Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Latin Heresy Revisited

Readers not familiar with Torrance’s doctrine of the atonement should read the previous post before reading this post. The following is an expanded version of a previous post with new material included. 

The Latin Heresy 

In asserting the assumption of sinful human flesh, Torrance (1986b:477, 478, 480; cf. 1990:232, 233; 1992:40, 41; 1993:237-239; 1994a:58, 59) rejects what he terms the “Latin heresy,” that is, a “dualist” understanding of the person and work of Christ, traceable to Leo’s Tome sent to the Council of Chalcedon, that provided the Western Church with its paradigm for a formulation of atoning reconciliation in terms of “external” relations, whether exemplary, as in Abelard, or juridical [legal], as in Anselm. As Scandrett (2006:86) notes, beginning in the fourth century, the idea that the eternal Word of God would assume sinful human flesh was increasingly seen as unworthy of the “holiness and perfection” of God’s being. Because the idea of the incarnate assumption of sinful flesh was “odious” to Christians, notes Scandrett, it was largely rejected in the West by the end of the fifth century. 

In asserting the assumption of a neutral humanity, argues Torrance (1986b:476), Latin theology rejected the “cardinal soteriological principle,” associated with Nicene theology, that “the unassumed is the unhealed.” In arguing that Jesus assumed a neutral human flesh, Latin theologians split apart the intrinsic relation between the person and work of Christ by construing the atonement in an “instrumentalist” way, wherein the incarnation was regarded simply as a means of supplying a sinless human being who could live in perfect obedience to the law of God and take our place on the cross. Subsequently, atonement was regarded either as an external moral transaction or as an external penal transaction, wherein the penalty for sin is transferred from sinners to the sinless Saviour. As Gill (2007:48) succinctly states, for Torrance, this transactional view reduces the atonement to an “external action” between the sinless Christ and God, wherein the Son pays the price of human sin to the Father. Either view, however, Torrance (1986b:476) contends, creates a separation (i.e., dualism) between the incarnation and the atonement by construing Christ’s saving act in external terms, whether exemplary or juridical, rather than in terms of the internal Father-Son relation, wherein the atoning work of Christ is a function of his incarnate constitution as the eternal Son who is homoousios to Patri. Protestant theology, particularly Evangelicalism, has generally followed the Latin Church in this regard, specifically in its development of various theories of the atonement, all of which, in varying ways, dualistically divide the incarnation and the atonement by separating the person and work of Christ (Torrance, 1986b:476).  

As Scandrett (2006:86, 87) argues, in the Latin view, the humanity of Jesus Christ must be perfect if the eternal Word is to assume it in the incarnation. The problem with this view, argues Scandrett, is the de facto distinction it makes between Jesus’ perfect, sinless humanity and our own sinful humanity. For Torrance, notes Scandrett, this distinction results in the “radical diminution” of the atonement from an ontologically transformative, healing, and, therefore, saving event to a detached externalised transaction understood in purely forensic terms and limited to the cross. For Torrance, as Scandrett rightly argues, such a viewpoint is woefully inadequate, for in its concern to safeguard the holiness of the eternal Word against the taint of original sin, it ironically denies fallen human nature the promise of healing inherent in the incarnation-atonement. Similarly but more simply, as Gill (2007:56) notes, for Torrance, the denial of the incarnate assumption of fallen Adamic humanity is to deny the reality of the incarnation and to throw doubt on the atonement as anything other than an “arbitrary exchange.” Against those who argue that Christ assumed a “neutral” human nature in the incarnation, we ask with Gunton (1992:52; cf. Gill, 2007:56), “[I]f Christ bore the flesh of unfallen Adam … what is his saving relation to us in our lostness?”  

According to Cass (2008:159), Torrance has a “rare understanding” of the hypostatic union among Western theologians in arguing that the hypostatic union is itself an atoning union, wherein atonement and reconciliation between God and sinful humanity are “perfectly effected vicariously for all” in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. By grounding salvation in the hypostatic union, argues Cass, Torrance breaks with the Western Augustinian tradition, which grounds salvation in Christ’s [external] relationship to humanity and requires a “contribution” from sinners to complete the work of salvation. As Torrance (1992:40) argues:
If the incarnation is not held to mean that the Son of God penetrated into and appropriated our alienated, fallen, sinful human nature, then atoning and sanctifying reconciliation can be understood only in terms of external relations between Jesus Christ and sinners. That is why in Western Christianity the atonement tends to be interpreted almost exclusively in terms of external forensic relations as a judicial transaction in the transference of the penalty of sin from the sinner to the sin-bearer. 

The Latin view of the atonement as a “forensic transaction,” wherein the sinless Saviour offers his body in an “external,” “instrumental” way, stands in marked contrast to Torrance’s discussion of the atonement in terms of the eternal Word’s “internal penetration” of fallen Adamic flesh and its consequent “ontological healing.” 

In contradistinction to the “gospel” of “external relations” that characterizes the Latin heresy, Torrance (1992:41) follows patristic theology in arguing that the incarnation and the atonement are “internally linked,” for “atoning expiation and propitiation are worked out in the ontological depths of human being and existence into which the Son of God penetrated as the Son of Mary.” As Torrance (1994a:59) argues, if the incarnation itself is essentially redemptive rather than instrumental, that is, merely a means to an end, then “atonement must be regarded as taking place in the ontological depths of Christ’s incarnate life, in which he penetrated into the very bottom of our fallen human being and took our disobedient humanity, even our alienated human mind, upon himself in order to heal it and convert it back in himself into union with God.” Jesus penetrated to the depths of our original sin “in order to redeem us from it by bringing his atoning sacrifice and holiness to bear upon it in the very roots of our human existence and being.” Noting that in his genealogy recorded in Matthew, “Jesus was incorporated into a long line of sinners,” Torrance (1992:41) eloquently argues:
[H]e made the generations of humanity his very own, summing up in himself our sinful stock, precisely in order to forgive, heal and sanctify it in himself. Thus atoning reconciliation began to be actualised with the conception and birth of Jesus of the Virgin Mary when he identified himself with our fallen and estranged humanity, but that was a movement which Jesus fulfilled throughout the whole course of his sinless life as the obedient Servant of the Lord, in which he subjected what he took from us to the ultimate judgment of God’s holy love and brought the healing and redeeming power of God to bear directly upon it in himself. From his birth to his death and resurrection on our behalf he sanctified what he assumed through his own self-consecration as incarnate Son to the Father, and in sanctifying it brought the divine judgment to bear directly upon our human nature both in the holy life he lived and in the holy death he died in atoning and reconciling sacrifice before God. 

In contradistinction to the Latin tradition, Torrance (1992:41, 42) argues that we must “recover the awesome truth that through his Incarnation the Son of God appropriated our fallen humanity under the judgment of God.” Throughout the whole course of his life, the incarnate Saviour brought his healing and redeeming power to bear upon sinful Adamic flesh, even in the deep recesses of original sin, in order to heal, cleanse, and sanctify it in atoning reconciliation.  

I hope you are finding the posts on this blog helpful. If so, I would appreciate your help as I raise money for an upcoming teaching trip to Kenya in May or June of this year. I need money for a plane ticket as well as for 16 days travel expenses. Help in any amount is much appreciated. You can safely donate with a credit or debit card through PayPal directly from this blog.

1 comment:

  1. New to Torrance---found this particularly helpful in understanding the thrust of Torrance and his concern about dualism and the protestant interpretations of the Atonement.


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