Book Review: THOMAS F. TORRANCE AND THE CHURCH FATHERS by Jason Radcliff – Part 1
As I prepare for a final editorial pass through my own dissertation on T. F. Torrance’s doctrine of scripture and theological hermeneutics prior to sending it for publication, I’m reading through a few recent books on Torrance. First up is Jason Radcliff’s Thomas F. Torrance and the Church Fathers: A Reformed, Evangelical, and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Patristic Tradition.
I’ve read through the first two chapters at this point, which together serve as an extended “state of the question” section, taking up about a quarter, quite a bit for contextualizing considerations. But its totally worth it. These chapters deal with an issue running through a lot of conversations I have with other young pastors and seminarians coming out of evangelical churches – how did we lose touch with the early church and what do we do about now? Radcliff offers an insightful historical account of the problem and lays out a helpful taxonomy of contemporary responses. I’ll deal with the historical background in today’s post and the contemporary responses tomorrow.
Chapter 1 tells us how we got here by analyzing how various traditions have understood the consensus patrum, that is, the theological consensus of the early church fathers. Radcliff offers a fairly standard account of the differences between Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and early Protestant postures toward the fathers. He helpfully points out that while Luther and Calvin drew a sharper line between the authority of scripture and that of the fathers, they nonetheless saw the Reformation as more faithful to the teaching of the fathers than the medieval Roman Catholic church. This is a needed corrective to the kind of thing I keep hearing at my church and even from seminarians (before they take my church history class) about how Catholicism taught scripture and tradition while the Reformation was about scripture alone, as if the reformers rejected or intentionally ignored the fathers. No, the fathers were a major resource for Luther and Calvin et al, second only to scripture. The Reformers stood in the humanist tradition of ad fontes, returning to the classical sources of ancient society, and thus sought to approach the supreme authority of the scriptures through the secondary authority of patristic tradition, willing to disagree with a given father’s interpretation if needed on the basis of scripture, but generally deferring to the patristic consensus over later accretions.
The problem of the reformers and their immediate successors (Radcliff examines Turretin as an example) was that they saw the patristic period as a “golden age” of the church, seeing the fathers as early advocates of Reformation theology, but were unable to establish an objective program for appropriating these early sources. The result is that Protestant theology has wandered away from the fathers in two directions. Protestant liberalism, on the one hand, has seen the development of doctrine as progressive in such a way that the distant past is basically irrelevant to the truth of the present which is free to move on and leave the past behind. Liberalism has thus willfully departed from the fathers. Protestant fundamentalism and evangelicalism, on the other hand, have willfully ignored the fathers out of fear that attending to them with too much interest or loyalty would compromise the doctrinal sin qua non of evangelical theology, sola scriptura. This situation, as it evolved for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, set the stage for a dramatic “rediscovery” of the fathers in the last generation or so of evangelicals. Radcliff wants to situate his study of Torrance’s theology within this recent return to favor of patristic theology among evangelicals. Tomorrow I’ll take a look at chapter 2, which lays out a few different ways evangelicals have returned to the fathers.
For now, what do you think of this situation? How have we evangelical Protestants lost Luther and Calvin’s love and respect for the early fathers? (Hint: it might be related to the reason we don’t really interact with Luther or Calvin any more.) How do we reincorporate these riches back into our churches? Are liturgy and eucharistic theology the keys, as Peter Leithart and others have suggested, or can us low-church evangelicals keep our contemporary worship and integrate our patristic and Reformation heritage in other ways? What are your thoughts?