On the Ordination of Women by Thomas F. Torrance + Patrick Henry Reardon

On the Ordination of Women

A Correspondence Between Thomas F. Torrance and Patrick Henry Reardon

Torrance: Athanasius Approved of Women Priests?

Thank you for the new number of Touchstone, for Winter 1993 in which there are some strong reactions to my essay on the ministry of women—rather stronger and less objective than by my Orthodox friends and theologians over here—some of whom are bishops who support me.

I do not wish to reply or enter into a debate with contributors in your pages in which, among some good arguments some rather strange ideas are put forward. However, I think you should ask your contributors why they did not appeal to Didascalia Apostolorum 15, and Constitutiones Apostolicae III.6-1-2 and 9.1-4, in support of their rejection of the ministry of women? Perhaps because they are of Syrian and not mainstream provenance? They are the only patristic passages I know to which appeal might with some reason be made for the rejection of women priests.

But also ask them what they make of Athanasius the Great, Peri parthenias [De virginitate]? There he tells us that consecrated women may celebrate the Eucharist without the presence of a male priest. “The holy virgins may bless the bread three times with the signs of the Cross, give thanksgiving and pray, for in the Kingdom of Heaven there is neither male nor female. All women who were well received by the Lord attained the rank of men.”

They should also read Basil the Great, Oratio I.22ff, and Didymus the Blind, De Trinitate II.7, where it is pointed out that while in the fallen state of humanity woman was subjected to man, that has been overturned in Christ, for woman as well as man was made in the image of God and is equal in God’s sight.

I would be interested to read the theological arguments P. H. Reardon will bring forward, and see whether he confuses institutional “truth” with theological truth, or canonical decisions with dogmatic propositions. My Greek Orthodox theologian and episcopal friends all tell me that the Orthodox church has never given theological reasons for restricting the priesthood to males, but that the historical institutional acts limiting the priesthood to males have been of what they call an “economic” kind, that is, for convenient social reasons or on recommended cultural grounds. They use much the same arguments about the celibacy of bishops. I have sometimes had to warn some of my friends who become Orthodox to be aware of falling into the “convert’s disease.”

—Thomas F. Torrance
Edinburgh, Scotland

Reardon: Reply

Dr. Torrance’s reference to the De virginitate, spuriously credited to St. Athanasius, is, I regret to say, of a piece with his other desperate appeals to ancient authority. Comparison with eucharistic prayers and rituals of the period will show that the text in question has to do with the daily monastic meal, not the Divine Liturgy. If one may speak frankly, his case for women’s ordination is not well served by such bogus support from tradition. Every historical claim made by Torrance in his article was completely disproven in my response to it, a fact ill-disguised by his present reluctance “to reply or enter into a debate” on the subject.

Also, as a member of the Antiochian Orthodox archdiocese, let me say that my failure to cite standard Syrian sources certainly does not arise from some bias against them. It was not my intention to argue against the ordination of women, but only to address Torrance’s arguments from the other side.

—Patrick Henry Reardon

Torrance: Misplaced Quarrel?


Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007) at the time of writing was Professor Emeritus of Christian Dogmatics at the University of Edinburgh and former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. He held doctorates in theology, science, and literature, and was associated with the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton.

Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor emeritus of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Out of Step with God: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Numbers (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2019).

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