Torrance, T.F. 1959. The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church. London: James Clark & Co. 298 pp.
For Torrance, the Reformed doctrine of “communion of the Spirit” is better understood as “union with Christ through the Communion of the Spirit.” The combination of “union with Christ” and “the communion of the Spirit” lies at the foundation of the Church’s hope and forms the heart of its eschatology (p. cvi).
According to Torrance, the communion of the Spirit is a correlate of the union of God and humanity wrought out in the life and work of Jesus Christ. The Spirit actualizes subjectively in the life of God’s people what has been accomplished objectively for them once and for all in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. As Torrance notes, “Because the Communion of the Spirit is correlative to the incarnational union in Christ, we have to think of it as two-fold in relation to the human life and the work of Christ” (p. cvi). In keeping with his resistance to dualisms, Torrance describes a “unity-in-distinction,” where “union with Christ” and “communion of the Spirit” are not two, separate realities but, rather, distinct aspects of a single reality.
Torrance interacts with 16th-Century theologian John Craig to explicate the correlation between union with Christ and the communion of the Spirit. In his Catechism of 1581, Craig asserts both a carnal union and a spiritual union with Christ. “Carnal union” refers to “Christ’s union with us and our union with Christ which He wrought out in his birth of the Spirit and in His human life through which He sanctifies us is worked out for us.” Craig’s carnal union appears to be equivalent to the hypostatic union of the Eternal Word and humanity (i.e., the incarnation), as worked out in the obedient life of Jesus Christ. Because Christ was “made man like us,” notes Craig, “life and righteousness are placed in our flesh.” Craig argues that “those who are joined with Him spiritually” are sure of this life (School of Faith, pp. cvi, cvii).
Craig’s assertion of what appears to be two unions, “carnal” and “spiritual,” raises an important question for Torrance:
Is the spiritual union another union, a union in addition to our carnal union with Christ, or is it a sharing in the one and only union between God and man wrought out in Jesus Christ? That is a very important question, for if the spiritual union is an additional union, then our salvation depends not only upon the finished work of Christ but upon something else as well which has later to be added on to it before it is real for us (p. cvii).
Torrance argues that in both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism “something else,” in fact, is added to the union with Christ accomplished in the incarnation. In Catholicism, union with Christ is effected through baptismal generation and participation in the sacraments (including penance). In Protestantism, notes Torrance, “union with Christ … is effected by faith or by conversion through which alone what Christ has done becomes real for us.” For example, in the Westminster tradition of Federal Calvinism, man is said to acquire “a saving interest” in Christ through entering into a personal covenant with him. As Torrance notes, “Both these forms of the same error lead to a doctrine of man’s co-operation in his own salvation; and so involve a doctrine of conditional grace.” Therefore, argues Torrance, “[I]t must be insisted that there is only one union with Christ, that which He has wrought out with us in His birth and life and death and resurrection and in which He gives us to share through the gift of His Spirit” (p. cvii; emphasis added).
Comment: For Torrance, there is one union of Christ constituted in two relations: ontological and pneumatological.
For Torrance, “carnal union,” as described by Craig, includes Christ’s entire “life and work of saving obedience, so that when we speak of a spiritual union with Christ, that means that through the Spirit we are given to share in the covenanted obedience of Christ …” In this view, the Spirit’s work is not additional to the work of Christ but rather is the means by which we participate, or share, in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. Torrance argues:
In his obedient human life, Jesus Christ was not only the Son of God drawing near to us in the flesh, but in and out of our flesh he lived a life of perfect obedience and trust and confidence toward God the Father, a perfectly faithful life, in which his obedience and faith toward God were part of his vicarious and atoning life, part of his sanctified human nature. It is in that very human nature, with its faith and obedience, that we are given to participate through the Communion of the Spirit, and that is the very foundation of our faith in Him and the ground of our obedience to the Father” (pp. cviii, cix).
For Torrance, in view of Christ’s vicarious faith, we are not saved “by the act of believing.” Rather, it is Christ’s own act of believing that saves us. In other words, contra evangelicalism, it is not faith “in” Christ that saves us; rather, it is the faith “of” Christ that saves us. For Torrance, we cannot talk seriously about “justifying faith” as a condition of our salvation, for we rely “wholly upon the vicarious faith of Christ and not upon ourselves even in the act of faith.” It is only as we rely on the vicarious faith of Christ that we are truly free to believe without the “ulterior motive of using faith to secure our salvation” (p. cix). This last point is important, for if faith is exercised solely to avoid punishment, or even “hell,” then personal faith is not an outwardly turned assent to the Father’s love, as revealed in Jesus, but merely an inwardly turned attempt at self-preservation. For Torrance, faith must rest on “thanksgiving” for all that Christ has done for us, both from the side of God and from the side of man.
Jesus is Justification
There are a number of implications of Torrance’s view of union with Christ as a fait accompli effected in the incarnation. First, it is through participating in Christ that we partake of his benefits, “for unless He gives Himself to us first [in the incarnation], His blessings are not ours,” notes Torrance (p. cx). In simpler terms, this means that we cannot separate the work of Christ from his person. Thus, justification is fully accomplished in the union between God and humanity actualized in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. As Torrance argues, “[I]t was through his becoming one with us first in his Incarnation that Christ wrought our justification for us.” In other words, Jesus is our justification. Since all are included in the humanity assumed by the Eternal Word in the incarnation, all are justified (i.e., “made right”) with God in Jesus. Justification is not effected by a subsequent act of personal faith “in” Jesus, but by the vicarious faith “of” Jesus, as lived throughout the whole course of his incarnate life. Thus, we can confidently assert that all humanity was “made right” (i.e., “justified”) with God “in Jesus” two thousand years ago.
As Torrance notes, however, the Westminster theology (of conservative Calvinism) reverses matters by insisting first on justification and “justifying faith” prior to entering into union with Christ. Torrance insists that this changes the meaning of both justification and faith (so that justification is conceived in strict legal terms of “imputed” righteousness, rather than in ontological terms of being “made righteous”), while making the existential (personal) decision of faith uppermost. In this view, a judicial (legal) and cognitive relation displaces the Communion of the Spirit. Torrance notes that the priority given to justification as a “forensic” (legal) act displaced the central importance of the doctrine of union with Christ in post-Reformation Protestantism (p. cxi)
The Range of the Spirit’s Ministry
Another important implication of Torrance’s doctrine of union with Christ concerns the “range” or “scope” of the Spirit’s ministry. Does union with Christ include all people, or only the “elect” (narrowly defined)? As Torrance notes, this is of fundamental importance to the doctrine of the Spirit. The matter at stake concerns the biblical teaching that the Spirit has been “poured out on all flesh” (Acts 2:17). The interpretation of this passage depends upon how one understands the doctrine of union with Christ. If all are included in the union established between God and humanity in the incarnate Jesus, then we must conclude that the range of the Spirit’s ministry is universal; that is, it includes all humanity. On the other hand, if only the “elect,” or only those who have made a personal decision of faith “in” Christ, are in union with God, then the range or scope of the Spirit’s activity is limited rather than universal. Our understanding of the range of the Spirit’s ministry depends upon our understanding of the incarnation. Did the Eternal Word enter into a generic relationship with humanity simply by becoming one particular man (so that his humanity has no transforming relation with our humanity), or did the Eternal Word enter into an ontological relation with all humanity in the assumption of our human flesh?
To answer these questions, Torrance reminds us that the Eternal Word who assumed human flesh from the Virgin Mary is “he in whom all men cohere for He is the Creator who gives them being and through His Spirit holds them in being.” Thus, there is an ontological relation between the Eternal Word and all humanity As Torrance argues, “[T]he Son and Word of God became man by becoming one particular man, but because He is the Creator Word who became Man, even as the incarnate Word He still holds all men in an ontological relation to Himself. That relation was not broken off with the Incarnation” (p. cxii). The New Living Translation sums this up nicely: “in him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:28). Torrance writes:
The Biblical teaching is quite explicit that in Christ all things are really involved in reconciliation, that He is not only the Head of believers but the Head of all creation and that all things visible and invisible are gathered up and cohere in him—from which we cannot exclude a relation in being between all men and Christ. … [A]s the Head of all men [Christ] died for all men, so that all men are involved already objectively in His human life and in His work in life and death, i.e. not 0nly on judicial and transactional grounds, but on the ground of the constitution of His Person as Mediator (p. cxiii).
Thus, human beings have no being apart from Christ as man. If Christ had not come, notes Torrance, that is, if the incarnation had not taken place, so that man’s estrangement with God were allowed to stand, humanity would disappear into nothing (cf. Barth’s das Nichtige, or the “not-ness.”). The incarnation, including the cross, affects all humanity, even the entire creation, so that creation itself is set on a new basis with God, “the basis of a Love that does not withhold itself but only overflows in pure unending Love” (p. cxiv).
There is a sense, therefore, in which we must think of all humanity as “ingrafted” into Christ by virtue of his incarnation and atoning work (p. cxvii). It is in correlation to the universal inclusion of all humanity in Christ that we are to think of the range of the Spirit’s ministry. The hypostatic union, or what Craig’s Catechism calls the “carnal” union of God and humanity in Christ, establishes the “field” of the Spirit’s activity. Thus, we must take seriously the biblical assertion that the Spirit has been “poured out on all flesh” and operates on “all flesh.” In short, the hypostatic union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ establishes the field of the Spirit’s ministry, a field that is universal in scope.