Was Thomas Torrance Really a Calvinist? Georges Florovsky Thought So.

There have been some who have made the claim that Thomas Torrance was not a Calvinist; indeed, this claim has come from his fans and interpreters as well as his un-fans and antagonists. Myk Habets and I have colored florovskyTFT as a Calvinist, and so if he was something lesser than this, then it might be argued that we are mis-representing and misplacing Torrance along the theological spectrum. Of course Myk and I did not make this up whole cloth about Torrance, we found this kind of self-labeling in his book Scottish Theology wherein he describes the kind of Calvinism he follows, along with some older Scottish Calvinists he is engaging with in his book, as evangelical Calvinism; and this in contrast to what he called (in the same book) ‘Federal’ Calvinism, ‘Bezan’ Calvinism, ‘Westminster’ Calvinism, etc.

So there is that, but then there is also Georges Florovsky, who was a contemporary (although senior) of TFT, and friend. Florovsky and TFT interacted and became friends over a period of more than twenty years; they worked together to forge an ecumenical dialogue between the Eastern Orthodox (pace Florovsky) and the Reformed (so Torrance). Matthew Baker, a young Eastern Orthodox scholar, and Thomas F. Torrance fan, while writing on Torrance’s and Florovsky’s friendship, describing something else, but related to the point I am narrowing in on with this article, quotes Florovsky as Florovsky is reflecting upon Torrance’s theological identity in contrast to his own. Florovsky said about Torrance,

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]

This might seem like a technicality, and it is. But I want to help endorse and simply register the idea that T. F. Torrance was a Calvinist theologian, even if ‘Calvinist’ at the end of the day becomes synonymous and short-hand for ‘Reformed.’[2]

I realize this post reflects how geeky I am, but you get the drift ;-).


[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] I believe understanding someone’s theological identity is important. Not so we can slander or caricature them (which is how the label ‘Calvinist’ was originally used by the early Lutherans against Calvin and his followers [see Bruce Gordon’s book on Calvin for a discussion on this]) by invoking the political connotations that might be built up around whatever label we use to identify a particular and given theological identity; but instead, so that we can have clarity about the historical and ideational forces that have given a certain theological identity shape. But I also think it is important to remember that even within a given identity we should be careful to understand that there is nuance within a continuum of belief. In other words, not all Calvinists are the same; not all Lutherans are the same; not all Eastern Orthodox are the same; etc.