T. F. Torrance and Eastern Orthodoxy

Matthew Baker and Todd Speidell, eds, T. F. Torrance and Eastern Orthodoxy: Theology in Reconciliation. Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015. pp. xi + 359. $44.

Reviewed by Dr Ralph Lee, SOAS, University of London; formerly of Holy Trinity Theological College, Addis Ababa

This set of fifteen essays written by scholars from a wide range of theological traditions, Reformed, Evangelical, and Eastern Orthodox represents a very significant work for scholars interested in engaging with the thought of T. F. Torrance, and those who are interested in ecumenical discussion between Eastern Orthodoxy and traditions that have emerged from the Reformation.
T. F. Torrance was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th and early 21st centuries. His writings are very challenging and take significant intellectual effort to probe and appreciate. Nevertheless, he stood in a significant position for Orthodox-Evangelical dialogue and cooperation, as a Reformed theologian deeply engaged with the Orthodoxy framed by St Athanasius and other early Christian writers. The book bears testimony to that interaction, including an interview with Protopresbyter G. D. Dragas of Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary, who reminisces about Torrance’s interaction with Fr Georges Florovsky. Torrance was a significant figure in reappraising Athanasian Christology positively in the light of the criticisms of it as Apollinarian – Torrance rather wanted to understand Athanasius as opposing every kind of cosmological and epistemological dualism, and he championed him as doing that. There are other personal reminiscences in the first three essays that pay tribute to the personal influence of Torrance’s scholarship on scholars of both Orthodox and Reformed traditions.
Brendean Pelphrey’s reminiscences point to some of the strongest reasons why Torrance’s outlook can contribute so richly to deep theological communication between Orthodox and Reformed traditions. First is Torrance’s commitment to understanding what is rather than discussing what we think, reflecting his deep commitment to God’s being and his self-disclosure. This attitude freed him from being constrained by any commitment to one particular theological tradition, and enabled him to draw on the best of all that he encountered. Second is something that lies at the heart of the Lausanne-Orthodox Initiative: Torrance’s belief that ‘true knowledge is gained through reconciliation and relationships, not through analysis and the logical breaking-apart of things’ (p.27).
In the remainder of the book will be found ‘Essays Patristic and Constructive’, on St Athanasius; realism in St Ephrem and Torrance; justification in St Cyril, with implications for ecumenical dialogue; the theology of baptism in Torrance compared with St Mark the Monk; the debate between Torrance and John Zizioulas on the Cappadocians; the concept of energy in Torrance and in Orthodox theology; the universe, incarnation and humanity in Torrance’s cosmology; a study of Torrance and Dumitru Stăniloae and their understanding of the rationality of the cosmos; and Torrance’s understanding of the Christological realism of the Coptic Church. A final section has three essays on primary sources, including his correspondence with Florovsky, and two essays by Torrance himself, on the Orthodox Church of Great Britain and on the relevance of Orthodoxy.
Perhaps it is good to finish with a quotation from ch. 12 (which examines the Christological realism of the Coptic Church), also found in a letter to Florovsky on p.319: ‘I can foresee the day when there will be only one Orthodox Church serving Greeks, Ethiopians and Copts, and Reformed, within the ancient bastion of Christianity’ (p.267). Not all who read the book will agree with this sentiment, but they will find essays from people of many different Christian traditions who have been challenged to reassess their thinking because of the magisterial thought of Thomas F. Torrance, and an encouragement to engage deeply with this thought in the progress of the relationship between Evangelical and Orthodox expressions of Christian faith.