Wednesday, March 23, 2011

T.F. Torrance: The Atonement, pt. 5

The Wonderful Exchange

An important aspect of Torrance’s understanding of the personal, ontological redemption embodied in Jesus Christ is the all-important concept of the “wonderful exchange,” that is, “the redemptive translation of man from one state into another brought about by Christ who in his self-abnegating love took our place that we might have his place, becoming what we are that we might become what he is.” The New Testament word for the “exchange” effected between God and sinful humanity in Jesus Christ is “reconciliation” (katallage) (cf. Rom. 5:11; 11:15; 2Cor. 5:18, 19), a word that brings out the profound importance of “atoning” exchange. For Torrance, the concept of atoning exchange, wherein Jesus Christ assumes our poverty, so that through him we might become rich (cf. 2Cor 8:9), is the “inner hinge” upon which the entire doctrine of incarnational redemption turns (Torrance, 1988a:179, 180; cf. 2009:151-153).

The atoning exchange lies at the heart of Nicene theology, wherein the death and resurrection of Christ were neither separated nor treated in isolation from one another. Redemption was considered to have taken place not only through the death of Jesus Christ but also through the resurrection and ascension, so that redemption is not only release from death, bondage, and judgement but also the pathway to new life and freedom in God (Torrance, 1988a:180). Following the Nicene fathers, Torrance sees redemption as taking place not only through the cross of Christ, but also through the empty tomb and ascension of the Risen Saviour. To be sure, the resurrection and the ascension are essential to Torrance’s doctrine of the mediation of reconciliation in Jesus Christ, for incarnational redemption involves not only the healing and renewing of our fallen humanity but also the restoration of relationships and consequent new life in union with God. As Torrance argues, “[I]t is not atonement that constitutes the goal and end of that integrated movement of reconciliation [i.e., the atoning exchange] but union with God in and through Jesus Christ in whom our human nature is not only saved, healed and renewed but lifted up to participate in the very light, life and love of the Holy Trinity” (Torrance, 1992a:66). In language echoing the Nicene fathers, Torrance (1988a:181) argues:
This atoning exchange, then, embraces the whole relationship between Christ and ourselves: between his obedience and our disobedience, his holiness and our sin, his life and our death, his strength and our weakness, his grace and our poverty, his light and our darkness, his wisdom and our ignorance, his joy and our misery, his peace and our dispeace, his immortality and our mortality, and so on.
Torrance’s description of the wonderful, atoning exchange is similar to that of the great Genevan reformer, John Calvin (1509-1564). Drawing upon the Nicene fathers to articulate his understanding of the wonderful exchange between our poverty and Christ’s riches, Calvin (2008:IV.17.2; 896, 897; cf. Torrance, 1988a:179, n. 111) writes:
This is the wondrous exchange made by his boundless goodness. Having become with us the Son of man, he has made us with himself sons of God. By his own descent to the earth he has prepared our ascent to heaven. Having received our mortality, he has bestowed on us his immortality. Having undertaken our weakness, he has made us strong in his strength. Having submitted to our poverty, he has transferred to us his riches. Having taken upon himself the burden of unrighteousness with which we were oppressed, he has clothed us with his righteousness.
Christ’s union with us and our union with him in the wonderful exchange is part of a “miraculous commerce” between God and humanity (Dawson, 2007:62). As the early church understood, he who is Son of God by nature became son of man, so that we who are sons of men by nature might, by grace, become the sons and daughters of God (Deddo, 2007:140). The miraculous commerce of the atoning exchange is worked out “within the saving economy of the incarnation,” and in the “ontological depths” of the sinful Adamic flesh the incarnate Son assumed, and “therefore reaches its appointed end and fulfilment through his transforming consecration of us in himself and through his exaltation of us as one body with himself into the immediate presence of the Father” (Torrance, 1988a:181). In short, as Torrance (1996b:153) notes, “[T]hrough his incarnational union with us, he has established our union with him. . . . Through his incarnational fraternity, that which was lost in Adam is restored.”

In sum, Christ’s union with us in our fallen humanity entails not only the condescension and self-sacrifice of the incarnate Son but also the transformation and exaltation of our humanity, as it is cleansed, healed, and recreated in the incarnation, then lifted up in and through the Risen Christ into the very presence of God, where humanity is given to share in the Trinitarian life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


Further insight into Torrance’s understanding of the wonderful exchange may be gained by an examination of what he regards as one of the significant aspects of the miraculous commerce wrought in Jesus Christ: this is the concept of theopoiesis (Gr. lit. “making divine”), the Greek Patristic assertion that Jesus was made man so that we might be made divine. While there is no formal explication of theopoiesis in Torrance’s work, his entire theology is influenced by the conception of human salvation as a process of theopoiesis (Habets, 2009:2, 5; cf. Hart, 2008: 79, 80).

Torrance is reluctant to use the term “deification,” preferring instead the term, theopoiesis, since the word’s grammatical construction keeps clear the creaturely nature of the verb’s object as well as the full deity of its subject (Hart, 2008:79; cf. Torrance, 1996b:243). For Torrance, theopoiesis involves no suggestion that the interaction between Christ’s deity and our humanity results in any change in either divine or human nature (ousia). Just as Jesus Christ is no less divine in assuming human nature, we are no less human in being brought under the cleansing and healing influence of his divinity. As Torrance notes, following Athanasius, “What makes us ‘divine’ is the fact that the Word of God has come to us and acts directly upon us.” In other words, in becoming human, Jesus Christ has brought us into “kinship” with himself, so that “our ‘deification’ in Christ is the obverse of his ‘inhomination’.” Thus, while we are “partakers of the divine nature” (2Pet 1:4), theopoiesis is not the “divinisation” of humanity; rather, it is the “recreation” of our lost humanity in the dynamic, atoning interaction between the divine and human natures hypostatically united in the one person of Jesus Christ, and its subsequent “exaltation” as it is lifted up in the Risen Saviour into union and communion with the Triune Godhead. While we are recreated and lifted up in Jesus Christ, however, we remain fully human, not divine (Torrance, 1988a:188, 189; cf. 1976:234). Elsewhere, Torrance (1992:64) connects theosis to the biblical concept of “adoption” (e.g., Rom 8:15; Eph 1:5). He writes: “[T]heosis . . . does not mean ‘divinisation’, as is so often supposed, but refers to the utterly staggering act of God in which he gives himself to us and adopts us into the communion of his divine life and love through Jesus Christ and in his one Spirit, yet in such a way that we are not made divine but are preserved in our humanity.” Finally, Torrance (1996b:243) notes, “Theosis describes man’s involvement in such a mighty act of God upon him that he is raised up to find the true centre of his existence not in himself but in Holy God, where he lives and moves and has his being . . .”

Another vital aspect of Torrance’s (1988a:189, 190) understanding of theopoiesis is concerned with the reception of the Holy Spirit, which is made possible through the atoning exchange that takes place in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In the incarnation, God is imparted to humanity by means of the Spirit and man is attached to God by Jesus’ assumption of fallen human flesh. In the incarnation, the Holy Spirit “became accustomed to dwell in humanity,” while, on the other hand, man became “accustomed” to receive God and be indwelt by him. Thus, God the Holy Spirit is mediated to mankind “by” and “through” the humanity of Jesus Christ. When the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ in the Jordan River, it was not because the sinless Son of God needed the sanctification of the Spirit; rather, the Spirit’s descent was a descent upon the fallen humanity assumed by the incarnate Son. Because Jesus Christ is homoousios with fallen Adamic flesh, the descent of the Spirit at the Jordan is a descent upon all those who partake of the nature of Adam, that is, a descent upon all humanity. As Athanasius (Contra Arius: Torrance, 1988a:190 n 152) asserted, when Jesus Christ, as man, was “washed” in the Jordan River, we were “washed”; when he received the Spirit, we received the Spirit. As Torrance notes:
This twofold movement of the giving and receiving of the Spirit actualised within the life of the incarnate Son of God for our sakes is atonement operating within the ontological depths of human being. It constitutes the “deifying” content of the atoning exchange in which through the pouring out of the same Spirit upon us we are given to participate. The indwelling of the Spirit mediated to us through Christ is the effective counterpart in us of his self-offering to the Father through the eternal Spirit.
Two important ideas come into view in Torrance’s understanding of the mediation of the Spirit by and through the humanity of Jesus Christ: First, Because Jesus Christ, the one through whom all things are made and in whom all things consist, has assumed fallen Adamic flesh, all those who partake of the nature of Adam are implicated in the Spirit’s descent upon the incarnate Son in the Jordan River. This is the sense in which Peter can proclaim that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all flesh (Acts 2:17; cf. Joel 2:28). Secondly, in keeping with his unitary, holistic theology, Torrance does not allow a dualism between the work of the Son in atonement and the work of the Spirit in sanctification. As Torrance (1988a:190) notes, Pentecost (cf. Acts 2) is not something “added” to atonement; rather, it is “the actualisation within the life of the church of the atoning life, death and resurrection of the Saviour.” Thus, for Torrance, justification and sanctification are not two separate events but, rather, are each an integral part of the atoning exchange wrought by the assumption of fallen Adamic flesh in the incarnation.


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

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.

Deddo, G.W. 2007. The Christian Life and Our Participation in Christ’s Continuing Ministry. In G. Dawson, ed. An Introduction to Torrance Theology: Discovering the Incarnate Saviour. London: T & T Clark. Ch. 7.

Habets, M. 2009. Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance. Farnham (Surrey): Ashgate. 224 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

Torrance, T.F. 1976. Theology in Reconciliation: Essays toward Evangelical and Catholic Unity in East and West. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 302 pp.

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

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

Torrance, T.F. 1996b. (orig. ed. 1965). Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers. 288 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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