Radcliff, A.S. 2016. The Claim of Humanity in Christ: Salvation and Sanctification in the Theology of T.F. and J.B. Torrance. (Princeton Theological Monograph Series 222), Eugene, OR: Pickwick. 208 pp.
As Radcliff notes, “The cross is an ontological [having to with “being”] event because, in Christ’s death, our old humanity dies, and the whole body of sin and death is destroyed.” In other words, the cross is an ontological event because it effects us to the core of our “being.” All humanity is included—and transformed—in Christ’s death on the cross. As Paul writes, “one has died for all, therefore all have died” (2 Cor 5:14).
In the Torrance tradition, atonement includes more than Jesus' death on the cross. “Not only Christ’s death but also his entire life is of atoning significance,” notes Radcliff. Throughout the “whole course of his human life,” Jesus, the eternal Word incarnate, was healing and cleansing the corrupt flesh he took from Adam (via Mary), sanctifying it and turning it back to perfect relationship with the Father. Thus, all humanity is transformed in the incarnation.
Not all, however, are convinced by the Torrances’ notion of the vicarious humanity of Jesus. Letham argues that Jesus’ humanity has no effect on our humanity. Christ affects only his own humanity. Radcliff responds by asserting the priority of the “Who” question over the “how” question. Falling back on “mystery,” she notes that the union of divine and human natures defies logical description. For the Torrances, she argues, we must subordinate human rational categories of thought as to “how” God works in the atonement to God’s self-revelation in Jesus. While I agree, this is not a convincing answer to Letham’s assertion (one of the few times she falls short in my view).
Comment: We must affirm the cosmic dimensions of the incarnation. The Eternal Word of God, through whom all things are made and in whom all things consists, assumed our humanity. Therefore, not only do we live and move and exist in Jesus (Acts 17:28), but all creation is taken up, healed and sanctified “in him.” I don’t know if Letham would be convinced by this but it works for me!
By affirming the salvific effect of Jesus entire life, the Torrances have been criticized for not taking the cross seriously. This criticism is entirely unfounded, for the Torrances regard the cross as the “center of the Christian Gospel.” In regard to Jesus’ death, Radcliff notes, “Death is a consequence of the corruption of humanity and therefore a part of human life that Jesus has to assume in order to redeem. Christ not only saves us through his death, but from death.” (Implied in this argument is Gregory Nazianzus’ famous assertion that “the unassumed is the unhealed.”)
Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost
This section offers us another opportunity to compare the Torrance tradition to traditional, conservative evangelicalism. For evangelicals, atonement is generally presented solely in terms of the cross. John Stott’s popular book, The Cross of Christ (which I read years ago), describes the incarnation as a means to an end: Jesus assumes a human body so that he can die on the cross. Jesus’ death is presented as an external, legal transaction, whereby God is conditioned (persuaded) to forgive. In other words, if Jesus dies, the Father forgives. This places atonement prior to forgiveness, which again, is backwards. This view reduces atonement to a forensic, external transaction, while ignoring the atoning significance of the resurrection and ascension. As Radcliff notes, ‘The incarnation is not simply the means to the cross; humanity’s salvation depends upon our ontological union with Christ inaugurated by his birth into our humanity. Yet the union of God and man is not ontologically complete at the incarnation; rather, it depends upon Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost.” The resurrection is not simply confirmation of forgiveness of sins but the new birth of a righteous humanity in Jesus. “At Christ’s ascension,” Radcliff continues, our new humanity is raised up in Christ to share by the Spirit in his perfect relationship with the Father.” The ascension is not a mere addendum to the Jesus story; it is a significant salvific event.
Comment: The ascension is hardly mentioned in evangelical preaching. Maybe that’s because Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday, or maybe evangelicals fail to realize the salvific significance of the Ascension. The Ascension is actually part of the “wonderful exchange” that Christ’s makes with us. He humbles himself for us, so that we might we exalted with him (cf. Phil 2:5-11).
Today, as Radcliff notes, following James Torrance, the ascended Jesus continues his vicarious ministry for us. As “our great High Priest,” he continues to offer in or place, and on our behalf, the perfect worship we are unable to offer, so that we might be accepted as sons and daughters.
Finally, Pentecost too is essential to the atonement, notes Radcliff. Jesus received the Spirit in his humanity when he was baptized in the Jordan River, so that he might pour out the Spirit upon us at Pentecost and enable us to participate in the life, love and beauty enjoyed by the Father, Son and Spirit. As TF Torrance writes, “Pentecost must be regarded, not as something added on to the atonement, but as the actualization within the Church of the atoning life, death and resurrection of the Savior.”
Thus, we are saved not only by the death of Jesus, but by the whole course of his incarnate life, as lived out from birth through death, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost.
Retrospective and prospective
In the Torrance tradition, there is a “retrospective” and “prospective” aspect to atonement (with the latter not usually given consideration in evangelicalism). The cross is not merely the “retrospective” forgiveness of sins. There is a “prospective” aspect that includes adoption, communion, participation, etc. Atonement only is not the goal of God’s reconciling activity in Jesus. The goal of reconciliation is “union with God in an through Jesus Christ in whom our human nature is not only saved, healed and renewed [retrospective] but lifted up to participate in the very light, life and love of the Holy Trinity [prospective]” (TFT).
Comment: If you think about, we should begin celebrating the atonement at Christmas and carry on the celebration through Easter, Pentecost and Ascension Day. Bring out the incense and candles!!
If I understand correctly, the prospective aspect of atonement is captured in the “atoning exchange” between Jesus and us, wherein he takes our poverty, while giving us his riches. He takes our mortality, while giving us his immortality. He descends in humility, so that we may be lifted up in exaltation. Jesus takes our sinful humanity and gives us is perfect relationship with the Father. As Radcliff notes, “We are not only forgiven but, in Christ and by the Spirit, raised up to participate in the inner relations of God’s life.” As JB writes, “Jesus received the word of forgiveness for us from the Father, not only that our past sins might be wiped out but in order that we might receive the Spirit of adoption, and be restored to the status of sonship by a life of union with Christ.”
All this accords with Athanasius’ famous saying: “He became what we are, so that we might become what he is.” This is the essence of the atoning exchange (or, “wonderful exchange”) and the prospective aspect of atonement. Unfortunately, per the Torrances, the western-Latin tradition has lost sight of this essential aspect of Nicene theology.
In concluding this post, I want to bring in a portion of a great quote from Thomas Smail that Radcliff provides. It concerns the evangelical insistence on the legal-retrospective aspects of the atonement at the expense of the filial-prospective aspects. Writing from personal experience in his book, The Forgotten Father, Smail says:
Many of us have a sin-soaked guilt-ridden evangelicalism where there has been a great deal of talk about the cost of our atonement in the blood of Christ and very little upon the free and loving grace of the Father … The God people have been shown is the righteous judge who requires the propitiation [turning away wrath] which Jesus alone can offer, and who in response to it can just manage to restrain his wrath against us provided those redeemed by Christ continue to behave in a moral and religious way …
Ain’t it so!! Read Tom Smail. You’ll like him!
For many previous posts on the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, start here.