Wednesday, March 9, 2011

T.F. Torrance: The Atonement, pt. 1

Ash Wednesday is a fitting day to begin a series of weekly posts on T.F. Torrance’s understanding of the atonement of Jesus Christ. All previous posts on Torrance’s doctrine of the mediation of Christ have been leading to this point. Before we can understand the saving work of Jesus Christ, we must first understand who he is as incarnate Saviour of the world. Hence, I have posted a great deal of material on the homoousion, that is, the creedal assertion of the consubstantial Father-Son relation, as well as on the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. These important historical/scriptural doctrines of orthodoxy teach us that the incarnate Word is fully God and fully human, joined in eternal union in the one person of Jesus Christ. Torrance, following Barth and Patristic theology, shows us how this union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ is, in fact, a healing, reconciling union, one which obtains for the entire cosmos. So let’s get started with the good news of what God has done for every one of us in Jesus Christ. To be sure, the news is good: really good!

The Nicene homoousion and the Chalcedonian doctrine of the hypostatic union are among the primary elemental forms, or basic constitutive concepts, of Torrance’s doctrine of the mediation of Jesus Christ. These primary christological tools are thoroughly integrated in Torrance’s doctrine of incarnational redemption or atoning reconciliation.

For Torrance, there is an intrinsic connection between the incarnation and the atonement; hence, his doctrine of atoning reconciliation is intimately interwoven with his understanding of the consubstantial Father-Son relation and the doctrine of the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ. As noted earlier, in the Torrance theological tradition, the “Who?” question is prior to the “how?” question. Torrance does not attempt to articulate a doctrine of the salvific work of Jesus Christ until he has articulated his thinking in regard to “who” Jesus Christ is as the incarnate Saviour of the world.

Moreover, because of the intrinsic connection between the person of Jesus Christ and the atonement, Torrance does not articulate a doctrine of the hypostatic union only to state subsequently a doctrine of atoning reconciliation, as if the latter were something added to the former. “On the contrary,” Torrance argues, “we have to see that reconciliation is the hypostatic union at work in expiation and atonement, and therefore that [the] hypostatic union cannot be expounded aright except in terms of Christ’s active ministry within our darkness and estrangement, bringing revelation and reconciliation to bear revealingly on one another.” If Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the eternal purpose of God to bestow eternal love upon us and gather us back into eternal life, it is paramount to understand that the doctrine of Christ’s atoning reconciliation presupposes the doctrine of the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ, “for the whole work of reconciliation depends upon the fact that one person acts both from the side of God, and from the side of man, both in his divine acts and in his human acts, and that these acts are really and truly identical in the person of the mediator” (Torrance, 2008:183, 184).

In his important article on the atonement, Torrance (1993:225, 226) identifies a number of verses in the New Testament that witness to the “singularity” and “finality” of the mediation of Jesus Christ in atoning reconciliation between God and sinful man, as well as the “range” or scope of the atonement. By “singularity,” Torrance refers to “the one unrepeatable particularity of [Jesus Christ’s] incarnate reality as God and man, Creator and creature, indivisibly united once and for all in one Person . . . the First and the Last, the Alpha and Omega of all God’s ways and works.” Torrance opens his article with scriptural references to Jesus Christ as “ransom.” He quotes the Gospels (Mt 20:28; Mk 10:45): “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ‘ransom’ for many.” In addition, Torrance cites Paul’s assertion (1Tim 2:5, 6) that there is only one Mediator between God and man: the man, Jesus Christ, who gave himself a “ransom” for all. He also notes John’s assertion that Jesus Christ is the “propitiation” for the sins of the whole world (1Jn 2:2). In a passage that is of primary importance for his understanding of the relationship between creation, incarnation, and atonement, Torrance quotes a lengthy passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians (1:14-20), a passage that identifies Jesus Christ as the one “in” whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. This same Redeemer is the one “by,” “through,” and “for” whom all things are created and “in” whom all things consist or hold together. Through Jesus Christ, in whom the fullness of God dwells, God has reconciled all things to himself, whether visible or invisible, making peace by the blood of the cross. Finally, Torrance notes one of the many passages from the Epistle to the Hebrews (9:12, 15) that refer to the singularity and finality of the atoning work of Jesus Christ, who, as the Mediator of the new covenant, entered the heavenly Holy of Holies once for all, to secure by his own blood eternal redemption from the transgressions under the first covenant.

Though not specifically cited in his article on the atonement, another important passage for understanding the relationship between creation, incarnation, and redemption is found in the opening to the Epistle to the Hebrews (1:2, 3). Here the Son of God is identified as the one through whom God made the worlds and who upholds all things “by the word of his power.” In addition, the Prologue to the Gospel of John (1:1-14) identifies the Word who became flesh as the one through whom all things were made. This same creator Word, incarnate in Jesus Christ, is later identified as “the Lamb of God” who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29). As will be shown below, the relation between creation, incarnation, and atonement is of vital importance to Torrance’s doctrine of the atoning mediation of Jesus Christ, particularly in regard to the “range” of atoning reconciliation.

In approaching the subject of the death of Christ, Torrance reminds us that we are dealing with a great mystery. In the liturgy of Old Testament Israel, after the cultic sacrifice was made, the high priest “ascended” into the Holy of Holies, where, behind the veil, hidden from public view, he sprinkled the blood shed in sacrifice onto the mercy seat (Lev 16:12-14, 17). God ordained that the mystery of atoning reconciliation, particularly its most “solemn and awful part,” should be veiled from the eyes of the people, so that the “innermost heart of atonement” should remain hidden and ineffable. In the same way, even though the veil in the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom (Mt 27:51; Mk 15:38; Lk 23:45), the resurrected Jesus ascended to the heavenly Holy of Holies, into the immediate presence of the Father, where, beyond the view of humankind, he acted as our High Priest and Mediator in a work whose nature is “unutterable.” The mystery of atonement, therefore, can neither be “spelled out” nor “spied out”; rather, it is a mystery “more to be adored than expressed.” As Torrance reverently notes, as we delve into the mystery of the blood of Christ, the blood of God incarnate, “we must clap our hand upon our mouth again and again for we have no words adequate to match the infinitely holy import of atonement” (Torrance, 2009:2).

It is precisely because the mystery of atonement is ineffable and unutterable, argues Torrance (2009:2, 3), that, on the night before his death, Jesus gave us a tangible, earthly reminder of atonement in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. “[T]he broken bread and the poured out wine enacted in solemn anamnesis” [“remembrance,” “calling to mind again”] communicate to us what mere human words are unable to do; that is, “the inexpressible mystery of atonement through the body and blood of the saviour.” This sacrament, “ordained to communicate Christ to us in action,” forbids us to presume that we can enclose the mystery of atonement in human words or doctrinal formulations, or to think that we can articulate any adequate account of its meaning.

The death of Jesus Christ is an act of God that undercuts the ground of all human religion and entails a complete reversal of our previous attitudes and preconceptions, so that we can only understand the cross by repentance and a change of mind (Gr., metanoia). This reversal of our preconceived ideas means that we cannot think our way into the death of Christ; we can only think our way from it by following the new and living way opened by the cross. Because the cross of Christ is a “mystery of unearthly magnitude before which we can only bow in utter humility,” we can never reduce the act of God at Calvary to any mere “theory” of atonement (Torrance, 2009:3, 4). As Torrance (2009:4) cogently argues:

No merely theoretical understanding is possible, for abstract theoretic understanding does away with the essential mystery by insisting on the continuity of merely rational explanation. But that is just what we cannot give of the awful fact of the descent of the Son of God into our hell and the bearing by the Son of God of divine judgement on our behalf, for all rational explanation must presuppose a basic continuity here between man and God, but that is just what the atonement reveals to be wanting by the very fact that God himself had to descend into our bottomless pit of evil and guilt in order to construct continuity between us and God.

As Torrance argues, rather than seeking to understand the cross through abstract theoretical explanations or logical presuppositions derived from the assumption of a basic continuity between man and God, we must put together “conjunctive statements based upon the inherent synthesis to be found in the person of the mediator,” for there is a continuity that God himself achieves through his atoning “act” and the intervention of his own divine “being.” To understand the cross, we must “follow Christ” and think only a posteriori, allowing our minds to be conformed to Jesus Christ, who is himself “the truth” (Jn 14:6). “That is the only way to understand and at the same time to reverence the infinite mystery and majesty of this atoning deed on the cross which by its very nature reaches out beyond all finite comprehension into eternity” (Torrance, 2009:4, 5). As Torrance (1993:228, 229) notes elsewhere, the “singularity” of the mediation of Jesus Christ in atoning reconciliation cannot be expressed in the language of abstraction. As a unique and unrepeatable reality, the atonement can only be understood out of itself.

While 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, his 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. The cross is viewed as the “creative sympathy of the holy” rather than a propitiation of the wrath of God (Bloesch, 2006:157). In his insistence that the atonement is a mystery to be adored rather than rationally expressed, Torrance is in harmony with Eastern Orthodox Christians who tend to shy away from rational explanations of the atonement in favour of embracing mystery (cf. Olson, 2002:261). In regard to the extent to which salvation is a “gift” or a “task” (Olson, 2002:267), Torrance, with his emphasis on atonement as the dynamic expression of the hypostatic union, identifies with the Reformed tradition by clearly affirming salvation as “gift.”


Bloesch, D.G. 2006. (orig. ed. 1978.) Essentials of Evangelical Theology (vol 1): God, Authority, and Salvation. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. 265 pp.

Olson, R.E. 2002. The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity & Diversity. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 365 pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1993. The Atonement. The Singularity of Christ and the Finality of the Cross: The Atonement and the Moral Order. In N. Cameron, ed. Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker House. Chapter 8.

Torrance, T.F. 1996c. Scottish Theology from John Knox to John McLeod Campbell. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 330 pp.

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

Torrance, T.F. 2009. Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (edited by R. Walker). Downers Grove: IVP. 489 pp.

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