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The Atonement, by Thomas F. Torrance – A Few Thoughts

December 23, 2009

Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, T. F. Torrance

T. F. Torrance has some keen theological and biblical insights into the work of Christ – especially along the lines of redemptive history and how the Person of Christ relates to his work (see his section on the Calvinistic Extra). Yet, Torrance’s view of revelation ends up distorting many of his conclusions.  Here are a few shortcomings:

  1. He is critical of any theory of atonement that lends itself as being foundational or central (read penal substitutionary atonement).   One cannot make conclusions about God’s work and the forgiveness of sins without being “abstractly theoretical.”
  2. He thinks it biblically absurd that Jesus was “punished” for our sins – argues for expiation instead of substitutionary.
  3. Focuses too much on the Calvin and the Calvinists debates in his arguments to be helpful in his criticisms of Reformed Theology from the Puritans to Contemporary debates.

There is much to benefit from this work. Yet, it fails to be a sure and biblical account of the Work of Christ.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 23, 2009 1:42 pm


    I must confess that I find your analysis interesting, if only because it seems such a myopic account of a work that is 450 pages long, and has a 300 page companion volume. Aside from that, I have some thoughts about your various points>

    Re: #1 – TFT does not only have a strictly reductionist account of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) in mind here. He is also thinking about Roman and Eastern positions, which tend – as he explicates them – to focus too much on the priestly / cultic or ontological aspects of the atonement (PSA overemphasizes the judicial / forensic, on TF’s account). This is not to say that one cannot make conclusions about God’s saving work – in fact, Torrance makes a good many conclusions. The point is only that one ought to hold together all these different aspects without unduly folding some into others. This is what he attempts to do, and so there is a robust forensic aspect to his account, as well as cultic and ontological aspects. This strikes me as similar to what we get in Scripture (You may find especially interesting the section where Torrance compares Paul/Romans and Hebrews, and explains how they are saying the same thing from different standpoints).

    Re: #2 – It isn’t that Torrance wants to say that Jesus isn’t punished for our sins; Torrance frequently speaks about how he suffered and bore the full wrath of God directed toward human sin. Furthermore, Torrance’s account is certainly substitutionary. It is impossible to read him otherwise. I think the problem comes from the way you draw a distinction between substitution and expiation. Substitution is a given for Torrance. The proper distinction here is between propitiation and expiation, where the former is a sacrifice that somehow placates or satisfies God despite the sin that stands between God and humanity, and the later is a sacrifice that removes or destroys the sin that stands between God and humanity. The former is a poor interpretation of Anselm; the latter is what Calvin was up to. Torrance sides with the latter because if Jesus Christ is God incarnate, and the incarnation precedes Jesus’ saving work, then God must have loved us prior to the atonement. Therefore, it is not a problem of placating God in any way. Rather, it is God providing a way to remove sin. Again, this is straight out of Calvin.

    Re: #3 – You must remember that Torrance wrote these lectures in the 1960s and ’70s, well before any of the debates exercising North American Reformed-evangelical folk. Furthermore, he was a Scottish theologian teaching in Scotland, and so not terribly interested in the puritans. I don’t think we ought to hold his Sitz im Leben against him, do you?

    Cheers, and I hope you keep reading Torrance!

  2. John Starke permalink*
    December 23, 2009 2:05 pm

    Thanks for your comments. I want to stress that this wasn’t a full review (obviously), but just some short thoughts. I will do a fuller review shortly for Christian Book News this Friday (Christmas Day). Let me respond to a few of your remarks:

    I do think Torrance is reductionistic about PSA. In some of his other works (Scottish Theology, etc) he makes some pretty reductionistic conclusions about the Reformed tradition starting with Perkins and through the Puritans. It seems he carries over these same conclusions in this work. So I do think he is concerned with post-Reformational theology, Puritans included.

    Torrance does speak of substitution – especially in his cultic-forensic aspect of the atonement -but certainly not the way Calvin would explain it. He does argue that Jesus was not punished for our sins. Arguing from John Mcleod Campbell he writes, “We cannot think of Christ being punished by the Father in our place and the New Testament nowhere uses the word kolazo, punish, of the relation between the Father and Son” (72). I understand the focus is the relational aspect of the Father and Son, but he argues away the penal aspect of the atonement.

    Finally, Torrance does stress “mystery” in God’s relation to man, therefore condemning any “mere atonement theory” as abstract theological explanations.

  3. December 23, 2009 3:00 pm

    Fair enough re: the puritans. It should be noted, however, that Torrance is interested in them only insofar as they represent Westminster and Federal Theology, about which he has deep misgivings due to their enthrallment to Petrus Ramus and his pseudo-Aristotelian revival.

    If you want to have a citation war over Calvin, I’m game. I think Torrance gets him right on substitution the vast majority of the time. Have you read Paul van Buren’s landmark Christ in Our Place: The Substitutionary Character of Calvin’s Doctrine of Reconciliation? I highly recommend it.

    As far as the penal point, it isn’t that Torrance is trying to do away with it altogether. Rather, he is attempted to put it in context, and show how it is anchored in a deeper dynamic, namely, the Father/Son relation. Thus, he writes (just before the bit you quote) that we are rightly warned “against thinking of atonement in purely penal terms” – note, the problem isn’t the penal notion altogether; the problem is when this becomes reductionist and exclusive in our thinking.

    The language of “abstract” in Torrance means the same thing it does in Barth – without proper reference to Jesus Christ and the theological matrix involved therein. Thus, he wants us to look at the mystery of the incarnation, rather than muddle away with various theories (that can tend to be unhelpfully totalizing). At the end of the day, Torrance wants to do justice to the full scope of Scripture’s account of Christ, both OT and NT, and so refuses to narrow things down to one line of thinking about the atonement. Again, I can’t see how this is a bad or unbiblical move.

  4. John Starke permalink*
    December 23, 2009 7:24 pm

    I hope I am not unclear. I am not criticizing Torrance because he sees the atonement as more than just “one line of thinking.” No one argues for this – he has a mystery sparing partner. But I am critical of him in that he doesn’t seem to allow for any theory of atonement to be foundational or central. Rather, for many in the Reformed tradition, PSA is the ground for Christus Victor and others.

    To be straightforward, I’m going to side with Richard Muller on many of these Calvin and the atonement debates. See also Robert Letham’s new book “Westminster Assembly” – he takes on Torrance a good bit there. Also Shawn Wright “Our Sovereign Refuge” – his look at Beza.

  5. December 23, 2009 9:07 pm

    I’m afraid, having read the pertinent works by Torrance (except Atonement, it’s waiting for me at home, just ordered it), I must agree with WTM, John. It’s clear to me, that Torrance, like Calvin and others (some of the ‘Scots’) emphasized the unio mystica and worked out how that implies toward Incarnation & Atonement.

    Having read TFT a fair bit now, esp. on these points, WTM is right on with his reading of him. Torrance never denigrates substitution or even the forensic aspect of atonement; instead all I see him doing is maybe “overemphasizing” (given his interlocuters) the ontological aspect of the atonement (which is totally overlooked and not engaged by the “Federals”).

    John, I’m glad you’re reading Torrance too; but I think you’re being a little unfair in your reading, if you’ve been influenced by the Muller camp, at all, then I can understand why 😉 .

  6. John Starke permalink*
    December 23, 2009 9:30 pm

    Well, I seem to be outnumbered. I do feel pretty comfortable in the Muller camp, however.
    Bobby, I agree he certainly does not denigrate the forensic aspect. But I do believe he does denigrate PSA as foundational or central. Which is the one point I tried to get across. I think he is wrong, along with WTM. I also think he diverts from Calvin at this point. Substitution is central and foundational for a biblical understanding of atonement – along with all other theories. I don’t think we have a biblical ground for forgiveness of sins without it. But I am straying beyond Torrance to simply my own theology.

    Thank you both for your kind interaction.

  7. December 23, 2009 9:37 pm

    Hi John,

    You’re a brave soul to say that WTM is wrong 😉 !

    TFT’s theology stands or falls on substitution, tis is what the Incarnation is all about or presupposed by. I don’t see him emphasizing PSA, but like I said, it’s because he was trying to develop something that is totally neglected by the Federals.

  8. December 24, 2009 12:46 am

    One last comment, John. You persist in speaking of “substitution” as fundamental to the biblical concept of atonement. I couldn’t agree more, and neither could TFT. The problem is that you are conflating penal substitution with substitution itself, and that is not a necessary move. Substitution is a cultic concept, while punishment is a forensic concept. So even with “penal substitution” you are bringing together two strands of Scripture’s teaching on salvation. Furthermore, it is important to note that substitution is an utterly foreign concept to the forensic context – it is simply nonsensical, as Kant pointed out, for one person to be punished in a court of law on another’s behalf. But, this makes perfect sense in the cultic context of the Old Testament. So, I (and Torrance) would say that substitution is central to the biblical understanding of salvation; but, we would not say that the penal character of this substitution is central. This character is just one way of developing the point further, and one of many that must be taken. So, you are right that “substitution is central and foundational for a biblical understanding of atonement,” but you are wrong insofar as you assume the necessarily penal character of all substitution.

    As for Muller, his historical point is well taken, but he often overplays his hand – as does TFT for that matter.

    • John Starke permalink*
      December 24, 2009 12:47 pm

      I think at some level we are speaking past one another – I think its the nature of blog comments. When I persist on “substitution” as being central, I am assuming “penal” with it. That is my failure to be clear. In my circles, substitution = PSA. But that is because we are mainly arguing against the Joel Greens of the world, not Torrance who has a slightly different understanding of substitution. I think our view of substitution is slightly more variegated, but you would probably disagree.

      Here are two things that I would ask Torrance, and maybe you could answer then for me:

      #1 – Where is Adam in this scheme? I see where Israel is and the cultic/forensic history. But what about Adam? For me (and the Reformed) Adam is needed for Israel to be understood in the history (or drama) of the Person of Christ. Maybe I missed where Torrance places him. But I think Adam is a pivotal figure in understanding the essence of the atonement, and Torrance seems to ignore him in his scheme.

      #2 – Due to Torrance’s epistemology (barthian), can he follow Calvin in the atonement? I say this because it seems to me that Calvin’s doctrine of accommodation allows for a theory of atonement, like penal substitutionary atonement, to be central or foundational for the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation. At this point, I don’t think you can follow Calvin in the atonement if you don’t follow his epistemology.

  9. December 25, 2009 1:07 am


    How does TFT sleight the 1st Adam in your estimation? I don’t see that whatsoever.

    #2. Given TFT’s ‘doctrine of God’ — Scotist — I don’t see how you can say what you’ve said about TFT relative to Calvin (whose doctrine of God was also Scotist, even Muller concedes that). Wouldn’t you say that at least for Calvin, and his order of knowing, that ontology precedes epistemology? This is exactly the order that both Barth and TFT would follow. I think you’re misconstruing things here.

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