Thursday, December 12, 2013

Ontological Healing vs. Traditional Views of Atonement

Important words: 
Hypostatic union: the union of divne and human natures in the one Person of Jesus.
Ontological: having to do with “being,” “essence,” “nature”; having to do with what something “is.”
Instrumental: used as a means to an end; used as a “tool” to accomplish a purpose 

When I began to study T.F. Torrance’s doctrine of the atonement, I was confused by his critique of traditional “theories” of atonement. For Torrance, the models of atonement that developed in the history of the Western Latin church portray the atonement as an “external,” “instrumental” transaction between Jesus and God. Following Barth, Torrance groups these models of atonement under the rubric, the “Latin heresy.” Only after I had gained some understanding of Torrance’s own view of the atonement, was I able to fully appreciate his critique of traditional models of atonement. 

In order to understand Torrance’s critique of the “Latin heresy” and what he means by “external,” “instrumental” approaches to the atonement, we must first review his own view of atonement and then compare it to traditional Western views of the atoning “work” of Jesus Christ.

Hypostatic Union 

Torrance’s doctrine of the atonement arises directly from his understanding of the doctrine of the “hypostatic union,” formulated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. This doctrine asserts that Jesus Christ is “fully God” and “fully human” “in” one Person. For Torrance, the union of divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ is an “atoning” union, where the word “at-one-ment” means “reconciliation.” That is, the incarnation itself is redemptive. In his one incarnate person, Jesus Christ is the reconciliation of God and fallen humanity. 

Unity of Person and Work 

In Torrance’s holistic, unitary [non-dualist] doctrine of atonement, the “work” of Jesus Christ is never separated from the “person” of Jesus Christ. For Torrance, “how” Jesus Christ provides atoning reconciliation is a direct function of “who” he is as the incarnate Saviour, who is at once both God and man. As Scandrett (2006:71) rightly notes, the unity of the “person” and “work” of Jesus Christ is an important corollary of Torrance’s discussion of the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. For Torrance, atoning reconciliation takes place “within” [not “external to”] the incarnate constitution of Jesus Christ; that is, Jesus Christ “is” the Gospel, for he “embodies” [“internal”] reconciliation between God and humanity. 

Assumption of Fallen Flesh 

The sine qua non of Torrance’s doctrine of “incarnational redemption” or “atoning reconciliation” is the Patristic doctrine that the eternal Word of God assumed fallen, sinful, Adamic flesh in the incarnation. Following Athanasius, in his Contra Arianos (Torrance, 1988a:161 n. 52), Torrance argues that in taking upon himself “the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7), Jesus Christ assumed “fallen Adamic humanity” from the Virgin Mary, that is, “our perverted, corrupt, degenerate, diseased human nature enslaved to sin and subject to death under the condemnation of God” (Torrance, 1988a:161; cf. 1994a:58). In becoming flesh, the Son of God “became what we are as sinners alienated from God and existing down to the roots of our being in a state of disobedience against him” (Torrance,1990:203). Elsewhere (1992:39) Torrance writes:
[T]he Incarnation was the coming of God to save us in the heart of our fallen and depraved humanity, where humanity is at its wickedest in its enmity and violence against the reconciling love of God. That is to say, the Incarnation is to be understood as the coming of God to take upon himself our fallen human nature, our actual human existence laden with sin and guilt, our humanity diseased in mind and soul in its estrangement or alienation from the Creator.  

As Gill (2007:53) notes, in his reconciling revelation, God put himself on the side of the enemy (cf. Barth, 1957g:151). In becoming flesh, the Son of God “became what we are as sinners alienated from God and existing down to the roots of our being in a state of disobedience against him” (Torrance,1990:203). Torrance continues:
[I]n his incarnation the Son of God penetrated into the dark recesses of our human existence and condition where we are enslaved in original sin, in order to bring the redeeming love and holiness of God to bear upon us in the distorted ontological depths of our human being. 

According to Torrance, the assumption of fallen human flesh was “a doctrine found everywhere in the early Church in the first five centuries” (Torrance, 1992:39). The Greek fathers argued that in becoming flesh, the incarnate Son was not merely “externally” or “accidentally” related to us, for without being united with us in “our condition of sin, corruption and slavery,” he could not save us (Torrance, 1990:202). According to Gill (2007:53) and Ho (2008:70), Torrance is directly influenced by Barth in asserting the assumption of fallen flesh. For Barth, as Gill notes, the word translated “flesh” in John 1:14 (i.e., sarx) means “fallen” flesh (Barth, 1957g:151, 152). Moreover, Gunton (1992:52) supports the “fallenness” position by arguing that Christ assumed our actual fallen nature and not some “idealised” human nature. As Gill (2007:55) correctly argues, the assumption of fallen flesh is “central” to Torrance’s doctrine of incarnational redemption. 

Ontological healing and Atoning Reconciliation 

In distinction to “forensic” [i.e., “legal,” “penal”] categories of the atonement (see below), Torrance frames his discussion of the atonement in ontological terms (i.e., having to do with “being,” “essence,” “nature”]. For Torrance (1990:204), it is important to realise that “in the very act of taking our fallen nature upon himself Christ was at work healing, redeeming and sanctifying it.” Thus, Torrance (1988a:162) views the incarnate Son’s assumption of fallen Adamic flesh as a “reconciling, healing, sanctifying and recreating activity.” Cass (2008:169) rightly describes Torrance’s soteriology as one of “ontological healing.” As Scandrett (2006:85) notes, Torrance’s argument for the assumption of a fallen human nature follows from his understanding of both the incarnation and the atonement. If the goal of the atonement is to heal humanity of sin and death and bring us back into right relationship with God, then the eternal Word must assume our fallen Adamic flesh in order to cleanse and heal it.  

Torrance’s assertion of the assumption of fallen Adamic flesh in order to heal and cleanse it in the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in Jesus Christ is based on the soteriological principle given “its most epigrammatic expression” by Gregory Nazianzus: “the unassumed is the unhealed.” The early fathers understood that if the whole man was to be healed, the whole man had to be assumed in the incarnation, for that which is not taken up by Christ is not saved (Torrance, 1992:39).

Summary: For Torrance, the incarnation is no mere “static” union of God and human flesh; rather, it is a dynamic healing, cleansing, reconciling, sanctifying union of God and humanity. The incarnation itself is redemptive; the union of divine and human natures in Jesus is atoning reconciliation. Atonement is not something Jesus “does,” as in traditional models of the atonement (see below). Rather, Jesus is the atonement; he is God and fallen Adamic flesh joined in reconciling union. From “inside” the skin of Adam and throughout the “whole course” of his obedient life, Jesus bent the rebellious human will back to the Father, healed and cleansed our corrupt, diseased “flesh” and reconciled us to the Father.   

Traditional Theories of Atonement 

To better appreciate Torrance’s view of the atonement, let us briefly review three major models or “theories” of atonement that have arisen in the history of the Western-Latin church. These are: 1) Anselm’s “satisfaction” theory; 2) Abelard’s “moral influence” theory; and 3) Calvin’s “penal substitution” theory. (I am not including Luther’s Christus Victor theory because I believe that Torrance incorporates this view into his model of the atonement, while not limiting himself to it.) 

Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory 

In the Middle Ages, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) developed a model of the atonement usually known as the “satisfaction” theory. Also known as the “Latin” or “juridical” view, this model of atonement has been prominent in Roman Catholic Scholasticism and Protestant orthodoxy. Rooted in the feudal societies of his time, Anselm’s theory of the atonement depicts God as a “feudal lord” whose honour has been violated by his “vassal,” that is, sinful humanity. In order to uphold justice in the cosmos, God must receive satisfaction for the affront to his honour occasioned by human disobedience. Humanity’s debt is so great, however, that it cannot pay it; hence, it is necessary that God assume human nature, so that, as a human being, God can pay the debt that humanity otherwise cannot pay. For Anselm, Christ’s death on the cross is a substitutionary payment of a debt owed by humanity to God. When Christ dies, atonement is complete; God’s honour is satisfied, his wrath assuaged, and humanity’s penalty of eternal death is set aside (Olson, 2002:257, 258; Bloesch, 2006:153).  

Note: In this model the eternal Word assumes human nature in order to pay a debt. Jesus offers his body on the cross, so that divine honour may be “satisfied.”  

            Abelard’s Moral Influence Theory    

Another medieval theologian, Peter Abelard (1079-1142), offered an alternative to Anselm’s satisfaction theory. For Abelard, God does not require payment of a penalty. Rather, God wants sinful humanity to repent and throw itself on God’s mercy. People do not repent, however, because they fear and hate God. In consequence, Christ lays down his life in atonement in order to demonstrate God’s great love for humanity. Abelard portrays the atonement in terms of a “moral influence” that changes the perspective of humanity, causing us to trust God and repent of our sins. In this model, Christ’s death on the cross is viewed as exemplary, rather than propitiatory (turning away wrath) or expiatory (expunging sin). Christ suffered in order to subdue the alienation of humanity by a supreme example of self-sacrificing love (Olson, 2002:258, 259; Bloesch, 2006:158). 

Note: In this model Jesus’ life (i.e., humanity) is merely exemplary; that is, Jesus sets us an “example” of self-sacrificing love. 

Calvin’s Penal Substitution Theory 

Another theory of the atonement arose during the Reformation as an adjustment to Anselm’s satisfaction theory. This is the “penal substitution” theory associated with John Calvin (1509-1564) and Reformed theology. In this view, Christ reconciles God and humanity by taking upon himself the punishment sinful humans deserve, thereby reconciling God’s righteous anger with his love for mankind. At the cross, human salvation is made possible and the Father can now regard mankind favourably. In this theory of atonement, the focus is on punishment. The penalty born by Christ for humanity is not the satisfaction of God’s wounded honour; rather, it is capital punishment as retribution deserved by sinful humanity’s disobedience.  

This theory has been rightly criticized because it introduces a disjunction between God the Father and the incarnate Son in which the Father is depicted as angry, wrathful, and punitive, while Jesus is regarded as loving, kind, and forgiving. Moreover, “womanist” theologians regard this theory as sanctioning child abuse and violence (Olson, 2002:259, 260, 262). 

Note: In this model the eternal Word assumes a human body so that it might be “punished” in order to exact the payment of a penalty. 

Dualist, External, Instrumental 

Recall that in Torrance’s model, the incarnation itself is a healing, sanctifying union between God and fallen humanity. Atonement occurs “within” the hypostatic union (the union of God and humanity in the one person of Jesus Christ). In other words, the atonement is “internal” or intrinsic to the person of Christ. Atonement is “Who” Jesus is, not merely what he “does.” In his incarnate constitution as God and humanity united in one Person, Jesus is that atonement. 

In the traditional Latin views, on the other hand, atonement is not regarded as “internal,” to the “person” of Jesus Christ. That is, atonement is not a function of “who” Jesus Christ is as God and humanity joined in reconciling union; rather, atonement is a “work” that Jesus does. As Torrance argues, traditional views of the atonement create a dualism (separation, division) between the “person” and “work” of Jesus. In all three views, atonement is “external” to the person of Jesus; he is merely an agent of atonement, for his humanity (i.e., “body”) is merely instrumental―that is, a “means to an end.” In Anselm’s view, and the “penal” view that arose from it, Jesus’ humanity is merely a vehicle or “instrument” supplied to satisfy divine honour or pay a penalty by enduring punishment. In Abelard’s view, Jesus’ life (humanity) is merely “exemplary”; that is, Jesus sets an “example” for us to emulate. All three models lack a real (ontological) connection between Jesus and us. Atonement is a “work” that Jesus does “for” humanity, not “in” humanity. 

Because there is no ontological connection between Jesus and us, traditional models require that the atonement be supplemented or complemented by a subsequent work of the Holy Spirit (i.e., “sanctification”). For Torrance, this creates a dualism between the atonement of Jesus Christ and the “work” of the Holy Spirit. 

Moreover, lacking a real ontological connection between the atonement and humanity, traditional views require that we be “declared” righteous (i.e., “justified”) upon a profession of faith. In Torrance's ontological approach to the atonement, however, humanity is actually made “righteous” in the vicarious humanity of Jesus. We participate in his righteousness through union with him by the Holy Spirit. In Torrance’s view of the atonement, conversion, repentance, faith, justification and sanctification are all realized in our place and on our behalf “in” Jesus. 


Traditional (Latin)
satisfaction (Anselm)
example (Abelard)
punishment (Calvin)
ontological healing
Subsequent acts
Declared righteous by imputation (i.e., justification)
Sanctified by the Holy spirit
Made righteous and sanctified in Jesus’ vicarious humanity

Next post (coming soon!): The Latin heresy revisited 

For 9 posts on Torrance’s doctrine of atonement, click:

 For 13 posts on the doctrine of the “vicarious humanity” of Jesus Christ, click:

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Nature of the Atonement: Torrance and J.M. Campbell

Torrance’s doctrine of incarnational redemption does not fit neatly into any one of the major theories of atonement that have arisen in the history of Christian theological thought. In fact, Torrance is critical of the “theories of atonement” that have arisen in the history of Western theology. In one way or another, he contends, all these theories operate with an “external way of relating theory and event in the interpretation of Jesus Christ” (Torrance, 1986b:478; cf. below). In contrast to Western theories of the atonement developed in terms of “external” relations between Jesus and God, Torrance develops his doctrine of the atonement from the “internal” consubstantial Father-Son relation and the consubstantial God-human relation “within” the one person of Jesus Christ. Torrance’s view of the atonement is closely related to the “representative theory” or “theory of vicarious repentance” associated with the Scottish pastor and theologian, John McLeod Campbell (1800-1872) (Torrance, 1996c: 287ff). Elements of this view are also found in P.T. Forsyth (1848-1921) and Karl Barth (1886-1968). In this model of atonement vicarious identification is stressed over penal substitution (Bloesch, 2006:157).  

In his Auburn lectures, delivered in the late 1930s, Torrance (2002b:166) describes two “notable and significant attempts” to understand the atonement in modern theology. One is the theology of R.W. Dale, who stressed “the substitutionary work of Christ in his submission to divine judgment and in satisfaction for sin offered on the cross.” The other is the Scottish pastor and theologian, John McLeod Campbell, who stressed “Christ’s vicarious life of obedience to the Father and his atoning suffering in life and death in fulfilment of the love of the Father,” without giving major place to the concept of the “forensic satisfaction” of divine justice at the cross. As Torrance notes, Dale’s approach is regarded by many as nearer the traditional Anselmic concept of atonement with a stress on the aspect of “penal judgment and satisfaction” before the righteous wrath of God. Campbell’s stress, on the other hand, is on the atoning obedience and love of the incarnate Christ. With his “primary emphasis” on Christ’s vicarious life and passion in fulfilling the holy and forgiving love of the Father, Campbell pays relatively little attention to the Anselmic aspect of satisfaction. 

In regard to T.F. Torrance’s doctrine of the atonement, perhaps no theologian has had greater influence than John McLeod Campbell. According to Torrance (1996c:287, 288), McLeod Campbell was deposed from his ministry in the Scottish Kirk because of his doctrine of “universal atonement and pardon,” as well as the doctrine that assurance is “the essence of faith and necessary for salvation,” a teaching set out in his great work of 1856, The Nature of the Atonement (Campbell, 1996). As Torrance (1996c:289, 290) argues, McLeod Campbell was troubled by the “unnatural violence” done to scripture, particularly passages such as John 3:16, 1John 1:2, 1Tim 2:4ff, and Heb 2:9, 17-19, when interpreted according to “logical Calvinism” and its assertion of “particular redemption.” Furthermore, McLeod Campbell was disturbed by the doubt he found among his parishioners in regard to the love of God and the nature of repentance and forgiveness. His congregants lacked assurance of their salvation, for their trust was undermined by current doctrines of atonement and election, which held that only some were chosen to be saved.
For McLeod Campbell, notes Torrance (1996c:291, 294, 295), nothing less than “the very nature of God as love” was at stake, for it is in the face of Jesus Christ, the suffering Saviour, that the true character of God as love is revealed (cf. Jn 3:16; 1Jn 4:8, 16). In the federal theology of the Scottish Kirk, Campbell perceived what he regarded as a dualism, or “division,” between justice and mercy that pitted a merciful, “tender-hearted” Jesus against an angry Father-God. Rather than seeing God as a loving Father who satisfies his justice through the atoning work of his Son, federal theology, according to Campbell, portrayed the “man” Jesus as placating an angry Father God, so that he might finally love the elect. As Torrance argues, the federal theologians thought of God as loving mankind only in response to what Jesus had done and could not understand how, in God, “mercy and justice, love and holiness, grace and judgement, belong intimately and inseparably together.” On the other hand, notes Torrance, McLeod Campbell expounded the atonement, not in “abstract legal terms,” but in the “personal,” “filial” terms of the Father-Son relation. For Campbell, atonement must be understood in recognition of the fact that God provides the atonement; God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Thus, for McLeod Campbell, forgiveness precedes the atonement, for the atonement is “the form of the manifestation of the forgiving love of God, not its cause.” While he appealed to the New Testament and to the Scots Confession, McLeod Campbell’s teaching was regarded as a violation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which was the basis on which Scottish pastors took their ordination vows. As Torrance (1996c:289, 290) argues, though McLeod Campbell was deposed from the Kirk, “his teaching had the effect of opening the door wide to fresh biblical and evangelical understanding of cardinal truths of the Christian faith.”
McLeod Campbell’s theology of the atonement was a radical break with the federal theology of the Westminster Confession and a development of older Scottish theology, represented by the “Evangelical Calvinists” [e.g., Thomas Erskine (1788-1870)], the Reformers, and the Greek fathers (Cass, 2008:59, 60). As Cass (2008:89) argues, Campbell’s development of a “Catholic” doctrine grounded in the Triune life of God and a Reformed doctrine of the all-sufficient nature of grace in Christ had a major influence on Torrance’s methodology and soteriology. As Cass notes, Torrance regards McLeod Campbell as one of the greatest witnesses in the history of the Scottish Kirk to the unconditional, all-sufficient, and unlimited nature of the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
A further understanding of McLeod Campbell’s influence on Torrance can be gained by comparing two differing doctrines of God. As Torrance’s younger brother, James (Torrance, J., 1996b:1) argues, the history of Christian thought shows that our doctrine of God shapes our understanding of the atonement and of Christian assurance. If we view God primarily as a lawgiver and judge, with humans created to keep the law, then our doctrine of atonement will portray God as a judge who must be “conditioned into being gracious,” either by human merit or by Christ on the cross, “satisfying” the Father’s conditions, so that God might be gracious to the elect. According to Torrance, this view arises in some forms of scholastic Calvinism. On the other hand, if our basic concept of God is that of “the Triune God of grace who has his being in communion as Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and who has created us to share as sons and daughters in that communion, then our doctrine of atonement will portray a gracious God bringing his loving purpose to fruition. In this view, notes the younger Torrance, “we see the priority of grace over law, the filial over the judicial, and that God is a covenant God of faithfulness, not a contract-God.” As Torrance notes, no theologian saw the effects of these differing concepts of God on the doctrine of atonement and Christian assurance as clearly as did John McLeod Campbell, who “was so passionately concerned to call the Church back to the Triune God of grace” in a land where God had come to be conceived primarily as lawgiver and judge.
Throughout his writings, one of the fundamental differences Torrance sees between these two differing views of God is whether grace is placed before law or whether law is placed before grace (Cass, 2008:95). According to T.F. Torrance (1996c:293), federal Calvinism incorporated a “legal strain” into their teaching on the atonement shaped by the “reign of law.” McLeod Campbell, on the other hand, sought to understand the atonement “in the light of itself,” by moving away from the “logical framework” of double predestination and a narrow conception of particular redemption. Against his contemporaries, who sought to understand the atonement “within the brackets and abstract definitions of their own rationalistic Calvinism,” coupled with their belief that the Westminster Confession was “an exact and complete transcript” of biblical doctrine, argues Torrance, McLeod Campbell made a “methodological decision of quite immense importance” by seeking to understand the atonement in its own light and in accordance with its own intrinsic nature, thereby refusing to separate method and content. We note that McLeod Campbell’s methodology, with its integration of method and content according to the nature of reality is, of course, in strict harmony with the kataphysical method of Torrance’s own scientific theology.
As Torrance (1996c:298) argues, McLeod Campbell clearly “asserts the primacy of the filial relation over the legal relation, of grace over law.” For Torrance, as Cass (2008:96) notes, Campbell’s “primary theological move” was to “align the character of God the Father totally with Jesus Christ as revealed in the economy of salvation.” In locating the revelation of God in the economy of salvation as revealed in Jesus Christ, Torrance (1996c:301) believes that Campbell calls for a recasting of the traditional Scottish Calvinist doctrine of “penal substitution” by returning to the teaching of Athanasius (Contra Arianos, 4.6), who regarded the Godward-humanward and humanward-Godward movement of mediation as a two-fold, but unitary, movement of mediation occurring “within,” not external to, the incarnate constitution of the mediator. Finally, McLeod Campbell’s emphasis on the Father-Son relation over the legal aspects of atonement appears to be a return to Athanasius (Contra Arianos 1.34; cf. Torrance, 1988a:49 n. 3), who argued that “it would be more godly and true to signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.” To be sure, Torrance clearly follows both Athanasius and McLeod Campbell in his oft-repeated assertion that there is no God behind the back of Jesus Christ (Torrance, 1988a:135; 1990:71; 1996c:294).
According to Cass (2008:59, 88, 89), John McLeod Campbell had more influence on Torrance than any other theologian, particularly in regard to McLeod Campbell’s understanding of the Father-Son relation, Christ’s condemning sin in the flesh in his “active” and passive” obedience, the integration of ontological and forensic metaphors of salvation, and the doctrine of the Judge judged in our place (cf. Barth, 1957d:211ff). Noting the “enormous influence” of Barth, Cass argues that, at certain points, Torrance rejects Bath’s soteriological position in favour of the Greek fathers, Calvin, and McLeod Campbell.

Academy of Bible and Theology

Dear Readers, Recently, I launched a new project called the Academy of Bible and Theology (click  here ), sponsored by AsiAfrica Mini...