Thursday, December 12, 2013

Ontological Healing vs. Traditional Views of Atonement

Important words: 
Hypostatic union: the union of divne and human natures in the one Person of Jesus.
Ontological: having to do with “being,” “essence,” “nature”; having to do with what something “is.”
Instrumental: used as a means to an end; used as a “tool” to accomplish a purpose 

When I began to study T.F. Torrance’s doctrine of the atonement, I was confused by his critique of traditional “theories” of atonement. For Torrance, the models of atonement that developed in the history of the Western Latin church portray the atonement as an “external,” “instrumental” transaction between Jesus and God. Following Barth, Torrance groups these models of atonement under the rubric, the “Latin heresy.” Only after I had gained some understanding of Torrance’s own view of the atonement, was I able to fully appreciate his critique of traditional models of atonement. 

In order to understand Torrance’s critique of the “Latin heresy” and what he means by “external,” “instrumental” approaches to the atonement, we must first review his own view of atonement and then compare it to traditional Western views of the atoning “work” of Jesus Christ.

Hypostatic Union 

Torrance’s doctrine of the atonement arises directly from his understanding of the doctrine of the “hypostatic union,” formulated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. This doctrine asserts that Jesus Christ is “fully God” and “fully human” “in” one Person. For Torrance, the union of divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ is an “atoning” union, where the word “at-one-ment” means “reconciliation.” That is, the incarnation itself is redemptive. In his one incarnate person, Jesus Christ is the reconciliation of God and fallen humanity. 

Unity of Person and Work 

In Torrance’s holistic, unitary [non-dualist] doctrine of atonement, the “work” of Jesus Christ is never separated from the “person” of Jesus Christ. For Torrance, “how” Jesus Christ provides atoning reconciliation is a direct function of “who” he is as the incarnate Saviour, who is at once both God and man. As Scandrett (2006:71) rightly notes, the unity of the “person” and “work” of Jesus Christ is an important corollary of Torrance’s discussion of the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. For Torrance, atoning reconciliation takes place “within” [not “external to”] the incarnate constitution of Jesus Christ; that is, Jesus Christ “is” the Gospel, for he “embodies” [“internal”] reconciliation between God and humanity. 

Assumption of Fallen Flesh 

The sine qua non of Torrance’s doctrine of “incarnational redemption” or “atoning reconciliation” is the Patristic doctrine that the eternal Word of God assumed fallen, sinful, Adamic flesh in the incarnation. Following Athanasius, in his Contra Arianos (Torrance, 1988a:161 n. 52), Torrance argues that in taking upon himself “the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7), Jesus Christ assumed “fallen Adamic humanity” from the Virgin Mary, that is, “our perverted, corrupt, degenerate, diseased human nature enslaved to sin and subject to death under the condemnation of God” (Torrance, 1988a:161; cf. 1994a:58). In becoming flesh, the Son of God “became what we are as sinners alienated from God and existing down to the roots of our being in a state of disobedience against him” (Torrance,1990:203). Elsewhere (1992:39) Torrance writes:
[T]he Incarnation was the coming of God to save us in the heart of our fallen and depraved humanity, where humanity is at its wickedest in its enmity and violence against the reconciling love of God. That is to say, the Incarnation is to be understood as the coming of God to take upon himself our fallen human nature, our actual human existence laden with sin and guilt, our humanity diseased in mind and soul in its estrangement or alienation from the Creator.  

As Gill (2007:53) notes, in his reconciling revelation, God put himself on the side of the enemy (cf. Barth, 1957g:151). In becoming flesh, the Son of God “became what we are as sinners alienated from God and existing down to the roots of our being in a state of disobedience against him” (Torrance,1990:203). Torrance continues:
[I]n his incarnation the Son of God penetrated into the dark recesses of our human existence and condition where we are enslaved in original sin, in order to bring the redeeming love and holiness of God to bear upon us in the distorted ontological depths of our human being. 

According to Torrance, the assumption of fallen human flesh was “a doctrine found everywhere in the early Church in the first five centuries” (Torrance, 1992:39). The Greek fathers argued that in becoming flesh, the incarnate Son was not merely “externally” or “accidentally” related to us, for without being united with us in “our condition of sin, corruption and slavery,” he could not save us (Torrance, 1990:202). According to Gill (2007:53) and Ho (2008:70), Torrance is directly influenced by Barth in asserting the assumption of fallen flesh. For Barth, as Gill notes, the word translated “flesh” in John 1:14 (i.e., sarx) means “fallen” flesh (Barth, 1957g:151, 152). Moreover, Gunton (1992:52) supports the “fallenness” position by arguing that Christ assumed our actual fallen nature and not some “idealised” human nature. As Gill (2007:55) correctly argues, the assumption of fallen flesh is “central” to Torrance’s doctrine of incarnational redemption. 

Ontological healing and Atoning Reconciliation 

In distinction to “forensic” [i.e., “legal,” “penal”] categories of the atonement (see below), Torrance frames his discussion of the atonement in ontological terms (i.e., having to do with “being,” “essence,” “nature”]. For Torrance (1990:204), it is important to realise that “in the very act of taking our fallen nature upon himself Christ was at work healing, redeeming and sanctifying it.” Thus, Torrance (1988a:162) views the incarnate Son’s assumption of fallen Adamic flesh as a “reconciling, healing, sanctifying and recreating activity.” Cass (2008:169) rightly describes Torrance’s soteriology as one of “ontological healing.” As Scandrett (2006:85) notes, Torrance’s argument for the assumption of a fallen human nature follows from his understanding of both the incarnation and the atonement. If the goal of the atonement is to heal humanity of sin and death and bring us back into right relationship with God, then the eternal Word must assume our fallen Adamic flesh in order to cleanse and heal it.  

Torrance’s assertion of the assumption of fallen Adamic flesh in order to heal and cleanse it in the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in Jesus Christ is based on the soteriological principle given “its most epigrammatic expression” by Gregory Nazianzus: “the unassumed is the unhealed.” The early fathers understood that if the whole man was to be healed, the whole man had to be assumed in the incarnation, for that which is not taken up by Christ is not saved (Torrance, 1992:39).

Summary: For Torrance, the incarnation is no mere “static” union of God and human flesh; rather, it is a dynamic healing, cleansing, reconciling, sanctifying union of God and humanity. The incarnation itself is redemptive; the union of divine and human natures in Jesus is atoning reconciliation. Atonement is not something Jesus “does,” as in traditional models of the atonement (see below). Rather, Jesus is the atonement; he is God and fallen Adamic flesh joined in reconciling union. From “inside” the skin of Adam and throughout the “whole course” of his obedient life, Jesus bent the rebellious human will back to the Father, healed and cleansed our corrupt, diseased “flesh” and reconciled us to the Father.   

Traditional Theories of Atonement 

To better appreciate Torrance’s view of the atonement, let us briefly review three major models or “theories” of atonement that have arisen in the history of the Western-Latin church. These are: 1) Anselm’s “satisfaction” theory; 2) Abelard’s “moral influence” theory; and 3) Calvin’s “penal substitution” theory. (I am not including Luther’s Christus Victor theory because I believe that Torrance incorporates this view into his model of the atonement, while not limiting himself to it.) 

Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory 

In the Middle Ages, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) developed a model of the atonement usually known as the “satisfaction” theory. Also known as the “Latin” or “juridical” view, this model of atonement has been prominent in Roman Catholic Scholasticism and Protestant orthodoxy. Rooted in the feudal societies of his time, Anselm’s theory of the atonement depicts God as a “feudal lord” whose honour has been violated by his “vassal,” that is, sinful humanity. In order to uphold justice in the cosmos, God must receive satisfaction for the affront to his honour occasioned by human disobedience. Humanity’s debt is so great, however, that it cannot pay it; hence, it is necessary that God assume human nature, so that, as a human being, God can pay the debt that humanity otherwise cannot pay. For Anselm, Christ’s death on the cross is a substitutionary payment of a debt owed by humanity to God. When Christ dies, atonement is complete; God’s honour is satisfied, his wrath assuaged, and humanity’s penalty of eternal death is set aside (Olson, 2002:257, 258; Bloesch, 2006:153).  

Note: In this model the eternal Word assumes human nature in order to pay a debt. Jesus offers his body on the cross, so that divine honour may be “satisfied.”  

            Abelard’s Moral Influence Theory    

Another medieval theologian, Peter Abelard (1079-1142), offered an alternative to Anselm’s satisfaction theory. For Abelard, God does not require payment of a penalty. Rather, God wants sinful humanity to repent and throw itself on God’s mercy. People do not repent, however, because they fear and hate God. In consequence, Christ lays down his life in atonement in order to demonstrate God’s great love for humanity. Abelard portrays the atonement in terms of a “moral influence” that changes the perspective of humanity, causing us to trust God and repent of our sins. In this model, Christ’s death on the cross is viewed as exemplary, rather than propitiatory (turning away wrath) or expiatory (expunging sin). Christ suffered in order to subdue the alienation of humanity by a supreme example of self-sacrificing love (Olson, 2002:258, 259; Bloesch, 2006:158). 

Note: In this model Jesus’ life (i.e., humanity) is merely exemplary; that is, Jesus sets us an “example” of self-sacrificing love. 

Calvin’s Penal Substitution Theory 

Another theory of the atonement arose during the Reformation as an adjustment to Anselm’s satisfaction theory. This is the “penal substitution” theory associated with John Calvin (1509-1564) and Reformed theology. In this view, Christ reconciles God and humanity by taking upon himself the punishment sinful humans deserve, thereby reconciling God’s righteous anger with his love for mankind. At the cross, human salvation is made possible and the Father can now regard mankind favourably. In this theory of atonement, the focus is on punishment. The penalty born by Christ for humanity is not the satisfaction of God’s wounded honour; rather, it is capital punishment as retribution deserved by sinful humanity’s disobedience.  

This theory has been rightly criticized because it introduces a disjunction between God the Father and the incarnate Son in which the Father is depicted as angry, wrathful, and punitive, while Jesus is regarded as loving, kind, and forgiving. Moreover, “womanist” theologians regard this theory as sanctioning child abuse and violence (Olson, 2002:259, 260, 262). 

Note: In this model the eternal Word assumes a human body so that it might be “punished” in order to exact the payment of a penalty. 

Dualist, External, Instrumental 

Recall that in Torrance’s model, the incarnation itself is a healing, sanctifying union between God and fallen humanity. Atonement occurs “within” the hypostatic union (the union of God and humanity in the one person of Jesus Christ). In other words, the atonement is “internal” or intrinsic to the person of Christ. Atonement is “Who” Jesus is, not merely what he “does.” In his incarnate constitution as God and humanity united in one Person, Jesus is that atonement. 

In the traditional Latin views, on the other hand, atonement is not regarded as “internal,” to the “person” of Jesus Christ. That is, atonement is not a function of “who” Jesus Christ is as God and humanity joined in reconciling union; rather, atonement is a “work” that Jesus does. As Torrance argues, traditional views of the atonement create a dualism (separation, division) between the “person” and “work” of Jesus. In all three views, atonement is “external” to the person of Jesus; he is merely an agent of atonement, for his humanity (i.e., “body”) is merely instrumental―that is, a “means to an end.” In Anselm’s view, and the “penal” view that arose from it, Jesus’ humanity is merely a vehicle or “instrument” supplied to satisfy divine honour or pay a penalty by enduring punishment. In Abelard’s view, Jesus’ life (humanity) is merely “exemplary”; that is, Jesus sets an “example” for us to emulate. All three models lack a real (ontological) connection between Jesus and us. Atonement is a “work” that Jesus does “for” humanity, not “in” humanity. 

Because there is no ontological connection between Jesus and us, traditional models require that the atonement be supplemented or complemented by a subsequent work of the Holy Spirit (i.e., “sanctification”). For Torrance, this creates a dualism between the atonement of Jesus Christ and the “work” of the Holy Spirit. 

Moreover, lacking a real ontological connection between the atonement and humanity, traditional views require that we be “declared” righteous (i.e., “justified”) upon a profession of faith. In Torrance's ontological approach to the atonement, however, humanity is actually made “righteous” in the vicarious humanity of Jesus. We participate in his righteousness through union with him by the Holy Spirit. In Torrance’s view of the atonement, conversion, repentance, faith, justification and sanctification are all realized in our place and on our behalf “in” Jesus. 


Traditional (Latin)
satisfaction (Anselm)
example (Abelard)
punishment (Calvin)
ontological healing
Subsequent acts
Declared righteous by imputation (i.e., justification)
Sanctified by the Holy spirit
Made righteous and sanctified in Jesus’ vicarious humanity

Next post (coming soon!): The Latin heresy revisited 

For 9 posts on Torrance’s doctrine of atonement, click:

 For 13 posts on the doctrine of the “vicarious humanity” of Jesus Christ, click:

1 comment:

  1. Thank you.

    I will read more from T.F. Torrance.


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