“Perhaps the most fundamental truth which we have to learn in the Christian Church,” declares the great Scottish theologian Thomas F. Torrance, “or rather, relearn since we have suppressed it, is that the Incarnation was the coming of God to save us in the heart of our fallen and depraved humanity, where humanity is at its wickedest in its enmity and violence against the reconciling love of God.” If you are an Orthodox or Catholic (or perhaps even Protestant), you are probably wincing and thinking to yourself: “This guy sounds like he’s saying that Jesus became a sinner. And what’s all this talk about the Church suppressing a fundamental truth?” But Torrance brazenly continues:
That is to say, the Incarnation is to be understood as the coming of God to take upon himself our fallen human nature, our actual human existence laden with sin and guilt, our humanity dressed in mind and soul in its estrangement or alienation from the Creator. This is a doctrine found everywhere in the early Church in the first five centuries, expressed again and again in the terms that the whole man had to be assumed by Christ if the whole man was to be saved, that the unassumed is unhealed, or that what God has not take up in Christ is not saved. The sharp point of those formulations of this truth lay in the fact that it is the alienated mind of man that God had laid hold of in Jesus Christ in order to redeem it and effect reconciliation deep within the rational centre of human being. (The Mediation of Christ, pp. 48-49)
Second, perhaps, only to Karl Barth, no theologian of the modern period has more forcefully argued for God’s enfleshment within the conditions of fallen existence than Torrance. His arguments are scattered throughout his voluminous writings published over a span of more than sixty years, much of which I have either not read or have forgotten; hence I will be focusing my attention on a handful of books and essays. I have also consulted Keven Chiarot’s book The Unassumed is the Unhealed and Myk Habet’s essay “The Fallen Humanity of Christ.” Torrance appears to have maintained a fairly consistent position on Christ’s fallen humanity throughout most of his career.
Why does Torrance so vigorously assert that Christ has joined himself to fallen human nature? For two interwoven reasons, I think.
First, Torrance believes that the Adamic Fall profoundly damaged the nature that we bear as human beings, including most importantly its noetic faculty. Our minds are sick. Our souls are alienated from their Creator. Whereas contemporary Orthodox theology tends to identify the inheritance of mortality as the crucial soteriological problem, Torrance believes the problem is more serious. In our ontological depths we are diseased, broken, depraved. Human nature is severely corrupted and now exists in a state of hostility to God. The depth of our sinfulness is decisively manifested in the crucifixion of Jesus. When God came into our midst, we denied him and nailed him to a tree. Man is thus revealed not only as one who sins but as sinner. “Sin is not an isolated act,” explains Torrance—“it is not something incidental or accidental. It is constitutive of human being as such. … Man is now a sinner, and is bad. The law of God does not simply say that this or that is wrong, but that the person who does this or that is wrong, is a sinner” (Incarnation, p. 253). We must therefore speak of total depravity and radical evil. The whole man is now determined by egoism and rebellion, and for this reason the whole man is judged and condemned by the righteous God. As the Apostle reminded the Church of Ephesus, before our baptismal rebirth in Christ, we were once dead through our trespasses and “by nature children of wrath” (Eph 2:1-4). Myk Habet suggests that, for Torrance, sin is a “supra-individual mode of existence” into which all human beings are born (p. 21). Man cannot by his own efforts cease to be a sinner, for being a sinner is what he is. Every attempt to liberate himself from his sin merely strengthens the bondage of self. Our will is our self-will; we are beings who cannot not sin. As Martin Luther famously wrote: “Scripture describes man as so curved in upon himself that he uses not only physical but even spiritual goods for his own purposes and in all things seeks only himself”—incurvatus in se (LW, 25: 345).
Torrance has little use for forensic schemes of atonement and justification. God does not judge humanity guilty at the cross because he imputes to it the sin of Adam; he judges it guilty because it has become and is the sin of Adam. Such is the solidarity of mankind in the Fall. Human nature has been ruined, and we are constitutionally incapable of enjoying the divine life to which we are called.
Calvinists and Lutherans will applaud Torrance’s robust account of human sinfulness and divine judgment. And given the violence and wickedness so prevalent in the world—given the violence and wickedness of our own hearts—it enjoys an immediate persuasiveness. Only wishful thinkers could entertain the possibility that they might extricate themselves from their egoism by their own Pelagian freedom. Orthodox and Catholic Christians, on the other hand, will no doubt want to put to Torrance some serious questions. Two come to mind:
How was it possible, Dr Torrance, for human beings, even Adam, to so radically alter and pervert their divinely-given nature? It seems to us that you have misconstrued the relationship between nature and grace.
If the nature into which we are born is severely corrupted, thus necessitating a state and bondage of sinfulness, how can God justly condemn us? It seems to us that you have conflated person and nature.
Second, Torrance believes that the radicality of sin required an equally radical solution. If the soteriological problem is ontological, then the solution must also be ontological—nothing less than the regeneration of human nature can suffice:
In the biblical and early patristic tradition, … the Incarnation and the atonement are internally linked, for atoning expiation and propitiation are worked out in the ontological depths of human being and existence into which the Son of God penetrated as the Son of Mary. The genealogy of Jesus recorded in the Gospel according to St. Matthew showed that Jesus was incorporated into a long line of sinners the wickedness of which the Bible does not cover up, but, as we have seen, he made the generations of humanity his very own, summing up in himself our sinful stock, precisely in order to forgive, heal and sanctify it in himself. Thus atoning reconciliation began to be actualised with the conception and birth of Jesus of the Virgin Mary when he identified himself with our fallen and estranged humanity, but that was a movement which Jesus fulfilled through the whole course of his sinless life as the obedient Servant of the Lord, in which he subjected what he took from us to the ultimate judgment of God’s holy love and brought the healing and redeeming power of God to bear directly upon it in himself. From his birth to his death and resurrection on our behalf he sanctified what he assumed through his own self-consecration as incarnate Son to the Father, and in sanctifying it brought the divine judgment to bear directly upon our human nature both in the holy life he lived and in the holy death he died in atoning and reconciling sacrifice before God. That was a vicarious activity which was brought to its triumphant fulfilment and which received the verdict of the Father’s complete approval in the resurrection of Jesus as God’s beloved Son from the dead and in the rebirth of humanity in him. (Mediation, pp. 50-51)
Torrance thus grounds the atonement in the entirety of Christ’s life and ministry, culminating in his death and resurrection. In his every thought, in his every word, in his every volitional act, Jesus is cleansing, purifying, sanctifying, deifying the fallen human nature he appropriated in hypostatic union. On our behalf the Son lives as a man, bending our fallen human nature “back into obedience to the Father” (“Questioning in Christ,” Theology in Reconstruction, p. 126). A reconciling exchange takes place: the eternal Son takes upon himself our fallen nature and returns it to us, purified and rectified through his life of perfect obedience. “The work of atoning salvation,” Torrance writes, “does not take place outside of Christ, as something external to him, but takes place within him, within the incarnate constitution of his Person, as Mediator” (The Trinitarian Faith, p. 155). The person and work of Christ are one.
Torrance believes that the Nicene Fathers testify to the Son’s vicarious humanity. When St Gregory of Nazianzus epigrammatically announced that what has not been assumed has not been healed, he is properly interpreted as affirming not only the necessity of a complete nature but its renewal and regeneration:
We may turn here once again to Gregory Nazianzen’s account of the vicarious life of the incarnate Son. He pointed out how in his cry of dereliction on the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’, ‘Christ was in his own Person representing us, for we were the forsaken and despised before, but now by the sufferings of him who could not suffer, we were taken up and saved. Similarly he makes his own our folly and our transgressions.’ Then Gregory declared: ‘The same consideration applies to the passages, “he learned obedience by the things he suffered”, and his “strong crying and tears”, and his “entreaties” and his “being heard” and his “godliness”, all of which he wonderfully wrought out, like a drama whose plot was devised on our behalf … In the character of the form of a servant, he condescends to his fellow servants and servants, and assumes a form that is not his own, bearing all me and mine in himself, so that in himself he may consume the bad, as fire does wax, or as the sun does the mist of the earth, and that I may partake of what is his through being conjoined to him’ [Or. 30.5-6]. That is to say, the priestly self-consecration and self-offering of Christ throughout the whole of his earthly life are to be regarded as belonging to the innermost essence of the atoning mediation he fulfilled between God and mankind. Reconciliation through the life of Christ and reconciliation through the passion of Christ interpenetrate each other. (pp. 167-168)
Torrance provides numerous citations from the early Church Father, particularly from St Athanasius, St Gregory Nazianzen, St Gregory Nyssen, and St Cyril of Alexandria. We will test his interpretation of the patristic witness in a later article when we discuss Jesus: Fallen? by Fr Emmanuel Hatzidakis.
The evangelical power of Torrance’s construal of the atonement is manifested in his exposition of Christ’s cry of desolation on the cross. In The Mediation of Christ he tells the story of a visit to a kibbutz in Galilee, where he met a Christian-Jewish couple. They told him that everyone else in the kibbutz were atheists or agnostics. When he asked them why, the couple explained that they were survivors or children of survivors of the German concentration camps. God had abandoned them. They could no longer believe. “When I heard that,” Torrance writes,
I felt that the terrible cry of Jesus on the Cross was meant for them: Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ That was a cry of utter God-forsakenness, the despairing cry of man in his dereliction which Jesus had made his own, taking it over from the twenty-second Psalm, thereby revealing that he had penetrated into the ultimate horror of great darkness, the abysmal chasm that separates sinful man from God. But there in the depths where we are exposed to the final judgments of God, Jesus converted man’s atheistical shout of abandonment and desolation into a prayer of commitment and trust, ‘Father into thy hands I commend my spirit.’ The Son and the Father were one and not divided, each dwelling in the other, even in that ‘hour and power of darkness’ when Jesus was smitten of God and afflicted and pierced for our transgressions. In Jesus God himself descended to the very bottom of our human existence where we are alienated and antagonistic, into the very hell of our godlessness and despair, laying fast hold of us and taking our cursed condition upon himself, in order to embrace us for ever in his reconciling love. (pp. 52-53)
This is preachable!
Kelly Kapic notes that theologians on both sides of the fallen/unfallen debate often fail to provide definitions of what constitutes fallen and unfallen human nature. As a result, “claiming one position or the other does not actually convey much of theological substance” (“The Son’s Assumption of a Human Nature,” p. 164). By my reading, Torrance appears to fall under Kapic’s stricture. In analytic philosophy, for example, the nature of something is given by its essential, as opposed to accidental, properties. These properties locate the something within a particular genus or class. So when the Apostle John declares that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, he was telling us that the Word became a human being. God didn’t become a rock or a tree or a kangaroo. In the Incarnation God assumes human nature and thus possesses the essential properties that characterize that nature.
Torrance agrees, but he also wants to insist that the nature assumed was fallen. We might therefore infer that the eternal Son became a sinner or at least was capable of personal sin; but Torrance rejects the inference:
In the very act of assuming our flesh the Word sanctified and hallowed it, for the assumption of our sinful flesh is itself atoning and sanctifying action. How could it be otherwise when he, the Holy One took on himself our unholy flesh? Thus we must say that while he, the holy Son of God, became what we are, he became what we are in a different way from us. We become what we are and continue to become what we are as sinners. He, however, who knew no sin became what we are, yet not by sinning himself. Christ the Word did not sin. He did not become flesh of our flesh in a sinful way, by sinning in the flesh. If God the Word became flesh, God the Word is the subject of the incarnation, and how could God sin? How could God deny God, be against himself, divest himself of his holiness and purity? Thus his taking of our flesh of sin was a sinless action, which means that Jesus does not do in the flesh of sin what we do, namely, sin, but it also means that by remaining holy and sinless in our flesh, he condemned sin in the flesh he assumed and judged it by his very sinlessness. (Incarnation, p. 63)
As the Apostle Paul phrases it, God sent his Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8:3). The Son assumed our concrete human nature under the same existential conditions, limitations, and burdens under which we live—yet triumphed over them. He became what we are, yet differently, healing and transforming our nature from within. In this way he became the New Adam and Savior of the world.
Torrance affirms the dogmatic teaching of the Council of Chalcedon, but faults it for its static construal of human nature. It is well, good and necessary to affirm the consubstantiality of the Incarnate Word with humanity; but more needs to be said, suggests Torrance, if we are to properly present the mystery of God’s enfleshment:
There is no doubt at all that by ‘human nature’ the [Chalcedonian] fathers wanted to stress the actuality of Christ’s union with us in our true humanity, that Christ was human in all points exactly like us, yet without sin. And that is right as far as it goes, for Christ was fully human like ourselves, coming into and living in our mode of existence, and sharing in it to the full within a span of temporal life on earth between birth and death, and in the unity of a rational soul and body. But the Chalcedonian statement does not say that this human nature of Christ was human nature ‘under the servitude of sin’ as Athanasius insisted; it does not say that it was corrupt human nature taken from our fallen creation, where human nature is determined and perverted by sin, and where it is under the accusation and judgement of holy God.
But that is all essential, for ‘the unassumed is the unhealed’, as Gregory Nazianzen expressed it, and it is with and within the humanity he assumed from us that the incarnate Son is one with the Father. Therefore the hypostatic union cannot be separated from the act of saving assumption of our fallen human nature, from the living sanctification of our humanity, through the condemnation of sin in the flesh, and through rendering from within it perfect obedience to the Father. In short, if we think of Christ as assuming neutral and perfect humanity, then the doctrine of the hypostatic union may well be stated statically. But if it is our fallen humanity that he sinlessly assumed, in order to heal and sanctify it, not only through the act of assumption, but through a life of perfect obedience and a death in sacrifice, then we cannot state the doctrine of the hypostatic union statically but must state it dynamically, in terms of the whole course of Christ’s life and obedience, from his birth to his resurrection. (p. 201)
I take Torrance’s point. If we restrict the meaning of nature to the set of defining attributes, then we find ourselves unable to bespeak the healing and deification of humanity in Christ as a process of dynamic becoming, and our understanding of the Incarnation becomes one-dimensional. Perhaps instead of speaking of the Word’s assumption of fallen nature, we should be speaking of his adoption of a fallen mode of historical existence. Yet this concept alone may not capture the kind of ontological transformation that Torrance believes has been accomplished in the God-Man.
Orthodox and Catholic Christians should find Torrance’s presentation of the Incarnation and ontological atonement attractive, even compelling, despite his sometimes extreme rhetoric regarding human depravity. In Jesus Christ God truly saves mankind. He does not just offer yet another opportunity for self-redemption. There remains, at least for me, niggling questions; but I have reached my limit of understanding. I therefore give to the Apostle Paul the last word:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).