The Christ-centered ethic of J.B. Torrance

What is the basis for an approach to ethics that is fully Christian? This is a vital question, given the many, often complex ethical issues faced by the church in our world. Dr. Gary Deddo addresses this question in "A Theological Tribute to James B. Torrance" (click here to download), an essay in Supplemental vol. 3 of "Participatio: The Journal of the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Society." Gary's essay includes the section quoted below, which summarizes JB's teaching concerning the ethical implications and obligations defined by Jesus Christ's all-inclusive humanity.

James Torrance [JB] was well known for introducing certain topics by saying, “Have I told you about the time I was in . . .?” He would often then relate to us a particularly poignant interaction he had when in Northern Ireland, South Africa, or in the South of the United States, all places that at the time were experiencing social upheaval involving tremendous violence. JB felt a special calling to go to these hotspots of desperate conditions bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ not only to the greater society but to the churches in them. He traveled to each of these locales more than once during the 1960s and 70s, taking part himself in the ongoing struggles and on some occasions exposing himself to potential physical harm. But although the situations of apartheid, civil rights, and the Nationalist-Unionist unrest were different in many ways, the upshot of his message remained constant and it was profoundly grounded in the all-inclusive humanity of Jesus Christ.

For All Mankind by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with permission)

Who was Jesus Christ and what did he come to accomplish? He was the eternal Son of God, who out of his love and mercy assumed our humanity to make it his own, recreated it in himself, reconciled it to God in order to give us back a healed humanity in right relationship with God and others. Taking on a broken and alienated humanity, he has “made both one” creating “in himself one new humanity” (Eph. 2:14-15). Salvation, as sharing in the Son’s communion with the Father in the Spirit, meant God’s purpose for humanity was brought to its telos, its final purpose in him, humanity fully alive, as Irenaeus had expressed it. In receiving the gift of sharing in the Son’s communion with the Father we receive our healed, forgiven, and reconciled humanity. In receiving our human nature sanctified in Christ, we become fully human as God intended it from the beginning of creation.

JB would then relate to us how on that basis he would challenge the church to take up their proper ministry, one that consists in participating in Christ’s own ongoing ministry. He would say that the proclamation of the Gospel could not possibly be reduced to giving people a message about Christ, about the potential blessings of heaven if they would repent. No, Christ came to give us a healed restored and reconciled humanity. That was what he held out to us; his own humanity in right relationship to God and in right relationship to all others. He would ask: How could we in the church attempt to offer anyone the Gospel and still withhold from them their humanity? — if we treated them socially, politically, or individually as less human than we are? — as if we did not share with them the  same human nature Christ assumed for the sake of their salvation? Such duplicity constituted a denial of the Gospel not its affirmation. 

Suffering under the violation of their very personhood, these people were crying out for the healing of their very human being. Faithful to Jesus Christ, whose humanity includes the humanity of all, we must not offer people a message of eternal hope yet deny them their humanity here and now. For the only Gospel there is, is one that offers people Christ, clothed with his all-inclusive humanity. The proclamation of the Gospel must include the offer and effort to participate with Christ in giving them a restored and healed humanity. Only in that way does the church witness to the fact that there is “one new humanity” in Christ.

It was during these extraordinary moments that so many in JB’s courses discovered the deep interconnection between theology and life, between faith and obedience, between personal piety and social justice. The all-inclusive humanity of Jesus holds together what so often falls apart: the person and work of Christ, doctrine and practice, worship and witness. We saw and heard in James Torrance’s life and teaching that a profound Christology does not lead to abstract ontological speculations but to a concrete grasp of who my neighbor is in relationship to Christ and in relationship to me at the deepest conceivable level. It calls me, and even sets me free to act towards my neighbor on the basis of our shared true identity forged and revealed in Jesus Christ, who as Lord and Savior offers us a share in his judged, healed, reconciled, and renewed all-inclusive humanity.

James B. Torrance

For a more comprehensive look at a Christ-centered, theological ethic, read the series by Dr. Gary Deddo that begins with the post at http://thesurprisinggodblog.gci.org/2020/03/theological-ethic-1.html and his post on the root of racism at http://thesurprisinggodblog.gci.org/2020/11/partiality.html.

Comments