Irenaeus, T.F. Torrance, and the Vicarious Receptivity of Christ

This week I was both honored and humbled to be mentioned by Fr Kimel in a post on his blog entitled ‘Vicarious Faith, Tom Torrance, and a Few Memories‘, written in response to my own post ‘Athanasius, T.F. Torrance, and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ‘. Fr Kimel stated that the reference I provided to Athanasius via Khaled Anatolios was “a welcome confirmation” of Athanasius’ doctrine of Christ’s vicarious humanity (at least in some form), although he finds that it “still lack[s] the Torrancean twist”. I don’t want to strenuously object to this statement, for I fully acknowledge that Torrance was working constructively with the patristic tradition, allowing his Reformed t-f-torrance-sketchcommitments to shape (but also to be shaped by!) his engagement with the church fathers, and in particular Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria whom he especially loved (for an excellent examination of Torrance’s relation to patristic theology, I would highly recommend Jason Radcliff’s T.F. Torrance and the Church Fathers). As I commented on Fr Kimel’s blog, I don’t think that we have any substantial disagreement in this regard.

However, I do want to provide one more example that demonstrates, if not an exact identity, at least a significant continuity that exists between Torrance’s understanding of Christ’s vicarious humanity (which encompasses far more than simply Christ’s faith on our behalf) and the church fathers, this time with reference to Irenaeus. First, here is what Torrance has to say regarding one particular aspect of Christ’s vicarious humanity, i.e. his work of receiving and mediating the Spirit on behalf of and to humanity:

Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, is thus the Mediator of the Holy Spirit. Since he is himself both the God who gives and the Man who receives in one Person he is in a position to transfer in a profound and intimate way what belongs to us in our human nature to himself and to transfer what is his to our human nature in him. That applies above all to the gift of the Holy Spirit whom he received fully and completely in his human nature for us. Hence in the union of divine and human natures in the Son the eternal Spirit of the living God has composed himself, as it were, to dwell with human nature, and human nature has been adapted and become accustomed to receive and bear that same Holy Spirit.[1]

As this paragraph makes clear, Torrance does not simply conceive the vicarious humanity of Christ as consisting in his faith and obedience that he carried out in our flesh and on our behalf. It extends also to his receiving of the Holy Spirit which, as Athanasius contended, was not so much in view of his own need but of ours:

And if, as the Lord Himself has said, the Spirit is His, and takes of His, and He sends It, it is not the Word, considered as the Word and Wisdom, who is anointed with the Spirit which He Himself gives, but the flesh assumed by Him which is anointed in Him and by Him; that the sanctification coming to the Lord as man, may come to all men from Him…Therefore ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever,’ remaining unalterable, and at once gives and receives, giving as God’s Word, receiving as man. It is not the Word then, viewed as the Word, that is promoted; for He had all things and has them always; but men, who have in Him and through Him their origin of receiving them. For, when He is now said to be anointed in a human respect, we it is who in Him are anointed; since also when He is baptized, we it is who in Him are baptized.[2]

For both Athanasius and Torrance, humanity was created to live in communion with the Father through the mediation of the Word and by means of the Holy Spirit. The fall into sin, however, destroyed human capacity to receive (or, once received, to hold on to) the Spirit, thus excluding humanity from the communion for which it existed. Thus, Christ assumed human flesh not only to do away with our sin and death, but also to vicariously receive our baptism in the Holy Spirit and thereby ‘adapt’ and ‘accustom’ our human nature to receive the same.

Perhaps even more than Athanasius, it was Irenaeus who stressed this particular aspect of Christ’s saving work. Julie Canlis explains:

The whole Irenaean history of salvation can be seen through this slow process by which humanity is “little by little accustomed [assuescentes] to receive and bear God” (AH V.8.1)…Even in the Garden, Adam needed “accustoming” to be able to receive the full gifts of the Spirit, for he was “neither accustomed nor disciplined to perfection” (AH IV.38.1). Here Irenaeus is not speaking of an aesthetic or moral perfection; rather, he insists upon “terming those persons ‘perfect’ who have received the Spirit of God” (AH V.6.1). As we noted of Christ’s progressive reception of the Spirit, the Spirit is not 200px-saint_irenaeusa quantifiable object for Irenaeus, but a quality of life as deeper koinonia with God. Full koinonia is a glory that Adam cannot stomach from the outset, for “even if he had received the Spirit, he could not have contained [capere] it” (AH IV.38.2). Though the full module of “accustoming” was to happen within the pleasant bounds of the Garden, Adam instead refused the Holy Spirit…

Although the first Adam “could not [capere] him,” those in the Second Adam are brought to their created telos through the slow but steady accustoming of the two hands. This exchange is accomplished by a double accustoming: God’s accustoming himself to humanity, and humanity’s becoming coming accustomed to God. Jesus’ mission is expressed precisely in these terms:

Giving humanity the power to contain [seize – capere] the Father, the Word of God who dwelt in man became the Son of man that He might accustom [adsuesceret] man to receive God, and God to dwell in man, according to the good pleasure of the Father. (AIH III.2o.2)

This is the descent of Jesus: in his humanity, creation is once again accustomed and enlarged to receive the things of God. The Spirit’s mission resonates with this theme, as he then takes this christological accomplishment and kneads it into the rest of humanity.

Wherefore [the Spirit] did also descend upon the Son of God, made the Son of man, becoming accustomed [adsuescens] in fellowship with Him to dwell in the human race, to rest with human beings, and to dwell in the workmanship of God, working the will of the Father in them, and renewing them from their old habits into the newness of Christ. (AIH III.17.1)

Participation (bearing/seizing/containing God) is a two-sided miracle, and we find both sides clearly outlined above. First, humanity is destined for a deep and enduring relationship of participation in God and in his divine gifts. Although this is wholly “unnatural” to humanity, God desires to bring humanity (assuesco) to the place such that it can bear the weight of his glory. Exchange, therefore, stands at the center of Irenaean participation. It is only the “descent of God” and his self-accommodation to humanity that allows for humanity to become accustomed, in Christ, to the things of God, thereby “ascending” to the Father.[1]

As we read Canlis’ account, replete as it is with statements of Irenaeus himself, it should be clear the substantial continuity between his understanding of Christ’s work of ‘accustoming’ our human nature to ‘bear’ or ‘seize’ or ‘contain’ the Spirit and Torrance’s affirmation that “in the Son the eternal Spirit of the living God has composed himself, as it were, to dwell with human nature, and human nature has been adapted and become accustomed to receive and bear that same Holy Spirit”. At least with respect to this particular facet of (to borrow Anatolios’ phrase) ‘the soteriological significance of Christ’s humanity’, not only do we see significant agreement between Irenaeus and Torrance but, even more, a virtual identity in language.

As with Athanasius, I am not trying to say that Irenaeus was a proto-Torrancean or that Torrance was a contemporary Irenaean. My point is much more modest: while it is beyond doubt that Torrance engaged the church fathers constructively, he did so not without first listening to them carefully and learning from them humbly, even appropriating some of their own language into his own theological reconstruction. I think that for this reason, Torrance was, in one sense, even more faithful to the legacy of the fathers than he would have been had he simply sought to repristinate verbatim their exact teaching. Had Irenaeus or Athanasius adopted the latter methodology, we would never have known their respective doctrines of recapitulation or the homoousion! It is the greatest honor to their legacy not so much to merely repeat what they said, but to learn from them and, where necessary under the guidance of the Word and Spirit of God, develop their insights even further. This is where, in my view, Torrance excelled.


[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.246-247, emphasis mine.

[2] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. Four Discourses against the Arians. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 334–335.

[3] Canlis, J., 201o. Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.214-217.