Contract God verses Covenant God

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By far, one of the best books I’ve read this year is The Claim of Humanity in Christ by Alexandra S. Radcliffe. This is a simple yet magnificent overview of the theology of the Torrance brothers JB and TF. Strangely enough, the book hasn’t gotten much love over at Amazon. I would highly encourage people to read this as an intro to the Torrances’ theology, and to an overall introduction into what is popularly called “evangelical Calvinism”.

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Thomas F Torrance

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James B Torrance

The Torrance’s were Scottish Presbyterians, and yet they were greater than their own tradition, challenging many of the categories of the Westminster Confession. In fact, much of their theological framework was informed, as Alexandra Radcliffe rightly informs us, by Eastern Patristic theologians like the Cappedocians and Athanasis and Cyril of Alexandria. These theologians had radically differing ideas from common Presbyterian theology.

I want to give a brief overview of Torrancian theology from this great . Radcliffe has her chapters laid out magnificently in 6 short theses. I summarize the theses in three points below:

  1. God the Father as Covenant vs Contract
  2. God the Son as Ontological vs External
  3. Participation in the Spirit as Objective vs Subjective

There is more to her book than these three, but most of the heavy lifting is done with these three points. In this post (I’m hoping to extend this overview to three posts! We will see :)) I want to consider the first of three theses: God the Father as a covenant God rather than a contractual God.

To understand this thesis, we must take a step back to understand much of the doctrine posited by Westminsterian theology: this is called federal theology or federal headship theology:

Federal theology was the prevailing preaching and teaching of the Torrances’ Scottish Reformed tradition in their time. Federal theology has had a history of dominance in the perspective of those wishing to adhere to Calvinism and it continues to have an abiding authority toady. It currently governs the North American Reformed perspective and “is considered, by many, to be the only orthodox Reformed theology acceptable”. According to Federal Calvinism , God made a covenant with Adam as the “federal” head of the human race. God created Adam to discern the laws of nature by reason and, if Adam was obedient, God would give him eternal life. If he was disobedient, it would lead to death. Adam disobeyed the law and, as federal head of the human race, his curse affected all of humanity. Out of his love, God made a new covenant, electing some to be saved by Christ. In order to forgive humanity, God had to satisfy his righteousness and justice and Christ therefore became a penal substitionary sacrifice to atone for the sins of the elect. This federal scheme is expressed confessionally in the Irish articles and the Westminster confession. (p 16)

This is a pretty basic overview of the gospel for those who know the Westminster confession. However, this construal of the gospel was totally abhorrent to the Torrances. JB Torrance in particular wrote a now infamous article known as “Covenant vs Contract”, in which he outlined how this construal is not only biblically inaccurate, but it turns the gospel on its head.

But how does it turn the gospel on its head?

Both Torrances believed that federal theology overturned the gospel by making God a Judge primarily and a Father only secondarily. Put another way: God is primarily  judge of mankind. He judges them according to works, and they must perform them rightly to stay in his good graces. For the Torrance’s, this meant that mankind’s relationship to God is one of law, conditions, and works over grace, communion, participation. Radcliffe expounds:

TF believes that an overarching legal framework distorts the nature of the Father, presenting him primarily as a Judge and Lawgiver and only a Father to those who satisfy the requirements of the law. If you begin with a concept of God as Lawgiver, JB considers, there is the tendency to understand salvation in terms of God being conditioned into being gracious by human works or by Christ satisfying the conditions of the law…

JB also perceives that a legal framework leads to a distortion of our understanding of humanity. He writes, “the federal scheme has substituted a legal understanding of man for filial. That is, God’s prime purpose for for man is legal, not filial, but this yields an impersonal view of man as the object of justice rather than as primarily the object of love. (p 21)

In the Torrances’ view, federal theology leads to a strict view of God who demands obedience and performance. Man owes God obedience not because of a loving relationship, but simply because God is judge!

While they don’t disagree that God is a judge, for the Torrances, God’s first and primarily identity is one of Father. And as such, he creates mankind for loving communion with him in the Son:

However, if you begin with the God revealed by Jesus as the triune God of grace, you will see his unconditional filial purposes whereby he draws us as his son into communion with Him… God’s primary purpose for humanity is filial, not just judicial, where we have been created in the image of God to find our true being-in-communion, in sonship, in the mutual relations of love (p 21)

Put another way, God is concerned not primarily with our conditioned obedience to him as a judge would be. Rather, his purpose for creating mankind is to draw us into loving communion by the Spirit through the Son into his own triune love. His primary identity is one of Father: he wants mankind to participate as imaged sons in the Son by the Spirit. Obedience is a necessary corollary of being family. But, man obeys not to condition God; rather, mankind obeys because God is Father and he is son!

The Torrances take this identity of God-as-Father, as man-created-for-sonship, and move next to God’s means of relating to mankind. JB Torrance, particularly, says that because God is a Father, he does not relate to man conditionally, as in a contract, but rather covenantally, as in a family. Radcliffe explains:

JB defines a contract “as a legal relationship in which two people or two parties bind themselves together on mutual conditions to effect some future result”… The Torrances identify contractual thinking in Federal theology when salvation is made dependent upon our personal response. Although God’s grace may be upheld, contractual thinking can unintentionally steal in when forgiveness is made conditional upon repentance, with devastating consequences for assurance of salvation. (p 22)

Thinking of God contractually, in the Torrances’ mind, means that salvation is thought in terms of “do this, then…”. If I do this, then God will accept me. If I repent; if I have enough faith; then God will accept me. Instead, the Torrance’s explain that God primarily relates to man through a covenant. While covenant is likened to a contract, it is fundamentally different. A contract is a mutual exchange of properties and obligations. A covenant is an exchange of persons, and it creates a familial relationship. It creates a blood-bond. It creates a family bond not of merit and reward, but of communion and fellowship.

God makes successive covenants with mankind throughout the biblical narrative precisely because he wants to be our Father. It is not a works based contract that he creates with us, but a familial covenant. This covenanting of God culminates with the sending of the Son who performs both sides of the covenant–as perfect human Son and as faithful God–through the incarnation death and resurrection. In his coming, Christ creates a bondedness between man and God that allows man to participate in Christ’s own Sonship through the Holy Spirit. In my next post, I want to discuss how the Torrance’s understand the atonement as objective, universal, and actually accomplished in the person of the incarnate Son.

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Worship as Participation in Christ

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Jesus the Great High Priest Icon

James B Torrance, in his Introduction to Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace, defines worship as the “gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father” (p 20).

Torrance explains that humanity was created originally to be priests:

[P]riests of creation and to express on behalf of all creatures the praises of God, so that through human lips the heavens might declare the glory of God…But nature fails in its realization because of our human failure. Instead of singing songs of joy, the whole creation groans in universal travail (pp 13-14)

Humanity was called to offer themselves as a sacrifice and all of creation to the Father in true worship (Rom 12:1-2), uniting heaven and earth as a universal temple, world-wide temple. However, original sin derailed this vocation and so spiraled humanity into separation from the life of the Father and therefore into death. But, asks Torrance, “does God then abandon his purposes for humanity and for all creatures?” (p 14). The answer to that is no:

The good news is that God comes to us in Jesus to stand in for us and bring to fulfillment his purposes of worship and communion. Jesus comes to be the priest of creation to do for us, men and women, what we failed to do, to offer to the Father the worship and the praise we failed to offer, to glorify God by a life of perfect love and obedience, to be the one true servant of the Lord. In him and through him we are renewed by the Spirit in the image of God and int he worship of God in a life of shared communion. (p 14)

The gospel is that God the Son comes into our broken situation, taking upon himself our nature, and offering to the Father what he had always wanted — true priestly worship — thereby uniting heaven and earth. Christ’s self-offering therefore realized mankind’s vocation. And the resurrection was both the proof and the effect of Christ’s self-offering: human nature was raised to participate in the life and communion of the Father in the power of the Spirit.

Because Christ realized man’s priestly vocation, uniting heaven and earth in his self-offering, Torrance explains that all true worship now becomes a participation in Christ’s worship and self-offering. Mankind realizes their priestly vocation through union with Christ in the power of the Spirit:

Whatever else worship is, it is our liturgical amen to the worship of Christ.

This is the “wonderful exchange” by which Christ takes what is ours (our broken lives and unworthy prayers), sanctifies them, offers them without spot or wrinkle to the Father, and gives them back to us, that we might “feed” upon him in thanksgiving. He takes our prayer and makes them his prayers, and he makes his prayers our prayer, and we know our prayers are heard “for Jesus’ sake”. This is life in the Spirit, worship understood in terms of sola gratia. This is the Trinitarian nature of all true worship and communion.

Christian worship is, therefore, our participation through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father, in his vicarious life of worship and intercession. (p 15)

The takeaway here is that all true worship is not our activity for God; it is rather a participation in Christ’s self-gift to and worship of the Father on mankind’s behalf by the Holy Spirit. Our worship is taken up into Christ’s worship. Torrance finishes his Introduction by saying this:

[Christians] need to recover [the] New Testament understanding of worship which recognizes that the real agent in all true worship is Jesus Christ. He is our great high priest and ascended Lord, the one true worshipper who unites us to himself by the Spirit in an act of memory and in a life of communion, as he lifts us up by word and sacrament into the very triune life of God. (p 17)

In Torrance’s first chapter, he distinguishes between this participatory view of worship (through the Son in the Spirit) and a unitarian view, which I plan to cover in another post.

The All-inclusive Humanity of Christ

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This is the start of a few posts where I “show my cards”, as it were, to some doctrinal developments in my own theology, which has happened over a period of 2-3 years. In this post I’m going to critique the theology of limited atonement and offer an argument for universal atonement or better put, objective atonement.

I’ve become convinced within the last couple years that limited atonement is not a biblical doctrine; rather, it is a logical conclusion based off of Augustine’s and Calvin’s doctrine of unconditional election. This post is not a critique of election, but it is a critique of taking logic too far. Limited atonement historically, it is almost certain, was not a doctrine that Calvin held (or even had the categories for), but is rather a Reformed scholastic development of the logic Calvin’s doctrine of election. The logic is that if God has determined to save only the elect, then Christ must’ve died only for the elect. Thus, the atonement is limited, not in its power of course, but certainly in its scope and embrace. Whatever you think of election, what I want to propose here is that the doctrine of limited atonement might be logical, but it is not biblical. The reason I say this is because limited atonement bases its doctrine after the scope of election, when in fact atonement doctrine should be based off of the reality of the incarnation (election is a decretal reality. It should not affect the Christological doctrines, including atonement theology). Put another way, I am arguing that the incarnation is intimately connected to the atonement and demands that Christ’s cross-work be all-embracing, objective and for every human being. 

What do I mean? I want us to consider: what happened in the incarnation? It is not simply that God the Son become a man to be a representative or a legal head. That is true, but not true enough. When we think of the incarnation, we must consider the metaphysical, ontological realities involved. The incarnation was a dramatic, reality shifting event: God the Son took upon himself a human nature and entered into the common, shared reality of mankind. And in doing so, he altered the human condition forever.

I’m convinced that this is something the Western Christian world, with its individual emphasis, fails to realize: within the biblical worldview, the human race is not a collection of individuals; rather, the human race is a collective unity. The nature that all humans share is an ontological oneness. We all share in the same nature, thus uniting us all in a unique way. This is why when Adam fell into sin and death, we all fell with him. We are a unity. We are all metaphysically joined, and Adam’s sin affects us negatively because of that unity. Thus many of the Eastern Fathers have tended to talk about original sin in medical terms instead of legal terms. If a leg is amputated, the foot and toes die too. This is because they are all connected. It is the same with humanity.

This affects our view of the incarnation and consequently of the death and resurrection of Christ: Christ’s death and resurrection was not simply on our behalf; of course, it was. But it was also a radical participation in humanity’s shared fallenness. Through his union with the human condition in the incarnation, Christ participated in our common death and overcame it in his resurrection. Thus it was not simply that Christ died on the cross: the entire Adamic reality died with him in the cross. And it was not simply that Christ rose in the resurrection: the last Adam lifted humanity out of the grave through his victory over death, thus glorifying and divinizing humanity in himself. The cross and resurrection are massive, ontological, reality-shifting events when placed in this light.

JB Torrance, a Presbyterian minister, coined an important phrase to describe the importance of the incarnation: the all-inclusive humanity of Christ. What did he mean? Gary Deddo explains:

By identifying Jesus’ human nature as being “all-inclusive” JB was pointing out that Jesus’ humanity was vitally and really, that is ontologically, linked to all humanity, to every single human being. The human nature that Jesus assumed was not simply his own individual or autonomous humanity, one relatively independent of all other human beings. No, the human nature he possessed was shared by all humanity. The human nature he assumed he held in common with every human person…

The grounds for JB’s emphasis on the all-inclusive humanity of the incarnate Son of God is not found simply in the fact that Jesus, as accounted for in the New Testament revelation, has all the characteristics of being a human being in the same way we are. The foundation is laid in the meaning and significance given by the biblical revelation to his humanity in relation to all others. This reaches a high point in Paul’s designation of Jesus as the prototypical Adam (the created Adam being the type, Rom. 5:14) and as the last (eschatos) or second (deuteros) man/Adam (1Cor. 15:45-47). This Jesus is presented in biblical revelation as the actual new life-giving head of humanity, not just in name, but in being and so in actual effect. He is in fact the Lord of all humanity — as one of humanity. Witness to this fact can be found not only in Romans 5 but also in Ephesians 1 where, as Irenaeus saw, the place where all humanity was re-gathered, reunited, reheaded up (anakephalaiosis, v. 10) was in the very person of Jesus. (Participatio Journal, volume 3, “JB Torrance on the All-Inclusive Humanity of Jesus Christ” by Gary Deddo, pp 247, 250)

Gary Deddo goes on to describe humanity is terms of a tree (see the icon above). Adam was the first human off of whom we branch. His death was ours, not legally per se, but actually; his apostasy corrupted all of humanity, and thus all are born into death. Jesus is the second Adam who, by uniting himself to the whole of the human tree, entered into our condition and through his death and resurrection, shifted the ontological state of humanity in an important way. Thus, and this is the point, what happened to Christ in his life, death and resurrection, happened to all humanity. All-embracing. 

This also accounts for the striking universal statements about human salvation in certain Pauline texts. To be sure, Paul speaks of wrath and judgment, and of the need for conversion. But there are also striking, indeed alarming texts which speak of the cross-work of Christ as affecting all men without exception. For instance, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:18 that in Christ God was “reconciling the world to himself”. Or Romans 5:18: “therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men”. Or Colossians 1:18-19, “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross”. What can we do with these texts? If we are truly and really honest, we must say that in Christ something fundamental has happened to mankind. Mankind has been saved from death and sin!

How can this be so? The incarnation: God’s union with our common humanity renders the atonement holistic and not limited: what has happened to Christ has thus happened to the whole of the human nature without exception. Thus in Christ, all mankind and the entire cosmos is in principle saved. This is why many of the early church fathers taught that the incarnation was in itself a saving event

But, what about the need for individual conversion? Does this mean that we’re all saved and we just don’t know it (something that Barth taught)? No. To clarify, I want to bring in one more voice, and that is the Lutheran tradition. The Lutherans have a doctrine that they call “objective justification”. Jordan Cooper explains:

In the nineteenth century, American Lutherans began making the distinction between objective justification and subjective justification. Objective justification refers to the historia salutis reality of Christ’s justification at his resurrection. The resurrection is Christ’s own vindication before God, and consequently becomes that of the Christian through faith. This appropriation of Christ’s objective work through faith is subjective justification…

Objective justification flows from the reality of the incarnation. In being born as a human, Jesus takes upon himself not simply the nature of one individual man, but of all humanity. Thus all Jesus accomplishes and does with his life is accomplished for all of humankind. His vindication at his resurrection is thus the justification of all people. (Cooper, Jordan. The Great Divide: A Lutheran Evaluation of Reformed Theology. Kindle Locations 3870-3873, 3878-3881)

Thus Jesus’ resurrection affects all people; it is an objective work that shifts the human existence as we know it. However, it must be subjectively received and applied. Mind you, the Lutheran church believes in unconditional election! But they don’t buy limited atonement. Thus this teaching of objective justification verses subjective justification.

I’ve gone long enough. In the next couples posts I will look at justification from the perspective of Paul’s very first sermon, and then at differing models of atonement.