Sunday, September 26, 2010

Torrance, Hypostatic Union pt 1: Scriptural Witness

(In this blog, I am getting ready to begin a series of posts on the doctrine of the hypostatic union and its constitutive importance in T. F. Torrance's doctrine of the mediation of Christ. As preparation for these upcoming posts, I want first to include introductory material on the scriptural and historical background of this doctrine as articulated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D.)

The early church declared, "Jesus is Lord" (e.g., Rom 10:9; Phil 2:11), attributing to Jesus Christ a two-fold order of being: "according to the flesh" (kata sarka), that is, as a man, and "according to the Spirit" (kata pneuma), that is, as God (e.g., Rom 1:3ff; 8:9; 2Cor 3:17; Heb 9:14; 1Pet 1:11; 3:18) (Kelly, 1978:138). Jesus Christ is both Son of man and Son of God. This two-fold order of being is, perhaps, no more clearly articulated than in the prologue of the Fourth Gospel (Jn 1:1-18). In proclaiming "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us," John succinctly articulates the mystery that underlies what would later become the doctrine of the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. As Torrance (2008:60) notes, John uses Old Testament images and language to expound the incarnation of the Word of God. The eternal Word, who cast his shadow across the history of Israel in the offices of prophet, priest, and king and, above all, in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, has become flesh and tabernacled among us. According to Torrance, John proclaims that Jesus Christ is the tabernacle of God: the one in whom the glory of God is to be seen has come to dwell among us as one of us. Moreover, the same Word who became flesh is the creator, the one by whom all things are made. Without ceasing to be the eternal Word of God, he has entered creaturely existence in such a way as to dwell in it in personal presence, as "the personal Word" who becomes flesh and effects "personal meeting and faith" with those who receive him. As Torrance (2008:60, 61) notes:

In all this the Word is the Lord God, the subject of the incarnation. He becomes creature in all his sovereign freedom as creator; and without ceasing to be that creator Word he becomes flesh, without any diminishment of his freedom or of his eternal nature. But as the very Word of God and as remaining God's Word in all the fullness of his grace and truth he comes personally to man, light into darkness, declaring and manifesting God in the flesh in a fullness from which we can all receive.

In stating that the "Word became flesh" (Jn 1:14), John means that "the Word fully participates in human nature and existence, for he became man in becoming flesh, true man and real man" (Torrance, 2008:61). Torrance goes to great length to argue that the incarnation is to be understood "as God really become man." Jesus Christ is not merely man "participating" in God but is himself "essential Deity." God did not merely descend on Jesus Christ as on one of the prophets; rather, "in Jesus Christ God came to dwell among us as himself man" (Torrance, 1988a:149, 150). Torrance's understanding of the incarnation is in distinct contrast to adoptionist, Ebionite, Docetic, Nestorian, Apollinarian, and all other christologies that compromise the integrity of the union of divinity and full humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.

Notwithstanding John's assertion that the eternal Word assumed human flesh, however, the doctrine of the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ is not explicitly articulated in the New Testament. The doctrine is implied, however, in the narratives of the virgin birth. As Torrance (2008:88, 89) notes, Matthew (1:18) and Luke (1:26-38) describe the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, who is both the divine Son of God and the human Son of Mary. While Mark does not speak specifically of the birth of Jesus, unlike Matthew and Luke, he never refers to Jesus as the son of Joseph, but, rather, as the "son of Mary" (Mk 6:3). In the incident at Nazareth recorded in Matthew, the people describe Jesus as "the carpenter's son," while in the same incident recorded in Luke, they describe him as "Joseph's son" (cf. Mt 13:55; Lk 4:22). Torrance argues that Mark's description of Jesus as "Mary's son" is most "un-Jewish," since calling a man by his mother's name is extremely strange in Jewish speech. Thus, Mark appears deliberately to avoid referring to Jesus as "Joseph's son."

Torrance (2008:89) also notes another passage in Mark (12:35-37), where Jesus says of the Messiah, "David calls him Lord; so how is he his son?" In other words, "How can a divine Christ be born of human stock?" Mark's language fits well with the virgin birth, argues Torrance. While Mark does not explicitly mention the virgin birth, neither do Matthew nor Luke after that point in their narratives from which Mark begins. Thus, far from providing evidence against the virgin birth by his silence about it, Mark's language leans strongly in that direction. As Torrance notes, "In Mark, there are . . . distinct allusions to the supernatural birth of Jesus of Mary."

Returning to the prologue of John's gospel, Torrance (2008:90, 91) finds a reference to the virgin birth in John 1:12, 13: "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (NKJV). Torrance's argument for a reference to the virgin birth concerns the translation of the phrase, "who were born." He argues that the phrase is singular and, thus, should be translated, "who was born," in which case the reference is to Jesus. He argues further that the word translated "man" (andros) should more accurately be translated "husband," which would then properly indicate that Jesus was not born of a human father. Torrance claims that, while the "main manuscripts" (with some exceptions) translate the passage in the plural, "all the available patristic evidence" has it translated in the singular. Torrance also notes that Tertullian (De Carne Christi) charges the Valentinian Gnostics with corrupting the text, changing it from singular to plural, because they were adverse to the doctrine of the virgin birth. In addition, Torrance argues that the singular translation is increasingly followed by modern scholars. Finally, Torrance finds an additional Johannine reference to the virgin birth in the first epistle (1Jn 5:18): "he who was born of God."

Regarding the Pauline corpus, Torrance (2008:92, 93) states that Paul never applies the New Testament word for human birth (gennan) to Adam or Jesus, since neither the first nor the second Adam were "generated" in the usual way; rather, both "came into existence": one from the "earth," the other from "heaven" (cf. 1Cor 15:47). To say that Jesus came "from heaven" is, for Torrance, an "explicit" reference to the virgin birth. Furthermore, Torrance notes that in Galatians 4, Paul uses the usual word for human birth (gennan) three times but uses a different word (ginesthai) when speaking of Jesus. As Torrance argues, "[I]n reference to Jesus' birth [Paul] refuses to use the only word the New Testament uses of human generation. Every time Paul speaks of human birth he uses gennan, but not once when he speaks of Jesus. Every time Paul wants to refer to the earthly origin of Jesus he uses the word ginesthai." Torrance finds here "the strongest disavowal" of ordinary human birth in regard to Jesus.

Therefore, while the doctrine of the hypostatic union is not explicitly articulated in the New Testament, it is clearly supported by scripture. The eternal Word of God was conceived by the Holy Spirit, assumed human flesh from a young virgin and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God and the human Son of Mary.


Torrance, T.F. 2008. Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (edited by R. Walker). Downers Grove: IVP. 371 pp.

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