Wednesday, March 16, 2011

T.F. Torrance: The Atonement, pt. 4

Unity of Christ’s Person and Work

A greater appreciation of Torrance’s rejection of the Latin heresy, with its dualism between incarnation and atonement, requires an examination of his holistic view of the unity of Christ’s “person” and “work.” In Torrance’s doctrine of incarnational redemption, the incarnation and the atonement are intimately connected: incarnation is inherently redemptive and redemption is inherently incarnational (Torrance, 1988a:159; cf. 1992:66).

Following Barth (1957b:1ff; 1957d:1ff), Torrance fully integrates christology and soteriology into a unitary whole, refusing to separate the person and work of Jesus Christ as if they were two distinct doctrines. In Torrance’s doctrine of incarnational reconciliation, the doctrines of the hypostatic union and atonement are “inextricably interwoven.” The hypostatic union is “the ontological aspect of atoning reconciliation and atoning reconciliation is the dynamic aspect of hypostatic union.” For Torrance, the hypostatic union and atoning reconciliation “inhere inseparably in one another” and are the “obverse and reverse” of one another (Torrance, 1990:201; cf. 177-179).

In keeping with his unitary, holistic approach to theology, Torrance resists any dualism that separates the “person” and “work” of Jesus Christ. In the one person of the incarnate Son, who is of “one nature with the Father” (homoousios to Patri) and of one nature with humanity, divinity and humanity are united together, so that atoning reconciliation takes place “within,” not “external” to, the one personal being of the Mediator. As Torrance (1992:63) notes:
In Jesus Christ . . . his Person and his Work are one. What he does is not something separate from his personal Being and what he is in his own incarnate Person is the mighty Act of God’s love for our salvation. Christ and his Gospel belong ontologically and inseparably together, for that is what he is, he who brings, actualises and embodies the Gospel of reconciliation between God and man and man and God in his own Person. In him the Incarnation and Atonement are one and inseparable, for atoning reconciliation falls within the incarnate constitution of his Person as Mediator, and it is on that ground and from that source that atoning reconciliation embraces all mankind and is freely available to every person.
Note that for Torrance, “Christ” (i.e., person) and his “Gospel” (i.e., work) are ontologically united, for atoning reconciliation falls “within” the incarnate constitution of the Mediator. Jesus Christ actually embodies the mediation of reconciliation in the unity of divinity and humanity in his one incarnate person.

In his emphasis on the ontological union of the person and work of Christ, Torrance (1986b:473) argues that our understanding of atonement must be framed in the context of the consubstantial Father-Son relation. Noting that the Nicene homoousios to Patri was applied to the ‘incarnate’ Son, who came down from heaven for us and for our salvation, Torrance argues that the oneness in being between the Father and Son must be regarded from a soteriological perspective. Reconciliation is not merely a propositional truth that God has made known to us by sending his only-begotten Son to be our Saviour; rather, God’s self-revelation in the incarnate Son ‘is’ reconciliation, “as certainly as it is God himself: God with us, God beside us, and chiefly and decisively, God for us.” As Torrance asks, “How could God actually reveal and give himself to us across the chasm, not only of our creaturely distance but of our sinful alienation from him, except through a movement of atoning reconciliation?”

In bringing together the doctrine of atoning reconciliation and the Nicene assertion of the consubstantial Father-Son relation, Torrance (1986b:473, 474) clearly disavows an Arian view of Christ. If we operate with a view of the Son as created out of nothing and, therefore, only externally related to the Father, argues Torrance, “we are unable to give any saving significance to the human life and activity of Christ in the form of a servant, for it rules out of account any direct personal intervention by God himself in our lost and damned human condition.” If Christ is only externally related to God, his reconciling activity can only be construed in “moral” or “juridical” terms, rather than in the ontological terms of the consubstantial Father-Son relation. As Torrance argues, this is precisely what has occurred in Western theology, for it has allowed “an epistemological and ontological dualism, to cut between the Person of Christ as God incarnate and his saving work, with the result that it has constantly offered an interpretation of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross in external moral or juridical terms.” With its dualism between the incarnation and atonement, Western theology has failed to appreciate the implications for atoning reconciliation of the unity of being between the incarnate Son and the Father.

In contradistinction to the dualism of the Latin tradition, Torrance (1988a:155) argues that “the work of atoning salvation does not take place outside of Christ, as something external to him, but takes place within him, within the incarnate constitution of his Person as Mediator.” As Torrance (1988a:158) argues:
[A]toning reconciliation must be understood as having taken place within the personal being of Jesus Christ as the one Mediator between God and man, and thus within the ontological roots and actual condition of the human and creaturely existence which he assumed in order to save. In this event atonement is not an act of God done ab extra upon man, but an act of God become man, done ab intra, in his stead and on his behalf; it is an act of God as man, translated into human actuality and made to issue out of the depths of man’s being and life toward God.
For Torrance (1992:65), incarnation and atonement are “internally and essentially intertwined” in reconciling union in all Jesus Christ became for us and our salvation. As Torrance argues:
[The hypostatic union] is projected . . . into the actual conditions of our estranged humanity where we are in conflict with God, so that the hypostatic union operates as a reconciling union in which estrangement is bridged, conflict is eradicated, and human nature taken from us is brought into perfect sanctifying union with divine nature in Jesus Christ. Embodied within the deep tensions and contradictions of our rebellious humanity, the hypostatic union took on the form of a dynamic atoning union which steadily worked itself out within the structures of human existence all through the course of our Lord’s vicarious earthly life from his birth to his crucifixion and resurrection.
It is essential to note that the hypostatic union is not merely a static union of divine and human natures; rather, it is a “dynamic atoning union,” wherein the actual condition of human estrangement and conflict is brought into “perfect sanctifying” union with God. As Torrance (1992:66) eloquently argues:
The hypostatic union could not have been actualised within the conditions of our fallen humanity without the removal of sin and guilt through atonement and the sanctification of human nature assumed into union with the divine. On the other hand, atoning union could not have been actualised within the ontological depths of human existence where human beings are alienated from God without the profound penetration into those depths that took place through the Incarnation and the hypostatic union between divine and human nature that it involved. That is what came about in Jesus Christ, the Mediator, in whom atoning union and hypostatic union served each other.
Torrance’s insistence on an ontological, rather than external, view of atonement can better be understood in light of his understanding of “sin.” For Torrance, the human dilemma is, at root, that of alienation from God as a result of sin, coupled with human enslavement to a nature determined by its fallen condition. Sin is, thus, far more than a merely forensic or moral problem; sin is an ontological problem; it is the state in which we exist, a state of existential estrangement from our Maker. As an ontological problem, sin must be dealt with at the depths of our fallen, diseased humanity (Hart, 2008:81; cf. Torrance, 1992:70). In the hypostatic union of divinity and Adamic flesh in Jesus Christ, God penetrates to the ontological depths of our diseased, broken, and fallen humanity, healing our corrupt flesh, making whole our brokenness, and removing our sin and guilt by sanctifying it in atoning union in the incarnation. Atonement, therefore, is not to be understood in terms of “external relations” between human sin and Jesus Christ, but in terms of his “incarnational penetration” into the ontological depths of human existence under the judgement of God. In Jesus Christ, God the Judge has made himself one with us in such a way as “to get at the very roots of our original sin and guilt and through his expiatory and propitiatory activity, not only to do away with our sin and guilt, but to sanctify us and creatively to set our life on an altogether new basis in union with himself” (Torrance, 1990:178, 179).

In regard to incarnational redemption, the hypostatic union is “the immediate ground for all Christ’s mediatorial and reconciling activity in our human existence” (Torrance, 1992:64, 65). The hypostatic union is in itself an atoning union between the “Holy One of God” and sinful humanity, which Jesus Christ heals and sanctifies by making it his own. Atoning reconciliation, therefore, must be understood as “accomplished within the incarnate constitution of the Mediator and not in some external transactional way between himself and mankind” (Torrance, 1986b:475, 476). Torrance continues:
Jesus Christ does not mediate a reconciliation (any more than a revelation) other than what he is in himself, as though he were merely the intermediary or instrument of divine reconciliation. He embodies in himself what he mediates, for what he mediates and what he is are one and the same. He himself in the wholeness of his Person, Word and Act is the content and reality of divine Reconciliation. He is the Propitiation for our sins; he is our Redemption; he is our Justification. It is in this identity between Mediator and Mediation that the living heart of the Gospel is to be found. If we let go of the intrinsic oneness between Jesus Christ and God, or between the Person and the Work of Christ, then our grasp of the Gospel of salvation is bound to disintegrate and we will invariably lose its substance.
As Hart (2008:85) notes, atonement is not an abstract quality that arises from something Jesus Christ “does”; rather, atonement is who he “is” in his incarnate constitution as God and humanity joined in reconciling union. Thus, there can be no separation of the person and work of Christ. As Pratz (1998:6) simply but accurately states, “What he is is what he does.”

Just as Jesus Christ is the content of the revelation he brings, so that Revealer and Revelation are one, so also Jesus Christ is the content of reconciliation, so that Mediator and mediation are one. In contrast to the gospel of “external relations” of the Latin heresy, atonement is a function of the “internal relations” of the incarnate constitution of Jesus Christ, in whom God and fallen, sinful humanity are eternally united in atoning, reconciling union. Atonement takes place “within” the one person of Jesus Christ, as the eternal Word of God takes our diseased, fallen humanity to himself in reconciling union, penetrating to the ontological depths of human sin and alienation in order to heal, cleanse, and reconcile fallen humanity to God. In the hypostatic union of divinity and sinful human flesh in his one person, Jesus Christ “embodies” the mediation he brings by healing and sanctifying our fallen humanity in atoning reconciliation. Thus, atoning reconciliation does not occur “outside” the person of Jesus Christ, as though his person and work could be separated; rather, atoning reconciliation falls “within” the incarnate constitution of the God-man, who, as fully God and fully human in one person, ‘is’ atoning reconciliation between God and humanity. Jesus Christ is “the centre of it all,” mediating reconciliation in such a way that, in him, we are with God. “In the deepest sense,” notes Torrance (1990:204), “Jesus Christ is himself the atonement.”


Barth, K. 1957b. Church Dogmatics (vol II.1) (translated by G.T. Thomson). Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 699 pp.

Barth, K. 1957d. Church Dogmatics (vol IV.1) (translated by G.T. Thomson). Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 802 pp.

Hart, T. 2008. Atonement, the Incarnation, and Deification: Transformation and Convergence in the Soteriology of T.F. Torrance. Princeton Theological Review, vol XIV, no 2, pp. 79-90. Available at

Pratz, G. 1998. The Relationship between Incarnation and Atonement in the Theology of Thomas F. Torrance. Journal for Christian Theological Research, vol 3, no 2. Available at

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

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.


  1. Interesting series of posts. I really like your blog. The confusion i have with this understanding of the union of christ with fallen humanity and his work as mediator is what then is the point of the cross. If Christ has joined fallen adamic existence with his incarnate self and somehow redeemed it in his being, simply in the incarnation, it seems the meaning of the cross is greatly minimized. I know I am probably misunderstanding Torrances argument. My question would be then could we be redeemed by Christ without the Cross?

  2. Hi Matt,

    I’m glad you are enjoying the blog. Thank you for your comments.

    The quick answer is “No, Christ could NOT have redeemed us apart from the cross.” Torrance makes it clear that his is not what is called a “physical theory” of incarnational redemption. In other words, for Torrance, the divine Logos plus Adamic flesh does NOT equal redemption. Incarnation alone is not enough. For redemption to be complete, not only did the Logos have to assume our fallen humanity, he also had to “live in it” in perfect filial obedience to the Father. As Irenaeus argues, Jesus “recapitulated” the life of Adam; that is, as the Second Adam, Jesus did right all those things Adam did wrong. Where Adam disobeyed, Jesus obeyed. Jesus was faithful to the Father throughout what Calvin called “the whole course of his obedience.” (We will explore all this further in future posts on Torrance’s doctrine of the “vicarious humanity” of Jesus Christ.)

    At the same time, it was necessary that fallen Adamic flesh be put to death. In other words, Adam had to die. Thus, at the cross, Jesus voluntarily puts to death the Adamic flesh he assumed. At that moment Adam is finally dead; he is no longer the “federal head” of humanity. Then, at the resurrection, Jesus rises again in glorified resurrected flesh. The old Adam is gone, the new Adam has risen in his place. Jesus is now the “federal head” of humanity. (To recapitulate means literally to “re-head.”)

    In sum, the cross was necessary into order to put to death the old Adamic flesh the Logos assumed in the incarnation. In this regard, I recommend Baxter Kruger’s book, “Jesus and the Undoing of Adam.” Baxter closely follows Torrance and Athanasius in regard to this subject matter.

    This is my understanding at this point. There is much I am still struggling to understand.


  3. Hi, Martin.
    I also wanted to let you know how much I have appreciated, been challenged by and learned from your site. Reading your material and Kruger's books has enriched my understanding of and deepened my relationship with Father, Son and Spirit over the last year or so that I have been reading your blog. Keep up the good work. It has brought life to me and others that I share with.
    Neil, Invercargill, New Zealand

  4. Thank you, Neil. Your comments are very encouraging and greatly appreciated.


  5. Hello,
    Thank you for this. It is very helpful.

    Actually, the title of the book you refer to is simply 'Atonement'. There is no article.



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