Vicarious Humanity and Human Response
A clearer understanding of Torrance’s doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ may be gained by an exploration of the relationship between the humanity of Jesus and the mediation of the human response to God.
Following Scottish pastor and theologian, John McLeod Campbell (Torrance, 1976a:141), Torrance identifies Galatians 2:20 as a passage of “primary importance” in his doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, a passage he personally translates as follows (Torrance, 1994:31; Torrance, et. al., 1999:24, 25; cf. Torrance, 1957:113):
I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I. But Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Commenting on his translation of this passage, Torrance (1994:31; Torrance, et. al., 1999:25) argues:
“The faith of the Son of God” is to be understood here not just as my faith in him, but as the faith of Christ himself, for it refers primarily to Christ’s unswerving faithfulness, his vicarious and substitutionary faith which embraces and undergirds us, such that when we believe we must say with St. Paul “not I but Christ,” even in our act of faith.
Galatians 2:20 is the paradigmatic text for understanding Torrance’s doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. As Torrance (1992:98) argues, this text informs all our human responses to God, including faith, conversion, worship, the sacraments, and evangelism (cf. Torrance, 1992:81-98). The relationship between the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ and specific aspects of human response to God will be the subject of the remainder of the present chapter.
Torrance’s early article on faith (1957) ignited a “firestorm” of controversy. In this article, Torrance argues that human faith is grounded in God’s faithfulness, indeed, that faith and believing do not apply to humanity, but to God. Torrance’s understanding of faith and its relation to the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ reveals the “fundamental contours” of his theology, particularly in regard to the “once-for-allness” of what God has accomplished in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ (Thimell, 2008:27, 28).
While we are accustomed to thinking of faith as something we possess, or as an activity in which we engage, faith is not to be construed as an independent, autonomous act which arises from a base within ourselves (Torrance, 1992:81, 82). Arguing that the intellectual aspect of faith (pistis) is grounded in “the basic fact of the faithfulness of God,” Torrance (1957:111) notes that the Old Testament concept of faith (’emunah) mirrors the “constancy” and “steadfastness” of a parent to her child (cf. Is 49:15), and is properly applied to God in his covenant faithfulness, not to man (cf. Dt 7:9). Thus, faith and belief do not properly describe a virtue or quality of human beings; rather, “they describe man as taking refuge from his own frailty and instability in God who is firm and steadfast.”
The biblical conception of faith is rooted in the covenant relationship between God and Israel. In the “community of reciprocity” established between God and his people, there is a reciprocal movement of faith, that is, a “polarity between the faithfulness of God and the answering faithfulness of man.” Even when the people’s faith faltered, God would not let them go. Despite their rebellion and unfaithfulness, God held on to them in “undergirding” and “utterly invariant” faithfulness, as revealed in his covenant love for Israel. Hence, the ultimate ground of Israel’s faith toward God was God’s faithfulness toward Israel. As Torrance argues, the steadfast faithfulness of God is the ground on which redemption rests, as the divinely prepared pattern of Israel’s cultic liturgy attests (Torrance, 1992:82).
The New Testament concept of faith is not different, although it is “intensely personalised” in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He is “the Truth of God actualized in our midst, the incarnate faithfulness of God” (Torrance, 1971:154; 1992:82). In an important passage for understanding the relation between human faith (pistis), God, and the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, Torrance (1957:113; cf. 1971:154) describes Jesus Christ as the “embodiment and actualisation” of human faith in covenant with God. He writes:
Like the Old Testament, the New Testament also lays emphasis upon the faithfulness of God, and requires from man a corresponding faithfulness. But in the gospel the steadfast faithfulness of God has achieved its end in righteousness and truth in Jesus Christ, for in Him it has been actualised as Truth, and is fulfilled in our midst. Jesus Christ is not only the Truth of God but also Truth of God become man, the Truth of God become truth of man. As such, Jesus is also the truth of man before God, for God, and toward God. Jesus Christ is thus not only the incarnation of the Divine pistis, but He is the embodiment and actualization of man’s pistis in covenant with God. He is not only the Righteousness of God, but the embodiment and actualization of our human righteousness before God.
The Old Testament concept of the faithfulness of God is actualised in Jesus Christ, who, at the same time, is the embodiment and actualisation of man’s faith toward God. In his incarnate constitution as God and man in one person, Jesus Christ manifests a “twofold” faithfulness or steadfastness; that is, “the steadfastness of God and the steadfastness of man in obedience to God.” Jesus Christ is both the Word of God revealed to man and man in steadfast obedience and faithfulness to that Word. As Torrance argues, “He is from the side of man, man’s pistis answering to God’s pistis, as well as from the side of God, God’s pistis requiring man’s pistis: as such He lived out the life of the Servant, fulfilling in Himself our salvation in righteousness and truth.” Torrance finds this truth summed up in the New Testament assertion that Jesus Christ is both the faithful “Yes” of God to man and the faithful “Amen” of man to God (cf. 2Cor 1:18-20). “He offers to God for us, and is toward God in His own person and life, our human response of obedience and faithfulness” (Torrance, 1957:114).
In this regard, Torrance notes two great aspects of the gospel which need fuller consideration in modern theology than they have been given. First, the “whole of our salvation” is dependent upon the “faithfulness of God.” It is God’s faithfulness that undergirds and supports our “feeble and faltering” faith, and enfolds it in his own. In Jesus Christ, we are unable to disentangle our faith from the faithfulness of God, for it is the nature of our faith to be implicated in the faithfulness of Jesus. Second, Jesus Christ is not only the incarnate Word of God; he is also “Believer,” “Believer for us,” “vicariously Believer, whose very humanity is the embodiment of our salvation” (Torrance, 1957:114). Torrance continues:
In Him who is Man of our humanity, we are graciously given to share, and so to participate in the whole course of His reconciling obedience from His birth to His death. That He stood in our place and gave to God account for us, that He believed for us, was faithful for us, and remains faithful even when we fail Him again and again, is the very substance of our salvation and the anchor of our hope.
In his solidarity with humanity, Jesus Christ stands in our place, in his life and in his death, in utter faithfulness to God and man. In his complete filial obedience and faithfulness to the Father, Jesus offers to God the “perfect response of faith” which we are unable to offer; that is, Jesus “offers to God, and is toward God in His own person and life, our human response of faith and obedience to God.” He is man keeping faith and truth with “perfect correspondence” between his life and the word of God. In Jesus, there is “utter consistency” between the revealed word of God and man hearing, believing, and obeying that word (Torrance, 1971:154). Jesus enters into the relationship between the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of human beings to restore the faithfulness of mankind by grounding it in his own faithfulness, thereby perfectly answering God’s faithfulness (Torrance, 1992:82). Torrance continues:
Thus Jesus steps into the actual situation where we are summoned to have faith in God, to believe and trust in him, and he acts in our place and in our stead from within the depths of our unfaithfulness and provides us freely with a faithfulness in which we share. He does that as Mediator between God and man, yet precisely as man united to us and taking our place at every point where we human beings . . . are called to have faith in the Father, to believe in him and trust him.
As Mediator between God and man, Jesus steps into the arena of human faith in order to act in our place from within the depths of our fallen and unfaithful humanity. As Torrance argues, “[I]f we think of belief, trust or faith as forms of human activity before God, then we must think of Jesus Christ as believing, trusting and having faith in God the Father on our behalf and in our place.” Even in regard to our belief, Jesus acts vicariously, that is, in our place, offering to the Father the fullness of faith we are unable to offer. Torrance illustrates his argument with a story about teaching his young daughter to walk. While the little child held firmly to her father’s hand as tightly as she could, it was not her feeble grasp that enabled her to remain steady, but, rather, her father’s strong grip on her hand. As Torrance argues, “This is surely how God’s faithfulness actualised in Jesus Christ has hold of our weak and faltering faith and holds it securely in his hand” (Torrance, 1992:82, 83; cf. 1994:32; et. al., 1999:26).
For Torrance, our response of faith is a “free participation” in the faithful response of Jesus Christ already made on our behalf. Our response of faith is encompassed “within the ring of faithfulness which Christ has already thrown around us, when in faith we rely not on our own believing but wholly on his vicarious response of faithfulness toward God.” Hence, Christ’s faith undergirds our feeble faith and enfolds it in his own. Moreover, since the faith of the incarnate Word includes both the faith of God and the faith of man, “we are unable to disentangle our acts of faith in Christ from their implication in the eternal faithfulness of God” (Torrance, 1971:154).
For Torrance, faith is a “polar concept” that “reposes upon and derives from the prior faithfulness of God which has been translated permanently into our actual human existence in Jesus Christ.” We do not rely upon our own faith, “but upon the faith of Christ which undergirds and upholds our faith” (Torrance, 1960:235). In the “polar relation” between Christ’s faith and our faith, “our faith is laid hold of, enveloped, and upheld by his unswerving faithfulness.” Jesus Christ takes our place, making our cause his own, and offering to the Father the response of faith and love we are altogether unable to offer. Human faith, therefore, has its proper place, not within the autonomous individual, but within the “polar relationship” between God and mankind, a relationship that is “actualised” in Jesus Christ, with whom we are yoked together and made to share in his vicarious faith and faithfulness on our behalf. Through his incarnational and atoning union with us, our faith is implicated in his faith; yet, far from being depersonalised, our faith is made to issue “freely and spontaneously” out of our own lives before God. To be sure, we rest in the faithfulness of the incarnate Saviour, and even the way in which we rest is undergirded by his own faithfulness. For Torrance, therefore, the relation between our responses in faith to the vicarious faith of Christ can be summed up in the Pauline principle, “not I but Christ.” Even in our believing we must say with St. Paul, “I believe, yet not I but Christ” (Torrance, 1992:83, 84; 1994:31, 32; Torrance, et. al., 1999:25; cf. 1957:113).
Thimell, D. 2008. Torrance’s Doctrine of Faith. The Princeton Theological Review, vol XIV, no. 2, issue 39. Available at http://www.princetontheologicalreview.org/issues_pdf/39.pdf
Torrance, T.F. 1957. One Aspect of the Biblical Conception of Faith. The Expository Times, vol 68, pp. 111-114.
Torrance, T.F. 1971. God and Rationality. London: OUP. 216 pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1976a. Theology in Reconciliation: Essays toward Evangelical and Catholic Unity in East and West. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 302 pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1992. The Mediation of Christ (rev. ed.). Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard. 126 pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 71 pp.
Torrance, T.F. et al. 1999. A Passion for Christ: The Vision That Ignites Ministry (edited by G. Dawson & J. Stein). Edinburgh: Handel Press. 150 pp.