Radcliff, A.S. 2016. The Claim of Humanity in Christ: Salvation and Sanctification in the Theology of T.F. and J.B. Torrance. (Princeton Theological Monograph Series 222), Eugene, OR: Pickwick. 208 pp.
The Torrance’s insistence on the election of all in Christ and the universal range of atonement attracts the criticism that this leads logically to universalism. Radcliff notes that some have tried to avoid the notion of universalism by positing two “unions,” for example, “carnal” union and “spiritual” union, as advocated centuries ago by John Craig (see TFT’s “Introduction to The School of Faith, pp. cvi ff.). In Craig’s view, everyone has a “carnal” union with Christ by virtue of our common humanity, but only a few are united by the Spirit to Christ and receive the benefits of this union.
TFT, however, perceives a problem with distinguishing two “unions,” because this throws us back on our own efforts to accomplish the spiritual union. Per TFT, “If the spiritual union is an additional union, then our salvation depends not only on the finished work of Christ but upon something else as well which has later to be added on to it before it is real for us.” Torrance insists that “there is only one union with Christ, that which he has wrought out with us in His birth and life and death and resurrection and in which He gives us to share through the gift of the Holy Spirit” (emphasis mine). While this can cause confusion in relation to universalism, notes Radcliff, for Torrance it is better to speak of one union with Christ and not make distinctions that could lead to a misunderstanding of conditional grace. (We will learn more about “distinctions” in the one “union with Christ” in Chapter Three of Radcliff’s book.)
Comment: We see repeatedly in the Torrance tradition an aversion to any doctrine that throws the burden of salvation back upon our own shoulders. For the Torrances, salvation is a fait accompli in Jesus. There is nothing to add to the finished work of Christ. Even our response, as already noted, contributes nothing to our salvation. (This is definitely Reformed theology!)
Nevertheless, the Torrance’s reject a doctrine of universalism in favor of a doctrine of “universal love.” For the Torrances, notes Radcliff, “universal love” is the positive aspect of universalism; it seeks to uphold the love of God in contrast to what TFT sees in Federal theology to be a subordination of God’s universal love to an over-arching rational, legal framework.
While asserting “universal love, notes Radcliff, Torrance rejects universalism because it does not recognize 1) the urgency of evangelism, 2) the reality of hell, 3) the necessity of mission and 4) the irrational fact of sin. (This is good work on Radcliff’s part.) For Torrance, universalism is flawed because of the awful and absurd reality that the proclamation of the Gospel leads some to harden their hearts. At the same time, TFT does not believe that God sends the “damned” to hell, nor did God create the hell they experience. In rejecting God’s love for all as revealed in Jesus, the “damned” experience a hell of their own creation. According to TFT, “To say ‘No’ to Jesus is to be held in a hell of one’s own choosing and making. It is not God who makes hell, for hell is the contradiction of all that is God.”
For Torrance, the doctrine of universalism attempts to rationalize the irrational mystery of sin and evil. While we must uphold the doctrine of universal reconciliation, we cannot deny “the terrible bottomless reality of sin.” Thus, “Whether all of humanity will live reconciled with God is a mystery” (TFT).
Critics of the Torrance tradition, notes Radcliff, (usually conservative Calvinists), accuse the Torrances of “logical incoherence,” “obfuscation,” and “irrationalism.” For example, if the Torrance tradition “’logically” leads to universalism and, yet, the Torrance’s deny universalism, are they not being “logically incoherent?” For Letham, Torrance’s appeal to mystery appears to belittle the place of logic. Radcliff quotes Letham in this regard:
It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis.
As Radcliff wisely notes, this brings us to the crux of the debate. For the Torrance’s, the essential problem with Federal theology is that human logical constructs are valued (no doubt unwittingly, notes Radcliff) over God’s self-revelation in Christ. For the Torrances, we cannot argue our way to truths about God; rather, we rely wholly on God’s self-revelation in Christ. The Torrance tradition is guided by the concern to look first to “Who” God is as revealed in Jesus and the Sprit in order to understand “how” God acts in salvation history. That means, notes Radcliff, that we must subordinate human rational discourse to what God reveals of himself in Christ.
In the Torrance tradition, the nature of the Object of study prescribes the manner in which it is known. (This is a cardinal principle of TFT’s scientific theology). Therefore, contra Letham and other critics, notes Radcliff, Torrance theology, controlled and guided by its Object of study, is “profoundly internally coherent.”
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For more on Torrance’s view of universalism, reprobation and hell, see my previous post here.
For more on Torrance’s scientific method of theology, where the method of study is controlled by the nature of the Object of inquiry, see my journal article here.
For more on logical-causal approaches to knowledge of God that have plagued Western Christianity, see my post here.
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