Was Thomas F. Torrance Really an Orthodox Christian?

The Theology of T. F. TorranceI recently posted a post of mine from the blog here, on my Facebook Discussion Group (Thomas F. Torrance Discussion Group), that highlights Georges Florovsky’s belief that Thomas Torrance was a Calvinist. Matthew Baker, a young Eastern Orthodox and T.F. Torrance scholar refers to this in something he wrote; the reference is actually a quote of Florovsky and his belief about T.F. Torrance’s “Calvinism:”

… here begins probably a very terrible experience. You may say sometimes it is a confusing embarrassing experience. You do everything that Professor Zander wants you to. You discover – excuse me for using just the name – Tom Torrance is an awfully nice fellow, but unfortunately he is a Calvinist. I might love him as a man, and then we have a terrible row. He is a very close friend of mine, but twenty years younger, and an excellent theologian. We know each other as brothers and yet we disagree; this is a real experience. We agree at a certain point, well then we cannot agree. The point is, one may say, that because I was educated in Russia and he was educated in Scotland . . . this would be fatalism and probably all the circumstances had some importance, but there is something else.[1]

Okay, so there is that. But another acquaintance of Torrance (Alexei V. Nesteruk), an Orthodox PhD has written this of Torrance:

… Thomas Torrance knew Greek Patristics well and in his personal contacts with the present author he clearly indicated that in his perception of Christianity he was an orthodox with a capital “O”.[2]

This is interesting, if you are into such things (things involved with identifying theological and ecclesial identity among scholars and theologians). Nesteruk’s claim seems beguiling to me. We have one of his friend’s (Torrance’s) claiming that TFT was a Calvinist, but then we have another one of his acquaintances claiming that Torrance was an Orthodox in his perception of Christianity. We would have to press what Nesteruk means by “perception of Christianity.” Clearly, Torrance, as far as his ecclesiological identity was not Orthodox, but Reformed and Church of Scotland.

My guess is that Nesteruk believes that Torrance’s sympathies and personal pathos was informed more by Orthodoxy than it was by Calvinism proper. In one sense this could be the case, but when you read Torrance it is hard to miss the fact that he worked within Calvinist or Reformed modes of thought, theologically. I guess we would have to talk with Nesteruk to find out exactly what he thought Torrance meant by all of this.

[1] Typescript of an audio lecture, Georges Florovsky, “The Vision of Unity,” p. 24, Carton 3, folder 1, 1955 in Matthew Baker, “The Correspondence Between T. F. Torrance and Georges Florovsky (1950-1973),” Participatio Journal vol. 4 (2013): 291.

[2] Alexei V. Nesteruk, “Universe, Incarnation, and Humanity: Thomas Torrance, Modern Cosmology, and Beyond,” Participatio Journal vol. 4 (2013): 214.

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3 comments

  1. Bobby, I am currently trying to understand TFT’s approach to the Orthodox veneration of Mary in the Divine Liturgy, and the Akathist service. I have read his vigorous reaction back in 1957 in “Conflict and Agreement,” vol. I, to the RCC’s dogmatic teaching in their Mariology, but where does he (if ever) address directly the Orthodox approach to the Theotokos in the Divine Liturgy, the liturgy that he calls the most Biblically grounded worship of all? I have searched volume 4 of Participatio, especially, and the other issues, and I have searched the indexes of my own TFT library, as well as the internet. He addresses the Virgin Mary in the lectures found in “Incarnation,” but no direct reference to the Orthodox Holy Tradition (not dogma) that venerates Mary, her Dormition, resurrection and bodily assumption into heaven. I have come across some indirect comments, but no direct treatment. Does anyone know where he speaks to this directly, if ever? I would loved to have been a fly on the wall when he and Father Georges Dragas, or Florovsky for that matter, discussed this, as they surely must have done! Any thoughts?

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  2. Bill,

    You must have missed the very last essay in Participatio Vol 4 entitled The Orthodox Church in Great Britain (pp. 333-339). It is a short essay by Thomas Torrance and he hits six points about Orthodoxy and his thoughts on its value for GB. His last point (number 6) deals directly with what he thinks about the Virgin Mary and Theotokos. I have copied and will paste that point here:

    6. Let me make one final point, which applies equally to the Orthodox themselves as well as the non-Orthodox: the need to rethink at a much deeper level the doctrine of the Virgin Mary. As I understand it this would involve a deep-seated reconsideration of the relation between Christians and Jews in the one Church in which both Jews and Christians have access to God the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, but in which “Gentiles” (“Greeks,” in the New Testament term!) share in the One People of God through incorporation into “the Commonwealth of Israel,” as St. Paul insisted so strongly. This is an area of Christian theology and tradition in which Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed have had to do a lot of thinking, but in which the Orthodox Church has so far done very little. So far as the blessed Virgin Mary is concerned, when the Christian Church is detached from the People of Israel as also of the one Church of God, then Mary becomes detached from her organic relation to Israel and becomes attached to Mediterranean ideas such as “the Queen of heaven” which have no relation to the Holy Scriptures. This does not apply, of course to the Theotokos, but the Theotokos must be understood in relation to the fact that in the purpose of God it was Israel which gave birth to Jesus as the Messiah, and Mary was the chosen representative of Israel in that incarnational event. Hence Mary has to be related to the “vicarious” mission of Israel in the mediating of divine revelation to mankind, and becomes misunderstood when detached from it. I stress this fact as it is now clearly incumbent upon the Church to think through the relations of Church to Israel and move toward the healing of the deepest schism in the one people of God, recovering the doctrine as Epiphanius expressed it that “Jerusalem is the mother of the faithful.” I believe that if we can do this then we shall be able to reach that fullness of reconciliation of which St. Paul wrote to the Romans through which the whole world will eventually be reconciled to God in Jesus Christ. It is the Orthodox Church, which has always stood for the great soteriological principle that “the unassumed is the unhealed,” which can, I believe, fulfill the part of catalyst in bringing the understanding of the whole Church together at this point. Perhaps I may commend in this connection the book recently put out by my brother D. W. Torrance, The Witness of the Jews to God (The Handsel Press, Edinburgh), which is one of the first books to take seriously a theological approach to understanding the relations of Church and Israel. (pp. 338-39)

    Hope this helps.

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  3. So he does not address extensively like in a Q&A fashion what you are looking for, but this gives us a further lead. I would think that he simply rejects much of the Mariology found in Orthodoxy.

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