.
These three essays are for me the most important. The close critical engagement brings out some potentially serious issues and defects in Torrance’s thought at the level of material as well as method – which, if Torrance is to have any relevance for theology today, is exactly the kind of engagement that needs to happen, as well as showing just how the dialogue can move forward. By concentrating sustained criticism on the two most central aspects of Torrance’s though, we are left with both a clearer vision of Torrance’s own theological contributions as well as a clearer way in which to reflect upon the issues with which Torrance was concerned. And these are surely issues worth reflecting clearly on.
While these three are the standouts, there are several honorable mentions (and let me state for the record that every essay is top-shelf). Perhaps the most constructive is Donald Fairbain’s fleshing out of Torrance’s understanding of justification in Cyril of Alexandria – which is a paragon of close exegetical work, especially considering that Torrance himself never wrote at any great length on this subject (it’s noted that Torrance actually only referenced this once in writing in a very quick sidebar). Taylor Carr’s comparison of Torrance and the Orthodox theologian Dumitru Stăniloae on the subject of the rationality of the universe was also delightful, since this was my first engagement with Stăniloae in any way. I also found Mark Mourichian’s essay on the realism of Torrance and St. Ephrem the Syrian fascinating – tracing out similarities in the thought of such distant figures is no easy task, and Mourachian fleshes out quite nicely the importance of realism in both figures. The debate between Torrance and Zizioulas on the divine monarchy makes an appearance in an essay by Nikolaos Asproulis, which gets at the one of the most important theological debates Torrance engaged in. Of no small value is the amount of primary sources – correspondences between Georges Florovsky and two pieces by Torrance on the Orthodox Church really bring home just how committed to ecumenicism Torrance was. As I said above, it was this aspect of Torrance that I knew the least, and the extent to which he put himself into the ecumenical effort is just staggering.
I really have nothing but good things to say about this volume. Even in you didn’t care about Torrance, this book is filled to the brim with serious, scholarly theology – methodological, dogmatic and practical – and charitable, constructive and critical engagement. But, of course, you do care about Torrance – so go out and get this book. You’ll be glad you did.
**NOTE** I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review which in no way guaranteed a positive review