Wednesday, April 6, 2011

T.F. Torrance: The Atonement, pt. 7

Atoning Reconciliation and Election

Comment: For those of us rightly revulsed by the Calvinist doctrine of election, the following is cause for cheers and shouts of joy!

The boundless nature of the wonderful exchange and the unlimited range of atoning reconciliation bear directly on Torrance’s understanding of election or predestination. In keeping with the Reformed tradition of unconditional election, one which reflects a strictly “theonomous” way of thinking centred in God, Torrance’s doctrine of election rejects any idea that humanity can establish contact with God or induce God to act in accordance with human will and desires, for all human relations with God derive from God’s grace, whereby he freely establishes reciprocity between himself and his creatures. Torrance notes that post-Reformation Reformed theology stressed the priority or prevenience of God’s grace, often preferring the term “predestination” to the term “election.” He argues that the “pre” in “predestination” emphasised the “sheer,” “unqualified” objectivity of God’s love and grace toward all, as expressed in the biblical teaching that God has chosen humanity in Christ “before” the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). Torrance links this eternal decree with the truth that Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, was slain before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8). Thus, Torrance distinguishes between predestination and election by locating the former in the timeless, eternal purpose of God’s love for humanity and the latter in the fulfilment of that purpose in space and time in the history of Israel and the mediation of Jesus Christ. For Torrance, election is more than a static decree located in the timeless past; rather, it is a living reality that enters time and space and confronts us face to face in Jesus Christ (Torrance, 1981b:132-134; cf. 1996c:14; Habets, 2008:335, 336).

In one of his earliest papers, Torrance (1941:108, 109) identifies two strands of thought in Reformed teaching on predestination. The first is the more familiar tendency to treat the doctrine of predestination along with, even in between, the doctrines of the divine decrees and subsequent doctrines. In this line of thought, predestination is raised to the position of a separate article in Christian theology, one that, to a certain extent, “stands on its own legs” and “governs” the doctrines of creation, providence, the fall, and sin and punishment (cf. Torrance, 1996c:135). The second characteristic of Reformed teaching on predestination, one that is often overlooked by its critics, and the one that reflects Torrance’s own understanding of election, is the recurring insistence that election is closely connected with Christ; that is, election is in Christo or propter Christum. Torrance writes:
[T[he relation between God and man in predestination is to be thought of in terms of the person of Christ. How does God elect men? Through Christ. Why does He elect them? Because of Christ. Just because Christ is, therefore, the author and the instrument of election, we may not think of it in any deterministic sense, but in terms of the way our Lord treated men when He Himself was on earth. Unless this aspect of the Reformed doctrine of predestination is understood along with the other, it is not really understood at all.
There are “two sides,” therefore, to the Christian doctrine of predestination: “that the salvation of the believer goes back to an eternal decree of God, and yet that the act of election is in and through Christ.” The connection between election and Christ is essential to a full understanding of the Reformed teaching on election, for it acts as a “powerful antidote” to the philosophical determinism that arose with the systematisation of Reformed theology (Torrance, 1941:108, 109).

As Torrance argues, however, a division occurred between these two aspects of predestination; that is, election was detached from the historical, incarnate reality of Jesus Christ and hidden in the secret, inscrutable counsel of God. In post-Reformation Calvinist Scholasticism, under the influence of Augustine’s doctrine of “irresistible grace,” combined with an Aristotelian doctrine of final cause and imbued with the determinism of Newton’s “cause-effect” cosmology, a strongly deterministic slant was read into the doctrine of predestination. Among the problems associated with the hard determinism of Calvinist Scholasticism was the tracing of predestination back to an eternal, irresistible decree in God, wherein election was detached from the incarnation and the cross and grounded in an “arcane dark patch” in God behind the back of Jesus. In this bifurcation of christology and election, Christ was regarded as the “instrument” of election, but not the “ground” of election. The ultimate ground of election was found in the secret counsel (arcanum consilium) of God. This detachment of election from Jesus Christ, that is, the separation of the eternal will of God from the existence of the incarnate Son, drove a deep wedge between Jesus and God and, thereby, introduced not only a “suspicion of Deism” in the Calvinist predilection to detach election from Christ, but also an element of Nestorianism into Calvinist christology, a dualism which called into question any essential relation between Jesus and the Father and provided ground for “a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love.” Torrance notes that this dualism between election and the incarnation was far removed from Calvin himself, who insisted that Christ is the “mirror of election” (Torrance, 1941:109, 110; 1981b:134, 135; 1996c:133).

As Torrance argues, when the doctrine of election is interpreted within a dualistic framework that separates the incarnate Son from election, coupled with the cause-effect determinism of Newtonian cosmology, the doctrine of predestination is “turned on its head.” Instead of being regarded as the dynamic movement of God’s love into human existence in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, it is twisted and distorted into a “mythological projection into the realm of God’s Being and Activity of cultured-conditioned concepts and creaturely distinctions” (Torrance, 1981b:137). “We cannot let go the truth,” Torrance argues, “that God has come in person in Jesus Christ, and that in Him we have a full and final revelation of the Father.” Election “in Christ,” therefore, means that Christ is the “ground” of election. To detach election from Christ makes election precede grace; that is, it implies that “there is a higher fact than Grace, and that therefore Christ does not fully go bail for God” (Torrance, 1941:109, 110). Torrance continues:
Christ is himself identical with the action of God toward men; He is the full and complete Word of God. There is therefore no higher will than Grace or Christ. There are no dark spots in the character of God which are not covered by the Person of Christ; as the express image of God He covers the whole Face and Heart of the Father. And while election must be grounded in the eternal decree of God, Christian faith cannot allow that to be separated in the very least from the Word. Christ is in His own Person the eternal decree of God ‒ and it is a false distinction to make Him only the causa et medium and not also the full ground of predestination.
Comment: Be sure to get that: Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God, is the eternal decree of God. There is no inscrutable decree of election located in eternity past that is separate from the incarnate Son.

In his assertion that election cannot be detached from Christ, Torrance will not allow the subordination of the love of God revealed in Christ to a “higher and more comprehensive decree of Providence.” For Torrance (1941:110), a doctrine of predestination must start in Christo, for “[t]here is no higher will in God than Grace.”

In another early paper, Torrance (1949:314, 315) describes election as “nothing more and nothing less than the complete action of God’s eternal love” for the whole world, as expressed in John 3:16. He further describes election as “the eternal decision of God who will not be without us entering time as grace, choosing us and appropriating us for Himself, and who will not let us go.” For Torrance, election is the love of God “enacted and inserted into history” in Jesus Christ, “so that in the strictest sense Jesus Christ is the election of God.” Decades later, he writes (1981b:131, 132):
Properly regarded, divine election is the free sovereign decision and utterly contingent act of God’s Love in pure liberality or unconditional Grace whether in creation or in redemption. As such it is neither arbitrary nor necessary, for it flows freely from an ultimate reason or purpose in the invariant Love of God and is entirely unconditioned by any necessity . . . in God and entirely unconstrained and unmotivated by anything beyond himself. . . . [Moreover] election refers to the eternal decision which is nothing less than the Love of God himself is, in action . . . [flowing] freely and equably to all irrespective of any claim or worth or reaction on their part.
Simply stated, election is the concrete expression of the love that God is by nature (cf. Habets, 2008:346).

Torrance (1981b:133) describes the doctrine of election as the “counterpart to the doctrine of the incarnation.” As “the exact antithesis of all mythology,” that is, in contradistinction to all mythological projections of the human psyche onto God, the incarnation is the “projection of God’s eternal purpose of Love into our creaturely existence and its embodiment in a unique and exclusive way in Jesus Christ,” in whom authentic relationship between God and man is established. Torrance continues:
The incarnation, therefore, may be regarded as the eternal decision or election of God in his Love not to be confined, as it were, within himself alone, but to pour himself out in unrestricted Love upon the world which he has made and to actualise that Love in Jesus Christ in such a way within the conditions of our spatio-temporal existence that he constitutes the one Mediator between God and man through whom we may all freely participate in the unconditional Love and Grace of God.
Torrance (2009:183) captures the relation between election and the incarnation by insisting that election or predestination does not occur “behind the back of Jesus Christ”; that is, there can be no dualistic divide between election and grace, wherein election is detached from Jesus Christ and located in inscrutable divine decrees from eternity past (cf. Torrance, 1949:315; 1996c:133). To go behind the back of Jesus and speak about election apart from Christ is to fail to fully appreciate the soteriological significance of the consubstantial Father-Son relation. The creedal assertion that the incarnate Son is homoousios to Patri means there is no inscrutable will or hidden nature of God other than the will and nature of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Hence, God’s eternal purpose of election (cf. Eph 1:4, 5) cannot be separated from the divine love revealed by God in sending his Son to be the Saviour of the whole world (cf. J. Torrance, 1983:87, 88).

Comment: Just as epistemology (knowledge of God) must begin with God’s definitive self-revelation in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, so, too, our understanding of election and predestination must begin with Jesus!

In keeping with his unitary, holistic approach to the mediation of Christ, Torrance (2009:183) argues against any dualism between election and Christ’s atoning work on the cross. He writes:
God’s eternal election is nothing else than God’s eternal love incarnate in his beloved Son, so that in him we have election incarnate. God’s eternal decree is nothing other than God’s eternal word so that in Christ we have the eternal decree or Word of God made flesh. Election is identical with the life and existence and work of Jesus Christ, and what he does is election going into action.
In Jesus Christ, the eternal decision of God has entered time and space and become “acutely personalised.” Election is not, therefore, some “dead predestination” hidden in the past or “some still point in timeless eternity,” but is a living act that enters time and confronts us in the Word of God incarnate (Torrance, 1949:315; cf. 1941:112). Torrance continues:
The great fact of the Gospel then is this: that God has actually chosen us in Jesus Christ in spite of our sin, and that in the death of Christ that election has become a fait accompli. It means too that God has chosen all men, in as much as Christ died for all men, and because that is once and for all no one can ever elude the election of His love. In as much as no one exists except by the Word of God by whom all things were made and in whom all things consist, and in as much as this is the Word that has once and for all enacted the eternal election of grace to embrace all men, the existence of every man whether he will or no is bound up inextricably with that election ‒ with the Cross of Jesus Christ.
Torrance’s assertion that “God has chosen all men” reflects the biblical principle governing salvation history: that is, God elects the one for the many, just as Israel was elected to serve as a light to the nations (cf. Torrance, 1996c:134, 135). It is this corporate covenant-election that is brought to fulfilment in Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the new covenant, in whom election and substitution “combine in the most unique, most intense and personal concentration of the one and the many.” Jesus Christ is the “actualisation” of the eternal purpose of God to give himself to humanity in pure love and grace. Every human being is loved by Jesus Christ, so that his atoning work is the “pouring out of the pure love of God upon all humanity” (Torrance, 1981b:132, 133; 2009:109, 183, 184).

For Torrance (1996c:14), therefore, election is “christologically conditioned.” While election proceeds from the timeless, eternal decree of God, this eternal decree, or word of election, enters historical time and space in the incarnate reality of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. The “heart of the mystery of election” is found in the hypostatic union, where God and man are reconciled in the one person of Jesus Christ. As Torrance argues, “Christ is himself the Elect One ‒ in him election becomes and operates as atoning mediation.” If there is a paradox in the grounding of election in both the eternal decree of God and the space-time reality of Jesus Christ, Torrance (1941:111) argues, “it is nothing else than the central paradox of the Christian faith, the Incarnation of the Son of God.”

References: see previous posts

Comment: I agree with Dr. Baxter Kruger in his assertion that it is time we take back the doctrine of election from the Calvinists, wherein predestination is reduced to a dark, inscrutable, and usually terrifying decretum horribilis. To paraphrase Barth, “Election is the best news we can hear.” The doctrine of predestination/election should cause us to rejoice, for it means that God has loved all humanity from the foundation of the world, and has determined that he will not be without us. As Torrance (1949:316) argues, because the whole universe revolves around the love of God in Jesus Christ, preaching should make election “the very centre of the Kerygma.” Amen!!

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