Friday, June 3, 2011

T.F. Torrance: The Vicarious Humanity of Jesus Christ, pt. 3

The Whole Course of His Obedience

In the manward-Godward movement of mediation, Jesus Christ vicariously fulfils the covenant throughout the entirety of his life, from birth through death, resurrection, and ascension. In older theology it was common to speak of the “vicarious death” of Christ. Yet, with no intent to minimize the importance of Christ’s sacrificial death, Torrance argues that the death of Christ must be seen in the wider context of his whole life. The nature of Christ’s reconciling activity is not accomplished in only the few hours he hung on the cross, but encompasses the entirety of his life, so that the entirety of our lives might be affected (Kettler, 2005:5, 6).
Following the Nicene fathers, Torrance argues that Jesus’ life, not only his death on the cross, was a priestly self-offering on our behalf.  “[T]he priestly self-consecration and self-offering of Christ throughout the whole of his earthly life are to be regarded as belonging to the innermost essence of the atoning mediation he fulfilled between God and mankind. Reconciliation through the life of Christ and reconciliation through the passion of Christ interpenetrate each other” (Torrance, 1988a:167, 168). Torrance continues:
[A]s one of us and one with us, he shared all our experiences, overcoming our disobedience through his obedience and sanctifying every stage of human life, and thereby vivified and restored our humanity to communion with God. He sanctified himself for our sakes that we might be sanctified in him.
In “an agonising union between God the Judge and man under judgment in a continuous movement of atoning reconciliation running throughout all his obedient and sinless life,” Jesus Christ sanctified every phase of human life through his filial obedience to the Father. Atonement, therefore, did not begin at the cross. To the contrary, atoning reconciliation began with the incarnation itself; that is, the assumption of sinful Adamic flesh was redemptive from the moment of Jesus’ “conception and birth when he put on the form of a servant and began to pay the price of our redemption” (Torrance, 1986b:475; cf. 1988a:167). Torrance continues:
As the one Mediator  between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus is not only God with us, but God for us, God who has crossed the chasm of alienation between us and himself, God who has taken our rebellious and corrupt human nature upon himself, God who has made our sin and guilt, our misery and death, our condemnation and godlessness, his very own, in order to intercede for us, to substitute himself in our place, bearing the just punishment of our sin, and offering and making restitution by suffering what we could not suffer and where we could make no restitution at all. That is the doctrine of Jesus Christ as Mediator who is God of God and Man of man in one Person, and who as such reconciles God to man and man to God in the hypostatic union of his divine and human natures.
Throughout his entire life, Jesus Christ is “God for us.” In taking sinful humanity to himself in the incarnation, the eternal Word began cleansing it, and continued to do so throughout what Calvin (2008:II.16.5; 327) called “the whole course of his obedience,” that is, throughout the entirety of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension (cf. Dawson, 2007:56, 62). For Torrance, therefore, atoning reconciliation is accomplished within the incarnate constitution of Jesus Christ (1986b:475), who acts on our behalf throughout the whole course of his obedient life, bending our fallen human will back to the Father and restoring communion between God and humanity. Following Greek patristic theology, Torrance (1993:238) writes:
[I]t is the whole incarnate life of Christ vicariously and triumphantly lived out from his birth to his crucifixion and resurrection in perfect obedience to the Father within the ontological depths of his oneness with us in our actual fallen existence, that redeems and saves us and converts our disobedient alienated sonship back to filial union with the Father. That is the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In regard to the “whole course” of Jesus’ atoning life, Torrance (1960:229-231) draws upon the Reformed doctrine of the “active” and “passive” obedience of Jesus Christ. The active obedience of the incarnate Son refers to the positive fulfilment in the whole life of Jesus, who, from beginning to end, lived a life of perfect filial obedience to the Father, perfectly fulfilling God’s will in our name and laying hold of the Father’s love on our behalf.  The passive obedience of Jesus Christ refers to his willing submission to the judgement of the Father upon our sin, especially as manifested in his expiation of our sins upon the cross. Christ’s passive obedience, however, cannot be limited to the cross, for his passion began at his birth, so that his entire life was a bearing of the cross. Here Torrance quotes Calvin’s (2008:II.16.5; 327) assertion that as soon as Christ put on the form of a servant (cf. Phil 2:7), he began to pay the price of liberation for our salvation. As Torrance notes, the Reformed distinction between the active and passive obedience of Christ is not intended to divide the work of Christ but to insist that atonement cannot be limited to his passive obedience at the cross; rather, the whole course of Christ’s life of filial obedience to the Father is absolutely integral to our reconciliation. Torrance (1960:230) continues:
How could it be otherwise when in the Incarnation there took place a union of God the Judge and the man judged in one Person, so that all through His life, but especially in His death, Jesus bore in himself the infliction and judgement of God upon our sinful humanity, and wrought out in His life and His death expiation and amendment for our sin?
The “mutuality” of the active and passive obedience of Jesus Christ is important in regard to justification, for it means that we have imputed to us not only the passive righteousness of Christ when he satisfied for our sins in judgement on the cross, but also the active righteousness of Christ in which he “positively” fulfilled the Father’s will in an obedient life. For Torrance, therefore, justification means not merely the “non-imputation” of our sins through the pardon of Christ but also “the positive sharing in his divine-human righteousness” (Torrance, 1960:230, 231). He continues:
We are saved, therefore, not only by the death of Christ [passive obedience] which He suffered for our sakes, but by His life [active obedience] which He lived in our flesh for our sakes and which God raised from the dead that we may share in it through the power of the Spirit. It is in that light, of His atoning and justifying Life, that we are to understand the Incarnation of the Son in the whole course of His obedience from His Birth to His Resurrection.
According to Torrance (1993:238, 239), the “cardinal issue” here is the all-important truth of the “vicarious humanity” of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. When we assign central place to the humanity of Jesus and his atoning acts throughout the whole course of his obedient life, atonement cannot be regarded merely as an “external” juridical transaction that took place at the cross, but “as something made to issue out of the depths of our actual existence through the incredible oneness which Christ forged with us in his vicarious humanity.” Torrance’s view that the entire life of Christ was lived vicariously on our behalf and in our place gives the humanity of Jesus Christ an “essential” and “integral” place (cf. Torrance, 1996b:131) in the indivisible unity of agency of the Father and Spirit and stands in stark contrast to the Latin view that the humanity of the incarnate Son played merely an instrumental role in an external, legal transaction between the Father and the Son at the cross.
As Torrance (1992:80) argues, Jesus’ filial obedience to the Father is not “an answer to God” that arises merely through an external transaction, as in the Latin view of atonement; rather, it is an obedient response that arises from the depths of the fallen humanity Jesus has made his own. Moreover, Jesus’ obedient self-sacrifice is not a mere moral example we may follow; rather, it is a “final answer” to God actualised in “the flesh and blood of our human existence and behaviour” which remains “eternally valid.” Against external forensic and exemplary theories of the atonement, Torrance asserts that “Jesus Christ is our human response to God.”
References (see previous post)

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