Wednesday, April 13, 2011

T.F. Torrance: The Atonement, pt. 8

Universalism and Limited Atonement

Comment: Barth and Torrance are often wrongly "accused" of being universalists. They are not. Apparently critics don't take the time to differentiate between universal atonement and universalism.

Torrance’s assertion that God has chosen all humanity in Jesus Christ, coupled with his insistence on the universal range of atoning reconciliation, may lead to the erroneous conclusion that he is a “universalist,” that is, one who believes in the salvation of all mankind (Bloesch, 2004:14, 39, 40). In this regard, an examination is needed of his rejection of both “universalism” and the doctrine of “limited atonement.” As will become plain, Torrance’s argument against a doctrine of limited atonement is directly related to his rejection of the “Latin heresy” described in a previous post (March 9, 2011), particularly in regard to his repudiation of atonement as an “external” rather than ontological reality.

As Torrance notes, the argument for either universal salvation or limited atonement is commonly cast as follows: If Christ died for all, then all must be saved, whether they believe or not; but if all are not saved, then Christ did not die for all; therefore, atonement is limited. Behind both these alternatives, however, Torrance (1986b:481; 1993:245, 246) finds two “very serious heresies.”

First, in regard to the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, there is a “disjunction” or dualism that bifurcates the divine and human natures of Christ, divides his being and his acts, and consequently separates the incarnation from the atonement. As Torrance (1986b:481) notes:
On this view the humanity of Christ is not regarded as having any inner ontological connection with those for whom he died, but is regarded only as an external instrument used by God as he wills, in effecting salvation for all those whom God chooses and/or for those who choose to accept Christ as their personal Saviour. Thus a separation can be made between the universal range of the Kingdom of Christ and the limited range of his atoning sacrifice.
Because it fails to appreciate the ontological connection between Jesus Christ and all humanity, a doctrine of limited atonement minimizes the significance of the incarnation for atonement by treating the humanity of Jesus Christ in an “external” and “instrumental” way. By reducing the atonement to a forensic transaction or the fulfilment of a legal contract between God and mankind, this view makes the Son’s humanity merely a tool used by God for a temporary repair job and then returned to the cosmic tool box in heaven (Torrance, 2009:182; cf. Kruger, 2003:36, Jesus and Undoing of Adam).

In addition to its merely external or instrumental nature, a doctrine of limited atonement implies a “restricted and partial” view of the incarnate Son’s assumption of fallen Adamic flesh and a consequent notion of partial rather than total substitution in the atonement. According to Torrance, hyper-Calvinist views of the atonement create a Nestorian dualism, or split, in the incarnate reality of Jesus Christ by asserting that the deity of Christ was in “repose” at the cross, so that the incarnate Son suffered in his humanity only (Torrance, 2009:184). Against this view, Torrance (1993:246; cf. 2009:184, 185; Torrance, et. al., 1999:29) argues:
If we really hold that it is God himself who bears our sins in Jesus Christ, God himself who in becoming man takes man’s place and stands with man under his own divine judgement, God himself the Judge becoming the man judged, then we cannot allow any divorce between the action of Christ on the cross and the action of God. How is it at all possible to think of the divine judgement in the cross as only a partial judgment upon sin, or a judgement only upon some sinners, for that is finally what it amounts to if only some sinners are died for, and only some are efficiently implicated in atonement? The concept of a limited atonement thus rests upon a limitation of the very being of God as love, and a schizoid notion of the incarnation, i.e., upon a basic Nestorian heresy.
For Torrance, a doctrine of limited atonement rests on a Nestorian dualism that breaks apart the hypostatic union with its implication that God is not intimately and personally involved in the suffering of Calvary; rather, only the humanity of Jesus Christ suffers on the cross. Since God is not involved at the cross, except by consent, the atonement can be construed in a restricted and partial, as well as external and instrumentalist way, wherein Jesus offers his humanity on behalf of the elect few only. On the other hand, against a Nestorian dualism between the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ implied in a doctrine of limited atonement (cf. Torrance, 1996c:19, 133), Torrance rightly asserts, along with the New Testament writers, that the one who died on the cross is the eternal Word made flesh, the very one by and through whom all things are created and have their being, and in whom hold together. Because all humanity is ontologically bound to the incarnate Creator Word, there can be no restriction to the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

In addition to a Nestorian dualism underlying the partial judgement implied in the doctrine of limited atonement is the second of the serious heresies Torrance finds in common arguments regarding both limited atonement and universalism: that is, a controlling framework of thought based upon “logico-causal connections.” As Torrance argues, the insertion of a logico-causal relation between the death of Christ and the salvation of men and women has led to a view that the atonement of Jesus Christ is “sufficient” for all but “efficient” only for some. According to the logic of this argument, if the atoning death of Christ applies to all men, then logically and causally all men must of necessity be saved; on the other hand, if some perish in hell, then logically and causally the efficacy of the atonement does not reach them. According to Torrance, this view was introduced into post-Augustinian high medieval theology, later rejected by Calvin, then reintroduced into Calvinist orthodoxy by Theodore Beza (1519-1605). The place of “logico-causalism” within Protestantism was considerably reinforced by the Newtonian view of “causal connections” between external entities such as atoms or particles, a view that gave rise to the hard determinism of hyper-Calvinistic notions of predestination and limited atonement. As Torrance notes, the ongoing problem of universalism versus limited atonement attests to the deep entrenchment of the Latin heresy in Protestant and Evangelical thought, wherein atonement continues to be reduced to a logical framework of cause and effect (Torrance, 1986b:481, 482; 1993:245, 246).

At the heart of the “logico-causal” (i.e., “if . . . then”) assertions regarding universalism and limited atonement, Torrance (1993:246-249) finds “two fatal interconnected errors” that completely “shatter” the argument. First, to posit a logico-causal connection between the atonement and the forgiveness of sins is “falsely to project into the atonement a kind of connection which obtains between finite events and statements about them in our fallen world, and to substitute it for the transcendent kind of connection that is revealed in the creative and redeeming activity of God himself.” As Torrance argues elsewhere (1981b:135, 136), a logico-causal approach to the atonement, as particularly evident in Calvinist Scholasticism, attempts to read back into God the temporal, causal, and logical relations characteristic of human experience in the world. This forced Calvinist Scholasticism to connect “the relative apparent distinctions” between believers and unbelievers to the absolute decree of God, thereby forcing the construal of predestination into the double form of election and reprobation. The doctrine of double predestination, however, entailed a dualism in the heart of God, “an ultimate ‘Yes’ and an ultimate ‘No,’” that could not be explained away by regarding the “No” of reprobation as only the “passing over” of some rather than their deliberate damnation. Calvinism was trapped in its own logic, notes Torrance. While there is a “logic of grace” exhibited in the pattern of God’s grace in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, wherein “he acted under the freely accepted constraint of his unreserved self-giving for our salvation,” to construe the logic of grace in terms of necessary, logical connections is to convert grace into something other than itself, for such a construal implies that there is not a “free, contingent relation” between the self-giving of Christ in the cross and human salvation but, rather, a “logico-causal” relation.

In a similar vein, Torrance argues that a doctrine of universalism commits the “logical fallacy” of “transmuting movement into necessity.” That is, universalism destroys the free decision of faith by making salvation necessary rather than possible. For Torrance, universalism can, at best, only be expressed in terms of “hope” or “possibility,” but never in terms of dogmatic necessity (Torrance, 1949:313; 1996c:277). It is the construal of a logico-causal relation between grace and human salvation that gives rise to the “twin errors” of both limited atonement and universal salvation (Torrance, 1981b:136).

As Torrance (1993:246, 247) wisely notes, the miraculous acts of God cannot be construed in the ordinary categories of human thought, for they operate from a “transcendent presence in which his being and act and Person are integrated in the power of his triune being.” Torrance finds this transcendent connection in the virgin birth, the resurrection, the miracles of divine healing, and the multiplication of a few loaves and fish. As Torrance argues:
Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life, and that cannot be construed within a system of this-worldly logico-causal relations. The kind of connection that obtains in the atoning death of Christ was demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus. The connection between the atoning death of the Lord Jesus and the forgiveness of our sins is of an altogether ineffable kind which we may not and cannot reduce to a chain of this-worldly logico-causal relations. To do that comes very near to sinning against the Holy Spirit.
As Torrance rightly argues, there is no “logical-causal” connection between the death of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins. Rather, the connection between the cross and human salvation is an ineffable mystery hidden in the heart of the Triune Godhead, one that cannot be captured within the bounds of ordinary categories of human thought. As Torrance (1981b:136) cogently notes, if human salvation is dependent on a logical connection between the death of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins, “we would all be unforgiven whether we believe or not.”

The second fatal error in logico-causal arguments for universalism or limited atonement, wherein attempts are made to explain why some are finally saved and others are not, involves a “rationalisation of evil.” For Torrance, a doctrine of universalism fails to take into account the irrational nature of the “mystery of iniquity” and the “abysmal irrationality of evil,” realities that cannot be explained away rationally, for to do so would mean that God need not have taken the way of the cross in order to save humanity. Evil involves a “radical discontinuity” that cannot be explained in terms of logico-causal relations (i.e., “continuity”) without explaining it away. Evil is so “bottomless,” or “abysmal,” that to overcome it requires nothing less than the direct presence and power of the eternal, infinite God (Torrance, 1949:313; 1996c:277; 1993:247). Torrance (1993:247, 248) argues:
In order to redeem us from the enormity of evil God “had to” become incarnate in our mortal existence and penetrate into the chasm of our sinful and guilty separation from himself, which he freely did on the cross out of his unlimited and unstinting love. Conversely, the fact that God himself, God incarnate, penetrated into our damned existence and death in order to save us, reveals the bottomless chasm and the irrational, inexplicable nature of evil by which we are separated from him. If then anyone thinks he can explain why the atoning death of Christ avails efficaciously only for some people but not for all through offering a logico-causal explanation, he is really putting forward an argument which is tantamount to doing despite to the infinite agony of God Almighty at Calvary, for he does not consider the fearful nature of sin and evil which cost God the sacrifice of his own beloved Son.
For Torrance (1993:248), both universalism and the doctrine of limited atonement are “twin heresies which rest on a deeper heresy,” that is, the recourse to a logico-causal explanation of why the atoning death of Christ avails or does not avail for all humanity. As Torrance pointedly argues, “Any such an attempt at logico-causal explanation of the efficacy and range of the atonement is surely a form of blasphemy against the blood of Christ.”

References: See previous posts.


  1. Thank you a million times for this series of posts. It is so refreshing and beautiful to see God represented as he is revealed in the metanarrative of scripture. He is so worth it.

  2. Dear Bro Martin:

    I also want to add up my voice to your shouts of joy & praise for all this solid meat meeting our fleshy hearts within the mystery of Our Triune God's Eternal, Inconditional & Irresistible Love In the Sprit!

    Thanks & Blessings, Again & Again!!

    Deÿ López/MX

  3. Dear sir, thank you for this elucidating post. I've been loving Jesus more through Torrance's work. But this 5-point Calvinist has been scratching his head over Torrance's understanding of the atonement's extent. I'm almost done with 'Incarnation,' and am looking forward to 'Atonement.' I'm still a bit puzzled, but I am sure that God will continue to guide me through this.

    Brother, do you have any Scripture passages that could help me understand this better? And, i'm wondering, how does an everlasting hell for some figure into this? If you've already written on this, could you point me in that or another direction?

    Gratefully yours,


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