Torrance: one atonement, three aspects

This post continues a series exploring T.F. Torrance in Plain English wherein Stephen D. Morrison presents nine key ideas in the Christocentric Trinitarian theology of  Thomas F. Torrance. For other posts in this series, click a number: 123456, 79.

Last time we explored Torrance's key idea of Christ's vicarious humanity, noting that he views the incarnation as saving and the atonement as incarnational. This time we'll continue looking at Torrance's understanding of the atonement, noting now his key idea of a threefold atonement---one atonement with three aspects, all in and through Jesus Christ.

Christ on the Cross Between Two Thieves by Peter Paul Rubens
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

As Morrison notes, Torrance avoids reductionist theories of atonement because they fail to account for the full witness of Scripture concerning the atonement. Torrance's doctrine of the atonement is non-theoretical and multi-faceted. A distinctive aspect of his teaching is its emphasis on the way atonement is addressed in the Old Testament's use of three Hebrew terms: padah, kipper and goel. These terms (in order) from the history and culture of Israel, point forward to three aspects (or perspectives) of the one atonement accomplished in and through Jesus Christ: dramatic, priestly, and ontological.

When properly understood and held together as one, the interrelationships of these three aspects reveal much concerning the nature and scope of the atonement. However, Torrance does point out that "the atonement is a mystery beyond all human comprehension." Therefore, we recognize that all our statements concerning the atonement, no matter how carefully made, are "mere pointers to the reality they correspond to... a reality we can only approach with wonder and thanksgiving" (pp. 183-184). With this cautionary note in mind, Morrison proceeds to explain Torrance's teaching concerning each of three aspects of the one atonement.

1. The dramatic aspect (padah)

The Hebrew term padah speaks to atonement (via redemption) through the substitutionary offering of a life for a life. It thus presents atonement as a dramatic work of God's saving grace. Parallel to the way God delivered Israel from Egypt, the atonement of humanity in Christ is "God's mighty act of gracious redemption in which we are delivered from the powers of sin and death."

Rather than a ransom offered to the devil (as posited by some theories of the atonement), Torrance sees the atonement as "the redemption of sinners from the captivity of sin, death and judgement" (p. 185). Torrance's understanding of this dramatic aspect of the atonement is similar to the classic concept of Christus Victor wherein by Christ's substitutionary death, sin and death are conquered (put to death). Morrison comments:
The mighty act of God to overcome sin includes the destruction of sin together with the circumcision of our old sinful nature (Col. 2:11), just as it includes Christ's overcoming of death together with the promised final victory of life over death in the new creation (1 Cor. 15:26). Our old ways were put to death in Christ's death. Egypt is no longer an option for us like it was for the Israelites, because the old nature, Egypt itself, has been destroyed once and for all in Chris's death.... Christ conquers sin and the grave, putting death to death, substituting His life for ours. (p. 186) 

2. The priestly aspect (kipper

The Hebrew term kipper speaks to the "expiatory form of the act of redemption, the sacrifice by which the barrier of sin and guilt between God and man is done away and propitiation is effected between them" (p. 187, quoting Torrance in The Trinitarian Faith, p. 170). In Israel's worship, God, not man, provides the sacrifice (often through a priest) thus making atonement and blotting out sin, and so restoring people to fellowship with God. God's forgiveness of Israel in the Old Testament was thus not the result of the sacrifices performed. Instead, the sacrifices bore witness to God's provision and forgiveness. Thus Torrance emphasizes that in making atonement, it was not God who was being acted upon. The atonement was not an offering by which a hostile, angry god was being appeased. All appeasement theories of the atonement are thus fundamentally pagan. Christ's death did not cause a change in God (for none was needed). Morrison comments:
While the death of Jesus Christ was truly offered up to the Father in the Holy Spirit, the object of the atonement was the sin and guilt of human beings. The change enacted on the cross was a change in humanity. God was in Christ blotting out the sin and guilt inherent to our fallen existence, putting to death the "old man" for the sake of the new, and reconciling the world to Himself (Heb. 8:12; 2 Cor. 5:14-21). God was the acting subject in the atonement, not the object acted upon. (p. 188)
Though the priestly aspect of atonement in some ways resembles the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, Torrance rejects any ideas that make God out to be the object of atonement. However, Torrance does affirm the idea of expiation in the atonement, "in the sense that God's Triune act in Jesus Christ put an end to sin by offering up the death of the Son to the Father---not to appease the Father but to overcome sin and guilt" (p. 188).

Central to Torrance's understanding of expiation is "the fact that God covers our sin, invalidating it, and placing it behind His back where it may no longer exist" (p. 191). However, rather than being an act that seeks to appease an angry god, so that he might become loving toward humanity, Torrance sees Christ's death as the overflow of God's love. Morrison comments:
It is because God loves us that God's wrath was poured out against sin, destroying and overcoming it in Christ's death... God's wrath is purposeful. It is a wrath included in God's love for us. God's wrath, in this sense, is the wrath of love in a similar way that a loving parent might react quite fiercely against an attacker who seeks to harm their children. God's love is for us, and therefore, God's wrath is also a wrath for us and not against us. (p. 191) 
God moved against the sin that threatens his children through the expiation of sin and guilt accomplished in the death and resurrection of the God-man, Jesus Christ. As God, Jesus judged our sin; as human, he was judged in our place. Said another way, the judge who judged sin suffered its judgement. Jesus secured atonement for us by standing in for us---giving his life for our life. Through the atonement accomplished for us in and by Jesus, not only was all judgment against us cancelled, we were restored, in the humanity of Jesus, to fellowship with God.

3. The ontological aspect (goel)

In Hebrew scripture, a goel (from a word meaning to redeem) was the nearest relative (kinsman) of a person with a life-altering loss that they were unable to recover from on their own. The goel had the sacred duty of restoring to their relative what had been lost, thus redeeming them from a hopeless situation. This aspect of atonement focuses on the person of the kinsman-redeemer in what Torrance calls the ontological aspect of the atonement. Morrison comments:
God has taken up our cause as His own in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We are not alone in our darkness or our sin; we are not left by ourselves to save ourselves. Jesus Christ became our brother, true flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, to lead us back to His Father. It is the kinship of Jesus, His sheer humanity, that is emphasized with this term [goel]. (p. 193)
This ontological aspect of the atonement emphasizes that we have not been merely saved by Jesus from something---we have been saved for something. Through the Spirit and in union with Christ we are lifted up into fellowship with the Triune love of God.

Atonement is thus ontological not merely forensic. According to Torrance, "Not only does [God] redeem us out of bondage and death, but he draws us into his holiness and sanctifies us with it, so that in redemption we are given to share in the sanctification of the Lord" (p. 194, quoting Atonement, p. 47). His point is that the atonement brings about an ontological change in our being. As Torrance notes, "Jesus became the center of a volcanic disturbance in human existence" (p. 194, quoting God and Rationality, p. 66).


Torrance emphasizes that it is vital we hold these three aspects of the one atonement together, for they are inseparable and interdependent---like the strands in a three-fold cord. To emphasize one above the others, or to overlook any one of them, would be to misunderstand the nature of the atonement, which fundamentally is about the person of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. It's about who he is, and what he, in his own person, has done on behalf of humanity in bringing about atonement between God and humankind. The atonement is rightly understood only in the light of (and within the structure of) the Incarnation of the Son of God. In our thinking about the atonement, the person and work of Jesus Christ must never be separated. In defining the atonement, rather than referring only to Jesus' atoning work, we must also refer to his atoning life.