Athanasius, T.F. Torrance, and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ

After a recent post on the vicarious humanity of Christ, Fr Aidan Kimel, who blogs at Eclectic Orthodoxy, expressed doubt in a Facebook comment as to whether, apart from T.F. Torrance and Karl Barth, the doctrine has actually had any major proponents throughout church history. It is, of course, well known that Torrance attributed his view of Christ’s vicarious humanity to the patristic era, especially to the work of the pro-Nicene fathers. Fr Kimel, on the other hand, questions Torrance’s reading of the fathers – such as Athanasius – and wonders if Torrance was perhaps reading more of his own views into Athanasius than he was actually reading Athanasius. He writes:

I wonder if anyone during the patristic period articulated and employed the vicarious human nature of Christ the way that TFT does. TFT invokes Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria for support, e.g., but I’m skeptical how strongly the texts he cites supports his position. Certainly the Eastern Orthodox (including the Copts) do not read them in the way that he does. Yes, God has assumed and deified human nature in Jesus Christ, but who among the Fathers (Eastern or Western) explicitly state that God the Son took “our place even in our acts of repentance and personal decision” (*Mediation*, p. 96). Are there any patristic scholars who support TFT’s reading? I’m not saying that TFT is wrong (I love his example of daughter clasping his hands as they walked across the street), but if he’s right it’s because he is developing doctrine within a specific Reformed context. Who outside the ranks of Barth and TFT talk this way?

While I think that it is beyond doubt that Torrance was working constructively with saint-athanasius-of-alexandria-icon-sozopol-bulgaria-17centuryAthanasius and the patristic tradition, I demur from Fr Kimel’s suspicions that (at least) Athanasius did not really espouse the doctrine of Christ’s vicarious humanity as Torrance would have it.

In light of Fr Kimel’s questions (which are also shared by others), I would like to cite noted patristic and Athanasian scholar Khaled Anatolios who writes the following concerning ‘The Soteriological Significance of Christ’s Humanity in St Athanasius’:

The notion of the “securing” of grace effected by Christ’s reception of the Spirit in the Incarnation is thus integral to Athanasius’ understanding of the Incarnation as the supreme instance of grace and it demonstrates the importance of Christ’s human receptivity in Athanasius’ conception of the Incarna­tion. It also leads us back to the Christological question proper, to the inter-relation of human and divine in Christ. With refer­ence to the humanity of Christ, Athanasius’s point is that we are able to be saved and deified because Christ has securely received grace humanly on our behalf and thus rendered us receptive of the Spirit by his own human reception of it…Our deifying reception of the Spirit is thus a derivation of Christ’s human recep­tivity. As long as the Word’s activity was confined to the realm of divine “giving,” we were not able to receive in Him. But if it is Christ’s humanity that thus enables us to receive in Him, this reception is rendered perfectly secure…precisely because it is indivisibly united to the inalterable divine Word, who is one in being with the Father. Athanasius’ key move is thus to envisage the unity of subject in Jesus Christ in such a way that he extends the inalterability of the Word qua Word, so that it also applies to the receptivity of the Word’s humanity…

Says Athanasius:

For though He had no need, He is still said to have received humanly what He received, so that inasmuch as it is the Lord who has received…and the gift abides in Him, the grace may remain secure…For when humanity alone receives, it is liable to lose again what it has received (and this is shown by Adam, for he received and he lost.) But in order that the grace may not be liable to loss, and may be guarded securely for humanity, He himself appropri­ates the gift.[CA 3:38]

That Christ humanly appropriates or receives the gift which He himself divinely gives is what makes the Incarnation for Athanasius the supreme instance of grace. I suggested at the beginning of this paper that the conjunction of “giving” and “receiving” in Christ represents a redeemed and divinized dialec­tic corresponding to the radical ontological dissimilarity be­ tween God and creation. That is because, given the nature of this dissimilarity as conceived by Athanasius, the only bridge possible is what he calls “the gift of the Giver.” But since the giving of one party is always contingent on the other party’s capacity to receive, and since humanity had already demonstrated its woeful incapacity to receive, the unsurpassable gift of the Incarnation is that we were given the very reception of the gift. In the Incarnation, God not only gives, but His giving reaches the point of receiving on our behalf and thus perfect­ing our capacity to receive, which is our only access to the divine. Thus, divine giving and human receiving continue to be irreducibly distinct, but they are now united by the unity of Christ Himself, who becomes the source of our receptivity by virtue of his humanity, and the perfector and securer of his receptivity by virtue of his divinity. This is the picture wherein we can appreciate the significance of Christ’s humanity for Athanasius.[1]

If we grant credibility to Anatolios’ summary of how Athanasius construed the soteriological importance of Christ’s incarnate humanity, it seems difficult to me, contra Fr Kimel and any others who would raise similar objections, to accuse Torrance of misreading Athanasius on this point. The precise ways in which Torrance, pace Athanasius, parses the grammar of Christ’s vicarious humanity may differ in some measure from his patristic source – Torrance often focuses on Christ’s vicarious ‘faith’ whereas Athanasius emphasizes Christ’s securing of ‘grace’ rather than his believing for us. Nevertheless, I think that it should be fairly clear that Torrance’s exposition of Christ’s vicarious humanity is indeed in substantial continuity with Athanasius. Both argued that human beings, in and of themselves, are incapable of appropriating God’s gift of salvation in Christ and that, therefore, God in Christ took it upon himself to not merely offer salvation to humanity but also to secure humanity’s reception of salvation by laying hold of it in human flesh and in the place of all human beings. As Anatolios beautifully put it: “the unsurpassable gift of the Incarnation”, for Athanasius, “is that we were given the very reception of the gift”. This, succinctly stated, is Athanasius’ doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ, and it is this same doctrine for which Torrance, and Karl Barth before him, so ardently contended.

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[1] Anatolios, K., 1996. ‘The Soteriological Significance of Christ’s Humanity in St Athanasius’ in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly (40)4, pp.284-6.

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6 thoughts on “Athanasius, T.F. Torrance, and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel 8 October 2016 / 04:42

    Jonathan, I’ve tried searching the blog but I am unable to find the comment to which you refer. I’d like to take a look at it before formulating a reply (if any). Could you provide a URL. Thanks.

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    • Jonathan Kleis 8 October 2016 / 10:51

      Hi Fr Kimel, I probably should have included your own comments in the post, but at the time I couldn’t remember where you actually made them! I was able to track them down (finally!) on Facebook, so you would have searched in vain here on the blog. I have gone back and edited this post and have inserted the relevant comments (Prior to this you had made a point about Pelagianism/semi-Pelagianism). If you want to go back and see everything you wrote, you can find it in the TFT discussion group under my post ‘The Trinity of Assurance’ in response to John Piper.

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  2. Fr Aidan Kimel 8 October 2016 / 14:39

    I found the comment. Here is what I wrote (http://bit.ly/2dmd3r3):

    Jonathan, if I may, I’d offer two critical, but friendly, observations that you may wish to address in a future blog article.

    1) Reformed folks (excluding, of course, present company!) really seems to have an expanded, non-historical notion of what “Semi-Pelagianism” means. As far as I can tell, according to this expanded view just about everyone before the Reformation, was guilty of Semi-Pelagian, including St Augustine himself. Hence I wonder how useful the term is. If we are going to use the term, then I suggest that it’s meaning be restricted to the position condemned by Canon 5 of the Synod of Orange (529):

    “If anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and comes to the regeneration of holy baptism — if anyone says that this belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles. … For those who state that the faith by which we believe in God is natural make all who are separated from the Church of Christ by definition in some measure believers.”

    It should also be noted that the Canons of the Synod of Orange have never been approved by the Eastern Church and thus do not enjoy any measure of ecumenical authority. Indeed, given the Eastern Church’s rejection of Augustinian predestination, its non-Latin understandings of nature and grace, as well as original sin, it may well fall under the synod’s condemnation, which of course was not the synod’s intent at all. Reformed Christians, it seems to me, need to be very careful when they invoke the “heresy” of Semi-Pelagianism.

    2) I wonder if anyone during the patristic period articulated and employed the vicarious human nature of Christ the way that TFT does. TFT invokes Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria for support, e.g., but I’m skeptical how strongly the texts he cites supports his position. Certainly the Eastern Orthodox (including the Copts) do not read them in the way that he does. Yes, God has assumed and deified human nature in Jesus Christ, but who among the Fathers (Eastern or Western) explicitly state that God the Son took “our place even in our acts of repentance and personal decision” (*Mediation*, p. 96). Are there any patristic scholars who support TFT’s reading? I’m not saying that TFT is wrong (I love his example of daughter clasping his hands as they walked across the street), but if he’s right it’s because he is developing doctrine within a specific Reformed context. Who outside the ranks of Barth and TFT talk this way?

    Thank you for bringing my attention to the Anatolios article. I have read his book on St Athanasius, but that was a couple of years ago. I need to read the article before commenting further. For those who’d also like to read it, I’ve made it available at my blog: http://wp.me/pZJmO-6dr.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Kleis 8 October 2016 / 14:40

      That’s the one! Thanks also for providing the link to the original article!

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