This post is the first of a two-part series on Torrance’s view of the relationship between the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ and the sacraments of baptism and the Holy Eucharist.
As a Protestant theologian, Torrance acknowledges “two basic sacraments” of the Gospel: baptism and the Eucharist. While baptism and the Eucharist are acts of human response to the proclamation of the Gospel, they are “above all divinely provided, dominically appointed ways of response and obedience of a radically vicarious kind.” Just as ancient Israel was not allowed to come before God with offerings and sacrifices of their own choosing, but rather was commanded to approach him in the divinely provided cultic liturgy centred around circumcision and Passover, so also in the new covenant appropriate forms of human response are “vicariously provided in Jesus Christ” and are represented by baptism and the Eucharist. The sacraments “replace the rites of circumcision and Passover in accordance with the fundamental change in the covenant relation between God and his people brought about through the Incarnation and Atonement” (Torrance, 1992:89-91). Torrance continues:
As such they are sacraments of the vicarious human response to God effected by Jesus Christ in his representative and substitutionary capacity in our place and on our behalf. They are sacraments of the finished work of Christ to which we can add nothing, sacraments which have as their substance and content none other than Jesus Christ clothed with his Gospel of atoning mediation and reconciliation, and thus sacraments which in their unique way represent the indivisible oneness of Christ’s Word and Act and Person as Mediator between God and man.
For Torrance, the sacraments must be understood as “having to do with the whole historical Jesus Christ from his birth to his resurrection and ascension, for their content, reality and power are constituted ... by the act of God fulfilled in the humanity of Christ.” Thus, “the primary mysterium or sacramentum is Jesus Christ himself” (Torrance, 1976a:82). Baptism and the Eucharist direct us away from ourselves toward Jesus Christ. While they are liturgical responses we are commanded to make, they add nothing to the finished work of Jesus Christ, for they are not sacraments of what we do but of what Christ has done in our place and on our behalf. They are “instruments of the Holy Spirit‘s operation” by which we are “exercised,” as John Knox put it, in our union with Christ. In baptism we are ingrafted into Christ and in the Eucharist we are continually nourished through our union with Christ. “Both sacraments tell us that we live not out of ourselves, but that we find our life and righteousness outside of ourselves, in Christ alone, through union and communion with him.” “As such,” argues Torrance, “they are liturgical acts of prayer in the form of divinely provided ordinances of response, sealing to us within the new covenant our sharing in the vicarious obedience of Christ” (Torrance, 1992:90; 1996b:152).
In order to explicate his understanding of the relationship between baptism and the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, Torrance (1976a:83, 84; 1988a:292) carefully distinguishes between the Greek words, baptisma and baptismos. In speaking of Christian baptism, notes Torrance, the New Testament uses the unusual word baptisma, not the more common baptismos. While the latter is regularly used in Greek to refer to a “repeatable” rite of ceremonial cleansing, the former refers not to the rite itself but to the “reality signified” by the rite, that is, the unique saving event in Christ on which the rite rest. This appears to be the reason, notes Torrance, that New Testament writers do not describe the rite of baptism, for they are concerned with the objective reality behind the ritual more than the rite itself. In this respect, baptisma is like kerygma, which refers not to the “proclamation” of the Gospel as such, but to the “reality” proclaimed, for it is not the proclamation itself that saves, but the one who is proclaimed, that is, Jesus Christ. Like kerygma, the word baptisma in the New Testament directs us beyond the rite of baptism to its “objective ground and reality, Christ clothed with the saving truth of his vicarious life, death and resurrection.” In regard to both kerygma and baptisma, the primary reference of both words is the mystery of Christ, “God manifest in the flesh,” while the secondary reference is to the Church’s activity in preaching and baptising. Thus, baptisma does not refer merely to the baptising of an individual, but rather to “the baptism with which Jesus Christ himself was baptised for our sakes in the whole course of his redemptive life from his birth to his resurrection, the one baptism which he continues by his Spirit to apply to us in our baptism into him, thereby making himself both its material content and its active agent.” Torrance (1976a:84) continues:
All this helps to make it clear that while baptism is both the act of Christ and the act of the Church in his Name, it is to be understood finally not in terms of what the Church does but in terms of what God in Christ has done, does do and will do for us in his Spirit. Its meaning does not lie in the rite itself and its performance, nor in the attitude of the baptised and his obedience of faith—even the secondary reference of baptism, by its nature as a passive act, in which we receive baptism and do not administer it to ourselves, directs us to find its meaning in the living Christ who cannot be separated from his finished work and who makes himself present to us in the power of his own Reality.
Comment: The “rite” or “ritual” of baptism has no salvific content. As Torrance rightly argues, it is not the rite that saves us; rather, we are saved by the objective Reality that underlies the rite and to which the rite points: Jesus Christ. Torrance’s understanding of baptism precludes any notion of “baptismal regeneration.” Also, when the significance of baptism is found in the objective Reality underlying the rite, rather than in the rite itself, questions as to the manner of baptism (immersion, sprinkling, pouring) or the age of the baptisand (infant, believing adolescent) become far less important and devisive.
Baptism is “the sacrament of our incorporation into Christ on the ground of his finished work” (Torrance, 1992:90); thus, it is not a sacrament of what the Church does but of what “God has done for us in Jesus Christ, in whom he has bound himself to us and bound us to himself, before ever we could respond to him” (Torrance, 1976a:103). As Torrance (1992:90, 91) argues, we are baptised “out of ourselves” and into Christ, who has taken our place. Baptism expresses the “character of faith in which our faith is implicated in the faith and faithfulness of Christ.” He continues:
Thus Baptism tells us that in our believing we do not rely upon our own faith but upon the vicarious faith of Christ which in sheer grace anticipates, generates, sustains and embraces the faith granted to those who are baptised. [As St. Paul teaches] it is by grace that we are saved through faith, and that is not our own doing for it is God’s gift. Quite consistently we do not baptise ourselves but are baptised, for Baptism proclaims to us that we are saved by the unconditional grace of Christ alone ... who has cleansed us and set the seal (sphragis) of his ownership upon us. As such Baptism constitutes the divinely provided witness (martyria) that we are no longer our own but belong to Jesus Christ our Redeemer and Lord. It is in that belonging that faith takes its source and out of it that it continues to grow.
As Torrance (1976a:86, 87) argues, the whole course of Jesus’ obedient life, from his birth of the Virgin Mary though his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension was a “baptism,” not for his sake but for our sakes, for he received the “baptism” meant for sinners. Torrance continues:
In our human nature he received the divine judgement upon sin; in our human nature he made atonement, and in our human nature he rose again from the dead. When he was born, died and rose again, it was our human nature which was born, died, and rose again in him. For Jesus ... became one with us, taking upon himself our unrighteousness, that his righteousness might become ours.
Hence, the baptism of individual persons is to be understood as their “initiation” into the one vicarious baptisma of Jesus Christ, whereby we are given to share in his righteousness and are sanctified in him as members of the one Body of Christ (Torrance, 1976a:87). Torrance continues:
Through his birth they have a new birth and are made members of the new humanity. Through his obedient life and death as the incarnate Son their sins are forgiven and they are clothed with a new righteousness. Through his resurrection and triumph over the powers of darkness they are freed from the dominion of evil. Through his ascension to the Father the Kingdom of Heaven is opened for them, and they wait for his coming again to fulfil in them the new creation. Through sharing in his Spirit they are made members of his Body and are initiated into the communion of the Holy Trinity.
As an ordinance, then, baptism sets forth not what the Church or the individual believer does but what God has already done in Christ and continues to do through his Spirit. Thus, it is appropriate that we “are baptised.” Our part is only to receive passively what Christ has done for us, for we can add nothing to his finished work. By his Spirit, Christ acts upon us in terms of his “atoning and sanctifying incorporation of himself into our humanity” in such a way that it effects our “ingrafting” into Christ and our “adoption” into the family of God. Our understanding of the ordinance of baptism, therefore, cannot be separated from what Christ has done in his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. “It is precisely that union or inseparable relation which is the very meaning of the sacrament in which we are baptised into Christ’s baptism, and why the sacrament is spoken of [in the New Testament], not as baptismos, but as baptisma.” The rite of baptism, therefore, does not constitute a “new” or “separate” baptism, but a “participation in the one all-inclusive baptism common to Christ and his Church, wrought out vicariously in Christ alone but into which he has assimilated the Church through the baptism of the one Spirit, and which he applies to each of us through the same Spirit. Hence, it is baptisma in the Name of the Triune God” (Torrance, 1976a:87, 88).
For Torrance (1988a:294), this is surely how St. Paul’s teaching on baptism (cf. Rom 6) is to be understood, wherein “the implied rite was, so to speak, stereoscopically related to the reality discerned through it.” Noting that Paul was accustomed to speaking of our dying and rising in Christ in the aorist tense (e.g., Eph 2:1-6), Torrance argues that it was not the “rite” of baptism to which Paul referred, but to what had “once and for all” taken place in Jesus Christ on our behalf, and in which we are implicated. Torrance continues:
[A]t the Jordan it was our humanity which was baptised in him, so that it was our humanity that was crucified and resurrected in him. When he died for us and was buried, we died and were buried with him, and when he rose again from the grave, we were raised up with him—that is the truth sealed upon us in “one baptism.”
In emphasising the objective, once-for-all aspect of baptism (baptisma), that is, the unrepeatable reality signified by the rite, Torrance follows Athanasius. Torrance (1988a:292) writes:
For Athanasius, the decisive point ... was that in his baptism in the Jordan the incarnate Son of God received the Spirit upon the humanity he had taken from us, not for his own sake, but for our sake. That is to say, it was our humanity that was baptised, anointed, sanctified, and sealed in him. Thus when he was baptised for us we were baptised in him. Our baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity, therefore, is to be understood as a partaking through the Spirit in the one unrepeatable baptism of Christ which he underwent, not just in the Jordan river, but throughout his life and in his death resurrection [sic], on our behalf.
Torrance (1988a:293, 294) follows Athanasius in arguing that Jesus’ vicarious baptism on our behalf is the “objective truth” to which the “one baptism” of the creed refers (cf. Eph. 4:4-6). Jesus Christ underwent “one baptism” vicariously as Redeemer. By uniting us to himself by the Holy Spirit, he makes us participate “receptively” in his one baptism as those whom he has redeemed. Torrance continues:
The central truth of baptism, therefore, is lodged in Jesus Christ himself and all that he has done for us within the humanity he took from us and made his own, sharing to the full what we are so that we may share to the full what he is. Baptism is the sacrament of that reconciling and atoning exchange in the incarnate Saviour.
Note here Torrance’s connection between the sacrament of baptism and the “wonderful exchange” embodied in the incarnate constitution of Jesus Christ.
When we receive baptism within the Church, we are granted by the grace of God participation in the “one all-inclusive incarnational baptisma of Jesus Christ” and are made to become members of his Body and children of our heavenly Father. This takes effect through the Spirit bestowed upon us according to the promise of Jesus Christ, yet, its “taking effect” is not a different and subsequent event (Torrance, 1976a:89). Torrance explains:
Our adoption, sanctification and redemption have already taken place in Christ, and are fully enclosed in his birth, holy life, death and resurrection undertaken for our sakes, and proceed from them more by way of realisation or actualisation in us of what has already happened to us in him than as new effect resulting from them: we have been adopted through his incarnational assumption of us into himself, sanctified through the obedient self-offering of Christ in his life and death, and we have been born again in his birth of the Spirit and in his resurrection from the dead.
Comment: If I understand Torrance correctly, then our own baptism adds nothing to what Christ has already done for all humanity. Everyone, whether they believe or not, is included in the one baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River, where, as the new Adam, he was baptised in place of and on behalf of all. Our own baptism is a “partaking” of that one unrepeatable baptism in the Jordan River, not in the sense that we were not already included in Jesus but in the sense of a “realisation” of the relationship that has always been ours.
Commenting on this passage, Hunsinger (2001:144, 145) observes that “the perfect tense determines the present tense.” In the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, the “definitive” sanctification of our humanity has taken place. In the incarnate assumption of fallen Adamic flesh, as lived out through the whole course of his obedience, “our human nature has been judged, purified, and renewed.” Therefore, as Torrance notes above, salvation comes to us more by the “realisation” or “actualisation” in us of what has already been accomplished in Christ than by a “new effect” in us as a consequence of our own salvific experience. Here, the implications of Torrance’s doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ are clearly articulated: 1) humanity is “adopted” into the family of God through the incarnational assumption of Adamic flesh; 2) we are “sanctified” by the whole course of Christ’s obedient life, and 3) we are born again, both in Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and in his new birth in the resurrection from the dead. Hunsinger (2001:144) sums this up simply: “Vicarious humanity means that everything Christ has done and suffered in his humanity was done and suffered in our place and for our benefit.”As Torrance (1976a:89) argues, “As Jesus Christ is, so are we in this world, for what happened to Him as Head of the Body happens to us also who are members of the Body.” This is why baptism (baptisma) must be understood in terms of its “dimension of depth,” as it relates to the objective reality that underlies it, that is, to the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, “for it belongs to the peculiar nature of baptism that in it we partake of a redemption that has already been accomplished for us in Christ.” As Torrance argues, in baptism, the “end” is already given to us in the “beginning.” In the sacrament of baptism, we look away from ourselves, seeing beyond the Church’s activity in the administration of the rite, toward the crucified and risen Christ, who, in his vicarious humanity assumed for us, is the “content, reality and power” of baptism.
Thus, as Torrance (1988a:294) notes, when we think of baptism (baptisma) objectively, that is, in relation to the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, we are directed away from ourselves to what took place “in Christ in God.” But if we think of baptism (baptismos) subjectively, then we can only give it meaning in terms of our own subjective experience, or in terms of its “efficacy” as a rite. Torrance (1976a:88-99) details how, partly in consequence of the Augustinian dualism between the intelligible and the sensible worlds, baptisma was gradually detached from its objective reality in Jesus Christ and reduced to baptismos, wherein the rite itself ascended in importance as a means of grace to “bridge” the gap between the divine and the material. Among the problems that arose from this view was the issue of rebaptism for those who had committed serious sins after their initial baptism.
Finally, Torrance (1988a:297- 299) notes that, in baptism, “we partake of the whole substance of the Gospel.” In the Nicene Creed, baptism is closely connected to “the remission of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come,” for these are “the saving benefits that flow from union with Christ through one baptism and one Spirit, and are enjoyed in one Body.” As Torrance argues, to be united to Christ through baptism “necessarily” carries with it a sharing with him in the resurrection and the life of the world to come. In the incarnation, Jesus Christ takes upon himself our physical existence enslaved to sin and makes our corruption, death, and judgement his own, so that by offering himself as substitute for us, he might destroy the power of corruption and death to which we are enslaved. Through the bodily resurrection of the human nature he assumed in the incarnation, “Christ has set us upon an altogether different basis in relation to God in which there is no longer any place for corruption and death.” The “central focus” of Christian belief, therefore, is upon Jesus Christ, who, in his resurrection from the dead, has conquered death and brought with him immortality, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection of the dead “into which we are once for all baptised by the Holy Spirit.”
In this regard, notes Torrance (1976a:94; cf. Hunsinger, 2001:145), Irenaeus described baptism as the “sacrament of the incarnational reversal of the estate we have lost in Adam and of our participation in the new humanity of Jesus Christ.” Just as Adam’s disobedience was reversed by Christ’s obedience, so also our lost, fallen condition is reversed through our participation in Christ’s new humanity, first objectively (extra nos), then subjectively (in nobis). The reality of baptism, therefore, is to be found in the objective reality of what Christ has already done for us in the whole course of his filial obedience to the Father. This reality is “savingly operative” in us through union and communion with Christ effected by the Holy Spirit.
Thus, the central focus of our faith is far from being a promise for the future only; rather, it is an “evangelical declaration” of what has already taken place in Christ and continues in him as a “permanent triumphant reality” throughout the course of time until its consummation in his return, when he will come in glory to judge the living and the dead. In the ongoing life of the Church, notes Torrance, we live “in the midst of the advent-presence of Christ, already partake of the great regeneration (palliggenesia) of the future, and share in its blessings with one another.” All that is said in the creedal assertion of “one baptism for the remission of sins” is “proleptically conditioned” by the future, so that we might look beyond our present participation in the death of Christ through his vicarious humanity to our own participation in the resurrection from the dead at the return of our Lord and Saviour (Torrance, 1988a:299, 300).
Hunsinger, G. 2001. The Dimension of Depth: Thomas F. Torrance on the Sacraments. In E. Colyer, ed. The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T. F. Torrance. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Ch. 6.
Torrance, T.F. 1976a. Theology in Reconciliation: Essays toward Evangelical and Catholic Unity in East and West. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 302 pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1988a. The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church. London: T & T Clark. 345 pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1992. The Mediation of Christ (rev. ed.). Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard. 126 pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1996b. (orig. ed. 1965). Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers. 288 pp.