Torrance on the vicarious humanity of Christ

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, 2, 4, 5, 67891011.

Last time we looked at what Torrance theology says about election, human freedom, hell and universalism. This time we'll look at a key precept of Torrance theology---the vicarious (substitutionary, representative) humanity of Jesus Christ, and how that precept informs our understanding of salvation and the atonement.

Christ---fully God, fully human.
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
As Radcliff notes, for the Torrances, "God's unconditional, covenantal claiming of humanity in Christ is an ontological event" rather than an external one that is merely forensic (legal). Torrance theology views salvation as participatory, as "worked out in the very depths of Jesus' own vicarious humanity," which "transforms the very depths of our being" (p. 48, emphasis added). Radcliff comments:
For the Torrances, a judicial and external scheme disregards the prospective aspect of the atonement whereby we are not only forgiven but reborn to new life as sons and daughters of God to share by the Spirit in Christ's intimate relationship with the Father. (p. 49)
The Torrances called the judicial/external view of the atonement the "Latin heresy" because this teaching took hold in the Latin (i.e. Western/Roman) church. It also surfaced in Arius' fourth-century heretical teaching that there is only an external relation betwen the Father and the Son. But as TF often noted, a merely external/forensic salvation does not (for it cannot) "penetrate into our ontological depths" (p. 49) and thus transform our corrupted human nature. This transformation occurs within the human person of Christ our Mediator and High Priest. A strictly forensic view of the atonement overlooks this reality, dividing Jesus' person and work, leading to the doctrine of penal substitution, which predominates in many Protestant theologies, Federal theology (sometimes called Five Point Calvinism) in particular.

While TF does not deny that Scripture presents a forensic (external, legal) aspect of the atonement, he notes that Paul speaks of the atonement using multiple metaphors, thus giving it a far richer meaning than the judicial/forensic metaphor alone conveys. Radcliff comments:
TF argues that a judicial framework of external relations does not adequately reflect that God gave of his very own Self in Christ, nor does it adequately explain how humanity is transformed. It dangerously suggests, JB argues, a God who needs to be changed in order to accept humanity and an impersonal view of humanity as the object of justice. As JB often asserts, God's purposes for humanity are primarily filial rather than judicial. (p. 51)
Whereas forensic models of the atonement separate Jesus' person and work, stressing his act over his person, Torrance theology holds together the person and work of Christ. This emphasis flows from their understanding of three Hebrew words used in the Old Testament, which then fill out the meaning of the New Testament word for redemption. These OT words point to God's saving work in Israel as having three aspects: 1) God's act in delivering Israel from bondage, 2) God's sacrificial offering in blotting out sin, and 3) God's person as kinsman redeemer. All three point to who Jesus is (his person) and what he has done and continues to do (his acts) on behalf of all humanity in saving us (including our justfication, sanctification and eventual glorification).

For the Torrances, in order to be our salvation (in his own Person) and to accomplish our salvation (in his acts on our behalf), Christ must have a fully divine and fully human nature. Radcliff comments:
First, humanity is incapable of saving itself: only God can save humanity. Therefore if Jesus does not have a divine nature, there can be no salvation. Second, humanity is incapable of offering a perfect response to God. Therefore, it is necessary for Jesus to assume humanity and offer the perfect human response to God in our place and on our behalf. As TF writes, "He was the Word of God brought to bear upon man, but he was also man hearing that Word, answering it, trusting it, living by it---by faith." Jesus not only embodies God's justifying act but also the human appropriation of it. As both God and man, Jesus fulfills both sides of the relationship between God and humanity. For the Torrances, Jesus' assumption of humanity means that, by the Holy Spirit, humanity is able to share in everything that is his, that is, perfect union and communion with God. The hypostatic union in Christ [which unites human nature with God in the one Person of Christ] resists an external conception of salvation, showing it to be an internal, ontological event. (p. 54)
The Torrances thus view Christ's incarnation as the beginning of the atonement, for the atonement is accomplished within the Person of Christ and through his acts throughout his life, including his death on the cross. TF put it this way: "In his holy assumption of our unholy humanity [via the Incarnation], his purity wipes away our impurity, his holiness covers our corruption, his nature heals our nature" (p. 55). Because Christ assumed our fallen human nature, he, through who he was and by what he did, brought about the ontological transformation of fallen humanity. Radcliff comments:
Fallen humanity is transformed in the very act of the incarnation, as the holiness of Christ's divinity bears upon unholy humanity. Therefore, it can be affirmed that Christ assumed fallen humanity and yet God was not sinful. (p. 56)
Torrance theology teaches that by including all humanity in his Person (as the God-man), Jesus also includes all humanity in his acts---not only his sacrificial death on the cross (2 Cor. 5:14), but also in his life, lived in our place and on our behalf. Radcliff comments:
The cross is an ontological event because, in Christ's death, our old humanity dies, and the whole body of sin and death is destroyed. Not only Christ's death, but his whole life is of atoning significance, in everything that Christ does, he is turning the human nature from its corruption back to the perfect relationship with God. (p. 58)
Some say this view diminishes (and even demeans) the importance of the cross. David W. Torrance (TF's and JB's brother) addresses that criticism:
Emphasis upon the vicarious humanity of Christ and the fact that we are saved through his life as well as his death, has troubled many evangelicals. They mistakenly believe that speaking of Christ's vicarious humanity detracts from what took place on the cross. The very reverse is the case. By speaking of Jesus' vicarious humanity we are actually magnifying what Christ did in reconciling us to God. (p. 59)
What the Torrances teach is that our salvation, rather than being accomplished soley by an act of Jesus, is in Jesus---in his person, which then includes all that he has done for us. Radcliff comments:
Humanity's salvation depends upon our ontological union with Christ inaugurated by his birth into our humanity. Yet the union of God and man is not ontologially complete at the incarnation; rather it depends upon Christ's life, death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost. Christ's resurrection is not simply confirmation of the forgiveness of sins, but the new birth of a righteous humanity in Christ. For TF, the cross alone is not grounds of our justification because Paul writes that Christ "was raised for our justification" (Rom. 4:25). TF asserts, "This means that the mighty act of God in the resurrection belongs to the very essence of the atonement." (pp. 60-61)
The Torrances make a similar point about the ascension, through which our humanity was raised, in Jesus, to the Father's right hand (perfect, complete communion with God)---a communion we can now share in through the Spirit who unites us to Christ's Person, and thus to participation in his ongoing work on our behalf as our ascended High Priest.

Next time will look further at this participation, through the Spirit, in Christ's love, faith and life, which includes participation in his continuing ministry.

For an additional Surprising God blog post detailing David Torrance's view of Jesus' vicarious humanity, click here.