It’s not often these days that Eclectic Orthodoxy gets noticed, but over at Reformissio, Jonathan Kleis mentioned me in his recent article “Athanasius, T. F. Torrance and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ,” and I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the mention. We bloggers crave attention. Thank you, Mr Kleis! Jonathan has been blogging on Torrance over the past couple of months, and I commend his articles to you.
The writings of Thomas Forsyth Torrance have deeply influenced my preaching and theological reflection since seminary days (egads, we are talking late 70s, friends!). He taught me that genuine knowledge of God is mediated through the incarnate Son, that Christ Jesus and his atoning work are indivisibly one, that we are justified not by our subjective faith but by the faithfulness and obedience of the Lord to his Father. Most importantly, he helped me, both through his theological writings and extended correspondence, to personally appropriate in my life the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ. The debt I owe to my Scottish brother in Christ is incalculable.
Torrance is typically described as a follower of Karl Barth. The voice of Barth can be heard on every page of his writings. Yet Torrance himself always insisted that St Athanasius of Alexandria was his favorite theologian. An icon of Athanasius, Fr George Dragas tells us in an illuminating interview, hung prominently in his office at the University of Edinburgh. His book The Trinitarian Faith is my favorite work by Torrance. One of my two copies is personally autographed by him. It is an outstanding synthetic introduction to the catholic faith of the Nicene Fathers and is filled with the words and spirit of the great Alexandrian bishop.
But I have always been aware of Torrance’s theological weaknesses. He was prone to make grand generalizations which have always seemed, at least to me, to be just too grand. He loved to expatiate on the pernicious dualisms of Latin (as well as Byzantine) theology, which, he believed, distorted just about everything about the Roman Catholic Church, including its sacramental practices and teachings (see Douglas Farrow, “T. F. Torrance and the Latin Heresy“). He was never able to transcend his Reformed sacramentology and ecclesiology. He could write eloquently about the Holy Eucharist, but I knew that he did not understand it from the inside. It was not part of his tradition and experience. Without a living experience of the Eucharistic Christ who embodies himself under the forms of bread and wine, whose Body and Blood we eat and drink and before which we prostrate ourselves in adoration and love, huge swaths of the patristic writings must necessarily remain opaque and misunderstood.
Tom and I began a correspondence soon after my ordination in 1980, which continued for almost two decades. He always replied to my letters. In the latter half of the 80s, I urged the editor of the Anglican Theological Review to include voices other than the usual liberal Anglican suspects. I recommended Torrance, and he asked me to contact him. I did so and within a month I received in the post “The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity According to St Athanasius.” I passed it on to the editor, and it was soon published in ATR. A couple of years later I asked Tom to contribute an essay to my book Speaking the Christian God. Once again he immediately agreed. His was the first manuscript that I received, of course: “The Christian Apprehension of God the Father.” At some point I drove up to Princeton to meet him. I think it was during the time when he was working on the establishment of the Center for Theological Inquiry. He was exceptionally gracious and patiently addressed my long list of questions, one by one. He shared with me his love for Anglicanism (if I recall correctly, his wife was Anglican), as well as his involvement in ecumenical dialogue with Eastern Orthodoxy. He told me the remarkable story of how he was made a protopresbyter in the Orthodox Church! He was humbled and thrilled by the honor bestowed upon him. I knew I was in the presence of a great Christian gentleman and man of faith, as well as a great theologian. I think I may have met him again on a second occasion, but my memory here is spotty (alas). Tom always encouraged me in my own work, as inconsequential and susperficial as it was, and he become an enthusiastic supporter of the Baltimore Declaration when it was published in 1991.
During our years of correspondence, I constantly pestered him about the role of faith in our justification in Christ. Anyone who has wrestled with the Pelagian question knows how vexing it all can be. If faith is necessary for salvation and if faith is a gift of the Spirit and if everlasting damnation is a real possibility for everyone, including the baptized, how do I know, can I know, that I am intended by God’s unconditional love? How do I know, can I know, that I am justified and will be justified? I was obsessed by this question of assurance. Torrance had a unique (and as I was to learn, Barthian) take on the question: we are not saved by our faith but by the faith and faithfulness of the incarnate Son, in which we participate by our union with Christ in the Spirit:
It is illuminating to recognize that subjective justification, as well as objective justification, has already taken place in Jesus Christ. Not only was the great divine act of righteousness fulfilled in the flesh of Jesus, in his life and death, but throughout his life and death Jesus stood in our place as our Substitute and Representative who appropriated the divine Act of saving Righteousness for us. He responded to it, yielded to it, accepted it and actively made it his own, for what he was and did in his human nature was not for his own sake but for our sakes. That is true of all that he did. 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. He was the great Believer—vicariously believing in our place and in our name. In becoming one with us he laid hold upon our wayward human will, made it his very own, and bent it back into obedience to, and in oneness with, the holy will of God. Likewise in justification, Jesus Christ was not only the embodiment of God’s justifying act but the embodiment of our human appropriation of it. In that unity of the divine and the human, justification was fulfilled in christ from both sides, from the side of the justifying God and from the side of justified man—‘He was justified in the Spirit’, as St Paul put it. Justification as objective act of the redeeming God and justification as subjective actualization of it in our estranged human existence have once and for all taken place—in Jesus. (“Justification in Doctrine and Life,” Theology in Reconstruction, pp 156-157)
What makes Torrance’s formulation of vicarious dominical faith even more interesting is his claim, stated in many of his writings, that this notion of vicarious faith is firmly grounded in the Church Fathers, particularly in St Athanasius and St Cyril of Alexandria.
And this brings me to the occasion for this blog. In a Facebook comment last month, I expressed a measure of skepticism regarding the degree of patristic support for Torrance’s formulation and employment of the notion of Christ’s vicarious faith. Who among the Fathers says anything quite like “If we think of belief, trust or faith as forms of human activity before God, then we must think of Jesus Christ as believing, trusting and having faith in God the Father on our behalf and in our place” or “In a profound and proper sense, therefore, we must speak of Jesus Christ as constituting in himself the very substance of our conversion, so that we must think of him as taking our place even in our acts of repentance and personal decision” (The Mediation of Christ, pp. 92, 96)? That Torrance is pushing the patristic envelope does not mean that he is wrong in asserting the vicarious faith and repentance of our Great High Priest. Theologians are supposed to creatively interpret the faith for the Church. After all these years, I still warmly assent to his dogmatic proposal, though I’m not sure how strongly or frequently I would preach it in the pulpit or teach it in catechism classes—probably less than I once did. TFT supporters need to be more cautious about asserting the thesis of the vicarious faith of Christ as representing the explicit faith of the Church Fathers. In the magisterial hands of Torrance, the Fathers sometimes sound just too Barthian. Torrance’s thesis has yet to be critically evaluated by patristic scholars. Unfortunately, the contributors to the recently published collection of essays T. F. Torrance and Eastern Orthodoxy do not assess it. They missed an opportunity, I think.
In response to my Facebook comment, Jonathan cites an essay by Fr Khaled Anatolios, “The Soteriological Significance of Christ’s Humanity in Saint Athanasius.” Athanasius taught, so Anatolios maintains, that the incarnate Son receives the Holy Spirit on our behalf. He quotes this text from the Contra Arianos:
Through whom, and from whom should the Spirit have been given but through the Son, since the Spirit is his? and when were we enabled to receive It, except when the Word became human? and . . . in no other way would we have partaken of the Spirit and been sanctified, if it were not that the Giver of the Spirit, the Word himself, had spoken of himself as anointed with the Spirit for us. And in this way we have securely received It, insofar as He is said to have received [the Spirit] in the flesh. For the flesh being first sanctified in Him and He being said, as human, to have received through it, we have the derivation of the Spirit’s grace, ‘receiving out of his fullness’. (CA 1:53)
This is a welcome confirmation, but it is still lacking the Torrancean twist. I am not surprised by its absence, as I suspect that the twist is dependent upon a specifically 20th century Protestant context. Torrance is seeking, with Barth, to liberate Reformed Christianity from the heresy of double predestination, while at the same time emphatically asserting the gratuity of our justification in Jesus Christ over against all forms of Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Semi-hemi-demi-Pelagianism. But the Eastern Fathers were not particularly worried by Pelagianism and so had no problem speaking, without all the qualifications that Torrance makes, of a synergism between God and man in the event of personal salvation. Maybe they should have made these qualifications, but they didn’t. Of course, for many Torrance supporters the witness of the Fathers really does not matter, on this or any other theological topic, so convinced are they in their reading of the Scriptures—but it did matter to Tom.
Thomas Torrance was a dogmatic theologian; and he read the Fathers, as all dogmatic theologians do, in light of his constructive concerns. Those of us who treasure his contributions to modern theology should not be reluctant to admit that, on occasion, he may have stretched the patristic testimony just a tad beyond the breaking point.