Sunday, 18 October 2015

Atonement, by Thomas Torrance



Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker, 2009 Paternoster

When I was an Evangelical Protestant, I went through a phase of feeling uncomfortable with the idea of penal substitutionary atonement. These days I think the essence of that doctrine is correct, but Evangelicals often proclaim it in a really crass way. I have heard sermons where the pastor says something along the lines of "Who killed Jesus? God killed Jesus!" It was therefore a great delight to read Torrance's lectures on the atonement, which gives the Protestant idea of atonement a much needed theological depth.

How does one review a book like this? This is a truly magisterial work. It is not a systematic theology, but deals with some of the major themes of Christian theology, moving from Christology and soteriology into the Pneumatology, ecclesiology and eschatology. Robert Walker provides a lengthy, but very useful introduction to this series of lectures, forming a synopsis of its themes.

This is theology grounded in exegesis. Torrance spends time surveying both the Old Testament background and New Testament material relating to the idea of atonement. He identifies three elements of atonement- Justification, Reconciliation and Redemption. Of that last vital element, he distinguishes three aspects, the Cultic-Forensic, the Dramatic and the Ontological. The Cultic-Forensic concerns legal and moral justification, the Dramatic concerns deliverance from the powers of sin, death and evil. The Ontological concerns mystical participation in Christ. He argues that the different Christian traditions have emphasised these too varying degrees. The Reformed and Catholic traditions have both emphasised a combination of Cultic-Forensic and Ontological (interestingly, both the same emphasis, despite reaching different conclusions). The Orthodox view is a combination of the Dramatic and the Ontological. The Lutherans have focused on a combination of the Dramatic with the Cultic-Forensic.

Torrance makes a strong connection of the atonement to the incarnation. He argues that the Calvinistic doctrine of Limited Atonement is incorrect because it fails to see that Christ took on human nature in His incarnation and took that nature to the cross. All of humanity therefore participates in the atonement. Not only this, but the atonement involves the entire cosmos and makes reconciliation for the whole of creation.

Torrance goes beyond simply talking about the Cross, he makes a vital connection between the death of Christ on the cross and the Resurrection as the completion of the atoning event. He also provides a penetrating look at the Ascension. He sees in the ascension event the bringing of humanity into the life of God.

This is Protestant theology at its best. Reading it has greatly enhanced my rosary meditations.

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