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Book Review: THOMAS F. TORRANCE AND THE CHURCH FATHERS by Jason Radcliff – Part 2

February 11, 2015

Yesterday I looked at Chapter 1 of Jason Radcliff’s recently published dissertation, Thomas F. Torrance and the Church Fathers: A Reformed, Evangelical, and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Patristic Tradition. I noted that while the Protestant reformers departed from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches by seeing the authority of the fathers as fallible and secondary to scripture, they nonetheless saw themselves as more faithful to the early fathers than medieval Catholicism. Later Protestantism, however, left the fathers behind in two directions: rejection by the liberals and indifferent ignorance by fundamentalist evangelicals. This situation, along with the postmodern shift of the 20th century, set the stage for a “rediscovery” of the fathers among evangelicals in the last couple generations.

Radcliff sees this rediscovery, treated in Chapter 2, taking three main forms. First is conversion to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Radcliff tells the stories of John Henry Newman’s conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, Thomas Howard’s conversion from evangelicalism to Episcopalianism and then Roman Catholicism, and Peter Gilquist’s leadership of a group conversion of evangelicals working in Campus Crusade for Christ to the Antiochene Orthodox Church. In each case there was a sense that evangelicalism is, in Howard’s words, “not enough.” Radcliff offers this criticism on these conversions:

The desire to appropriate classical Christianity into the contemporary church is commendable; however, to feel the need to convert to another denomination because “evangelical is not enough” is, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, conforming to an external notion of ecclesiology and commitment to external definitions of Christianity. The evangelicals who convert often conclude that appropriation of classical Christianity necessarily entails conforming to the practice of the early church, much of which may have had more to do with culture than solely theological commitment. Thus, they consider it impossible to retrieve the life and work of the The Fathers within their own Protestant traditions. This is ultimately a convoluting of the distinction between faith and order and it contains elements of legalism. (37-38)

I think Radcliff might have included those who have converted from non-liturgical evangelical churches to Anglicanism or other mainline liturgical churches under this same heading. I have several friends who have done so for the same reasons (“evangelical is not enough”) and are, I think, open to the same criticism.

Another form evangelical “rediscovery” of the fathers has taken is that of the emergent/emerging church movement. Radcliff takes a look at the writings of several leading figures of this movement, including Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Dan Kimball, Shane Claiborne and Scott McKnight (who has recently converted to Anglicanism, btw), and concludes that while the movement has certain commendable common themes, it has no real center of gravity. It is a fairly subjective and personality driven hodgepodge that features some fairly idiosyncratic appropriations of various patristic themes and practices. He notes that most of its leading figures come from evangelical mega-churches who “want to move far away from seeker-sensitive and mega-church models towards, seemingly, any other model” (43). The idiosyncratic nature of the movement often finds its leaders badly misunderstanding patristic theology (Radcliff finds help from D. A. Carson in making this point). Radcliff does end on a balanced note in his treatment of the emergent/emerging movement:

While Emergents often misread the classical Christian tradition owing to their eclecticism and subjectivism, their genius is in the application of The Fathers. Emergents want to retrieve helpful elements (albeit as they see it) [note: Radcliff is a poet and he doesn’t know it] and directly apply them to church life today. Herein, they are at the forefront of a return to The Fathers and their example will, no doubt, continue to lead many towards further retrieval of classical Christianity. Ultimately, however, they are unfair to The Fathers themselves on account of their tendentiousness. (p. 45)

Finally, Radcliff treats the theological retrieval programs of Robert Webber’s ancient-future Christianity and Thomas Oden’s paleo-orthodoxy. He sees these strains as helpful and close to what Torrance sought to do, but falling short because they tended to view the fathers through basically Augustinian lenses. Radcliff is on ground heavily contested by the recent work of historians like Lewis Ayers and theologians like Stephen Holmes, both of whom have launched an attack on the idea that there is any intelligible theological divide between east and west in the Nicene and post-Nicene period. Much of Torrance’s treatment of patristic theology and the “Augustinian tradition” or even “Latin heresy” that he claims prevailed in the west is called into question by this recent discussion. So far Radcliff hasn’t waded into that water – we’ll see what the future chapters hold. With that criticism over Augustinian vs. Greek lenses suspended, we can see Webber’s and Oden’s projects as helpful allies of Torrance’s in an evangelical retrieval of patristic theology.

In my church world, I see most people continuing the willful ignorance of the fathers, while some convert to liturgical churches. The emerging/emergent thing continues kind of, but I’m not sure how much actual engagement with the early fathers goes on in it (I’m friendly to it, but exist mostly outside of it so I don’t know that much about what goes on over there). Academically, I’m favorable to Radcliff’s presentation of Torrance as a resource for helpfully appropriating the fathers, but I’m not sure how helpful he is, given his dense writing style, for helping evangelical churches like mine to get back in touch with the patristic tradition.

That leaves me with a pressing question: how do pastors like me, working in seeker-sensitive mega-churches, get our people more in touch with the riches of the early church (and the Reformation for that matter)? I fully agree with Radcliff that conversion to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy ought not to be necessary (and I’d add liturgical mainline denominations – I love those churches, I just think evangelicals can discover the fathers without going anywhere), but the crises of many evangelicals’ faiths argue otherwise. So what do we do? Offer Sunday school classes on the fathers and reformers? Weave their thinking into our sermons more? Weave the ancient creeds into our worship? I think all of that would help, but I also agree with Radcliff that a more central Christological and Trinitarian focus needs to stand behind it all. I’m still wondering how to make that happen though. Let me know what you think in the comments.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. David Roberts permalink
    February 11, 2015 4:12 pm

    I find myself in this very situation, a pastor at an evangelical mega church wrestling with how to integrate the patristics – and a more robust historical and theological foundation in general – into my congregation without abandoning the elements that make us distinctively evangelical. That being said and as a fan of Torrance as well, I’ll be looking forward to your continued engaging with this volume.

  2. February 12, 2015 9:18 am

    It seems to me that often the evangelicals already have an ecclesiology that assumes that being a part of the right christian group is a necessary part of our justification. That somehow ‘being an evangelical’ sets them above other kinds of Christians. And then they learn some other group has a better claim to that position and so they move denominations. But often there is not a fundamental change in their ecclesiology. If the Fathers (whom I love dearly) push us to Jesus then it doesn’t matter where we are. We can always use a clearer vision of Jesus.

    But if we are prideful about our sect and constantly insisting on our own rightness, then when the Fathers challenge us and offer humility, we can easliy become bitter at the ways that our sect had failed us.

    Ecclesiastical tribalism is ecclesiastical tribalism. Whether in tall hats, surrounded by lights and smoke machines, or mummified in strips of the Westminster Confession of Faith, looking to ourselves and our traditions rather than to Jesus thins our soul.

  3. February 12, 2015 9:57 am

    David, I’d love to hear your insights about what’s working and not working in your church.

    Jason, very very well said. I certainly don’t want to encourage evangelical tribalism. I want my evangelical brothers and sisters to become more aware of our heritage, both particular and shared, both positive and negative. And I hope one of the fruits of that will be to more passionately love and pray for/with our Roman Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant and Pentecostal neighbors as brothers and sisters. Your point about tribalism and conversionism being the flip sides of one another is right on. You’re a good pluralist!

  4. David Roberts permalink
    February 20, 2015 3:05 pm


    I’m not the senior pastor at our church so I don’t have massive say over what get’s taught. I do most of my work with students and young adults on the weekends, occasionally preach from the main stage/pulpit when our senior pastor is out, and help with adult classes during the weekdays.

    From a teaching standpoint I’ve tried to integrate both patristic and modern theologians into my main service messages (about 8 a year) and they factor heavily into some of the classes I teach, though it’s more implicitly through theological concepts and teachings than explicitly through actual church practice. In the last year they’ve gotten a lot of Barth and Torrance, and by extension Athanasius and the Cappadocians, a little bit of Jenson, Pannenberg, and Bonhoeffer, and a smidge of Moltmann (who I’ve barely read and really have no business drawing from). As far as programatic or practical things, I do have our preteens memorizing the Apostle’s Creed, though I had to change the word Catholic to Universal so as to not get angry parent emails.

    For the most part though, it’s very tough. Our people aren’t necessarily opposed to a more robust knowledge of church history but they are simply so far removed from any concept of Christianity outside of the last 50-150 years that it’s tough to know where to start. And it seems no one in our congregation likes to read, so books or even blog recommendations are usually a non starter.

    I’ve taken to personally discipling a handful of our young adults and I can more readily hold them accountable to reading. So I’ve been able to broaden their horizons a bit. Our Adult Ministry and Small Groups Pastor as well as our High School Director are both doing the same. That’s honestly been the most effective thing we’ve been able to do so far in terms of deepening the historical and theological base.

    Our people, even if somewhat innocently and naively, generally fit the description of evangelical tribalism that Jason described above. Some of them have left Catholic or Mainline backgrounds and so hold something ranging from distrust to disdain for higher church traditions and liturgical practices. Others are completely unchurched and assume Christian, Catholic, Lutheran, etc are all different things. Most have little to no awareness that Orthodox Christians are even a category. It’s definitely tough and at times I wonder if I’d be more effective in a different environment. But I do see God working in the community and I trust the heart of our leadership immensely. So it’s a fulfilling but frustrating place to do ministry.

    Hope that gives you some insight. I actually bought the book but it’s a ways back on my list of to-read’s. So I look forward to your next installment.

  5. February 28, 2015 5:15 am

    I’m interested in seeing how Torrances Latin Heresy feels, which is something I always thought he overplayed. Regarding the emergent church, tho, I might wonder just how Radcloffe is able to argue that they don’t get the patriotic tradition right when the same criticism can be leveled at the Protestant use of the Fathers – can he argue that one interpretation is wrong without without implicitly appealing to Tradition in the authoritative sense he’s trying to avoid? Does that make sense at all?

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