Book Review: ‘Thomas F. Torrance and the Church Fathers: A Reformed, Evangelical and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Patristic Tradition’, by Jason Robert Radcliff

Thomas F. Torrance and the Church Fathers: A Reformed, Evangelical and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Patristic Tradition‘ by Jason Robert Radcliff

Pickwick Publications, 248 pp. $22.40

I was extremely excited about reading this book – there’s no way around that. This is also an extremely important book – there’s no way around that either. Quite simply, this is an essential volume if you read Torrance – and as far as I know, is one of the, if not the only, full-length treatment of Torrance’s appropriation and reconstruction of Patristic theology, and this alone makes it noteworthy.

Radcliff presents us with five chapters on various aspect of Patristic theology and Torrance. The first chapter is a brief (perhaps ‘concise’ is a better word here) historical overview of the reception and use of consensus patrum  in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, early Protestantism, later Protestantism, and 19th/20th century Protestantism. While concise this overview is thorough and heavily footnoted, and sets the tone for the rest of the book in two ways. The first way is that doctrines and names are surveyed in a historiograph-ical manner, focusing on the development and reception of doctrines and less on the substance of the doctrines themselves. Thus, for example, Radcliff, in looking at Roman Catholicism’s reception of the consensus patrum, focuses on the Catholic interpretation of the Fathers through Augustine and Aquinas, as opposed to specific doctrines. The same goes for the various other traditions in this chapter. The second way is seen in the conclusion, where Radcliff notes that Torrance (a) rooted his idea of the consensus in  the doctrine of the homoousian and (b) is giving a thoroughly evangelical and Reformed reconstruction of the consensus. This latter notion is fleshed out a bit more in the next chapter, where it’s set in contrast to the more typical Protestant rediscovery of the Fathers.

The second chapter surveys in a manner similar to the first the ‘discovery’ of the Fathers by mid-twentieth century Protestants, focusing on a few key aspects of this ‘discovery’, namely that it tended to be a more or less subjective appropriation , or, failing that, a more ‘holistic’ appropriation that led to conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Leading figures in the evangelical movement such as the late Peter Gilquist are put forward as examples of a piecemeal way of appropriating the Fathers in such a way as led to eventual conversion, while figures such as Thomas Oden are put forward as evangelicals who appropriated the Fathers into their own traditions in a more holistic sense. Brian McLaren is put forward as an example of the Emergent/Emerging Church style of appropriation, which Radcliff notes is usually an eclectic and fairly unfair appropriation. The contrast here with Torrance is roughly twofold: (1) instead of various piecemeal approaches, Torrance inhabited the texts and thoughts of the Fathers and was informed by their theology, in their own context. (2) Torrance saw himself as part of an ongoing reformation of the church, and his recovery and appropriation of the Fathers was in service of that reformation.

The third chapter is where most of the meat is. This chapter is why you bought this book. Here, we see how Torrance, reading the Fathers theologically (this is a key point I’ll come back to shortly), reconstructed the consesnsus. The various themes treated here are all fairly well-trod ground for those who have read Torrance: the homoousian,  the Trinity and the monarchy of the Trinity, kata physin theology over against negative theology, and other themes are all here. Again, this is fairly familiar ground. What makes this chapter worth its weight in gold is that Radcliff draws out just how Torrance himself is able to draw these themes out of the Fathers:

‘It is important to note that Torrance interprets The Fathers as a theologian and a dogmatician rather than a patrologist. As such, rather than historically, Torrance read The fathers theologically and, more specifically, Christologically. Thus, Torrance’s reading and use of The Fathers neither simply resemble traditional patrology nor indeed Reformed dogmatic theology; it is rather a uniquely construed Reformed evangelical reconstruction of The Fathers and their theology. Herein, Torrance’s project has much to offer contemporary systematic and evangelical theology and indeed patrology as a unique “evangelical patristic dogmatics”. In is reading of The Fathers Torrance remains centered on the this reconstructive approach. This allows and fresh insight of The Fathers by means of his imaginative connections, re-reading, and re-situating of The Fathers by bringing in fresh questions to The Fathers and attempting to imaginatively reconstruct their answers in order to explore the relevance in his own theological context.’ (p. 56)

To me, that’s the money, right there. If you take nothing else away from reading this book, take away that quote. Read it, read it again, and live it. This is the key to understanding how Torrance ‘does it’. This is his methodology and his schematic, and herein lies his great strengths and his weaknesses, which Radcliff discusses in the conclusion of the book.

The fourth chapter focuses on what Radcliff calls the various ‘streams’ in Torrance’s reconstruction of the consesnus. These streams are basically historical trajectories, and include the ‘Athanasius-Cyril’ stream, the evangelical stream (which he sees Barth as standing in as well as inheriting the Nicene stream), the Augustinian stream, and the Cappodician stream. Torrance sees ‘…certain areas of theological history best captured the inner structure of the Gospel.’ (p. 114), and a negative consequence of this is that certain areas of theological history don’t capture the inner structure of the Gospel all that well. As is expected, Torrance sees the Athanasius-Cyril stream as capturing the Gospel, and the Augustinian stream, which is where he sees a harmful dualism between God and Christ, as not as successfully capturing it. Perhaps the most interesting section of this chapter is where Radcliff deals with Torrance’s interaction with the Cappodicians and Byzantine theology, which was centered on the Cappodicians concept of ‘being’, the monarchy of the Trinity, subordination and the energy/essence distinction. I won’t give away too much, but this is perhaps the richest historiography in the book.

The penultimate chapter deals with the ecumenical relevance of Torrance’s reconstruction of the consensus. Here Radcliff highlights the extent to which Torrance’s reading of the Fathers as a theologian and dogmatician allow him to bring the Fathers into conversation with contemporary debates as well as various other figures throughout the history of the church.Various themes here include catholicity,  the sacrements, the Trinity, in the context of ecumenical dialogue, specifically with the Eastern Orthodox Church

The final chapter is a critical assessment and proposed adoption of Torrance. Here Radcliff is, as you might guess, critical of a few aspects of Torrance’s reconsctructive efforts. While Torrance’s reading of the Fathers is penetrating, Radcliff sees that in some regards it can be somewhat simplistic, and that Torrance has a tendency to read his own concerns into the texts of the Fathers. An example Radcliff cites is Torrance’s reading of Athanasius, which Radcliff notes ‘…looks suspiciously like his own attack on dualism in modern theology’. (p 193) Radcliff notes that roughly the same thing happens in Torrance’s debates with Zizioulas over the monarchy of the Trinity, where Radcliff notes that ‘…Torrance’s distinction between Nicene theology and the Cappodician distinction is really more about the 1980s than the 380s.’ (p. 194). Radcliff also notes that Torrance seldom if ever discusses secondary texts – the overall theme here is that Torrance had a tendency to read his own concerns and ideas into the texts he read. A constructive way forward, argues Radcliff, would be to both continue to explore the themes Torrance himself explored as well as probe into areas that Torrance more or less avoided (Byzantine theology and asceticism are two areas of note).

Overall, this is a masterfully written book, covering a huge amount of ground. It is, however, eminently readable – I thoroughly enjoyed the journey through the Fathers and Torrance, and came away with a much deeper appreciation for Patristic theology as well as Torrance’s own theology. Helpful summaries at the beginning and end of each chapter serve to keep the reader oriented from chapter to chapter, and the generous number of citations of primary and secondary texts will serve the reader interested in probing deeper into the worlds of the Fathers and Torrance well. The only criticism I might have is that I wish there was a bit more critical analysis – while the analysis in the last chapter is good it felt a bit rushed. Other than that, I absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in Patristics, Torrance or ecumenical theology.

*I would also absolutely recommend reading this volume alongside another recently published volume on Torrance and Patristic/Eastern Orthodox theology, ‘T.F. Torrance and Eastern Orthodoxy‘.

**NOTE** I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review which in no way guaranteed a positive review

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