Wednesday, March 9, 2011

T.F. Torrance: The Atonement, pt. 2

Torrance’s doctrine of atonement, or incarnational redemption, arises as he follows Christ in order to penetrate, as much as humanly possible, into the salvific significance of the Nicene homoousion and the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ. These two elemental forms of Torrance’s scientific theology provide the framework for understanding his doctrine of the mediation of reconciliation in Jesus Christ.

Torrance grounds his doctrine of incarnational redemption in the unitary relation between the “being” of Jesus Christ, who is homoousios to Patri, and his redemptive “act” of atonement. For Torrance, the incarnation and the atonement are intimately and inseparably related; that is, incarnational redemption, or atoning reconciliation, is a direct function of the incarnate constitution of the Mediator. In his incarnate constitution as God and man joined together in the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in one person, Jesus Christ ‘is’ atoning reconciliation.

A clearer understanding of Torrance’s unitary approach to incarnational redemption, wherein the person and work of Christ are fully integrated, may be facilitated by prior inquiry into the nature of the flesh assumed by the eternal Word in the incarnation, as well as an investigation of what Torrance calls the “Latin heresy.”

Assumption of Adamic Flesh

The inherent connection Torrance sees between the incarnation and atonement depends heavily upon a particular view of the nature of the flesh the eternal Word assumed in the incarnation. The previous chapter examined the epistemological and soteriological significance of the humanity of Jesus Christ without concern for the manner of the flesh he assumed from the Virgin Mary. In regard to the precise nature of the humanity of Jesus Christ, however, we encounter one of the more controversial aspects of Torrance’s doctrine of the mediation of Christ: his assertion that the incarnate Word assumed sinful Adamic flesh (Torrance, 1988a:161ff; 1990:202-205; 1992:65; 1994:58-60). In the hypostatic union, argues Torrance (1988a:163; cf. 1994:58), the eternal Word assumed “our sinful and corrupt humanity in conflict with God.” Following Athanasius (Contra Arius; Torrance, 1988a:161 n. 52), Torrance argues that in taking upon himself “the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7), Jesus Christ assumed “fallen Adamic humanity” from the Virgin Mary, that is, “our perverted, corrupt, degenerate, diseased human nature enslaved to sin and subject to death under the condemnation of God.” Elsewhere, Torrance (1992:39) writes:
[T]he Incarnation was the coming of God to save us in the heart of our fallen and depraved humanity, where humanity is at its wickedest in its enmity and violence against the reconciling love of God. That is to say, the Incarnation is to be understood as the coming of God to take upon himself our fallen human nature, our actual human existence laden with sin and guilt, our humanity diseased in mind and soul in its estrangement or alienation from the Creator.
In becoming flesh, the Son of God “became what we are as sinners alienated from God and existing down to the roots of our being in a state of disobedience against him” (Torrance,1990:203). Torrance continues:
[I]n his incarnation the Son of God penetrated into the dark recesses of our human existence and condition where we are enslaved in original sin, in order to bring the redeeming love and holiness of God to bear upon us in the distorted ontological depths of our human being.
The assumption of fallen human flesh was “a doctrine found everywhere in the early Church in the first five centuries,” argues Torrance (1992:39). From the time of Irenaeus, the Greek fathers interpreted the teaching of St. Paul (e.g., Rom 8:1ff; Gal 3:13; 2Cor 5:21) to mean that “in the incarnation the Son of God condescended to assume from us our fallen, corrupt, mortal human nature, on the ground that what he did not assume did not come within his healing, saving and sanctifying power.” The Greek fathers argued that in becoming flesh, the incarnate Son was not merely “externally” or “accidentally” related to us, for without being united with us in “our condition of sin, corruption and slavery,” he could not save us (Torrance, 1990:202).

As Torrance (1990:204) notes, it is important to realise that “in the very act of taking our fallen nature upon himself Christ was at work healing, redeeming and sanctifying it.”Torrance views the incarnate Son’s assumption of fallen Adamic flesh as a “reconciling, healing, sanctifying and recreating activity.” In becoming one of us, Jesus took what is ours and gave us what is his. In great compassion, he gathered up our fallen humanity to himself “in order to purify it and quicken it in his own sinless life-giving life” (Torrance, 1988a:162).

Torrance’s assertion of the assumption of fallen Adamic flesh in order to heal and cleanse it in the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in Jesus Christ is based on the soteriological principle that “only what the incarnate Son has taken up from us into himself is saved,” a principle given central place in the theology of the Cappadocian fathers, but also asserted by Athanasius and Cyril (Torrance, 1988a:163-165). Torrance quotes Basil’s assertion that Jesus Christ could not have “slain sin” and reunited fallen humanity to God if he had not come in “our flesh.” As Torrance notes, however, it was Gregory Nazianzus who gave the principle “its most epigrammatic expression” in a trenchant refutation of Apollinarianism: “The unassumed is the unhealed; but what is united to God is saved. If only half Adam fell, then what Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of him who was begotten, and so be saved as a whole.” In addition, Torrance notes Gregory Nyssa’s assertion that Jesus came to bring home “the whole sheep, not just the fleece,” leaving “no part of our nature which he did not take up into himself” (Torrance, 1988a:163, 164 n. 62-64). The early fathers understood that if the whole man was to be healed, the whole man had to be assumed in the incarnation, for the unassumed is the unhealed, and that which is not taken up by Christ is not saved (Torrance, 1992:39).

In arguing that Jesus assumed sinful Adamic flesh in order to heal and cleanse it, Torrance follows the Greek fathers in placing special emphasis on the healing of the rational human mind. Against the Apollinarian assertion that the mind of the Logos replaced the human mind of Jesus, Torrance argues that it is the rational human mind that is assumed and redeemed in the incarnation, for it is in the mind, not merely in the flesh, that human sin is most deeply entrenched (Torrance, 1988a:164, 165). Torrance (1990:40) writes:
Divine salvation and reconciliation had to do with human beings, not only in the corruption of their physical nature, but in the depravity of their spiritual nature in which they had become alienated and enemies in their minds so that they turned the very truth of God into a lie. Thus the Incarnation had to be understood as the sending of the Son of God in the concrete form of our own sinful nature . . . in which he judged sin within that very nature in order to redeem man from his carnal, hostile mind.
As Dawson (2007:58-60, 74) notes, following Torrance, the necessity of the assumption of fallen human flesh, including the rational mind, is related to the disease that lies at the root of our existence: our sinfulness. The innumerable problems of human existence, whether evil thoughts, murder, adultery, theft, lying or slander are the symptoms of a problem that is located at the centre of our being, in our very hearts (cf. Jer 17:9; Mt 15:18, 19). The depth of our need, therefore, requires a redemption that issues from the depth of our being. If we are to be saved, we must be cleansed from the root of our existence, in the ontological depths of the human heart. Therefore, in order for our redemption to reach to the root of our sinfulness, Jesus had to become what we are, in order that we might be made what he is. Jesus had to assume our diseased, corrupted flesh in order to heal and cleanse it “from the eternal inside out.” As Hart (2008:86) notes, Jesus assumed from the Virgin Mary humanity in the precise condition in which it needs to be redeemed.

Torrance’s assertion of the assumption of fallen Adamic flesh takes seriously St. Paul’s teaching that “Christ was made man in the concrete likeness of the flesh of sin under the law of sin and death” (cf. Rom 8:3), and inexplicably was “made sin” (2Cor 5:21) and “made a curse” for us (Gal 3:13), in order to redeem and save us from sin and death. Yet, in assuming our sinful flesh, Christ did not himself sin; rather, “by bringing the perfect holiness and righteousness of God in himself to bear upon it, he condemned sin in the flesh, and through his atoning self-offering and self-consecration in our place he healed, redeemed and sanctified in and through himself what he had assumed” (Torrance, 1990:203, 204; cf. 1994:58). Torrance quotes Hilary’s assertion (De Trinitate; Torrance, 1988a:162; n.54) that “God took upon himself the flesh in which we have sinned that by wearing our flesh he might forgive sins; a flesh which he shares with us by wearing it not by sinning in it.” Torrance also quotes Gregory Nyssen’s dramatic assertion (Against Apollinaris; Torrance, 1988a:162 n. 56) that “[a]lthough Christ took our filth upon himself, nevertheless he is not himself defiled by the pollution, but in his own self he cleanses the filth, for it says, the light shone in the darkness, but the darkness did not overpower it.”

As Torrance (1986b:476) argues, Eastern theologians from Irenaeus to Cyril of Alexandria taught that “in becoming one with us and one of us in Jesus Christ, God had humbled himself to take our lost cause upon himself by assuming our fallen human nature, our humanity diseased in mind and soul, our actual human existence enslaved to sin and subjected to judgment and death, precisely in order to save us in the very heart of our depraved condition where we are in enmity with God.” In assuming our diseased and corrupt humanity, the eternal Word was not contaminated by it; rather, he condemned sin in the flesh by living a life of perfect obedience “inside” the flesh of Adam, bringing his holiness to bear upon it and healing and sanctifying it.


Dawson, G.S. 2007.Far as the Curse is Found: The Significance of Christ’s Assuming a Fallen Human Nature in the Torrance Theology. In G. Dawson, ed. An Introduction to Torrance Theology: Discovering the Incarnate Saviour. London: T & T Clark. Ch. 3.

Torrance, T.F. 1986b. Karl Barth and the Latin Heresy. Scottish Journal of Theology, vol 39, pp. 461-482. Also available in Torrance (1990).

Torrance, T.F. 1988a. The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church. London: T & T Clark. 345 pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1990. Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 256 pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1992. The Mediation of Christ (rev. ed.). Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard. 126 pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 71 pp.

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