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Book Review: THOMAS F. TORRANCE AND THE CHURCH FATHERS by Jason Radcliff – Part 1

February 10, 2015

IMG_0170-0As 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?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2015 6:23 pm

    The difference you point out between how Luther/Calvin and the RCC sought to ‘use’, for lack of a better term, the Fathers is significant. The Reformers seem, by and large, to use the Fathers as prooftexts to show the correct-ness of their position, whereas the RCC and medieval church seem more to expound the Fathers for the purposes of bringing themselves into line with the patristic tradition. Fair reading?

  2. February 11, 2015 12:30 am

    I think integrating Patristic theology, Calvin’s and Luther’s theology into evangelical church teaching and practice will he a hard road. When we live in a sub-culture (as evangelicals) that is pretty much shaped by solo scriptura and the idea that church history started the moment we were saved, attempting to explicitly bring the theological depth that listening to the past necessarily brings will be (and is) challenging. I think if church leadership, teaching pastors in particular, started integrating some of the rich theological concepts from the past into their sermons and personal exegesis and exposition of the text that this could begin to slowly change the culture of each local evangelical church (autonomous as most of them are from each other). So I am thinking at one level a kind of covert operation (unfortunately) might be the best way to impact the broader body at respective local churches; but then it would also be possible to offer elective type classes (even during Adult Sunday School for churches that still have that) where there could be actual explicit studies dedicated say to the theology of Calvin or Luther or Athanasius, or whomever. Maybe a class on dispelling some of the misunderstandings that many evangelicals have about Calvin in particular, and then at the same time use that as a springboard to delve into the positive theological insights that Calvin’s theology has to offer us even today. For example, I think many evangelicals would be opened to Calvin’s Reformed understanding of eucharist or communion; that might be a way to bring that type of emphasis right into the communion service in the broader body and worship service.

  3. Tracy Singleton permalink
    February 11, 2015 11:52 am

    I’m an evangelical missionary serving in Lusaka, Zambia since 2008 after fourteen years as a Sr. pastor in the Evangelical Free Church. Previous to that I spent 14 years as a leader, elder, and eventually bi-vocational pastor in a Reformed Baptist context after graduating from Moody Bible in 1975. My interest in the church fathers was stirred up by two courses: History of Christian Doctrine taught by Stan Gundry at Moody and a patristics course taught by Tom Nettles at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1989. When I set up an informal but intense theological training program for pastors among the poor of Lusaka [mostly Pentecostals], I chose to teach Historical Theology rather than the traditional Systematic courses [although I do include a brief systematic theological presentation at the conclusion of each subject]. I focus on the big theological issues of the first five centuries and the Reformation period. Along the way I do biographical presentations on the church fathers [especially the North Africans] and read selections from the Fathers throughout. My primary text is The Story of Christian Theology by Roger Olson. The historical and story approach for teaching theology has captivated their interest and attention. The theological issues are presented as life and death for the church. The connection to African church fathers stirs their imaginations. This kind of course could be taught at the Adult Sunday School level or as a training program for church leaders. There is theological insight and knowledge flowing out of the fathers and the drama is there in the stories of theological struggle to understand the truth of the Scriptures. I think if believers and church leaders really get a taste of the old wine of the fathers that they’ll have a thirst for more.

  4. February 11, 2015 1:28 pm

    Whitefrozen, as a Protestant, I’m not sure I can say that is how late medieval Roman Catholics “used” the fathers. The Reformers seem to be saying that if the later medieval Roman Catholics had worked hard enough to align themselves with the early fathers, that wouldn’t have the set of problems they had and sought to reform. I think the reformers sought to align themselves with scripture and saw the fathers as faithful resources for doing so. Radcliff does make a helpful distinction between Luther and Calvin that I think is basically accurate, but that I glossed over in my post: Luther saw the fathers as competent but fallible conversation partners, being pretty ready to part ways with any of them when he felt the need, where Calvin was ready to see them as authorities, though again fallible and so disagree-with-able at need. So practically Luther and Calvin are the same, but Calvin, Radcliff argues, is more ready to see them as relative authorities than Luther is. Now that I type all that out, I’m not sure I fully agree with the distinction, but I’d need to do some real research on it.

    Bobby, yeah its definitely a hard road, and I don’t know exactly where it goes, but I feel compelled to start gently hacking away the weeds and just trying things – adult Sunday school classes, smaller reading and discussion groups, weaving some basic church history (centered around the 1st 4 ecumenicals and Reformation) into church membership classes. Not that I have the power to implement all that, but even just getting conversations going among those who do can help. It is pretty humbling seeing how far there is to go and yet how tiny the first steps will probably be, and how much of an uphill battle it might be to even take those tiny first steps.

  5. February 11, 2015 1:30 pm

    Tracy, thank you so much for sharing that! Its hugely encouraging!

  6. February 24, 2015 10:11 pm


    It is really hard to not want to run head-long into the deep end after spending so much time with the theologians of Church History. I have struggled with this as I have been involved with discipling younger and passionate guys in the faith of Christ; ie not unloading too much all at once.

    I think one struggle that I have sensed is that most people don’t even know their Bibles let alone systematic or historical theology. And so by way of prioritizing I want to press people deeper into Scriptural reality which I think will naturally prompt deeper questions in the lives of those I am attempting to point deeper into Jesus.

    Keep up the good work, Adam!

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