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.
Ontological over External
Torrance rejects traditional western-Latin theories of the atonement because they describe Christ’s work of atonement in merely “external” terms. In “external” views of atonement, Jesus’ assumption of our humanity is merely “instrumental,” that is, a means to an end: e.g., Jesus satisfies God’s honor, bears our punishment or sets us an example. In short, in external views of atonement, Jesus does something. In external views, there is no ontological change in our humanity, that is, our “being” is not transformed. Rather, there is only a juridical change, that is, a change in legal status, wherein the righteousness of Christ is “imputed,” not imparted, to the believer. Therefore, external views of the atonement foster a poor view of humanity, where our primary ontological reality remains “man as sinner,” for there is no transformation of our humanity in the incarnation-atonement.
On the other hand, when we regard the incarnation-atonement as an ontological event, wherein our humanity is transformed as the Eternal Word assumes our fallen flesh, cleanses us from the stain of original sin and heals our disease and corruption, then we may regard humanity in a positive light. No longer do we stand before God as “man the sinner.” Rather, as we participate by the Spirit in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, we stand before God as “man the saint.” Because Jesus is our justification, because Jesus is our sanctification, through our participation in his vicarious humanity by the ministry of the Spirit, we are not simply “declared” right; we are made right, as the adopted and deeply loved children of God.
According to Radcliff, “For the Torrances, the eschatological reserve [“time lag” between first and second coming] created by Jesus’s ascension means that sinfulness is a continuing presence as we await the full manifestation of our sanctification at the Parousia.” Nevertheless, while hidden, our holiness is a “definitive reality,” so that we do not have to depend upon our own efforts in an ongoing process of becoming holy. As the apostle Paul writes, “We are predestined to be holy and blameless in Jesus” (Eph 1:4). The ontological transformation of our humanity in the vicarious humanity of Jesus means that humanity is truly holy in the sight of God and, as Radcliff notes, we need to affirm that reality. In contrast to the “worm theology” shouted from the sterner pulpits of preachers obsessed with total depravity, I much prefer Radcliff’s assertion that it most honors God for us to accept the ontological reality of our new nature and clothe ourselves in the righteousness of Christ. Yea, Alexandra!
Comment: Radcliff acknowledges writers who prefer a greater emphasis on the subjective aspect of the outworking of sanctification. Her response is one that she makes often in her book: Without the concept of participation in the vicarious humanity of Jesus, insistence on a greater role for the subjective aspect of sanctification carries with it “the risk of throwing us back upon our own endeavors.” Like the Torrances, she resists any scheme of sanctification (or, justification) that takes the burden from the shoulders of Jesus and lays it upon our own shoulders. In the Torrance tradition, justification and sanctification are radically Christocentric.
In contrast to the resurgent Puritanism of J.I. Packer and others, the definitive reality of our holiness accomplished for all in the vicarious humanity of Jesus means that we need not engage in a muscular, life-long struggle with sin. We are already seated in heavenly places “in Jesus” (Eph 2:6). In the eschatological reserve between the ascension and the parousia of Jesus Christ, notes Radcliff, we continue to live in a world of continuing sin and evil. Yet, we need not be defined by it.
Comment: Radcliff’s argument offers many positive implications for pastoral counseling. The need is to help counselees see themselves not in terms of the damaged self-image that results from living in a world of continuing sin and evil but to see themselves in the light of the “definitive holiness” that is already ours in Jesus. In short, we would all do well to see ourselves as God sees us: his holy and blameless children, seated around the Father’s table, cleansed, healed and made new in the vicarious humanity of our elder brother Jesus.
The “eschatological reserve” (or, “time lag”) between the ascension and the parousia means that there is a tension between the hidden and the manifest. The Kingdom of God is present but veiled. (As N.T. Wright might say, now we see “signs” of the Kingdom but the fullness is yet to come.) For T.F. Torrance, the eschatological tension is more between the “hidden and the manifest, the veiled and the unveiled, than between dates in calendar time.” What lies ahead in the future is the unveiling of a reality that is present here and now.
As Radcliff argues, T.F. Torrance’s understanding of the eschatological reserve has several implications for sanctification. First, “the outworking of sanctification is not an external process of becoming progressively more holy, which throws us back upon our own efforts.” We do not become more holy through the progression of time, for we are already holy and blameless in the sight of God. The progression of time serves to unveil the holiness that is already our in Jesus. As Radcliff notes, “The eschatological tension is not between humanity being partially holy and partially unholy, but between the hidden reality of our holiness and its full manifestation.” In short, there is nothing we can do to make ourselves more holy. The definitive reality of our holiness is already fully accomplished for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. The outworking of sanctification is the process wherein that reality is unveiled.
Second, the process of unveiling the definitive reality of our holiness means that we do not have to rely on our own efforts to achieve it. (Breathe a big sigh of relief if you wish!) Holiness is not a potentiality that we must realize through our own moral efforts; it is an ontological reality that we can look forward to being revealed. As T.F. Torrance notes, “The final parousia of Christ will be more the apocalypse or unveiling of the perfected reality of what Christ has done than the consummating of what till then is an incomplete reality.”
Third, although the unveiling of our sanctification does not depend upon our own efforts, our subjective activity is not denied but put in its proper place. Critics notwithstanding, the Torrance tradition of theology does not diminish the importance of subjective activity or response (although it is overshadowed by their emphasis on Jesus’ objective response). As Radcliff argues, the only subjective human response that is diminished is “that which is enslaved by a contractual conception of our relationship with God.” The objective reality of our sanctification in the vicarious humanity of Jesus means that we are liberated from the onerous (impossible) task of subjectively achieving our own sanctification. As Radcliff notes, “We are set free from the burden of trying to accomplish our own sanctification and enabled to participate by the Spirit in Christ’s holiness” (p. 145). Thus, we can rest in what Jesus has done while actively living holy lives.
Radcliff compares “sanctification as ‘participation’” with the muscular effort of Puritanism, where holiness is achieved by planning, prayer and hard work. For the Puritan, work is our lot; rest comes later in eternal glory. To be sure, there is much to be admired in the “Protestant work ethic,” for it is the sine qua non of capitalism and the material blessings that flow from it. But it is burdensome, discouraging, and exhausting when applied to sanctification, so that holiness must be achieved under our own steam (with the assistance of the Spirit). Against the burdensome Puritan quest for holiness, Radcliff describes “participation” in the holiness of Jesus as “radically freeing,” because it is rooted in what Jesus has already objectively done for all.
Fourth, and finally, the eschatological reserve means that our sanctification will not be fully manifest until the parousia. Sinfulness is a continuing presence, even in the lives of the saints, as evidenced by the apostle Paul’s many admonishments to the churches he planted. As the church lives in the eschatological reserve between the ascension and the parousia, “[i]t is still characterized by sin and evil and partakes of the decay and corruption of the world of which it is a part,” writes T.F. Torrance, “so that it is not yet what it shall be, and not yet wholly in itself what it already is in Christ.” Concerning the ongoing presence of sin, T.F. Torrance writes: “This Tom Torrance you see is full of corruption, but the real Tom Torrance is hid with Christ in God and will only be revealed when Jesus Christ comes again.” In this regard, Tom Smail writes: “[B]ut we are to look at him, to behold the Man [Jesus] that he is, and therefore the men that we shall be in him.”
Our humanity is already transformed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. That reality, however, will not be fully unveiled until the parousia. Given who we are in Christ, perhaps we can have more patience with other believers whose theology is not exactly like ours. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, if we could see those heathen Baptists today as they will be in glory, we would bow down and worship!