Friday, February 25, 2011

Torrance Hypostatic Union, pt 9: A Summary and Critique

The following post is a summary and critique of my previous eight posts on Torrance’s understanding of the hypostatic union.

The New Testament proclaims that Jesus is Lord and provides both explicit and implicit indications of the unity of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. While the Nicene Creed follows the biblical witness in asserting the divinity and humanity of the incarnate Son, the early church struggled with what Torrance describes as the “constant problem of theology”: how to apprehend and articulate the relationship between the divine and human natures in the person of Jesus Christ. In Alexandria and Antioch, rival schools of thought arose with different emphases on the nature of salvation, each finding expression in their rival christologies. With their emphasis on divinization as the goal of salvation, the Alexandrians emphasized the assumption and transformation of human flesh by the divine Logos, while preserving the unity of the two natures of Jesus Christ at the cost of his full humanity. Alexandrian christology, with its tendency to lose the humanity of Jesus Christ in favour of a “one-natured” incarnation, reached its extreme point in the thought of Apollinaris, who asserted that the divine mind of the Logos replaced the human mind of Jesus. Apollinarianism was condemned at the Council of Constantinople, following the teaching of Gregory Nazianzus, who argued that the unassumed is the unhealed. The Antiochenes, on the other hand, with their concern for the moral-ethical aspects of salvation, emphasized the full humanity of Jesus Christ at the cost of the unity of the divine and human natures. Antiochene christology reached its extreme point in the thought of Nestorius, who so compartmentalized the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ that the incarnation appeared to result in two persons: the Son of God and the Son of Mary. Nestorius was opposed by Cyril of Alexandria, who argued that the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ existed in “hypostatic union”; that is, the subject of the life of Jesus Christ is the divine Logos, the eternal Son of God, who assumed a human nature while remaining fully divine. While Nestorius was condemned at the Council of Ephesus, Cyril is regarded in church history as one of the great defenders of orthodox christology.

The great christological debates were considered settled at the Council of Chalcedon. Striving to preserve the truth of the rival christological positions while avoiding the extremes of either, the Chalcedonian Definition asserts that the eternal Logos is the subject of the incarnation. The divine Son, Jesus Christ, is one person or hypostasis in two natures, “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” The Chalcedonian Definition remains the orthodox expression of the doctrine of the hypostatic union. The epistemological and evangelical significance of the doctrine has been thoroughly articulated by T.F. Torrance.

Along with the Nicene homoousion, the doctrine of the hypostatic union as articulated at Chalcedon constitutes one of the primary elemental forms in Torrance’s understanding of the mediation of Christ. In describing the union of divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ as a “mystery” that can only be understood “out of itself’” as it declares itself to us, Torrance consistently applies his realist epistemology and scientific theological method to the doctrine of the hypostatic union, a mystery that can be known not in terms of a priori assumptions about the nature of God but only a posteriori, as we allow the nature of the object of inquiry to reveal itself to us. At the same time, in acknowledging the mystery as one that can be known only by the gracious act of God, Torrance maintains his position that faith is a vital part of the epistemological process.

For Torrance, the humanity of Jesus Christ is essential for the mediation of revelation and is the guarantee that revelation is accessible to us within the limitations of our own creaturely existence. Because the eternal Word of God has entered space and time, human beings can know divine truth in creaturely form within the limits of historical human existence. The Word made flesh is “God’s articulate self-utterance” to mankind through the medium of human word and rationality. Against the Kantian assertion of a bifurcation between the knower and the known, Torrance, as an epistemological realist, describes the hypostatic union as a union between divine and created word, revealing divine word in human form and enabling divine revelation to be comprehended within the limitations of human thought and speech. Because God has become human, it is possible for us to know him, not as a result of an innate human capacity to know God, but solely on the ground that God has met us within the limitations of our creaturely existence. In denying an innate capacity to know God, Torrance maintains his epistemological stance that knowledge of God is not derived independently of Jesus, as in natural theology or Schleiermacheran subjectivity.

Torrance’s insistence that divine revelation is mediated to us through the human word of Jesus Christ can better be seen in light of his position on the relation of the written word of God to the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. Torrance distinguishes between Holy Scripture as the word of God and the divine Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. The Bible is not “the word” of God; rather, Jesus Christ is “The Word” of God. According to Torrance, there is an ontological, or “first-order,” relationship, between divine Word and the human words spoken by the incarnate Son; that is, the human word of Jesus Christ is ontologically “identical” to divine revelation. In short, the words of Jesus Christ are the words of God. The written word of God that grew out of the apostolic community of faith, on the other hand, stands in a “second-order” relation to the Word of God; that is, the words of scripture are not identical to the Word of God that proceeds from the mouth of Jesus. Thus, there is an “assymetrical” relation between the Word of God revealed in Christ and the written word of God recorded by the apostolic community. Scripture is ontologically different from the incarnate Word in that it reflects that Word rather than constituting it. Scripture is the divinely provided medium through which the Word of God is mediated to us. The humanity of Jesus Christ is the “real text” underlying the written word of God and by which scripture must be understood and interpreted. Thus, ontological priority and authoritative primacy must be given to the divine revelation mediated by the incarnate Word and not to the Bible. In asserting the ontological identity of divine Word and the human word of Jesus Christ, Torrance remains true to his scientific theological method, wherein knowledge of God unfolds as it is disclosed by the nature of the object of inquiry.

In the hypostatic union, divine word and human word are eternally united in the one person of Jesus Christ. The incarnate Word reaches back to and into the heart of God and reaches out and down to us through the Holy Spirit and the written word of scripture. Thus, the truth is identical with Jesus Christ, who is “of one being with the Father.” To know this truth is to know God in his triune being, in the person of Jesus Christ. The Word of God is Jesus Christ speaking to us in scripture and communicating himself through it. The Word of God, therefore, may not be abstracted from Jesus Christ, for it is “identical” with him.

In this regard, Torrance argues that the Bible must not be reduced to a collection of propositional truths, abstracted and considered apart from the Word of God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. Rather than regarding the Bible as a static repository of divine truth, Torrance takes a deeper view of scripture, wherein its truth is to be found in the living person of Jesus Christ to whom it points. For Torrance, the “inspiration” of scripture lies in the fact that it is inspired and shaped by the Holy Spirit to be the written word that leads us to Jesus Christ, while it is itself shaped by and patterned around Jesus Christ (cf. Walker, 2009:lxxxi, lxxxii). The Bible is used rightly when the reader attends simultaneously both to the words of the text and to the divine reality to which they point, so that scripture may fulfil its semantic function as “sign” by pointing not to itself but to the independent reality that underlies it. For Torrance, scripture is like a finger pointing at the moon; it is not the moon itself, but the “sign” that points us toward its objective reality.

Torrance’s realist position in regard to scripture places him somewhere between fundamentalism, with its insistence on the inerrancy, infallibility, and plenary verbal inspiration of scripture, and liberalism, with its reduction of scripture to the comparatively low status of myth, folklore, or fairy tale. As Torrance (1986b:471, 472) notes, both fundamentalism and liberalism detach the word of God from Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate. Fundamentalism detaches scripture from Jesus Christ by elevating it to the status of an independent, static repository of propositional truth, which can be considered apart from the dynamic Living Truth mediated to us by the Holy Spirit. Liberalism, on the other hand, detaches the word of God from Jesus Christ by reducing it to nothing more than the projections of the human religious consciousness. Rather than elevating scripture to a divine status independent of the realities to which it bears witness, as in fundamentalism, Torrance esteems scripture as the divinely provided medium through which the Word of God is mediated to us by the Holy Spirit. Rather than demythologizing scripture, as in liberalism, Torrance, as a theological realist, is committed to the objective reality to which scripture bears witness. Torrance’s position frees us from entanglement in the troublesome web of biblical inerrancy and infallibility and solves many hermeneutical, historical, and scientific problems, for example, those associated with the early chapters of the Book of Genesis. Rather than place our faith in the Bible itself, while attempting to defend it in terms of scientific accuracy and historical factuality, Torrance frees us to look beyond the words of scripture to the divine reality toward which they point and whose presence is communicated to us by the Holy Spirit through the medium of scripture. Moreover, Torrance unburdens us from an attempt to micro-manage the text of scripture, again with the understanding that the individual words of scripture are of secondary importance to the reality that underlies them. As Torrance might argue, the individual words of the text are not “the truth”; Jesus Christ is “The Truth.” Rather than a repository of propositional truths to be considered apart from Jesus Christ, scripture is a divinely provided medium through which the Holy Spirit transforms our minds and brings us into a vital relationship with “The Truth” in the incarnate Word of God.

In addition to the importance of the humanity of Jesus Christ for the mediation of revelation, it is essential that his mediation be grounded in the reality of God. While the humanity of Jesus mediates revelation in a means amenable to human understanding, his divinity ensures that his human word is also the divine Word of God. To mediate revelation to us, therefore, Jesus Christ must be both God and man. If Jesus Christ were not man, then God’s revelation would not be revelation to man; if Jesus Christ were not God, then his mediation of revelation would not be divine revelation, for only God can reveal God. His divinity is the guarantee that God has made himself known in Jesus Christ ‘as he is’. Because Jesus is God, his human speech and actions are divine revelation. In him, the Revealer and revelation are identical; Jesus Christ is the revelation he brings. Without the hypostatic union, we would not hear God in Jesus’ creaturely speech; yet, because divinity and humanity exist in the one person of Jesus Christ, his creaturely speech is the language of God. As the express image of God, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, all true knowledge of God comes through him.

Torrance’s understanding of the relation between the doctrine of the hypostatic union and the mediation of revelation may be briefly summarized as follows: While the humanity of Jesus means that God has entered human history as one of us, speaking within the creaturely constraints of human thought and speech, so that we may understand, the deity of Christ means that God has entered history as one of us, so that the human word of Jesus Christ is also the divine Word of God (cf. Torrance, 2008:188).

As Purves (2001:73, 74) notes, however, there is a “christological constraint” to the knowledge of God revealed in Jesus Christ, for we have communion only with Christ in his human nature. Purves rightly notes that Torrance’s “genius” is that he has investigated the possibility of knowledge of God in Jesus Christ to the extent that he has. At the same time, Purves questions whether Torrance has elevated critical realism above christology and moved beyond the “reverential limits” of our knowledge of God. As Purves argues, Torrance’s critics fail to realize that Torrance’s epistemology rests on christological convictions that Torrance is unwilling to give up, for they derive their content from, and are limited by, Jesus Christ himself. Nevertheless, while Purves appears to be sympathetic to Torrance’s epistemology, his concern that Torrance has elevated critical realism above christology is questionable. Torrance’s critical realism is a direct function of his christology; that is, Torrance identifies himself as a critical realist precisely because he believes, by faith, that God has revealed himself in space-time history in Jesus Christ. His realism, therefore, is a direct consequence of his christological convictions and cannot be separated from them. Against possible assertions that Torrance has exceeded the “reverential” limits of the knowledge of God, Torrance is merely articulating in the language of his scientific theology exactly what Jesus said in simpler terms: “I have come to reveal the Father.” There is no knowledge of God “according to his nature” (kata physin) apart from Jesus Christ. In his sovereign freedom, God has chosen to reveal himself in the consubstantial Father-Son relation. Torrance is simply elaborating, to the extent possible, the epistemological implications of God’s self-revelation in Christ. Charges of exceeding reverential limits should more properly be applied to epistemologies and methodologies that attempt to circumvent Jesus Christ in arriving at knowledge of God, for example, natural theology and Schleiermacheran subjectivism.

In addition, is Purves right to argue for a “christological constraint” to our knowledge of God because that knowledge is limited to Jesus’ humanity? To the contrary, such a constraint would only occur in the case of a dualist bifurcation in the person of Christ. If the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ were rigidly compartmentalized, as in a Nestorian dualism, then Jesus’ humanity would reveal nothing of his divinity, for his human and divine acts would be those of two persons, not one. At the same time, if we fall prey to presuppositions of divine immutability, arising from the Greek cosmological dualism that has plagued christology since the days of the early church, we could understandably argue that Jesus’ humanity reveals little or nothing of God, for his divinity is unmoved by his humanity.

Olson (1999:234, 235) offers a helpful critique in this regard, particularly in relation to the persistent dualism that plagued even the Chalcedonian understanding of the person of Christ. Notwithstanding attempts to guard the mystery of the union of divine and human natures in Jesus Christ, the Chalcedonian doctrine of the hypostatic union is plagued by an inherent ambiguity (cf. Olson, 1999:219). Despite the assertion that the Logos is the personal subject of the incarnation, the Chalcedonian fathers were constrained by the ubiquitous Greek philosophical assertions of divine immutability and its corollary, divine impassibility. Hence, they argued that the divine Logos was unaffected by the assumption of human nature; that is, God did not actually suffer in the incarnation; rather, he suffered only through the humanity he assumed as the instrument of the incarnation. Yet, the assertion that God remains undisturbed and unchanged by the experiences of the incarnate life is regarded by many contemporary Roman Catholic and Protestant thinkers, not as a mystery, but as “sheer nonsense.” Is it really accurate to say that God was incarnate in Jesus Christ if God remains entirely unmoved and untouched by his humanness? If the Logos is the personal centre of consciousness in the hypostatic union, who is it that experienced fear and anguish at Gethsemane? Who was tempted forty days in the wilderness? As Olson wisely asks, “Can an ‘impersonal’ nature be tempted?” The great reformer, Martin Luther, who embraced both Nicaea and Chalcedon as respected landmarks in the history of Christian doctrine, rejected the pagan notion of divine impassibility and attributed “creaturely” experiences to the incarnate Son of God. Luther rightly carried the communicatio idiomatum to its logical conclusion by asserting that God can not only be born, but can suffer at Calvary as well.

Despite the obeisance of the fathers to Greek metaphysics, dualist presuppositions founded on divine immutability must collapse in the face of the Chalcedonian assertion that Jesus Christ is “one person.” If divine and human acts are predicates of the one whole Christ, as Cyril’s communicatio idiomatum would indicate, then, as Torrance argues, the human acts of Jesus are the acts of God, and, hence, are revelatory of the divine nature. We are not, therefore, under a “christological constraint,” but, rather, an epistemological constraint, wherein knowledge of God is limited, not by God’s self-revelation in Christ, but by a limited human capacity that allows us to apprehend but not comprehend God.

In addition to its epistemological implications, the hypostatic union has vital implications for human salvation. Jesus Christ must be not only homoousios with God; he must be homoousios with humanity as well. Because only God can save, Jesus Christ must be divine; yet, in order for his saving activity to reach us, he must also be human. As Torrance notes, the gospel is emptied of saving import if Jesus Christ is not fully human as well as fully God. The fact that God became man in order to save us means that the humanity of Jesus Christ is essential for our salvation.

Against adoptionist christologies, Torrance argues that the incarnation must be understood as God really become man, not merely God participating in man. In Jesus Christ, God acts “as” man, not merely “in” man. Against Docetic christologies that break the link between God and man, Torrance draws upon the Johannine statement, “the Word became flesh,” to assert that the incarnation must be understood as God becoming fully man, in the undiminished reality of human being. Against static interpretations of divine immutability, Torrance rightly argues that the incarnation involves a real “becoming” on the part of God in which God acts as man on our behalf. The stark actuality of his blood and bone guarantee that God has come among us in Jesus Christ. In Christ’s humanity, God is one “of” us and one “with” us. Against Apollinarian and monothelist christologies, Torrance echoes Gregory Nazianzus in asserting that Jesus Christ redeems the whole man by becoming fully human and identifying himself with every aspect of our fallen humanity. Because the unassumed is the unhealed, the Son of God assumed complete human flesh “for us and our salvation.”

Following the Nicene fathers, Torrance notes that in the incarnation, the Son of God took not only the form of man but also the form of a servant. Jesus assumed our servile condition under the slavery of sin in order to act on our behalf from within our actual existence. The eternal Word’s condescension to assume flesh “from the lump of Adam,” however, did not involve a diminution of the infinite being of God; rather, it involved the self-abnegating love that God expressed in abasing himself for our salvation. By taking upon himself our servile condition and offering himself on our behalf, Jesus Christ fulfilled the role of both servant and priest, ministering both the things of God to man and the things of man to God. The real humanity of Jesus Christ is the “veil” under which the transcendent God draws near to us, holding mankind at “arm’s length,” while giving us time to draw near in decision and faith.

Against a Docetic view of Christ, Torrance argues that the humanity of Jesus Christ is essential for our salvation: if the humanity of Jesus Christ is imperfect, atonement is imperfect and we remain in our sins. The mediation of reconciliation is possible only when the mediator acts both from the side of God as God and from the side of man as man. In the full humanity of Jesus Christ, as it is joined eternally to his deity, both in incarnation and atonement, humanity is restored to its place before God from which it has fallen.

The humanity of Jesus Christ is the guarantee of God’s action in human space-time history. At the same time, the deity of Christ is the guarantee that his mediation of revelation and reconciliation has divine validity and authority. As Torrance often notes, the humanity of Jesus Christ means that God has acted among us as man; at the same time, the deity of Jesus Christ means that God has acted among us as man. The mediation of revelation and reconciliation in Jesus Christ is not merely the act of a man; it is the act of God, for human salvation must be an act of God if it is to be effective. The reality and validity of our salvation, therefore, is dependent upon the reality of Christ’s deity. The deity of Jesus Christ is the guarantee that his saving acts are the acts of God for our salvation. To deny the deity of Jesus Christ by putting God in heaven and a mere man crucified at Golgotha is to make a monstrosity of the cross.

While it is essential for our salvation that Jesus Christ be both divine and human, it is also essential that the divine and human natures exist in hypostatic union in one person. The humanity of Jesus Christ has no saving significance apart from his deity; his deity has no saving significance apart from his humanity. Both the revelatory and saving significance of the divine and human natures lies in their union. The doctrine of the hypostatic union is the assertion that in the mystery of Christ, divine and human natures are truly and completely united in one person or hypostasis. In asserting that the divine and human acts of the incarnate Son are all predicates of “the one whole Christ,” Torrance aligns himself with Cyril’s doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum.

The doctrine of the hypostatic union of God and man in Jesus Christ is the objective heart of Torrance’s doctrine of atoning reconciliation. The significance of the atonement lies in the fact that God has acted at once from the side of God as God, and from the side of man as man in an act of real and final union between God and humanity. Consistent with his non-dualist, unitary theology, Torrance carefully asserts there are not two acts in the life and death of Jesus Christ, only a single action that is at once Godward and manward. If atonement is to be real, it must take place from man’s side if man is to be reconciled to God; yet, it must also take place from the side of God if it is to be effectual. Thus, atonement must be the work of the one God-man, God and man in hypostatic union, not merely God “in” man but God “as” man. If the natures of the incarnate Son are divided, then the mediation of reconciliation in Jesus Christ is “illusory,” for his human acts are not the acts of God, and his divine acts are not the acts of man for us and our salvation. For Torrance, the doctrine of the hypostatic union of two natures in the one person of Jesus Christ is the “mainstay” of a doctrine of atoning reconciliation, for only he can be “bridgemaker” who is himself the “bridge.”


Olson, R.E. 1999. The Story of Christian Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 652 pp.

Purves, A.P. 2001. The Christology of Thomas F. Torrance. In E. Colyer, ed. The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T. F. Torrance. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Ch. 3.

Torrance, T.F. 1986b. Karl Barth and the Latin Heresy. Scottish Journal of Theology, vol 39, pp. 461-482.

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

Walker, R.T. 2009. Editor’s Introduction. In T.F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (edited by R. Walker). Downers Grove: IVP. 489 pp.

Stay tuned! Beginning next month, I will present a series of posts on Torrance’s doctrine of the atonement. I assure you, it is wonderful stuff!!

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