Wednesday, March 9, 2011

T.F. Torrance: The Atonement, pt. 3

The Latin Heresy

The "Latin heresy" refers to western-Latin christology, wherein a dualism is created between the person and work of Christ. This view is characteristic of both Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism. In the Latin view of the atonement, the "work" of Christ is "external" to the "person" or "being" of Christ; that is, Jesus simply offers his body as an instrument in the payment of a forensic debt. In this view, the atonement is merely the fulfillment of a "transaction" between the Father and the Son, wherein the Son pays humanity's debt of sin. Hence, in the Latin view, the atonement produces no ontological change in fallen humanity; that is, the atonement discharges a debt but it does not change us in the depths of our fallen being. Words used to describe this view include "external," "instrumental," and "transactional."

Torrance argues that we must “relearn” the fundamental soteriological principle that Christ assumed fallen, sinful human flesh, since it has been “suppressed” in the Western church, where doctrines of the atonement have departed from the soteriological emphasis of the incarnation found in the early centuries of Christianity. Consequently, the atonement has been regarded in the Latin West primarily as an “external transference of penalty” between sinners and God, rather than as “the culmination of God’s incarnational penetration into the alienated roots of humanity in order to cancel sin and guilt and undo the past, and to effect within it once for all atoning reconciliation between the world and himself” (Torrance, 1986b:476; 1992:39).

In asserting the assumption of sinful human flesh, Torrance (1986b:477, 478, 480; cf. 1990:232, 233; 1992:40, 41; 1993:237-239; 1994:58, 59) rejects what he terms the “Latin heresy,” that is, a “dualist” understanding of the person and work of Christ, traceable to Leo’s Tome sent to the Council of Chalcedon, that provided the Western church its paradigm for a formulation of atoning reconciliation in terms of “external” relations, whether exemplary, as in Abelard, or juridical, as in Anselm. In asserting the Son of God assumed a “neutral” human nature, that is, human nature in its perfect original state as it existed before the Fall, unaffected by sin and guilt and not under divine judgement, the Latin position insists that Jesus Christ did not assume our “original sin,” lodged within the roots of personal and social human being, but only our “actual sin.” This led to the Roman doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary, which continues to divide the Latin and Greek branches of the church. Consequent to this view, argues Torrance, Protestantism was forced to deal with original sin by an appeal to a separate and subsequent work of sanctification by the Holy Spirit, while Roman Catholic theology dealt with original sin through the “healing medicine” of grace merited by Christ and dispensed by the church in the holy sacraments.

In asserting the assumption of a neutral humanity, Latin theology rejected the cardinal soteriological principle, associated with Nicene theology, that “the unassumed is the unhealed.” In arguing that Jesus assumed a neutral human flesh, Latin theologians split apart the intrinsic relation between the person and work of Christ by construing the atonement in an “instrumentalist” way, wherein the incarnation was regarded simply as a means of supplying a sinless human being who could live in perfect obedience to the law of God and take our place on the cross. Subsequently, atonement was regarded either as an external moral transaction or as an external penal transaction, wherein the penalty for sin is transferred from sinners to the sinless Saviour. Either view, however, created a separation (i.e., dualism) between the incarnation and atonement by construing Christ’s saving act in external terms, whether exemplary or juridical, rather than in terms of the internal Father-Son relation, wherein the atoning work of Christ is a function of his incarnate constitution as the eternal Son who is homoousios to Patri. Protestant theology, particularly Evangelicalism, has generally followed the Latin church in this regard, specifically in its development of various theories of the atonement, all of which, in varying ways, dualistically divide the incarnation and the atonement by separating the person and work of Christ (Torrance, 1986b:476). As Torrance (1992:40) argues:
If the incarnation is not held to mean that the Son of God penetrated into and appropriated our alienated, fallen, sinful human nature, then atoning and sanctifying reconciliation can be understood only in terms of external relations between Jesus Christ and sinners. That is why in Western Christianity the atonement tends to be interpreted almost exclusively in terms of external forensic relations as a judicial transaction in the transference of the penalty of sin from the sinner to the sin-bearer.
In regard to this external, “transactional” view of atonement, Torrance notes that Federal theology, arising from post-Reformation Protestant Scholasticism, works on the premise of an “contract” or “bargain” made between the Father and the Son in eternity past, and interpreted in causal, necessary, and forensic terms (Habets, 2008:344). Torrance sees this “transactional notion” of atoning reconciliation in post–Reformation Calvinism, particularly in the Westminster Confession of Faith (VIII:v), where the incarnate Son is said to have “purchased” reconciliation for us. Implied here is an external, transactional view of atonement, wherein Jesus’ suffering on the cross is regarded as the fulfilment of a “divine requirement, on the ground of which the Father was induced to reconcile us, and was as it were ‘bought off.’” This transactional view of the cross departs from the teaching of the New Testament, in which, according to Torrance, there is no suggestion that reconciliation is “bought” from God. He argues further that the notion of reconciliation as purchased from God departs from Calvin (2008:II.16.4; 326, 327), who cited Augustine in arguing that the Father’s love for humanity is prior to the atoning reconciliation of the cross (cf. Rom 5:8); that is, God does not love us because of what Christ has done; rather, it is because God first loved us that he came in Christ to reconcile us to himself (cf. Jn 3:16). As Torrance notes, “the truth of the prevenient love and grace of God in Christ was one of the primary principles of the Reformation” (Torrance, 1996c:19, 139; 2009:146).

In contradistinction to the gospel of external relations that characterizes the Latin heresy, Torrance (1992:41) follows Patristic theology in arguing that the incarnation and the atonement are “internally linked,” for “atoning expiation and propitiation are worked out in the ontological depths of human being and existence into which the Son of God penetrated as the Son of Mary.” As Torrance (1994:59) argues, if the incarnation itself is essentially redemptive rather than instrumental, that is, merely a means to an end, then “atonement must be regarded as taking place in the ontological depths of Christ’s incarnate life, in which he penetrated into the very bottom of our fallen human being and took our disobedient humanity, even our alienated human mind, upon himself in order to heal it and convert it back in himself into union with God.” Jesus penetrated to the depths of our original sin “in order to redeem us from it by bringing his atoning sacrifice and holiness to bear upon it in the very roots of our human existence and being.” Noting that in his genealogy recorded in Matthew, “Jesus was incorporated into long line of sinners,” Torrance (1992:41) eloquently argues:

[H]e made the generations of humanity his very own, summing up in himself our sinful stock, precisely in order to forgive, heal and sanctify it in himself. Thus atoning reconciliation began to be actualised with the conception and birth of Jesus of the Virgin Mary when he identified himself with our fallen and estranged humanity, but that was a movement which Jesus fulfilled throughout the whole course of his sinless life as the obedient Servant of the Lord, in which he subjected what he took from us to the ultimate judgment of God’s holy love and brought the healing and redeeming power of God to bear directly upon it in himself. From his birth to his death and resurrection on our behalf he sanctified what he assumed through his own self-consecration as incarnate Son to the Father, and in sanctifying it brought the divine judgment to bear directly upon our human nature both in the holy life he lived and in the holy death he died in atoning and reconciling sacrifice before God.
In contradistinction to the Latin tradition, Torrance (1992:41, 42) argues that we must “recover the awesome truth that through his Incarnation the Son of God appropriated our fallen humanity under the judgment of God.” Throughout the whole course of his life, the incarnate Saviour brought his healing and redeeming power to bear upon sinful Adamic flesh, even in the deep recesses of original sin, in order to heal, cleanse, and sanctify it in atoning reconciliation.


Calvin, J. 2008. Institutes of the Christian Religion (translated by H. Beveridge). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. 1,059 pp.

Habets, M. 2008. The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism: T. F. Torrance as a Case Study. Irish Theological Quarterly, vol 73. pp. 334-354.

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

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

Torrance, T.F. 1990. Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 256 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. 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 71 pp.

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