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