Sunday, May 15, 2011

T.F. Torrance: The Vicarious Humanity of Jesus Christ, pt. 1

With this post, we begin a detailed series on Torrance’s understanding of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. The importance of Christ’s vicarious work in our place, and on our behalf, cannot be overstated. When we understand what Christ has done for us, we are truly set free to love.


As a “direct correlate” of the hypostatic union (Purves, 2005:3), Torrance follows Athanasius and Barth in emphasizing the “twofold” ministry of the incarnate Son of God, wherein Jesus Christ mediates the things of God to man and the things of man to God. As Athanasius and Barth understood, unless it was God himself who was personally and directly active in Jesus Christ, nothing he did is of any saving significance; yet, in effecting reconciliation in Jesus Christ, God acted from the side of humanity “as man” and from the side of God “as God.” Like Athanasius and Barth, Torrance stresses not only the “Godward” movement but also the “manward” movement of Christ’s reconciling life and passion, for his humanity is not merely instrumental but “integral” and “essential” to the vicarious nature of his redemptive activity. This twofold movement of mediation, in both its Godward and manward directions, must be thought of as an inseparable whole arising from the unity of the person of Jesus Christ as God and man, and as continuous throughout the whole reconciling movement of his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension (Torrance, 1986b:479; 1992:73).
Comment: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, mediates the things of God to man (↓); Jesus Christ, the son of man, mediates the things of man to God () in one twofold but inseparable movement of mediation.
Previous posts on the atonement emphasized the “Godward-manward” mediation of Jesus Christ, who, in his condescension to assume fallen human flesh, embodies atonement in his incarnate constitution as God and humanity joined in reconciling union. The present series of posts will consider the “manward-Godward” mediation of the incarnate Son toward God, who, in his “vicarious humanity,” ministers the things of man to God on behalf of all humanity.

As Torrance’s younger brother David (D. Torrance, 2010:1) notes, “vicarious” is a Latin word that means “speaking and acting in place of another, on that other’s behalf.” This is exactly what Jesus Christ has done for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. As Hunsinger (2001:144) notes, “vicarious humanity” means that everything Christ has done for us in his humanity was done in our place and on our behalf. According to Kettler (2005.6), “the vicarious humanity of Christ speaks of the deep interaction between Christ’s humanity and our humanity at the level of our being, the ontological level.” Against “external” forensic or exemplary theories of atonement, the atoning work of Christ is not merely a means by which we are “declared” righteous or merely an example of God’s love. “It is both,” argues Kettler, “but much more, in the sense of God desiring to recreate our humanity at the deepest levels, addressing our needs . . . from within our very being.” As Molnar (2009:119) argues, because it eliminates the idea that the humanity of Jesus played merely an “instrumental role” in atonement, the doctrine of the “vicarious humanity” of Jesus Christ plays a “pivotal role” in much of Torrance’s theology.

Epistemology (Revelation)

As noted in previous posts, in his historical dialogue with Israel, God revealed himself in such a way as to mould his chosen people into a suitable vessel for the communication of divine revelation. Throughout its tumultuous existence, the word of God came to Israel through prophets like Moses, Elijah, and Jeremiah, as well as in such disparate forms as a still small voice, a refining fire, or a hammer breaking rocks into pieces. Yet, despite the varied forms of its communication, the divine revelation imprinted itself upon the innermost being of God’s chosen people. While the presence of the divine word in the heart of Israel intensified the relationship between God and his people, sometimes favourably, sometimes unfavourably, God’s word did not return to him void; rather, it accomplished its revelatory purpose. Divine revelation laid hold of the mind and will of the people, calling forth from them “responses that were taken up, purified and assimilated to the Word of God as the means of its ever-deepening penetration into the understanding, life and service of Israel, so that it could be bearer of divine revelation for all mankind” (Torrance, 1992:77, 78).

Jesus Christ: God’s Address to Man

The movement of divine revelation in historical Israel culminated in Jesus Christ. In the incarnation, the Word of God actualised itself in time and space, in Israel and within humankind, in “the visible, tangible form of a particular human being who embodied in himself the personal address of God’s Word to man and the personal response of man to God’s Word.” Torrance (1992:78) continues:
In Jesus the Word of God was translated into the form of a human life in whom there was only truth and light and no darkness, the Word of Life to be known and grasped through communion with him, but in Jesus there was provided for mankind a way of response to God which issued out of the depths of its existence and as its very own and in which each human being was free to share through communion with Jesus. Thus in Jesus the final response of man toward God was taken up, purified through his atoning self-consecration on our behalf, and incorporated into the Word of God as his complete self-communication to mankind, but also as the covenanted way of vicarious response to God which avails for all of us and in which we all may share through the Spirit of Jesus Christ which he freely gives.
In Jesus, the Word of God is “translated” into human form. Thus, Torrance (1992:78) can assert that “the real text of New Testament revelation is the humanity of Jesus.” Torrance continues:
As we read the Old Testament and read the New Testament and listen to the Word of God, the real text is not documents of the Pentateuch, the Psalms or the Prophets or the documents of the Gospels and the Epistles, but in and through them all the Word of God struggling with rebellious human existence in Israel on the way to becoming incarnate, and then that Word translated into the flesh and blood and mind and life of a human being in Jesus, in whom we have both the Word of God become man and the perfect response of man to God offered on our behalf.
For Torrance, the written word of God communicated through the prophets is an incipient or nascent word. The voice of the prophets is the Word of God in gestation, nourished in the corporate womb of Israel and finally emerging from the womb of the faithful daughter of Israel, the Virgin Mary. At Bethlehem, the Word of God takes on flesh and blood and is laid in a manger; divine revelation takes on human form.

Jesus Christ: Man’s Perfect Response to God

In his “vicarious humanity,” Jesus Christ is not only “the real text” of God’s Word addressed to us; he is also “the real text” of our address to God. As Torrance (1992:78, 79) argues:
We have no speech or language with which to address God but the speech and language called Jesus Christ. In him our humanity, our human understanding, our human word are taken up, purified and sanctified, and addressed to God the Father for us as our very own ‒ and that is the word of man with which God is pleased.
Torrance asserts the “double fact” that, in Jesus Christ, the Word of God has assumed human form in order, as such, to be God’s language to man, while at the same time, Jesus Christ embodies man’s “true word” and “true speech” to God. “Jesus Christ is at once the complete revelation of God to man and the correspondence on man’s part to that revelation required by it for the fulfilment of its own revealing movement.” As Torrance notes, the incarnation provides for all humanity a “truly human,” yet “divinely prepared,” response to divine revelation. “The Incarnation was wholly act of God but it was no less true human life truly lived in our actual humanity. Jesus Christ is not only Word of God to man, but Believer.” Throughout the entirety of his obedient life, the incarnate Word yielded the “perfect response of man” to the divine revelation he himself embodied. “We are not concerned,” argues Torrance, “simply with a divine revelation which demands from us all a human response, but with a divine revelation which already includes a true and appropriate and fully human response as part of its achievement for us and to us and in us” (Torrance, 1996b:129, 131, 132).

The gospel includes “the all-significant middle term, the divinely provided response in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.” Jesus Christ himself ‘is’ the perfect human response to God. He is both the divine Word of God spoken to humanity and, at the same time, the perfect human word addressed to God. Parallel to a “theological form of Fermat’s principle,” in accordance with which the selection of one path from among many in the formulation of natural law sets aside and excludes all others as “unentertainable” and “impossible,” the incarnation of the eternal Word in our contingent existence in Jesus Christ excludes every other way to the Father and stamps the vicarious humanity of Christ as “the sole norm and law” and “the sole ground of acceptable human response to the Father” (Torrance, 1971:145, 146; 1982:88, 89).

As Torrance (1969a:50) argues, in Jesus Christ, God has not only condescended to “objectify” himself so that man may know him, but also has provided from the side of man, and from within man, “adequate and perfect reception” of the truth of divine revelation. Torrance continues:
[Jesus Christ] is in Himself not only God objectifying Himself for man but man adapted and conformed to that objectification, not only the complete revelation of God to man but the appropriate correspondence on the part of man to that revelation, not only the Word of God to man but man obediently hearing and answering that Word. In short, Jesus Christ is Himself both the Word of God as spoken by God to man and that same Word as heard and received by man, Himself both the Truth of God given to man and that very Truth understood and actualized in man. He is that divine and human Truth in His one Person.
In his incarnate constitution as God and man joined in reconciling union, Jesus Christ is both the objective revelation of God and the appropriate response and conformation of man to divine revelation. He is not only the Truth (cf. Jn 14:6) spoken from the highest, he is also the perfect response to that Truth, heard and actualised from within the ontological depths of the fallen humanity he assumed in the incarnation (cf. Torrance, 1971:138).

As Torrance (1969a:50, 51) argues, Jesus Christ is the one human being in whom the truth of God and human knowledge of the truth “are fully and faithfully correlated.” Quite significantly, Torrance notes that in Jesus Christ, revelation (and reconciliation) has taken place “for all other men.” He continues:
[I]n His true and obedient humanity, the Truth of God has been given and received for all men, and as such is made openly accessible to us in the Gospel, not only as the objective Word of God to man but as the same Word subjectively realized and expressed within our human and historical existence.
In the historical actuality of Jesus Christ, knowledge of God is possible. In the incarnation, God has broken through human “inability,” “inadequacy,” and “self-will” in order to establish real knowledge of God within the limitations of our estrangement and alienation. Human knowledge of God is grounded in the divine Word’s “condescension to enter within our creaturely frailty and incompetence and so to realize knowledge of Himself from within our mode of existence, in the incarnate Son.” Hence, in Jesus Christ, “we may now freely participate in the knowledge of God as an actuality already translated and made accessible for us by his grace” (Torrance, 1969a:51).

Here the implications of Torrance’s understanding of the “vicarious humanity” of Jesus Christ begin to emerge. In regard to divine revelation, Jesus Christ ‘is’ the Word of God incarnate in a particular human being, so that the human speech of Jesus is the divine Word of God. In regard to the human response to that Word, Jesus Christ ‘is’ the “perfect response” to divine revelation. In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God has provided a “vicarious” way of human response in place of, and on behalf of, all who partake of the nature of Adam.


Hunsinger, G. 2001. The Dimension of Depth: Thomas F. Torrance on the Sacraments. In E. Colyer, ed. The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T. F. Torrance. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Ch. 6.

Kettler, C.D. 2005. The God Who Believes: Faith, Doubt, and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books. 205 pp.

Molnar, P.D. 2009. Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing. 373 pp.

Torrance, D.W. 2001. Thomas Forsyth Torrance: Minister of the Gospel, Pastor, and Evangelical. In E. Colyer, ed. The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T. F. Torrance. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Ch. 1.

Torrance, T.F. 1969a. Theological Science. Oxford: OUP. 368 pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1971. God and Rationality. London: OUP. 216 pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1982. Reality and Evangelical Theology: The Realism of Christian Revelation.
(Forward by K.A. Richardson, 1999). Downers Grove, IL: IVP. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster. 174 pp.

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

1 comment:

  1. If the Triune God is indeed for us (which I agree that the Triune God is), and has been from before the creation of the world, then why wouldn't the the Word's self-communication begin at the point of creation? Why only trace it back to the nation of Israel? Why not understand the movement of revelation as follows: Creation->Israel/Old Testament->Incarnation and Atonement->Pentecost->Apostolic Testimony/New Testament?


Grace and Response: A Matter of Order

Many years ago, when I was a young man in Bible college, one of my theology professors said to the class, “When I wake up in the morning, ...