Torrance on election, freedom, universalism and hell

This post continues a review of Alexandra Radcliff's book, The Claim of Humanity in Christ, Salvation and Sanctification in the Theology of T. F. and J. B. Torrance. For previous posts in this series, click a number: 1, 34, 5, 67891011.

Last time we looked at the claim made by Thomas F. (TF) Torrance and James B. (JB) Torrance that God, in and through Jesus Christ, has included all people in his life and love, and that Jesus, in our place and on our behalf, has provided the perfect human response back to God. Embracing this good news liberates us from any effort to try to earn God's grace. It also frees us to follow the Spirit in joyfully participating in what Jesus has done and continues to do on our behalf.

TF Torrance (left) and JB Torrance
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Torrance doctrine of election: all are included; all is of grace

Key to the Torrances' Christ-centered (incarnational) Trinitarian theology is their understanding that God, in Christ, has unconditionally elected all humanity. According to TF, "in Christ we are all judged--and in so far as Christ died for all, then are all dead---but in Him we are all chosen by God's grace." In like manner, JB asserts that "the doctrine of election, interpreted in this Christological way, enshrines the good news that our salvation is by grace alone, and is from beginning to end the one work of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He chose us, not we him. The doctrine of election is another way of saying that all is of grace" (pp. 29-30).

The Torrances' doctrine of election contradicts those articulated by Jacobus Arminius (father of Arminian Theology) and John Calvin (father of Calvinist theology, which developed later into what is called Federal Theology or Covenant Theology). Calvinism and Arminianism, in their own particular ways, separate election from grace---a theological viewpoint that TF and JB repudiated in the strongest terms.

Jacobus Arminius (left) and John Calvin (source)
Contra Calvinism
The Torrances disagree with the Calvinist (Federal Theology) doctrine of election, which is dependent on the ideas of a limited atonement and irresistible grace, which yield the conclusion that God elects only those he predestines to be saved, then extends his saving grace only to the elect who are unable to resist that grace. 

Contra Arminianism
The Torrances also disagree with the Arminian doctrine of election, which teaches conditional election---the idea that God (in accordance with his foreknowledge of all things) elects only those people he foresees responding in faith and repentance to his offer of salvation.

Both of these doctrines of election (which predominate within much of Protestantism in the West) tend to separate election and grace. The result, according to the Torrances, is the loss of any assurance of salvation, resulting in us "being turned back upon ourselves to attempt to achieve it" (p. 31). In contrast, the Torrances' view of election of the whole of humanity in Christ, as noted by Radcliff, "offers us assurance that we are all included in God's love" (p. 32).

God's sovereignty establishes human freedom

For the Torrances, God's election of all humanity in Christ is an accomplished fact. In and through Christ, God has reconciled to himself all people apart from any action or decision of their own. But what then of human freedom? As Radcliff notes, the Torrance's understanding of universal, unconditional election and reconciliation has been criticized for undermining human freedom.

As Radcliff notes, rather than diminishing human freedom, the Torrances' doctrine of election establishes it. It does so by defining human freedom as "contingent freedom." This freedom, rather than being independent from God, is upheld by God who grants us this freedom as a gift of grace. Contingent freedom deals with the fact that, as fallen humans, we are all slaves to sin (Romans 6) and thus incapable of making decisions that are truly free of that slavery. God solves this dilemma for us by giving us freedom that, rather than overriding our freedom, grants us, in Christ, true human freedom. This freedom, though very real, is contingent upon participating in the life that is ours in Christ.

God has given us this freedom and all aspects of his grace apart from any action or decision of our own. However, when it comes to the grace of contingent freedom, God gives us the freedom to decide either for him or against him---to receive or to reject the grace already given. Radcliff comments:
God's grace is not irresistible [as Federal Theology claims]; we remain free to reject God's grace, inconceivable as this is. But for TF, humanity can only make a free and true decision for God because of God's prior decision for us: "It is WE who believe, and we come to believe in a personal encounter with the living Word. Faith entails a genuine human decision, but at its heart there is a divine decision, which as it were, catches up and makes it what it is, begotten of the Holy Spirit." (pp. 36-37, quoting TF) 
Thus, we understand that TF and JB teach that human freedom (understood as contingent freedom), rather than being undermined by God's sovereignty, is established by it.

Is this universalism?

The Torrances have been accused of teaching universalism by insisting on their doctrine of universal and unconditional election and reconciliation. Are the Torrances universalists? The answer is no, as Radcliff notes:
[The criticism that the Torrances' teach universalism] misunderstands the Torrance's scheme of universal atonement. Salvation is not a mere possibility, it is an accomplished reality. As God incarnate, Christ fulfills both sides of the covenant, God's side and our human side on our behalf. This means that our human response to what Christ has already done does not contribute anything to our salvation. Salvation is not dependent upon our human response because Christ has already provided the perfect human response. Our human response can agree and live in accordance with this reality, but it does not accomplish the reality. (p. 39)   
The Torrances' doctrine is misconstrued by some as universalism because those making the accusation are succumbing to the use of "human rational constructs of thought," which insist that Christ's death for our salvation must accomplish its intended effect, otherwise God would not be sovereign. Therefore, they reason, the Torrance's doctrine of universal election/atonement must mean that all will be saved. But that is not the reasoning that stands behind the Torrances' doctrine. Instead, they have reasoned in a way that seeks to be fully "faithful to the self-revelation of God in Christ" (p. 40). That revelation speaks of the reality that all humans are united to God through the incarnation of the Son of God (via the hypostatic union that has united divine and human nature in the one person of Jesus). Having been united in this way with God, people are then called, by the Spirit, to participate in that union.

This subsequent work of the Spirit, which involves human response, leaves open the possibility that some people will refuse to participate (see the section on human freedom above). What is universal in the Torrance's scheme is God's love, but that love, according to the Torrances, cannot be equated with universal salvation in the sense of all people participating in the salvation that already is secured for them in the person of the God-man, Jesus Christ.

According to Radcliff, TF rejects universalism because "it does not recognize the urgency of evangelism... [and] the reality of hell and the necessity of mission.... [Moreover] it does not take adequate account of the fundamentally irrational fact of sin" (pp. 41-42).

The reality of hell

Concerning the reality of hell, TF wrote that "If the light that is in us be darkness, how great is that darkness! To choose our own way and yet in that choice still be chosen by God would be hell" (p. 42). Radcliff comments:
TF believes that God does not send the damned to hell, nor did he create the hell they experience. God loves the whole of humanity everlastingly. It is in rejecting this love that one can experience a hell of one's own creation: "Even when a man has made his bed in hell God's hand of love will continue to grasp him there." (p. 42, quoting TF)
As Radcliff notes, though TF does point to the possibility that all will be saved, he rejects the classic doctrine of universalism "because he cannot point to the impossibility of some being lost" (p. 43). 

Where is the logic?

If some reason that the Torrances' embrace of universal election/inclusion/reconciliation/atonement logically contradicts their rejection of universalism, it is because the reason being used is human logico-causal reasoning, whereas the Torrances reason on the basis of a Trinitarian logic of grace (what TF refers to as "Christo-logic")---the logic of God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (p. 44). That means that in their theological reasoning, the Torrances look first to who God reveals himself to be in Jesus (the truth of God's being), in order to understand what God's does for our salvation (the reality of God's acts). In disciplining their reasoning in thsi way, the Torrances are placing priority on the "who" question over any "how" questions. According to the Torrances, when it comes to who God is and what he has done and is doing for our salvation, human logic must be subordinated to the revelation of these divine realities (and not the other way around).