Sunday, November 27, 2011

T.F. Torrance: The Vicarious Humanity of Jesus Christ, pt. 11

This post is the second of a two-part series on Torrance’s view of the relationship between the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ and the sacraments of baptism and the Holy Eucharist.
The second of the two basic sacraments of the Gospel is the Eucharist. While baptism reflects our “once-for-all union” with Christ, the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, reflects our “continuous participation” in Christ (Torrance, 1992:91).
To rightly understand the meaning of the “Eucharistic sacrifice,” argues Torrance (1976a:117, 118; 1992:91, 92), we must take into account the twofold movement of God in Jesus Christ. First is the Godward-humanward movement, wherein the divine Son assumes our human flesh in the incarnation “in order to identify himself with us to the uttermost,” penetrating into the depths of our disobedient Adamic flesh in order to pour out the love of God upon us, take away our corruption, sin, and guilt and to endow us with his holiness. Yet, the divine Son did not come simply “in” man, as in adoptionist christologies; he came “as” man, consecrating himself for us and offering to the Father the perfect life of filial obedience we have failed to offer. This is the second aspect of the twofold movement of atoning reconciliation, that is, the humanward-Godward movement, wherein Jesus offers to the Father “a holiness from the side of man answering to his own.” It is this humanward-Godward movement that is prominent in the Eucharist, whereby we “participate” through the Spirit in the self-consecration and self-offering of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is the sacrament of our union with Christ in his act of self-consecration, so that we might be consecrated in him, as he offers himself in holy obedience and atoning reconciliation to God on our behalf, then lifts us up and presents us to the Father in his resurrection and ascension. As such, the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, is the sacrament “in which we offer Christ eucharistically to the Father through prayers and thanksgivings in Christ’s name as our only true worship, but in which the memorial of Christ which we lift up before God is taken by Christ and sanctifyingly assimilated into his own self-offering to the Father through the eternal Spirit.” In regard to our “participation” in the ongoing self-offering of the Risen Son to the Father, Torrance (1976a:118) continues:
That is what we do in anamnesis [remembrance] of him at the celebration of the Supper where Christ through the Spirit is really present in body, mind and will, taking up the Eucharistic memorial we make of him as the concrete form and expression of his own self-giving and self-offering, assimilating us in mind and will to himself and lifting us up in the closest union with himself in the identity of himself as Offerer and Offering to the presence of the Father.
Torrance (1976a:119) describes our partaking of the bread and wine not merely as something we do to “remember” Christ, but as a “communion” (koinonia) in the body and blood of Christ and his eucharistic offering to the Father. Like baptism, the anamnesis of the Eucharist is to be understood in the same “dimension of objective depth,” wherein the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ and his self-offering to the Father is the objective reality underlying the rite. In the Eucharist, “Jesus Christ constitutes himself in his paschal mystery as its objective reality, conferring his real presence upon it, so that the anamnesis of the Redeemer in the celebration of the Eucharist becomes the effective form of participation which he grants to us in his self-offering through the eternal Spirit to God the Father.”
As Hunsinger (2001:152, 153) correctly notes, Torrance’s notion of “participation” is the key to the twofold, God to man and man to God, movement of atoning mediation, particularly in its latter aspect. Heaven participates in earth that earth might participate in heaven, yet not in a “synergistic” way, whereby our participation contributes something to our salvation. It is the action of the Holy Spirit, not the Church, which brings us into communion with Christ. To be sure, the Eucharist, like baptism, is both the act of Christ and the act of the Church, but as Torrance (1976a:107) argues, it is the nature of the case that the act of the Church serves the act of Christ and directs us away from itself toward Christ. As Torrance argues, “The Eucharist is what it is not because of what it is in itself as an act of the Church but because of what it is in its grounding beyond in what God in Christ has done, does do, and will do for us in his Spirit.”
As in the case of baptism, serious problems have arisen in the history of the Church when the Eucharist is detached from its objective ground in Jesus Christ. When considered apart from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, the Eucharist becomes a sacramental rite, the performance of which is interpreted to imply a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ or, at least, to have only a moral meaning as evoked by its symbolism. When grounded objectively in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, however, the Eucharist points away from itself to its “constitutive reality” in Jesus and to “the saving mystery which he is in the unity of his person and work and word as the one Mediator between God and man.” At the Holy Table, our attention must be focused beyond the rite itself to the “inner relations” of the incarnate Son of God, who took our mortal humanity, making it his own in order to heal, sanctify, and renew it in himself, then lift it up in his ascension to communion with the Father (Torrance, 1976a:107-109). Torrance (1976a:109) continues:
Here we have to do both with the kenotic abasement of the Son of God to be one with man, and therefore with the participation and even passion of God in our actual human, historical and creaturely existence, and with the saving and sanctifying assumption of our human nature into the eternal life and love of God, and therefore with its participation and passion in the divine nature.
As with atoning reconciliation, or incarnational redemption, the Eucharist is not to be understood in terms of “external causal relations” between Christ and the Eucharist or between the Eucharist and ourselves. Rather, the Eucharist is to be understood in terms of “our participation through the Spirit in what the whole Christ, the incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended Son, is in himself in respect both of his activity from the Father towards mankind and of his activity from mankind towards the Father.” It is Jesus Christ himself who constitutes the “living content, reality and power of the Eucharist” and who gives meaning and efficacy to its celebration by being savingly present in his mediatorial agency, blessing what the Church does in remembrance of him and accepting it as his own act done in heaven (Torrance, 1976a:109). Continuing, Torrance argues:
In so far as the Eucharist is the act of the Church in his name and is also a human rite, it must be understood as an act of prayer, thanksgiving and worship, i.e., as essentially eucharistic in nature, but as act in which through the Spirit we are given to share in the vicarious life, faith, prayer, worship, thanksgiving and self-offering of Jesus Christ to the Father, for in the final resort it is Jesus Christ himself who is our true worship. (emphasis in original)
Even as an act of the Church, the Eucharist is not to be detached from the vicarious, ongoing mediation of Jesus Christ, so as to be regarded as an “independent” act on our part in response to what God has already done for us in Christ. Rather, the Eucharist is an act toward God “already fulfilled in the humanity of Christ in our place and on our behalf, to which our acts in his name are assimilated and identified through the Spirit.” The Eucharist is a “form of the life of Jesus Christ ascending to the Father” in the life of those so intimately united to Christ through the Spirit that when they pray, it is Christ himself who “honours, adores and glorifies the Father” in them. While the Eucharist is an act of human beings, it is a participation in the same Spirit through whom Christ fulfilled his life of filial obedience within our humanity. Thus, participation in the Eucharist is “essentially a participation in the worship of the heavenly sanctuary which Jesus Christ their ascended High Priest renders to the Father . . .” (Torrance, 1976a:109, 110).
For Torrance, the celebration of the Eucharist means that, by communion in his body and blood, we are so intimately united to Christ through the Spirit that we participate in his self-offering and self-consecration to the Father made in our place and on our behalf. We appear before God in worship and praise with no other worship and sacrifice than that which is “identical” with Jesus Christ, our Mediator and High Priest (Torrance, 1992:91, 92). Torrance continues:
We come to the Holy Table to worship God, not protesting our own faith or conversion or godliness, but proclaiming the death of Christ who through his atoning exchange has replaced our poverty with his boundless grace. And so we put out empty hands and bread and wine are put into them which we eat and drink in communion with his body and blood, for we have no other offering with which to draw near to God but that one offering which is identical with Jesus Christ himself, through whom, with whom and in whom we glorify the Father.
Note here the all-important “middle term” in the covenant relationship between God and man. As Torrance notes, we bring nothing to the Holy Table, for we have nothing to offer other than what God has provided in his incarnate Son. In this regard, Torrance (et al, 1999:27, 28) finds it easiest to teach and preach the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ and his substitutionary role in faith in the context of the Eucharist. Following the call to repentance and faith, we stretch out empty hands to receive the bread and wine. At the Holy Table, we realise we cannot rely on our own faith but only on the vicarious faith of Jesus Christ. Torrance continues:
Faith, as John Calvin taught, is an empty vessel, so that when you approach the Table of the Lord, it is not upon your faith that you rely, but upon Christ and his Cross alone. That is what the Covenant in his body and blood which the Saviour has forged for us actually, practically and really means. It is of the very essence of the Gospel that salvation and justification are by the grace of Christ alone, in which he takes your place, that you may have his place.
Torrance traces the reluctance of many believers to approach the Holy Table to the “subtle Pelagianism” that marks much contemporary preaching and teaching, with its tendency to throw believers back upon their own faith, so that, in the final analysis, the responsibility for their salvation rests upon their shoulders rather than upon Christ. As Torrance argues, believers are pushed away from the Church on Communion Sundays when they fail to understand the absolutely free and unconditional nature of the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. To be sure, Jesus came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Mk 2:17). “Through the miracle of the Cross, he turns our sins and failings into the very means he uses in order to save us and bind us to himself. That is precisely what he pledges to us in the Communion of his Body and Blood” (Torrance, et al, 1999:28).
In regard to differing views of the degree of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine (cf. McGrath, 2001:522-528), Torrance espouses the doctrine of “real presence.” In describing how Christ is present in the Eucharist, Torrance (1971:119, 120) writes:
[I]t is nevertheless the real presence (parousia) of the whole Christ, not just the presence of his body and blood, nor just the presence of his Spirit or Mind, but the presence of the actual Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, ascended, glorified, in his whole, living and active reality and in his identity as Gift and Giver.
In keeping with Reformation theology, Torrance (1976a:119, 120; cf. 126, 127) goes on to assert that “how” Jesus is present in the Eucharist is explicable only from the side of God, “in terms of his creative activity which by its very nature transcends any kind of explanation which we can offer.” Jesus is really present “through the Spirit,” not merely as a spiritual reality “but present through the same kind of inexplicable creative activity whereby he was born of the Virgin Mary and rose again from the grave.” Torrance continues:
He is present in the unique reality of his incarnate Person, in whom Word and Work and Person are indissolubly one, personally present therefore in such a way that he creatively effects what he declares, and what he promises actually takes place: “This is my body broken for you,” “This is my blood shed for many for the remission of sins.” The real presence is the presence of the Saviour in his personal being and atoning self-sacrifice, who once and for all gave himself up on the Cross for our sakes but who is risen from the dead as the Lamb who has been slain but is alive for ever more, and now appears for us in the presence of the Father as himself prevalent eternally propitiation [sic].
For Torrance, therefore, the Risen Jesus is “personally” present in the Eucharist, making his mediatory activity through the bread and wine “real” and actual for us, not merely symbolic or commemorative, in a mysterious and miraculous way known only from the side of heaven.
In summary, the “key” to understanding Torrance’s view of the Eucharist is found in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ and the priesthood of the incarnate Son, as he represents God to us and us to God. In becoming one with us in the incarnation, he receives the things of God on behalf of humanity; having received what is ours through union with us, he, in turn, offers them to God as Mediator, thereby enabling us to draw near to God in worship. By eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the Eucharist, we are given participation in his vicarious self-offering to the Father. Jesus Christ unites us and our worship with his own self-consecration and offers us up to the Father “in the identity of himself as Offerer and Offering.” In other words, we worship the Father through the priesthood of the Son in such a way that “it is Christ himself who is the real content of our worship.” Thus, even in the Eucharist, the Pauline axiom, “I, yet not I but Christ” (Gal 2:20), applies, “for what God accepts as our true worship is Christ himself” (Torrance, 1976a:110, 111).
See Torrance, Vicarious Humanity, pt 10


  1. Could Jesus have meant that whenever you eat and drink remember me? Did he intend for the church to create new ceremonies that need extensive theological explanations as to what the ceremonies mean? A meal with friends or family is a holy communion don't you think?


  2. Hi Jim,

    I agree. A meal with family and friends is indeed a communion. In fact, what we today call the "Lord's Supper" or "Holy Communion" actually comes from the "love (agape) feasts" the early church held on Sundays, at least until persecution made it too dangerous. St. Paul had a lot to say about the misuse of the love feasts in Corinthians.

    In the small church I pastor, we take communion weekly. We literally gather around the Holy Table as a family, the community of faith, and share a "meal" together. I think the "community" aspect is vital; it symbolizes the reality that God is creating a new people, and we are part of that family. thus, communion should not properly be taken alone; it is a community affair.

    Jesus tells us to do this "in remenbrance of Me." The word for "remembrance" is anamnesis. This word means much more than simply to "remember" an event, as yesterday we "remembered" Pearl Harbor. Anamnesis implies a "bringing forward into the present" of that which is "remembered." When we take communion, as NT Wright says, we are the disicples gathered around the table with the Lord. The event that occured 2,000 years ago comes forward into the present, so that our sharing of it is just as real as when the twelve disciple shared it with Jesus.

    At the same time, and again I draw on NT Wright, the bread and wine are not mere symbols; they are, in fact, a part of the new creation that began with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In that sense, the furture (eschaton) is coming "backward" to meet us, so that, not only are we participating in an event that occurred 2,000 years ago, we are also participating in the new creation (i.e., new heavens and new earth) here and now.

    Regarding elaborate and detailed theological explanations of what is happening with the bread and wine, I like the story Wright tells about the famous ballet dancer. When asked to explain what the dance meant, she replied, "If I could explain it, I wouldn't need to dance it." Jesus merely said "do it." And that is enough. The act itself will nourish us spiritually, reaching and teaching us at a deep level of consciousness.

    At thes same time, following Torrance, when we "do it" we are "participating" in the Son's High Priestly self-offering to the Father. He is "gathering us up" as we gather around the table, so that we are united with and included in his self-offering to the Father.

    Thus, there is a lot more going on that merely "remembering."

    Hope this helps and thanks for participating in the conversation,



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