The resurrection and the atoning work of Christ

This post from Torrance scholar Paul D. Molnar summarizes chapter three of Thomas F. Torrance's book "Space, Time and Resurrection." Paul wrote this post for a meeting of the Torrance Reading Group. For additional chapter summaries, click on the number: 1, 2, 45.

Resurrection of Christ by Rubens (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

As indicated by the title of Space, Time and Resurrection chapter 3 ("The Resurrection and the Atoning Work of Christ"), Torrance insisted on holding together both the incarnation and the resurrection. For Torrance, Jesus it is the incarnate Word who lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father vicariously for our benefit. Thus, Torrance would never separate Jesus’s humanity from his divinity with a Christology “from below” that refused or failed to acknowledge his uniqueness as God become man at the outset. Because Torrance never did that, he held that incarnation and resurrection could never be separated with the idea that Christological reflection could begin without acknowledging that this man was in fact God acting for us from his birth to his death and finally as the risen and ascended Lord.  It is precisely for this reason that Torrance so brilliantly also held together Christ’s resurrection and his atoning work. In that regard, here are three key points made by Torrance in chapter 3.

1. Resurrection and Justification

Torrance says that the NT does not just speak of a “non-imputation of our sins” but relates the resurrection to the “divine act of forgiveness” as a “positive act of the divine mercy” which reinstates us “before God as though we had not sinned” (61). So, the net effect of thinking about atonement in connection with the resurrection is that “The resurrection reveals that God himself was at work directly in Jesus Christ making himself responsible for our condition, and fulfilling it by bearing the cost of forgiveness in himself” (61). These words are full of meaning because Torrance here is not thinking of atonement as a transaction done over our heads but as a personal act of God from the divine and the human side that took place in Jesus himself for us.  That is why he can speak of Jesus as the Judge judged in our place as when he said ““God the judge made himself also the one judged in our place” (Atonement, 184).

What Torrance wanted to avoid here was the idea that Christ suffered only in his humanity. He also wanted to avoid the idea that what Christ did on the cross was efficacious only for those whom the Father gave him.  This thinking would keep God in heaven and thus completely separate God from what Christ did on the cross.  And that would be so since such a view would imply that what Jesus did for us humanly was not necessarily at once what God did.  Torrance found the idea that Christ died only for the elect previously chosen by God reprehensible because it ignores the fact that Jesus himself experienced God’s judgment for us and for that reason there is no such thing as limited atonement.  Only a basic Nestorian error to lead to such thinking.

So, what then does he mean by justification?  He means that Christ himself bore “the cost of forgiveness in himself” (61) and he did it for everyone.  Torrance says, “It means that the sinner’s status qua sinner is rejected, and he is given freely the status of one who is pure and holy before God” (61).

To support his view Torrance gives the example of the cure of the paralytic in Mk. 2.  When Jesus says to the man he cured that his sins are forgiven, that implied that what Jesus did in that act fell within the sphere of the “power of the resurrection” (62).  This, because “the word of miraculous healing demonstrating the divine power in the word of forgiveness” also disclosed “that forgiveness reached its full reality in the healing and creative work of God upon the whole man.... It is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ that all that God had to say about our forgiveness, and all that Jesus had said about forgiveness, became our existence” (62).  Thus, with St. Paul he says, “if Jesus Christ is not risen from the dead, then we are still in our sins, unforgiven and unshriven” (62). For Torrance, justification is itself the “actualization of what is declared” and what is declared is our forgiveness! (62). So, the resurrection is the physical event that “tells us that when God declares a man just, that man is just” (63).

Torrance then takes the opportunity to explain why he rejects the Protestant view of justification when it is only presented “in terms of forensic imputation of righteousness or the non-imputation of sins” (63).  This, he says, mutilates the meaning of the cross (63). This is the case because such a view sees forgiveness only as a “judicial transaction” and such thinking tends inevitably from and toward legalism, which Torrance always strongly opposed.  This happens when atonement is separated from the personal actions of Christ himself.  Consequently, without union with Christ through the Spirit Torrance thinks, with Calvin, “Christ would remain, as it were, inert or idle” (63).

What difference does this make?  All the difference in the world for Torrance—without an active relation on our part to Christ “as our righteousness” there can be no “actual sharing in his righteousness” (63).  And that is possible he says only “through the resurrection” so that when we see atonement in that light, then we understand it properly “as a creative event in which our regeneration or renewal is already included within it” (63). Justification then “is a continuing act in Christ, in whom we are continuously being cleansed, forgiven, sanctified, renewed, and made righteous” (64).

Torrance returns once again to the Protestant view of non-imputation which he rejects asking whether such a view is not Marcionite because it separates redemption from creation! (64).  Here he says we do have to think eschatologically because while we are now united to the risen Christ in faith and through the Spirit that implies that “we have union with the risen Christ here and now and in that union taste already the powers of the age to come” (64).  Thus, we can’t “push the fulfilment of the last things wholly into the future” (64).

Torrance then suggests that the Protestant view of justification he rejects might indicate some form of “deistic dualism” (65-5). Again, he treats this eschatologically with some delicate nuances.  He says he does not want to think about God’s relations with us in the world as though God could not interact with us here and now.  Thus, while there is a “kind of suspension between the Word of forgiveness and the actualization of forgiveness in the resurrection of the body, an eschatological suspension which the ascension of Christ makes us take seriously, yet once again we cannot forget the fact of Pentecost when the power of the risen Christ was poured out upon the Church and indeed upon ‘all flesh’” (64). Hence, for Torrance, we must recognize that “God himself is at work creatively in our midst, regenerating, sanctifying and healing.  It is this aspect of realized justification through the power of the resurrection that we have mediated to us in the Sacraments” (65).

Torrance then wonders whether there are not more concealed versions of deistic dualism evident in various interpretations of the resurrection.  What would these look like?  They would present views that detach God’s dynamic actions in the risen Lord “from any objective and causal (i.e. in God’s unique creative way), relation to physical worldly reality” (65).  Here he directly rejects the view of G. W. H. Lampe (65).

Torrance concludes this section by insisting that belief in the resurrection must include belief in it as “real happening in our human existence, as objective act of God, within the space and time of our world” (66).  And that means taking seriously “the reality of the risen body of Jesus Christ” and the “empty tomb” (66).  Without these, the wholeness of redemption is missed (see n, 7, p. 66).

How different this viewpoint is from the thinking of Roger Haight who says “One cannot know concretely how the disciples experienced Jesus as risen... The stories of the apparitions... are not reports of events as they happened.... They were created afterwards as expressions of faith” (Jesus Symbol of God, 136). Indeed, Haight reasons that “it is not the case that the affirmation ‘Jesus is risen’ could only be true if Jesus were ‘physically’ encountered or the tomb were really empty” (Jesus, 145-46). The reason why Haight thinks this way is because he believes that “faith-hope in the resurrection gains expression as a function of the creative imagination... The resurrection is not a datum lying on the surface of history, or in the region where dead bodies are buried. As a transcendent reality resurrection can only be appreciated by faith-hope” (Jesus, 125). Of course, this is completely wrong since the basis of our faith and our hope is the fact that Jesus actually rose from the dead so that the tomb really was empty and Jesus himself, the risen Lord, was the one who enabled the disciples faith and hope and is the one who enables our faith and hope here and now.  For Haight the power of both our faith and our hope comes from us—not from the risen Lord!!  From Torrance’s perspective Haight’s view is a classic example of docetic Christology and of subjectivism! 

2. Resurrection and Reconciliation

For Torrance “The resurrection is the fulfilment of the divine judgment enacted in the crucifixion, and as such is the completed act of God’s righteousness” (67). This of course links resurrection and atonement. But this time the knowledge is that “all enmity between man and God has been brought to an end” (67). Our human nature therefore is raised in Christ “into communion with the life of God that is the end and goal of atonement” (67).

Importantly, and against much modern theology, Torrance maintains that Jesus “raised himself up from the dead in perfect Amen to the Father’s Will, acquiescing in his verdict upon our sin but responding in complete trust and love to the Father” (67-8). Without the resurrection Torrance says reconciliation “would prove a hollow fiasco” (68).

Importantly Torrance says that “with the resurrection... the I am of God is fully actualized among us... reconciliation becomes eternally valid and eternally living reality between God and man... in the I am of the resurrection the atonement is not just an act of judgment, but active truth in the form of personal Being—Truth as the Lord Christ, Atonement as identical with his Person in action, Reconciliation as the living and everlasting union of God and man in Christ” (68-9). Because our human nature is “now set within the Father-Son relationship of Christ” we are now adopted sons and daughters of God in him (69).

Torrance insists that we must not divorce our view of the resurrection from the ascension (70) since in the ascension our human nature is “exalted to the right hand of God” (70).  He insists that Jesus’s relation with God is unique and our oneness with the incarnate Son “implies a reconciliation or oneness with God which is not identity, yet a real sharing in the union of the incarnate Son with the Father” (70).

Torrance here stresses that Jesus himself is “the Truth” and that means that he himself is the “actualization of the Truth of God among us” in a way that “creates its own counterpart in us to itself, Truth from the side of God and truth from the side of man in inseparable union” (71). Here Torrance makes an all-important point: without the resurrection we would have no objective knowledge of the Trinity.

From here Torrance goes on to reject gnostic and docetic thinking as well as symbolic thinking by rejecting the view of Basileides (which he also did in The Trinitarian Faith, 50).  Basilides said “We do not know what he [God] is but only what he is not” (72). Such a view would not rest on “any objective ground in God” Torrance rightly says (72) because Torrance thinks you would first have to know who God is before you could say what he is not. When theology is detached from its objective ground in God, then thinking about the resurrection just becomes a symbolic description which does not rest on reality (72). That is certainly what happened to Roger Haight, as already noted.

However, the resurrection means that “God has established a real bond between his reality and ours in this world.  In Jesus Christ he has made his divine reality to intersect and overlap with ours, so that we in Jesus Christ may actually and truly know God and have communion with him without having to take leave of the realm of our own this worldly existence” (72). “The resurrection is therefore our pledge that statements about God in Jesus Christ have an objective reference in God, and are not just projections out of the human heart and imagination...” (72-3).

Because God has actually overcome the sin that leads to projection in the first place, the resurrection reveals that God has established relations with us on both “sides of the chasm that divides [us]” (73). The resurrection reveals that what divides creator and creatures “is not the discrepancy between the finite and the infinite” but sin and our enmity with God (73). For that reason, Torrance insists that the resurrection is a proper starting point for theology but that the resurrection cannot be understood in any a priori way because knowledge of the risen Lord is “not derivable from empirical reflection” but only from the risen Lord himself revealing God to us personally (74).

3. Resurrection and Redemption

Because these two are intimately connected therefore we know that redemption means the “restoration of man in the fullness and integrity of his human being, including the emancipation of his body” (74). The basis for this is the fact that Jesus himself experienced “redemption from the grave, from judgment, damnation and perdition into which he entered through his identification with us” (75). “If Jesus Christ rose from the dead, then the ‘rose again’ must be understood as determined by the nature of the Subject of that event, Christ himself.  Who is he?” (75).

He was the “Word made flesh” so that his history “is sheer miracle; his human life in its sinlessness and perfection is itself resurrection, and is in itself the passing of the old into the new.  The resurrection of Jesus... is thus the same event as the human and historical life of Jesus but now taking place out of the depth of our corruption where corruption is finalized and fixed in death” (75). Important here is the fact that Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life.  ‘I am the truth’ (Jn. 11:25; 14:6).  He is in himself the reality of the resurrection and the new life that breaks out of death through it” (76).

Since this is the case, the resurrection is really baffling to our thought and observation since it is a creative act of God.  Just as we cannot observe “the event of creation itself—the process of creating or of being created” since “we would have to get behind the creaturely processes in order to observe them,” so with the resurrection, we cannot understand it except as a creative act of God (77). Thus, it is not an interruption of the natural order because it is not something that already existed but something brought into existence creatively by God.  

Hence “By its very nature it [the resurrection] is no more observable than creation as such yet it is just as factual and real as creation” (78). We cannot observe “the resurrecting processes, but we may (or will be able to) observe the resurrected actuality of Jesus Christ” for with him we are concerned with “new creation” (78). For Torrance that is why the resurrection is the “foundation and source of a profound and radically new Christian humanism” (79). This is why the Church insists upon resurrection of the body against Neoplatonism, Gnosticism and various other belief systems that would find that hard to accept (80).

Torrance cites Athenagoras to insist that “‘If there is no resurrection, human nature is no longer genuinely human’” (81). For Torrance any resurrection which is not bodily “is surely a contradiction in terms” (82).  With Barth, Torrance says that “‘None of the authors ever even dreamed, for example, of reducing the event to the ‘rise of the Easter faith of the first disciples’” (82-3). Obviously, the view being rejected here by Torrance is the view of Bultmann and his followers.

Thus, “if the resurrection of Jesus is not actual and historical reality, then the powers of sin and death and non-being remain unconquered and unbroken and we are still in the bondage of death. That is not an idea that could have been anticipated, but once the resurrection took place it yielded as part of its intelligible reality a circle of ideas within which the empirical event of the resurrection was understood and appropriated. Everything in the Christian Gospel, now regarded in the light of Easter, was seen to pivot finally upon the empty tomb....” That is what means the end of death and new life! (83). Finally, Torrance stresses once again, that Jesus was “no ghost but real, physical human being” (84).