Wednesday, February 6, 2013

T.F. Torrance: The Womb of the Incarnation, pt 9

The New Covenant 

In the fullness of time, Jesus Christ is identified with the suffering servant. According to Torrance, the incarnation must be understood in this context, wherein the Son of God gathers up in himself the prehistory of the mediation of reconciliation in Israel and the concomitant intensification of Israel’s conflict with God. The “prehistory of the crucifixion” in Israel (cf. above) prefigured the suffering of Christ, the one true Israelite, who recapitulated in himself the plight of the suffering servant in order to stand in the gap, in the midst of Israel, on behalf of all humanity. As Torrance notes, from the moment of Christ’s birth, the road ran straight to the crucifixion (cf. Lk 2:34, 35). Beginning at Bethlehem, the contradiction between humanity and God was set for its fulfilment. The intense conflict between God and humankind, vicariously embodied in Israel’s historical dialogue with God, reached its climax in the incarnation of Jesus Christ (Torrance, 1992:29; 2008:50; Colyer, 2001a:67, 68). Torrance (1992:29, 30) continues:
Hence, throughout the earthly life of Jesus the fearful tension he embodied ... and the reconciling love of God which he incarnated, advanced toward their climax in the crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah, when all things in Israel and in humanity as a whole, were set within the frame of the new covenant of forgiveness and reconciliation through the body and blood of Christ. 

For Torrance, the Sinaitic covenant becomes “new” when it is finally cut deep into the heart of Israel’s existence, that is, into the “inner man. This is precisely what occurs in Jesus Christ (Torrance, 1956:309). Once the old covenant came to be enacted in the flesh of Israel in the person of Jesus, becoming a total “circumcision” that penetrated into the heart of the “inner man,” the new covenant was inaugurated and a new and living way to God was opened up in the humanity of the Son of Man. For Torrance, the ultimate self-giving of God to Israel, narrowed down in “historical particularity” to one particular Jew, meant the “universalization and transcendence” of the Old Testament form of the covenant, so that redemption takes on the cosmic dimensions of a new creation (Torrance, 2008:48, 52). Nevertheless, as Kruger (1989:45) notes, Torrance does not regard the “new” covenant as an abrogation of the “old”; rather, the essential pattern God established at Sinai (“I will be your God, you will be my people”) is fulfilled in the new covenant and raised to a higher level of intimacy and communion through the outpouring of the Spirit. 

Penetrating the Ontological Depths of Israel 

Torrance (1992:30, 31) notes that Jesus did not come as a “political” Messiah who would reshape the social, economic, and political structures of Israel. Rather than effect change at the surface level of Israel’s life, Jesus, as Son of God incarnate as Son of man, penetrated into “the ontological depths of Israel’s existence where man, and Israel representing all mankind, had become estranged from God, and there within those ontological depths of human being to forge a bond of union and communion between man and God in himself which can never be undone.” Torrance continues:
Jesus did not come, therefore, to reorganise the human, social and political structures on the surface level of Israel’s life, which could not touch the forces of evil underlying them but only provide them with a new disposition of structures to use for their own ends, for he knew that those forces of evil are most deadly when they clothe themselves with the structures of what is right and good. He came, rather, to penetrate into the innermost existence of Israel in such a way as to gather up its religious and historical dialogue with God into himself, to make its partnership and its conflict with God his own, precisely as they moved to their climax with the Incarnation, and thus in and through Israel to strike at the very root of evil in the enmity of the human heart to God. 

Rather than effect change merely at the surface level of human existence, argues Torrance, Jesus penetrated into the heart of Israel, gathered its conflicted existence to himself and, thereby, transformed it. At the cross, through the reconciliation between God and humanity wrought there, God encounters, suffers, and triumphs over the enmity entrenched in the human heart (Torrance, 1992:31). 

Israel Elected to Reject the Messiah 

As God drew a “circle of reconciling love” around Israel, notes Torrance (1992:32), it was separated from all other nations and brought into a unique partnership of covenant love with God. Israel was called to be the “earthly medium” and “human counterpart” of both divine revelation and reconciliation. Israel, therefore, was given a “vicarious mission and function” for the purpose of the reconciliation of all mankind. Yet, just as the mediation of revelation triggered an ongoing, agonising struggle in the life of Israel, so also did the mediation of reconciliation. Torrance continues:
[I]n the progressive embodiment of his self-revelation to Israel and in his patient remoulding of its existence and life in the service of divine revelation to all men, God became locked in a profound struggle with Israel. The Word of God pressed hard upon Israel throughout its history, informing its worship with the knowledge of the living God and impregnating its way of life with divine truth, thereby evoking obedience but also provoking disobedience, in order to lay hold upon both as the instrument of its ever-deepening penetration into the inner recesses of Israel’s being and soul and understanding, thus preparing Israel as the matrix for the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ. 

According to Torrance, God gave himself to Israel and assumed the nation into covenant partnership with himself, thus revealing, in the midst of the people, God’s will to be humanity’s God despite human sin. Even in the face of Israel’s rejection, God bound himself to the people in covenant love, so that Israel was unable to escape its covenant partnership with God. As Torrance argues, Israel was called to be the “covenanted vis-à-vis” on earth in the movement of God’s reconciling love for all humanity (Torrance, 1992:32).  

Israel’s persistent attempts to break free of its covenant partnership with God, however, merely intensified its recalcitrance and sharpened the tension between God and humanity. As Torrance (1992:32, 33; cf. 2008:49) observes:
In that state of affairs the mediation of divine reconciliation to all mankind in and through the people of Israel could be worked out only in the heart of its conflict with God in such a way that its deep-seated human estrangement from God became the very means used by God in actualising his purpose of love to reconcile the whole world to himself. 

According to Torrance, human resistance and estrangement were incorporated into God’s gracious plan for the reconciliation of humankind. Noting that this is one of the ways of God that is difficult for us to appreciate, Torrance finds something quite similar after the Last Supper, when the disciples denied and abandoned Jesus when he was taken prisoner by the authorities. Out of fear for their lives, the disciples left Jesus utterly alone, separating themselves from him by an “unbridgeable chasm of shame and horror,” for they had forsaken and betrayed the very love whereby he had bound them to himself. Yet, in enacting the new covenant for the remission of sins by giving them his body and blood in the bread and wine of the Holy Supper, Jesus meant the disciples to understand that even their denial of him (e.g., Peter; Mt 26:34) was the very means by which he bound them to himself. The disciples finally realized, therefore, that Jesus’ passion was not for the holy saint but, rather, was precisely for the sinner. As Torrance argues, “It was their sin, their betrayal, their shame, their unworthiness, which became in the inexplicable love of God the material he laid hold of and turned into the bond that bound them to the crucified Messiah, to the salvation and love of God forever” (Torrance, 1992:33, 34). 

For Torrance, this is surely how we must understand God’s election of Israel to be the bearer of divine revelation and reconciliation. Urging that we clap our hands over our mouths and speak with fear and trembling within the forgiving love of God, Torrance (1992:34) asserts that “Israel was elected also to reject the Messiah”:
If the covenant partnership of Israel with God meant not only that the conflict of Israel with God became intensified but was carried to its supreme point in the fulfilment of the Covenant, then Israel under God could do no other than refuse the Messiah. 

In Jesus Christ, it is revealed that the election of one for all becomes salvation for all in the rejection of one for all. The events surrounding the cross of Christ reveal what was happening to Israel in its election by God. According to Torrance (2008:52):
The election of Israel as an instrument of the divine reconciliation, an instrument which was to be used in its very refusal of grace so that in its midst the ultimate self-giving of God might take place, meant, then ... that Israel was elected to act in a representative capacity for all peoples in its rejection of Christ.  

To be the sphere in which the Son of God freely allowed himself to be crucified meant that Israel could only fulfil God’s gracious purpose by rejecting Christ and condemning him to death. This is not to suggest, Torrance argues, that God made the Jews guiltier than others; rather, through them, God exposed humanity’s hatred of grace, drawing it out at the cross in all its intensity, so that Christ, as the Lamb of God, might take away the sin of the world in “holy and awful atonement.” According to Torrance, Jesus bore the infinite guilt, not only of Israel, “but of all mankind revealed in the guilt of Israel,” thereby acquitting and justifying the ungodly, Jew and Gentile alike, and even bearing away the guilt of those who, representing all humanity, actually carried out his terrible crucifixion (Torrance, 2008:53). 

As Peter announced on the Day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:23), the rejection of the Messiah is exactly what God intended in his determination to deal with sinful humanity at its worst, even at the point of its ultimate denial of the saving will of God. At the cross, Jesus took upon himself all the sin and guilt of Israel, including Israel’s scorn and rejection. According to Torrance, if Israel was blinded in its role as the servant of God (cf. Is 42:19), and, hence, could not help but react as it did, it was blinded for the sake of all humanity. “The Jew” vicariously represents our own rejection of God, so that reconciliation might also be ours. The ultimate refusal of God which took place in Israel was the very means by which the loving God achieved final victory over sin, for by the cross, humankind was reconciled to God (cf. 2Cor 5:19). As Torrance notes, “Our indebtedness to the Jew and our faith in Jesus Christ are inextricably woven together in the fulfilled mediation of reconciliation” (Torrance, 1992:34, 35; 2008:49, 50, 53). Therefore, Jesus must not be detached from ancient Israel or the incarnation from its “deep roots in the covenant partnership of God with Israel.” To detach Jesus from ancient Israel, argues Torrance, is to obscure the nexus of relationships within which God’s self-revelation in Christ becomes intelligible. If we are to know Jesus Christ, we must seek to understand him “within the actual matrix of interrelations from which he sprang as Son of David and Son of Mary, that is, in terms of his intimate bond with Israel in its covenant relationship with God throughout history” (Torrance, 1992:3, 23; cf. Colyer, 2001a:69).

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