Torrance on Created Grace in Roman and Protestant Theology

As a follow-up to my last two posts (here and here) critiquing the traditional understanding of ‘irresistible grace’, I would like to quote (at length) T.F. Torrance as he comes to similar conclusions regarding Protestantism’s tendency, despite the best insights of the Reformation, to lapse back into medieval notions of ‘created grace’ from which it sought to escape:

[T]he mediaeval doctrine of grace had another side to it which was mystical; grace is the divine, supernatural mystery inexplicably at work through the Church and its sacramental ordinances, sanctifying, transforming and elevating nature for its participation in the divine. With the recasting of the Augustinian tradition in realist Aristotelian terms, this grace came to be regarded from a more ontological point of torrance_2-1view. No longer was it merely the ‘inward grace’ mediated by an outward sign, but a divine power at work in human being transforming and changing it invisibly and visibly, grace actualizing itself within the physical as well as the spiritual, metaphysically heightening and exalting creaturely existence. Grace was regarded as acting within the recipient in much the same way as the divine power in transubstantiating the bread and the wine in the Mass into the realities of the Body and Blood of Christ. The operation of grace is a divine causation, and there follows from it a divine effect in the creature. It is almost like a supernatural potency that is infused into human beings, enlightening their minds, strengthening their wills, and conferring upon them beyond any natural state a divine quality which more and more transmutes the sinner into a saint, a being of earth into a being of heaven. This is the notion of grace inhering in the soul of man and lifting him up to vision of God, grace affecting even his physical being and at last transforming and translating him into the heavenly and eternal realm. It is in fact the notion of created grace, grace actualizing itself in the creature and elevating it to supernatural existence, ontological grace at work in man’s very being and raising him to a higher ontological order…

In place of the conception of the sacramental universe and the rational synthesis which it involved in its realist interpretation, Reformed theology set the biblical conception of the covenant of grace…that provides the frame of promise and fulfilment within which theology as historical dialogue with God is understood…This dialogical theology had the effect of giving the knowing subject full place over against the object, God speaking personally and historically. Man is here posited by God as his partner in the covenant and in conversation, so that personal relations are established and maintained within the covenant of grace…This had the effect of restoring to theology its intensely personal character, and therefore of restoring to the understanding of grace the sense of living relationship with the Persons of the Holy Trinity…

However, this very fact has laid Protestant theology open to a constant snare. Just because the human partner is given his full place by God as knowing subject over against God as his proper object, he is always being tempted to assume the major role in the theological conversation, to convert theological statements into statements of human concern, and to lapse into anthropology or subjectivism. This personalism can make a show for itself by opposing the opposite tendency in Roman theology toward objectivism, but it involves the fatal weakness of being unable to distinguish the objective reality of grace from man’s own subjective states. This in turn leads to a humanizing and then a secularizing of grace, and so we have in a different form the old notion of created grace all over again with its attendant notions of co-operation and co-redemption. It must indeed be admitted that there is scarcely anything which Protestantism opposes in Romanism for which it does not have its own erroneous counterpart. That does not allow us, however, to shut our eyes to the fact that the notion of grace as an impersonal res or potentia is to be rejected, as it surely is today by all responsible theologians in the Roman Church.[1]

In another essay, Torrance relates this tendency to revert to ‘created grace’ to the issue of sanctification which can sometimes be used in Reformed theology as a measuring stick or test whereby one may gain assurance of one’s election:

At the Reformation justification by the grace of Christ alone was seen to set aside all natural goodness, and all works-righteousness; but this applies to all goodness, Christian goodness as well, that is, to ‘sanctification’ as it came to be called…All that we do is unworthy so that we must fall down before you and unfeignedly confess that we are unprofitable servants – and it is precisely justification by the free grace of Christ alone that shows us that all we are and have done even as believers is called in question. Justification by grace alone remains the sole ground of the Christian life; we never advance beyond it, as if justification were only the beginning of a new self-righteousness [i.e. created grace, infused disposition], the beginning of a life of sanctification which is what we do in response to justification. Of course we are summoned to live out day by day what we already are in Christ through his self-consecration or sanctification, but sanctification is not what we do in addition to what God has done in justification. And yet that is the tendency of the Westminster Catechisms, where we have a return to the Roman notion of infused sanctification that has to be worked out through strict obedience to legal principles…But the Scots Confession laid the axe to the root of any such movement when it insisted that we have to spoil ourselves even of our own regeneration and sanctification as well as justification. What it ‘axed’ so radically was the notion of ‘co-redemption’ which in our day has again become so rampant, not only in the Roman Church, but in Liberal and Evangelical Protestantism, e.g., the emphasis upon existential decision as the means whereby we ‘make real’ for ourselves the kerygma of the New Testament, which means that in the last resort our salvation depends upon our own personal or existential decision. That is the exact antithesis of the Reformed doctrine of election, which rests salvation upon the prior and objective decision of God in Christ.[2]

As Torrance ably points out in these essays, the fundamental insights of Protestant theology – that saving grace is personal (rather than created) and objective (rather than infused) – have all too often tended to be overlooked or lost in the churches born of the Reformation. This is why the Reformed church must be ever and always reforming itself according to the Word of God, ensuring that it does not substitute the objective presence and action of God himself with its own subjective qualities or decisions.


[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.179-182.

[2] Ibid., pp.161-162.