Wednesday, February 6, 2013

T.F. Torrance: The Womb of the Incarnation, pt 10


The birth of the Son of God did not occur in a historical and cultural vacuum; rather, there is a “prehistory” of the incarnation in God’s historical dialogue with Israel. To investigate the mediation of Jesus Christ within the context of historical Israel is in keeping with Torrance’s scientific approach to theology, wherein the reality under study is investigated, not in isolation, but within the matrix of relations that constitute its being and identity. On the other hand, to view Jesus apart from ancient Israel is to obscure the interrelations within which the mediation of revelation and reconciliation becomes intelligible. 

Torrance’s view of Israel as the “womb of the incarnation” provides a number of useful insights into the mediation of revelation and reconciliation. Particularly helpful is his conception of Israel as a “community of reciprocity” elected by God to establish a two-way movement of divine revelation and human response, wherein knowledge of God might be revealed in basic concepts, categories, and beliefs amenable to human understanding. Within the law and liturgy of Israel, God introduced permanent structures of thought and speech by which God may be appropriately known. By developing these “conceptual tools” within the matrix of Israel, God prepared mankind to apprehend the full self-disclosure of divine revelation in the incarnation of the Son of God. Torrance’s regard for these conceptual tools as the “essential furniture” of our knowledge of God is, perhaps, his greatest contribution to the understanding of Israel’s role in the mediation of divine revelation. 

In order for Israel to know God, its communal life and worship had to be transformed; therefore, God provided Israel a liturgical system of sacrifice and worship, so that a sinful people could come before God forgiven and sanctified in their covenant partnership and consecrated in their priestly mission to the world. Torrance’s description of the cultic liturgy as the “covenanted way of response,” that is, a divinely prepared “middle term” between the polarities of the covenant, highlights the gracious, loving condescension of God in providing Israel an appropriate means whereby even a sinful, rebellious nation might draw near to him in intimate, communal fellowship. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of the middle term between the polarities of the covenant; that is, as both high priest and victim, he embodies the cultic liturgy of Israel and constitutes in his incarnate union of divine and human natures the covenanted way of response between God and humanity foreshadowed in Israel. 

The law and sacrificial liturgy embedded in the covenanted way of response was painfully written on the heart of Israel, and carved into the flesh of the people, as symbolised by circumcision, so that it might be incorporated into their daily life and thought. Torrance describes Israel’s agonising ordeal as mediator of revelation and reconciliation as the “pre-history of the crucifixion” of Jesus Christ. In fulfilling its role as the suffering servant of God, Israel prefigured the suffering of Jesus Christ, the true Israelite, who recapitulated in himself the plight of the suffering servant for the benefit of all humanity. By penetrating the ontological depths of Israel’s existence, where humanity was estranged from God, and meeting humanity at the nadir of human rebellion, the incarnate Son used human sin and unworthiness to bind humanity to himself forever in unconditional love. In accomplishing his reconciling purpose in the face of the sin and betrayal of the cross, God revealed that he elected Israel to reject the Messiah, so that through its rejection of Jesus Christ, all humanity might be saved. 


Torrance’s discussion of Israel as the “womb of the incarnation” is consistent with important tents of his scientific theology, including the integration of form and being or the proper relation between epistemology and ontology. Moreover, his discussion of the tumultuous relation between God and Israel sheds light on the troublesome topic of the wrath of God. Finally, his discussion of the covenanted way of response foreshadows his discussion of the “vicarious humanity” of Jesus Christ. 

 Integration of Form and Being 

Taking a cue from Chung (2011:6, 7), we may note that the intertwining of revelation and reconciliation in Israel constitutes the “integration of form and being” that is a characteristic aspect of Torrance’s scientific theology. As Chung suggests, if we regard the conceptual-linguistic tools of revelation as “form” and the corporate heart of Israel as “being,” then we may regard form and being as intrinsically related in Torrance’s view of divine mediation in Israel. For Torrance, the integration of form and being constitutes the totality of the mediation of revelation (“form”) and reconciliation (“heart” or “being”) in historical Israel. Divine revelation (“form”) in Israel transformed the inner “being” of the nation, as the cultic liturgy was carved into the flesh of the people, as symbolised by circumcision. Moreover, the covenanted way of response to divine revelation, as expressed in the law and cultic liturgy, affirms Torrance’s assertion that faith, piety, and worship are integral to the epistemological process. As Torrance argues, we cannot know God apart from personal-communal faith, piety, and devotion.  

In addition, the relation between form and being can be viewed from a different angle in Torrance’s discussion of divine mediation in Israel. In Torrance’s scientific theology, epistemology follows ontology, that is, “knowing” follows “being.” This principle is historically realised in ancient Israel as the knowledge of God penetrates deep into the communal heart of the people, radically transforming the nation at the depths of its corporate being. Torrance’s discussion of the displacement of naturalistic and pagan concepts of God by the light of divine revelation in Israel affirms and complements his assertion that epistemology arises a posteriori in obedience to the demands of its object of inquiry. For Israel to know God, the alien concepts and antecedent conceptual frameworks of the nation’s corporate mind had to be burned away by the searing light of divine revelation in order for it to be the bearer of the oracles of God. 

The inherent unitary relation Torrance sees between epistemology and ontology, revelation and reconciliation, and form and being will be fully realised and enacted in Jesus Christ, who, in his incarnate constitution as God and man eternally joined in reconciling union, “embodies” the unitary movement of revelation and reconciliation in historical Israel. Torrance’s discussion of the covenanted way of response as a “middle term” between the polarities of the covenant, that is, as a “vicarious” means through which a sinful nation could respond appropriately to a holy God, foreshadows his discussion of the “vicarious humanity” of Jesus Christ, who, as God and man joined in reconciling union, “vicariously” embodies and enacts the covenanted way of response between God and humanity, in place of, and on behalf of, all. 

 Divine Wrath in Israel 

God’s provision of the means of response to the divine initiative facilitates greater appreciation for divine grace in God’s relations with humanity, as revealed in Israel. As Torrance argues, God’s unswerving commitment to Israel was not dependent on any salutary quality that made Israel worthy of communal relationship with a holy and righteous God; rather, divine graciousness toward Israel was prior to, and independent of, any worthy response by the people. 

God’s faithfulness toward stiff-necked, rebellious Israel, coupled with his divine love, unconditioned by the response of his covenant partner, may bring reassurance to believers, for God’s love is not constrained by any particular unworthiness that would prevent our entering relationship with him. Such is in keeping with the New Testament teaching that God reconciled us to himself at the cross while we were still sinners (Rom 5:8). In light of God’s unswerving faithfulness toward Israel, believers can be assured that God’s commitment to us is steadfast, despite human sin, and is in no way conditioned by our response. 

Moreover, Torrance’s description of Israel as the “bearer of the oracles of God,” broken time and again on the wheel of divine providence, sheds light on the troublesome topic of the “wrath” of God, seemingly poured out so frequently on Israel. Torrance shows us that divine wrath towards Israel was not merely punishment for idolatrous disobedience to God’s commands. Rather, underlying the wrath of God was his determined plan for Israel, as mediator of revelation, to be not only a light to the nations but also the matrix of interrelations, or corporate “womb,” for the incarnation of Jesus Christ; thus, in order to safeguard the incarnation, Israel’s idolatry had to be thwarted. The wrath of God unleashed on Israel, therefore, served God’s greater, loving purpose for all nations. Even the difficulties associated with perennially troublesome topics like the slaughter of the Canaanite children (Dt 7:1-2; 20:16-17) can be eased somewhat by Torrance’s view of Israel as the mediator of divine revelation. In order for the fallen mind of Israel to be healed of its inherent tendency to idolatry, Israel needed to be safeguarded from the pagan practices of its neighbours, so that it would not learn their “abominations” (Dt 7:19) and threaten its role as mediator of the knowledge of the true God. Thus, the slaughter of the pagan inhabitants of Canaan was in the service of God’s greater revelatory, salvific purpose for all humanity. Israel’s failure to follow God’s command to destroy the pagan inhabitants of the land contributed to their recurring idolatry and repeatedly brought God’s righteous anger and judgement upon the nation. 

 Preparation for the Light Coming into the World 

Perhaps the most compelling feature of Torrance’s view of Israel as the “womb” of the incarnation is his discussion of the divinely provided permanent structures of thought and speech necessary for the mediation of the knowledge of God. As Torrance rightly argues, without the crafting of “the essential furniture of our knowledge of God” in historical Israel, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ would have been incomprehensible. Israel’s role as light to the nations is finally fulfilled in the coming into the world of the one true Israelite, Jesus Christ. The early Church arose first among the Jews, people who were intimately familiar with the words, concepts, and thought forms that arose in response to God’s gracious self-revelation in Israel; thus, they were historically and culturally prepared for the incarnation of the Son of God. While the nation as a whole rejected him, the first followers of Jesus Christ recognised their Messiah, particularly after the resurrection. When he talked with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, for example, the risen Jesus explained to them all that the scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament) had said concerning him, thereby setting his mission squarely in the context of ancient Israel. Finally, in the breaking of bread, the Emmaus disciples recognized him (Lk 24:13-35). Such a revelation would not have been possible had not God prepared in Israel a conceptual matrix of thought and speech, both oral and written, by which they could apprehend the coming of the Son of God among them. In subsequent years, the disciples would declare that the scriptures that arose in ancient Israel, that is, the Old Testament, bear witness to Jesus Christ (e.g., Acts 2:25ff). 

Torrance helps us to see that all the trouble and travail of Israel was in the service of God’s eternal plan to bring the True Light to the nations in the person of Jesus. As Torrance argues, Israel’s puzzling vacillation between faithfulness and idolatry, with concomitant blessing and punishment, was the inevitable result of divine revelation pressing for understanding and articulation in the corporate mind of a sinful and rebellious people. The history of God’s dialogue with ancient Israel, therefore, must be regarded as the tumultuous preparation for the reception of the incarnate Word of God in the midst of a recalcitrant nation. To be sure, the incarnate Son of God is the central character of the Old Testament record of God’s dealings with Israel, for these scriptures bear witness to Jesus Christ (Jn 5:39). Jesus is the pivot point of salvation history. The Old Testament points forward, in anticipation, to the Light that was coming into the world (cf. Jn 1:9), while the New Testament bears witness to that Light.

1 comment:

  1. Great summary, Dr. Martin! It is comforting to know that our Triune God uses His sovereignty in love (how else? God IS Love!) for His purpose for all humanity. As my wife says, God works on a big canvas - your exposition helps us rise up a bit and see a portion of the Grand Panorama.


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