‘Protestantism is not the Church. We are a prophetic movement of reform within it.’: TF Torrance’s Ecumenicity

As Protestant (even more pointedly, as Reformed) Christians it is easy to give into a sectarian attitude wherein we believe that we have recovered the Gospel like no other iteration of Christian tradition has ever known. It is easy in the evangelical-Reformed sub-culture to look out at the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox with animus, as if they have such a perverted Gospel, that we should not consider them brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. But this isn’t the attitude that TF Torrance operated with. Torrance was unceasingly ecumenical in his theological endeavor and hope. As some of you may know, he was involved in an Orthodox-Reformed dialogue, with the hope of closing the breach between the Reformed churches and the Orthodox; particularly as that breach opened up around the ‘Great Schism’ of 1054, which had to do with Trinitarian concerns vis-à-vis the so called Filioque. Torrance, as a result of that effort, was named a Protopresbyter of the Greek Orthodox church.

In 2013 I was involved with Participatio as an Assistant Editor on a volume (of that journal) that revolved around TFT and Orthodoxy; later it was published as a book under the editorship of Matthew Baker and Todd Speidell—I commend this volume and book to you. Jason Radcliff, following those publications, ended up publishing his PhD dissertation, which he completed at New College, University of Edinburgh (TFT’s school), under David Fergusson’s watchful eye; his book is entitled Thomas F. Torrance and the Church Fathers: A Reformed, Evangelical, and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Patristic Tradition (he refers to the work Myk and I have done with our Evangelical Calvinism books, therein). Since then Jason has published another important monograph entitled: Thomas F. Torrance and the Orthodox-Reformed Theological Dialogue (which he graciously had sent to me as a review copy; thank you, Jason!). What I want to engage with, just as I’m starting my read of it, is what Jason has written in the preface to the book. He impresses just how important being ecumenical was, not only to TFT, but to the magisterial reformers in general.

Jason writes (in full):

Upon reaching the Reformation one is reminded of both the great importance and the great tragedy of the Protestant Reformation. Concerning the great importance, as Robert Farrar Capon put it, “The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace—bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly” (Between Noon and Three, 109-10). Yet, as Joseph McLelland says in the discussion following the Third Preliminary consultation of the Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue (in 1983) “we Reformed tend to overemphasize the uniqueness of the 16th century Reformation.” The Reformation was a movement of rediscovery of the radically unconditional grace of God as witnessed by the Scriptures and church fathers; but, it was one movement of many throughout history and, it was never meant to be decisively schismatic in the way that it eventually became.

As Thomas F. Torrance says at the beginning of “Memorandum A” on Orthodox/Reformed relations, “’The Reformed Church’ does not set out to be a new or another Church but to be a movement of reform within the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ . . .” (p. 10). Elsewhere Torrance states, “the Reformed Church is the Church reformed according to the Word of God so as to restore to it the face of the ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church.” (Conflict and Agreement in the Church: Volume 1, 76). In other words, we should never be happy with being “Protestant.” We must always, as Protestants, work toward rapprochement with Rome and Constantinople.

As we pass by the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation these words of Torrance are as relevant today as they ever were. As we commemorate the Reformation and celebrate the wonderful discovery of the radical grace of God in Jesus Christ, the inherently ecumenical and catholic approach of Torrance and the Orthodox Reformed Dialogue remind us that being Protestant was not the point of the Reformers. Torrance and the Dialogue remind us that we are not faithful to the spirit of the Reformation if we cease working for reform and renewal within the the [sic] one universal church. As Protestants, Torrance reminds us that we should bewail the necessity of the Reformation and, indeed, the continued existence of Protestantism. Torrance reminds us that Protestants faithful to the Reformation should regularly work towards rapprochement with the other two wings of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church: Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. He reminds us that Protestantism is not the Church. We are a prophetic movement of reform within it; if we cease working for reform and rapprochement, we cease to follow the Reformers

The type of ecumenical rapprochement offered by the Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue also provides an example of real ecumenical dialogue. The agreement reached by Orthodox and Reformed was authentic and substantial. It was not the “agree to disagree” compromise so often settled for in ecumenical conversations today. The Orthodox and Reformed confessed together a doctrine of the Trinity that bridged East and West on the basis of the Trinitarian and Christocentric theology of Athanasius and Cyril.[1]

Knowing the sensibilities of many Reformed Christians today, I think this approach, by Torrance, would rub many of them the wrong way (understatement). Yet, for us Evangelical Calvinists, while we’re not shy about stating our beliefs, and attempt to develop and articulate those for the church at large, it is this attitude of ecumenicity, modelled by TFT, that we hope to reflect. While Evangelical Calvinists, at least this one, are not shy about engaging in heated discussion surrounding various theological ideas; this should not be taken as a sign that at the end of the day, I, as a representative, want schism. But even so, some might surmise, “okay, but what about certain fundamentals of the faith; the very fundamentals that brought about the rupture between the Protestants and Catholics (and by default, the Orthodox) in the first place; you know like sola fide, sola gratia so on and so forth?” Someone might say: “it’s fine to attempt rapprochement around a doctrine of God, and the finer workings of Trinitarian dogma; but when it comes to salvation by faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, well that’s another story.”

These are not always easy questions to engage with, but one must start somewhere. Torrance decided to start with the doctrine of God. Maybe he was astute to something in that particular doctrine par excellence that he thought if relief could be brought there, if greater depth of understanding could be agreed upon at that point; that the following doctrines, developed from that primal one, would also be open for redress and discussion among the churches—in this case the Reformed and Orthodox churches.

I commend Jason’s book to you just as I am starting into it myself. His work is always stellar, and so I am confident in giving a pre-recommendation prior to my own reading of it. It is important to engage with these issues, I think, because, for one thing, it gives a, hopefully, a broader more fulsome and catholic attitude about the Church of Jesus Christ in its catholic reality. Maybe you aren’t aware of just how miniscule, among Christendom, the Reformed faith is. As I recall, George Husinger, for purposes of perspective and humility, once noted that the Protestant Reformed Church only accounts for 1% of the Church worldwide; in regard to tradition and theological location. This doesn’t, in itself mean that what the Reformed churches think is marginal, per se; but what it ought to tell us is that the church catholic is made-up of peoples and traditions that aren’t univocal with what the Reformed churches are currently recovering, theologically. We at least ought to have an attitude of charity as we engage with these other traditions, with hopes of fostering fruitful dialogue, and working towards the unity of the One Faith once for all delivered to the saints

[1] Jason Robert Radcliff, Thomas F. Torrance and the Orthodox-Reformed Theological Dialogue (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publications, 2018), ix-x.

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Jumping into the Tiber or Black Sea: A Movement ‘Back to the Sources’ by Protestants

There is a movement of evangelical Christians back to the sources ad fontes; something of the sort that we saw take place in the 16th easternorthodoxcentury among Christian thinkers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, et al. A movement away from what many an evangelical likely considers the shallow end of Biblicism, and a move into the deep end of Christian thought; away from, as many of these movers perceive, their rather vanilla evangelical upbringing. How this movement happens takes various expressions, nevertheless, it is happening. Note Jason Radcliff as he highlights this in his PhD dissertation:

The latter half of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first century has seen a paradigm shift from modernism to postmodernism which opened the door for evangelicals to return to classical Christianity. Accordingly, during this time there has been a resurgence of patristic studies among evangelicals. Indeed, there has been a move towards ressourcement within evangelicalism, in which Torrance has played and continues to play an influential role. This may be a sign of something big. As Webber puts it, “throughout history a revived interest in the insights of the early church has usually been accompanied by significant renewal in the church.” Thus, it seems highly probable that the current trend towards the classical church Fathers signifies Christianity is currently on the brink of important revival, making Torrance highly relevant as a figure to be uplifted as an example.[1]

As you can see, Radcliff believes Torrance is the type of teacher the church is ripe for; I agree. But more broadly, and to the point, this movement of ressourcement is an encouraging thing. Us evangelical Calvinists see ourselves dead center in this movement, and of course we see TF Torrance the teacher par excellence in this regard.

Having said that, I also have some concern. I think as a Protestant (Reformed) Christian, and I think that the best of that has always been a return to the theology of the early Church Fathers. But my concern comes in directly at this point; I am aware of many who do indeed have this desire of ‘return,’ but this movement has taken the form of abandoning Protestant theology wholesale, and simply converting to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Why does this concern me? Because I am Protestant (a very principled one). If the best of Protestant theology has been shaped by its ressourcement of Patristic theology (historically), then who are these folks who are returning to Rome or Constantinople? Many of them are indeed Reformed Protestant thinkers and theologians, but the majority, I would contend, are people with not a lot of theological training, but who sense a hollowness in their lived Christian experience as evangelicals (with a Fundamentalist doctrinal pedigree). They are making this ‘return’ without ever realizing (because of the naked Biblicist backgrounds they are coming from) that there is a depth dimension and reality within Protestant theology that they have never been exposed to; and so they end up skipping right over it (not ever realizing that it was right under their noses all the time), and plunge head first into the Tiber or even the Black Sea.

[1] Jason Radcliff, T.F. Torrance and the Consensus Patrum: A Reformed, Evangelical, and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Church Fathers (Scotland: University of Edinburgh, Unpublished PhD Dissertation, 2013), 50.