Thursday, June 16, 2011

T.F. Torrance: The Vicarious Humanity of Jesus Christ, pt. 4

The Unity of Revelation and Reconciliation

According to Torrance (1996b:132), the incarnation shows that revelation and reconciliation are “inseparable,” for “revelation does not achieve its end in humanity apart from reconciliation.” Though Jesus Christ was obedient throughout the whole course of his life, he had to “learn” obedience. Though conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus was born in the womb of a sinner, within the compass of sinful flesh. Torrance continues:
As the Son of Adam he was born into our alienation, our God-forsakenness and darkness, and grew within our bondage and ignorance, so that he had to beat his way forward by blows, as St. Luke puts it, growing in wisdom and growing in grace, before God as well as before men. He learned obedience by the things which he suffered, for that obedience from within our alienated humanity was a struggle with our sin and temptation . . . fought out with strong crying and tears and achieved in desperate anguish and weakness under the crushing load of the world’s sin and the divine judgment. Throughout the whole course of his life he bent the will of man in perfect submission to the will of God, bowing under the divine judgment against our unrighteousness, and offered a perfect obedience to the Father, that we might be redeemed and reconciled to him.
Finally, at Calvary, Jesus “penetrated to the utmost extremity of our self-alienating flight from God where we are trapped in death, and turned everything around so that out of the fearful depths of our darkness and dereliction we may cry with him, ‘Our Father.’” In his anguished experience at Gethsemane, where he wrestled with God over the cup he had been given to drink, Jesus cried out, “Yet not my will but thine be done.” As Torrance notes, it is “your will and my will,” that is, our Adamic self-will that Jesus appropriated in the incarnation, which is “bent back in the agony of Gethsemane in total obedience to the will of the Father . . .” Thus, we must think of “the whole life and activity of Jesus from the cradle to the grave” as constituting the vicarious human response which God has graciously and unconditionally provided for us (Torrance, 1992:79, 80; cf. 1988a:167).
In the midst of our sinful humanity, the incarnate Word of God takes the way of “vicarious” suffering and judgement. The revelation he embodies is not complete apart from reconciliation, “for only through reconciliation can revelation complete its own movement within man, bringing out of our humanity the obedient reception of revelation which is an essential part of its very substance.” As he who is both God and man, Jesus Christ penetrates to the depths of our sinful existence in order to overcome our estrangement and reconcile us to the Father. He acts from the side of God in the faithful revelation of divine truth and, at the same time, acts from the side of man “in the faithfulness of a life wholly obedient to the Father” (Torrance, 1996b:132, 133).
Comment: Note here the continued “holism” of Torrance’s theology. He does not allow a dualism (separation) between revelation and reconciliation. Both revelation and reconciliation occur “simultaneously" as the eternal Son of God assumes human flesh. Jesus both reveals the Father and reconciles us to the Father in one unitary movement of revelation and reconciliation.
Representation and Substitution
Torrance (1992:80, 81; cf. 1988a:168) asserts the “radical nature of Jesus’ mediation of our human response to God” by bringing together, and “thinking into each other,” the concepts of “representation” and “substitution.” It will not do, argues Torrance, to think of what Jesus has done for us merely in terms of “representation,” for that would imply that Jesus represents our response merely as the “leader” of humanity in its response to God. On the other hand, if Jesus is merely a “substitute” in detachment from us, who simply takes our place in an external forensic way, then his act has no ontological bearing upon us, but, rather, is “an empty transaction over our heads.” As Torrance argues, a “merely representative” or “merely substitutionary” concept of vicarious mediation is “bereft of any saving significance.” He continues:
But if representation and substitution are combined and allowed to interpenetrate each other within the incarnational union of the Son of God with us in which he has actually taken our sin and guilt upon his own being, then we may have a profounder and truer grasp of the vicarious humanity in the mediatorship of Christ, as one in which he acts in our place, in our stead, on our behalf but out of the ontological depths of our actual human being.
Here Torrance plainly reveals the necessary connection between his assertion of the incarnational assumption of fallen Adamic flesh and the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. Against “external” concepts of representation and substitution, Jesus Christ acts on our behalf, and in our place, from “within” the ontological depths of his incarnational penetration into the fallen flesh he assumed in common with sinful humanity. Because Jesus has identified himself with us in the assumption of our diseased and sinful humanity, there is an ontological connection between us and what he does as our representative and substitute; that is, Jesus acts on our behalf and in our place, throughout the whole course of his life, from within the depths of fallen Adamic flesh. As Torrance (1976a:136) notes elsewhere:
[T]he Son of God united himself with us in our actual human condition so intimately and profoundly that through his healing and sanctifying of our human nature in himself we may be made with him sons of God. As such he acts with us and for us and on our behalf towards the Father in all our distinctive human experiences as children of God, such as confession, penitence, sorrow, chastisement, submission to the divine judgement, and faith, obedience, love, prayer, praise adoration, that we may share with him what he is in his ascension and self-presentation before the Father as the beloved son in whom he is well-pleased.
The Son of God assumes sinful human flesh, then “as man,” as son of Adam and son of Israel, acts vicariously for us, as our representative and substitute, in all our human experiences as children of God, so that we may share in his intimate experience as the Father’s beloved Son. As Torrance notes elsewhere (1986b:479):
Although atonement was certainly the Act of God himself, it was the Act of God as Man, and thus act of God translated into our human existence and made to issue out of it as a fully human act in the obedient self-offering of man in holiness and filial love to God the Father and in unbroken fellowship with him.
Because it is God who acts “as man” on our behalf and in our place, “central place” must be given to the representative and substitutionary aspects of the humanity of Jesus Christ in atoning reconciliation. As Torrance (1986b:479) argues:
Now if it was as Man as well as God that Jesus Christ took our place, he must be recognised as acting in our place in all the basic acts of man’s response to God: in faith and repentance, in obedience and prayer, in receiving God’s blessing and in thanksgiving for it.
Jesus Christ acts “as man,” “in our place,” in all aspects of humankind’s response to God. In the gospel, therefore, we do not have to do simply with the Word of God and the human response to it; rather, we have to do with the “all-significant middle term,” that is, “the divinely provided response in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.” Because he is the one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28), the humanity of Jesus Christ occupies a “unique place in the creative ground of our humanity” (Torrance, 1971:145). Torrance continues:
[The vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ] fulfils a representative and substitutionary role in all our relations with God, including every aspect of human response to Him: such as trusting and obeying, understanding and knowing, loving and worshipping. Jesus Christ is presented to us in the Gospels as He who in and through His humanity took our place, acting in our name and on our behalf before God, freely offering in Himself what we could not offer and offering it in our stead, the perfect response of man to God in a holy life of faith and prayer and praise, the self-offering of the Beloved Son with whom the Father is well pleased.
For Torrance, Jesus is our representative and substitute in every aspect of our response to God. “[E]ven in our believing, praying, and worshipping of God . . . he has yoked himself to us in such a profound way that he stands in for us and upholds us at every point in our human relations before God (Torrance, 1994:30, 31).
In this regard, a clear description of what Torrance means by “the vicarious humanity” of Jesus Christ is found in Torrance (2008:205 n 32), edited by R.T. Walker:
“Standing in our place” (Lat, vicarius, substitute). Christ in his humanity stands in our place and represents us, and hence the term the “vicarious humanity” of Christ in which the humanity of Christ takes our place and represents us, so that what is true of him is true of us, and what he did in his (our) humanity is ours.
Hart (2008:87, 88) is particularly helpful in his articulation of the relationship between the substitutionary and representative aspects of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ and its connection to humanity in general. As Hart asks, if the humanity of Jesus Christ is the locus of God’s regenerative and redemptive activity, then in what sense are we actually healed and reconciled in the process? Is Torrance guilty of an “ontological fiction” that leaves humanity unhealed and unchanged? The answer is, of course, “No,” because as the material quoted above illustrates, Torrance understands that all Jesus is and does, he is and does “for us.” In assuming fallen Adamic flesh, the Son of God unites humanity to himself, thereby establishing an ontological bond by virtue of which, notes Hart, “his particular humanity was rendered inclusive in its relationship to ours.” All human beings have drawn near to God in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ and are “included” in him, prior to, and apart from, any salvific response on our part. Because we have no existence apart from the “ontological solidarity” God has established with us in the hypostatic union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ, what takes place in the incarnation and throughout the whole course of Jesus’ life of filial obedience to the Father is no ontological fiction but, rather, impacts us in the depths of our being. As Hart notes, this is no mere philosophical notion of “concrete universals” or “primitive notions of ‘corporate personality’”; rather, this is the specifically Christian claim that Jesus Christ is the Creator Logos, the one in whom we live and move and have our being and who, in taking human flesh to himself, binds us to himself by virtue of both his humanity and his deity.
Following Torrance, Hart (2008:88) goes on to state, quite correctly, that “all” humans are united to the regenerated and sanctified humanity of Jesus Christ and are, thereby, granted access to the life of “sonship.” Yet, substitution is “not the whole story,” for substitution must be complemented by, and come to fruition in, our active participation, as we are led by the Spirit to become what we are by virtue of our ontological union with Christ. The union Christ established with us in his body and blood demands our union with him in his body and blood, as we draw near to him in worship and the sacraments. Our participation in baptism and the Eucharist (cf. below) bear witness to our appropriation, by faith, through the Spirit, of what is already ours in Jesus Christ (cf. Torrance, 1976a:111).
By bringing together and thinking into each other the concepts of “representation” and “substitution,” Torrance is in complete harmony with the New Testament (cf. Hebrews) description of Christ as both our High Priest (representative) and sacrifice (substitute), the “Offerer” and the “Offering” (cf. Torrance, 1988a:173-178). In representing our humanity before the Father, Jesus Christ is the High Priest representing the people before God. At the same time, he is also the sacrifice, “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,” “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Rev 13:8; Jn 1:29). He is our substitute, taking our place and offering to the Father the life of perfect filial obedience we are unable to offer. As Kettler (2005:6) notes, this is the true sense of “vicarious”: doing something for another in their place, doing for them what they are unable to do for themselves. This is the heart of Torrance’s understanding of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.
see Vicarious Humanity, pt 1.


  1. Hello Martin,

    Thank you for this current series. I am particularly grateful for the link to the Princeton Review found at the Hart citation; though I am probably the only person reading your blog that has not see that Review honoring Torrance, which I may have missed altogether had you not inadvertently made the Hart reference so challenging to find. Thank you for your concise, yet thorough, summaries.


  2. 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, issue 39, pp. 79-90. Available at


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