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.
CHAPTER 2: The Vicarious Humanity of the Son
Ontological over External
Radcliff begins this chapter as follows: “God’s unconditional covenantal claiming of humanity in Christ is an ontological event for the Torrances. Salvation is worked out in the very depths of Jesus’s own vicarious humanity and this transforms the very depths of our own being.” This is a profound statement! Let’s unpack it.
According to the Torrance tradition, the incarnation itself is transformative for all humanity. Hence, the incarnation is an ontological (having to do with ‘being’ or ‘nature’) event; that is, redemption is worked out within the hypostatic union of God and humanity in the one person of Jesus Christ. We will contrast that to “external” views of atonement in a moment.
The incarnation is also “ontological” in the sense that it reaches to the depths of our “being,” as the Eternal Word of God is united to our fallen humanity. As I understand it, humanity is now changed and set on a new footing via the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In other words, we are justified, or “made right” in the incarnation and this good news applies not only to believers but to everyone!
Comment: It would be nice, at least for me, if the Torrances were a little clearer in regard to how the union of divine and human natures in Jesus reaches down to, and transforms, the depths of my being, that is, the being of your humble blogger. Somewhere, along the line, we have to bring in the work of the Spirit. We will do that in the next chapter. For now, suffice to say that the incarnation itself is redemptive, not only for me, but for all humanity. In short, we can say that Jesus is redemption. Note, I am not referring to what Jesus does, I am referring to “Who he is,” giving priority to the “Who” over the “how.”
In the Torrance tradition, we can say that Jesus is justification, Jesus is sanctification, and everyone is included, both believers and not-yet-believers. This is an extraordinary contrast to the ordo salutis (“order of salvation”) of Protestant and evangelical theology, where believers (only) are “declared” right or “justified” by the atonement and then “sanctified” (made right) by a subsequent work of the Holy Spirit.
For this reason, the Torrances refer to typical theories of atonement as “external,” because they do not allow for the transformation of humanity in the life and death of Jesus Christ. In Protestant theology, we are declared right, not made right by the atonement. In other words, righteousness is only “imputed” to believers through the atonement (Roman Catholic critics have referred to this as a “legal fiction”). We are “made right” (sanctified) by a subsequent work of the Spirit (accompanied by a lot of moral effort on our parts). “For the Torrances,” as Radcliff notes, “a judicial and eternal scheme disregards the prospective aspect of the atonement whereby we are not only forgiven [i.e., “justified”] but reborn to new life as sons and daughters of God [i.e., “sanctified,” “adopted”] to share by the Spirit in Christ’s intimate relationship with the Father” (p. 49).
TFT describes the western-Latin tendency to conceptualize salvation in external terms as the “Latin Heresy.” (Radcliff rightly notes that “heresy” is a rather strong word to use). Two classic western-Latin versions of external theories of atonement are Abelard’s “ethical” or “exemplary” theory and Anselm’s “satisfaction” theory (which later gave rise to the “penal substitution” theory, and is not to be confused with the song of the same name by the Rolling Stones. Just when you thought I was getting too serious!).
In Abelard’s “ethical” scheme, Jesus sets us an example of sacrificial love for us to follow. In Anselm’s “”satisfaction” scheme, Jesus’ death “satisfies” God’s honor that is offended by human sin. Notice that in either case, our humanity is not transformed; that is, atonement is an “external” act that does not affect us at the core of our beings. In addition, both forms throw us back upon ourselves, either to follow Jesus’ example or to produce fruits of repentance via a subsequent work of the Spirit.
Comment: We will get to the work of the Spirit in the next Chapter, where we will see that the Torrances conceptualize the work of the Spirit in a much different and encouraging way than do Protestants and evangelicals.
The Torrances are highly critical of the “forensic” (legal, law, judicial) model of atonement that is exemplified today by the “penal substitution” theory of atonement, prevalent among Protestants and evangelicals. Radcliff quotes a conservative Calvinist source to describe this theory: “The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty of sin.” In this theory, as Baxter Kruger puts it, the Son takes a whippin’ from the Father! The Torrances assert, however, that the New Testament never refers to the judgement Christ bore for us as “punishment.” They note, rather, that Paul uses metaphors from the law court, the Temple sacrifices, the slave market and adoption.
James Torrance often asserts that the penal substitution theory suggests that God must be “changed” in order to forgive. Here is a prime example from Theopedia:
Penal substitutionary atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.
A close reading of this definition reveals that God must be “conditioned” (“changed”) in order to forgive. God forgives, perhaps reluctantly, because Jesus bears our “punishment” on the cross. In this scheme, atonement is prior to forgiveness (which is exactly backwards). As the Torrances often assert, penal substitution makes God’s relationship with us primarily legal, not filial (having to do with ‘sonship’). Penal substitution makes us objects of law, rather than sons and daughters, who are the subjects of the Father’s love.
Comment: N.T. Wright’s book, The Day the Revolution Began, is a recent critique of the penal substitution theory. I liked the book very much. I especially appreciated Wright’s advocacy of a return to something like the Christus Victor view of the atonement, prevalent in the early Church, where Jesus comes to defeat the power of sin, death and the devil. I think the Torrances ontological, filial view of incarnation-atonement could easily be harmonized with that view.
Abelard’s “ethical” or “exemplary theory is typically embraced by liberal theologians. I think you will find a lot of this in The Episcopal Church. It’s definitely a feel good theory. “Sweet Jesus” sets us an example of love and summons us to follow it. Obviously, this theory throws us back upon ourselves, as we strive to follow Jesus’ example of self-giving love and bring in the brave new world.
Jesus did not come, however, notes Radcliff, to restructure human systems of social, political, and economic power. He came to transform humanity at the core of our beings, by [in my words] assuming our fallen flesh in the incarnation, bringing his holiness to bear upon it in healing, sanctifying union, and to bend the rebellious human will back to God. Jesus did not come merely to set us an example; he came to make us new creations in union with God. For the Torrances, as Radcliff puts it, “[S]alvation comes not through our identification with Jesus but rather his identification with us.” That is a great line! Makes the propeller on my beanie spin!
In summary, the “Latin Heresy” is TF’s term for external views of atonement that do not account for the transformation of humanity in the incarnation itself. In “”external” views of the atonement, whether “exemplary” or “penal,” Christ’s humanity is merely “instrumental” (a means to and end). Jesus assumes a human body to set us an example or to offer it in sacrifice to God. In these models, our humanity is not transformed at the depths of our being; hence, the atonement is merely “external” to us. These “instrumental’ views of the atonement focus on Christ’s work at the expense of his person. (They focus on the “how,” not the “Who.”) As Radcliff notes, “T.F. calls for the atonement to be understood not according to human reasoning but according to God’s self-giving in Christ, whereby we see Christ’s work inextricably bound up with his person.”
For more on ontological vs traditional views of atonement, see my post here.
For more on the “Latin Heresy,” see my post here.Please enter your email to subscribe to this blog (see right hand column).