“A New Light Falls on God”: H.R. Mackintosh on the Wonder and Power of God’s Self-Limitation in the Incarnation

The following reflection is excerpted from H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 466-468.

Take the central thought of the Gospel, which has captured and subdued the Christian soul, and let us ask whether it has received full justice at the hands of ecclesiastical Christology. God in Christ, we believe, came down to the plane of suffering men that He might lift them up. Descending into poverty, shame, and weakness, the Lord was stripped of all credit, despoiled of every right, humbled to the very depths of social and historical ignominy, that in this self-abasement of God there might be found the redemption of man.

So that the Gospel tells of Divine sacrifice, with the cross as its unspeakable consummationthe Saviour’s lot was one of poverty, suffering, and humiliation, until the
triumphant death and resurrection which wrought 
deliverance and called mankind aac6e069f1f609350645cdecf18ab202--church-architecture-architecture-detailsfrom its grave. Hearts have thrilled to this message that Christ came from such a height and to such a depth! He took our human frailty to be His own. So dear were human souls to God, that He travelled far and stooped low that He might thus touch and raise the needy.

Now this is an unheard-of truth, casting an amazing light on God, and revolutionising the world’s faint notions of what it means for Him to be Father; but traditional Christology, on the whole, has found it too much to believe. Its persistent obscuration of Jesus’ real manhood proves that after all it shrank from the thought of a true “kinsman Redeemer”—one of ourselves in flesh and spirit…. He became poor—there a new light falls on God, who for us became subject to pain; but one may well feel that the light is not enhanced but rather diminished if with tradition we have to add that nevertheless He all the time remained rich. For in so far as He remained rich—in the same sense of riches—and gave up nothing to be near us, need of a Divine Helper to bear our load would be still unsatisfied. What we require is the never-failing sympathy which takes shape in action, “entering,” as it has been put, “into conditions that are foreign to it in order to prove its quality.”

Jesus’ life then becomes a study in the power, not the weakness, of limitations, while yet the higher Divine content transfigures the limits that confine it. And it is just this sympathy without reserve which appears when the fact of Christ becomes for us a transparent medium through which the very grace of God is shining. God, we now know, is love; but it was necessary that He should live beside us, in the form of one finite spirit, in order that His love and its sacrifice might be known to men and win back their love.

A More Subduing Gospel: H.R. Mackintosh on the Evangelical Significance of Christ’s Pre-existence

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[The following is excerpted from H.R. Mackingtosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 460-462.]

It will not be seriously questioned that the chief glory of the Christian religion is its characteristic conception of the Divine love. God’s love in Christ is triumphantly set forth as something infinite and measureless. But is it really so, apart from Christ’s eternity? Is it the fact, His eternity once denied, that we cannot imagine a vaster exhibition of Divine mercy to the world? If in Christ we have something less than “God’s presence and His very self,” because He grows on the soil of human nature, as simply human, it is surely clear that the scale on which the love of the Eternal has been made manifest is now gravely altered. We have somehow to abridge our once glorious vision of self-sacrifice as the inmost core and focus of the Divine life.

It is not that God cannot be known as Love apart from His incarnation in Christ. To say so would be false. But it is not false to say that apart from the gift of Christ out of an eternal being, God’s love would not be displayed so amazingly, in a form and magnitude which inspire, awe, and overwhelm the soul. A Christ who is eternal, and a Christ of whom we cannot tell whether He is eternal or not, are positively and profoundly different, and the types of faith they respectively call forth will differ correspondingly both in spiritual horizon and in moral inspiration.

Our sense of Christ’s self-abnegation, His lowliness, His grace, His utter passion of sacrifice—is perceptibly expanded or reduced according as we do or do not hold that He who bore these things had entered by Divine volition into the situation of which they form a part. Something which is irreplaceable drops away when His eternity has been cancelled. The Gospel can never be the same again, and the loss is borne not by speculative dogmatic but by personal religion. Especially the preacher has parted with a certain leverage of moral appeal no more to be regained. It is harder now to persuade men that God loves us better than He loves Himself….

We cannot know the pre-temporal as we do the earthly life of Christ, or even as we do (in a real sense) His life of exalted glory. The stage in His career at which we meet with Him is after Bethlehem, not before it; we meet with Him supremely in His recorded words and actions; and he who has not found God in the record of these three sinless years can have no stake of a vital or intelligible kind in the question whether they stand out against an infinite and eternal background. But indeed the Church has clung to faith in Christ’s pre-existence … as the only means open to human thought of affirming the priceless truth that He is not the perfect Saint merely, offered by humanity to God, but the beloved Son sent forth by the Father, cast in grace upon “this bank and shoal of time,” that in love He might give Himself for us all. It scarcely admits of doubt which of the two views will inspire the more subduing Gospel.

Men say that the conception of eternity mingling thus with time is too vast for truth; with the apostles we may answer that its vastness is its evidence, since the God made known in Jesus gives only gifts so great that none greater can be conceived. To part with the glory and wonder of this faith is in a grave measure to part with the native joy of the Christian religion, and to remove the scene of sacrifice from heaven to earth will inevitably stimulate the less worthy impulse felt at some time by all to preach about man instead of God.

Serving the World as the Body of Christ: Exploring the First Level of a Scientific Missiology with T.F. Torrance

Continuing my engagement with T.F. Torrance toward what might be called a “scientific” missiology, I move further into the first level in which we come to understand the mission of the church in terms of its historical manifestation, of the story of redemption as it is recounted in Scripture. Central to this story, as Torrance would have it, is the notion of the church as “Body of Christ”, yet the meaning and significance of this can only be comprehended within the entire sweep of the biblical drama. Torrance writes:

The Church does not derive from below but from above, but it does not exist apart from the people that make up its membership or apart from the fellowship they have with the life of God. The Church is a divine creation but in the divine economy it did not come into being automatically with the creation of the world or all at once with the establishment in the world of a human society. The Church was formed in history as God called and entered into communion with His people and in and through them embodied and worked out by mighty acts of grace His purpose of love which He brought at last to its fulfilment in Jesus Christ.

While there is only one people and Church of God throughout all ages from the beginning of creation to the end, there are three stages or phases of its life. It took a preparatory form before the Incarnation as in the covenant mercies of the Body-of-Christ-300x295Father one people was called and separated out as the instrument through which all peoples were to be blessed; it was given a new form in Jesus Christ who gathered up and reconstructed the one people of God in Himself, and poured out His Spirit upon broken and divided humanity that through His atoning life and death and resurrection all men might be reconciled to God and to one another, sharing equally in the life and love of the Father as the new undivided race; but it is yet to take on its final and eternal form when Christ comes again to judge and renew His creation, for then, the Church which now lives in the condition of humiliation and in the ambiguous forms of this age, will be manifested as the new creation without spot or wrinkle, eternally serving and sharing in the glory of God. 

Because Jesus Christ through the Spirit dwells in the midst of the Church on earth, making it His own Body or His earthly and historical form of existence, it already partakes of the eternal life of God that freely flows out through Him to all men. Because its existence is rooted in the sending of the Son by the Father to be the Saviour of the world, the Church lives its divinely given life in history as the servant of Christ sent out by Him to proclaim the Gospel of God’s love to the whole world and to be in itself as the reconciled people of God the provisional form of the new creation.

It is therefore the mission of the Church by the witness of its word and life to bring to all nations and races the message of hope in the darkness and dangers of our times, and to summon them to the obedience of the Gospel, that the love of God in Jesus Christ may be poured out upon them by the Spirit, breaking down all barriers, healing all divisions and gathering them together as one universal flock to meet the coming of the Great Shepherd, the one Lord and Saviour of all. [“The Foundation of the Church”, Scottish Journal of Theology 16, no. 2 (1963): 113-114]

Torrance’s account is succinct and dense, for here it constitutes the introduction and overview to his essay “The Foundation of the Church”. What Torrance goes on to recount is the birth and growth of the church through its three main stages: the church as Israel, the church as the Body of Christ, and the church as the glorified new humanity of God. Torrance denotes the first stage as preparatory, precisely because its goal was the coming of the Savior who would represent and embody the people of God in himself, thereby carrying it through the throes of death and into the glory of resurrection. The entire history of Israel was an ever-deepening union between a holy God and a sinful people, a combustible combination that eventually resulted in a judgment so total that only one Israelite was, so to speak, left standing: Jesus Christ, the One who represented the Many. Yet this One was no mere Israelite, indeed he was also the God of Israel, finally and fully united to humanity in a perfect and indissoluble union.

Thus, it was only after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ in whom the reconciliation of God and humanity was realized that the church could be so united to God through Christ and in the Spirit that it could be called Christ’s “Body”. As this Body, the church is charged, while it awaits the consummation of redemption during the time of Christ’s hiddenness in heaven, with serving as his servant and herald to all the world, announcing the good news of his achievement in the flesh and on the behalf of all people. It is precisely because the church exists and serves as the Body of Christ that it must be and do nothing except which its Head is and does. Hence the need for a scientific missiology: the mission of the church must exclusively derive from and strictly conform to the mission of Christ, yet in a way proper to its dependent and submissive relation as Body.

Now there is still much further work that needs to be done in order to fully define and provide practical direction for the mission of the church, yet this is the essential starting point. The church of the present is the body of Christ, reborn from Israel through the death and resurrection of Christ and united to him by the Spirit, yet still awaiting the consummation of redemption at the parousia of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.

The Measure of Jesus’ Humanity is the Measure of God’s Love: H.R. Mackintosh on the Significance of Christ’s True Manhood

Why is the full and complete humanity of the Son of God incarnate so vital to the Christian faith? H.R. Mackintosh helpfully responds in summary form:

The true manhood of Jesus is of cardinal significance in four ways.

(1) It guarantees a veritable incarnation. If the manhood of Christ is unreal, at any remotest point, God has not quite stooped to unity with man. He has not come so low as we require; there has been reservation and refusal; some part of our burden, after all, has been left untouched. ” The unassumed is the unhealed.” In that case, no matter from what height Christ came, He has not reached to us, but has stopped short…. But it has not been so. The centre of the catholic faith is that God in Christ came the whole way: “forasmuch as the children were sharers in flesh and blood, He also in like manner partook of the same.” He drew near in person, that we might clasp Him as a kinsman in our arms, and feel the Infinite One to be our own. This has touched men most, breaking the world’s hard heart. The measure of Jesus’ humanity
is the measure of God’s love. As it has been put, “love is not in full possession until it can fully display itself”; and as Christ passed from depth to depth, entering one 13386518-Rome-Italy-30-March-2012-Replica-of-the-famous-Vitruvian-Man-drawing-created-by-Leonardo-da-Vinci-Stock-Photochamber after another of human experience, and submitting at length to death itself, He gave a proof of Divine love than which nothing greater can be conceived….

(2) It provides an essential basis of atonement. All true Christian ideas in regard to atonement may be viewed as aspects of Jesus’ self-identification with the sinful. If then He who lived and died for men had Himself been man only in seeming, or in part, no expiation were after all made in our name; for only He can act with God for man who speaks from man’s side. It is as Christ became our fellow, moving in a true manhood through obedience, conflict, and death, that He entered into our condition fully and availed in our behalf to receive from God’s hand the suffering in which is expressed the Divine judgment upon sin. Jesus’ manhood is the corner-stone of reconciliation.

(3) It secures the reality of a perfect example. Jesus is our pattern in faith and prayer; but it cannot be too clearly understood that no act can be exemplary which is not first of all dutiful. The human Christ prayed, not in order that He might furnish a model to His disciples, but because to Him prayer was an inward need and duty. So profound and unmanning was His fear in Gethsemane that like the children of men He took refuge under God’s shadow, and was heard for His reverent trust. In our temptations it is everything to know that He also was tempted. And here that sinless manhood, which has seemed at times to remove Him from us, and to make sympathy impossible, reveals itself as the nerve and spring of His redemptive power. It is not, one may surmise, to those who themselves once fell in drunkenness or lust that frail men and women instinctively look for aid and hope; it is rather to those who, although schooled in fellow-feeling by temptation, have kept their virtue pure. So Jesus’ victory constitutes Him the source of victory for men; in Him, if we may put it so, Divine grace is humanised, and made available for sinners….

(4) It points to our eternal destiny. It is because Jesus the Man has risen from the grave and passed to a transcendent life with God that we too may triumph in prospect over death. As St. Paul has expressed it, with his most delicate precision in the use of our Lord’s names, “if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus shall God bring with Him.” For the resurrection of Jesus, our human Surety and Comrade, is a test case; and as such it has fixed a principle, revealing as it does how the Father’s love and power will deal with all believers. Thus once more the central significance of Christ’s true humanity is manifest. On its integrity and perfect wholeness rest for us the unspeakable consolations of faith in a blessed immortality.

from The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 404-406.

“So Many Prismatic Rays in the Diamond of His Soul”: H.R. Mackintosh on the Missional Force of the Person of Christ

T.F. Torrance attributed his lifelong passion for the integration of the task of theology and the mission of the church in large part to his beloved teacher and mentor H.R. Mackintosh. Torrance often testified to Mackintosh’s constant insistence that a truly Christian theology must always be a missionary theology. Put differently, Torrance learned from Mackintosh that if theology did not fuel mission — better, if theology did e3a8b30033356e46d4bfd113c0b1482enot itself constitute mission — then it was not a theology worthy of being associated with Jesus Christ.

In the following excerpt from Mackintosh’s The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912: 391-392), we catch a glimpse of what Torrance was speaking. Here, Mackintosh meditates on the biblical accounts of Christ’s life and ministry, marveling in universal reach and relevancy of one Jewish man from the first century:

We rightly signalise … the wondrous combination in Christ of qualities which tend in other men to be only opposed angularities, but which by their perfect harmony in Jesus fit Him to be Saviour alike of the single life and of society. Thus He was stern with an awful gravity that shook the heart, made undreamt-of claims, and shrank from no menace of judgment or unrelenting exposure of evil. He has given to men a new conception of love, and lives on in their souls by the memory of a tireless pity that received sinners, wept over their blindness, and at last bore death itself in a passion to redeem.

Between the two — the indignation and the tenderness — there is no random vacillation, no capricious change; each rather is the support, content, and basis of the other. He lives above the power of earthly things, yet with no disdain. Never was ascetic less the captive of mere pleasure, yet life is holy for Him in all its elements; if He has not where to lay His head, He can still be partaker in the innocent joy of a wedding-feast. He ate and drank as a man with men, He bade them pray for daily bread, He set forth the uncareful happiness of children as model; yet when He calls they must leave home and goods and honour all behind, as having no value in competition with the Kingdom and its righteousness. There joined in Him the loftiest consciousness of self and the lowliest humility. He was more than Solomon or the Temple—He was the Lord of His disciples, and the very Son of God; yet He is baptized at the hands of John, He comes not to be ministered unto but to minister, He puts aside the glory men can give. In His piety the two strands of fervid ecstasy and quiet faith are so intertwined that it is hard if not impossible to tell which predominates. In His relations to others we see Him now as disposed to private friendships, now as caring for the multitude, now as the Solitary yet always and in every case Himself.

Thus, as von Soden has expressed it, “in the nature of Jesus there was no lack of contrasts. But they are always resolved in the wonderful completeness and harmony of His being. The opposites are always in equilibrium. Therefore His personality, many-sided as it is, is not complicated. In the last resort they are not indeed so many independent qualities; but, strictly speaking, under the action of His human nature and its surroundings, they are just so many prismatic rays in the diamond of His soul.” Now this incomparable diversity of interests or qualities, all fused obediently in a character single and distinct, like a flavour or a fragrance, is part of what we mean by the universality of Jesus’ manhood. The true attributes of humanity meet in Him, yet they meet in an individual life which thus reaches out to every member of the race, and forms its proper centre and rallying-point. In virtue of this ethical universality, Jesus is more real, sure, and near to men of every time than friend to friend. Christian missions are the proof. Though set within a specific race and age, He is none the less in the plenitude of His manhood the Man of every age, the Elder Brother of us all.

Aside from the worshipful, almost hymnic tone with which Mackintosh writes, what impresses me most about this passage is the brief yet powerful connection drawn between the evangelical portrait of Christ and the compulsion that drives Christian missions. Without being able to improve upon Mackintosh’s exposition, I can only observe that, for him, Christian missions is the inevitable fruit of the arresting reality of the person of Jesus Christ. As we press ever deeper into communion with Christ as he is presented to us in the gospel (e.g. in all of his historical particularity), we find that we are brought ever more under the irresistible pressure of his person constraining us to proclaim the gospel on a universal scale. The astonishing convergence of all the prismatic rays of humanity in the diamond of Christ’s individual human soul constitutes such a compelling beauty that we are pushed inexorably toward the ends of the earth to invite others to behold that beauty with us. For Mackintosh, it is simply the objective history of Christian missions to all the world that substantiates this fact.

I am reminded of what N.T. Wright wrote in his short book on Following Jesus: “The longer you look at Jesus, the more you will want to serve him in this world. That is, of course, if it’s the real Jesus you’re looking at” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994: ix). So, if we find that we are lacking in missionary zeal, I suppose the question that we need to ask ourselves is this: is the Jesus in whom we say we believe Jesus as he truly is?

In Solidarity with Sinners: The Public Ministry of Christ and the Mission of the Church (Reformission Monday)

In seeking to frame an understanding of the church’s mission on the basis of the message which it is called to proclaim, T.F. Torrance reminds us of the irreducibly personal nature of Christ’s public ministry among sinners. That is, he did not merely stand on a mount and preach; he also enmeshed himself in the lives of individual people, working his “contagious holiness” into the blood and bone of human joy and struggle, pain and sorrow. Torrance writes:

The atoning work of Christ seen at work like that is no mechanical or merely forensic transaction; it is the activity of the divine person penetrating directly into the hearts of men and women and in an acutely personal way, by way of God’s decision of love, opening up people in their decisions and gathering them into communion and union with God. That was the three years’ ministry of Jesus. That is why he operated as he did with unheard of meekness and kindness, shrouding his divine majesty and even veiling the naked truth by parable, lest he should blatantly crush the bruised reed or quench the smoking flax. He lived with publicans and sinners, and scribes and pharisees, and people of all sorts, gradually revealing himself, and as they were able to hear he spoke to them the truth, challenging them at every turn in their decisions before the majesty of the leper-2kingdom. Acting on their decisions and by means of them he penetrated into the innermost being of men and women as only he who is God and man could.

And so all through those years of historical encounter and human living in the midst of people and their hurts and needs, he involved himself more and more, intertwined himself more and more completely with sinners, until in the fullest and most personal sense he was the representative of the divine judge to us, condemning by his truth our sin in the flesh, and was also our representative, representing us the judged as he wore our humanity. Because he was God’s Son become man he could both incarnate God for us, and represent us before God, this one man on behalf of all men and women.

In this authoritative representation, representation in truth and reality, of God to us and of all to God, Jesus Christ stood in the gap to work out to the bitter end in justice and mercy the conflict between God’s holy love consistently true to itself, and man’s persistent contradiction of God’s love even when it was poured out in utter compassion and grace. In that, as the very heart of God beating within our humanity, he really suffered our distress, and bore also the whole of God’s judgement upon the humanity with which, in all its guilt and rejection, he stood in complete solidarity. All the years of his earthly life, but especially during those three years of his public ministry, as he revealed the Father, and poured out the Father’s compassion, he engaged himself more and more closely with the ultimate things, the very last things, until on the cross the eschaton took place, the final judgement and final salvation. [T.F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 152-153]

In application to our mission as followers of Christ, it is of course clear that we cannot repeat or extend the once-for-all atoning work of Jesus in the sphere of mission to which we are called. Yet as witnesses to his atoning work, we are constrained to adopt a method of mission that coheres with the message which we proclaim. Thus, as we proclaim the good news of Christ’s personal entwinement in our suffering and weakness in order to redeem us, as it were, from the inside out, it will not do for us to maintain a safe distance from the dirt and grime of those whom we are trying to reach. We cannot swoop down dropping gospel “bombs” and then swiftly fly back to our safe haven. No, the Christ whom we proclaim compels us to personal, intimate involvement in the aches and pains, the hopes and fears, the laughter and the tears of the people around us. The apostle Paul is a shining example of this kind of ministry when he reminded the Thessalonians that “being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8).

Such was the nature of Christ’s earthly ministry, and so must be the nature of our own.

“In Loving Communion With Our Misery”: H.R. Mackintosh on the Cross as the Passion of God in Christ

[T]he Christian is intuitively aware that the vicarious love revealed in Jesus’ cross is the love of God. It is He that in Christ gives us “rest by His sorrow and life by His death.” It is He that stands beside us and receives our trespass, in its awful gravity for His mind and ours, upon Himself. Unless this were so, unless the passion to which we lift our eyes at Calvary were a Divine passion, through which we have sight of a grief that troubles even the Eternal Blessedness, it would simply mean nothing for religion. It could not affect the relation of man to God.

On the other hand, just because as we confront Jesus, living and dying, we become conscious of the Divine sacrifice poured forth in Him, we are irresistibly impelled to form one view of His person rather than another. Something of the pathos and sublimity of that word stirs and subdues the mind: “He that spared not His own Son, but delivered 81cb1a3420eb29a1756667775004c438Him up for us all.” Narrow and poor as human terms are, we must needs employ them to formulate the certainty of faith that in the sufferings of Christ for our sake God suffered; that for us the Father hid His face from the Son, withdrew His hand, permitted the desolation, left Him to His foes. The impression we receive at the cross is unintelligible save as in Jesus we behold very God “in loving communion with our misery.”

Again, the condemnation of sin visible in the life and death of Jesus is a condemnation uttered by God Himself. Not by a divinely commissioned prophet only, or other inspired deputy, but by God. We have a living sense of this as we are face to face with Jesus. There looks on us from His eyes the holiness with which evil cannot dwell. Never was sin so exposed, and, by exposure, reprobated, doomed, and sentenced as by our Lord’s demeanour. In His dealings with the sinful, and with the consequences of sin, this Man is one with God; and what awes the beholder in the cross is not the meeting of sin and a good man, but the meeting of sin with the Eternal. If as true man Christ felt the horror and curse of moral evil, He also in unity with God felt and judged its guilt.

And if, in spite of that judgment and condemnation, He goes to death for sinners, He thereby exemplifies in a supreme measure the moral truth that only He can forgive sin who expiates it. This judgment, then, of which Jesus is the personal manifestation, is a Divine judgment; at the same time, it is pronounced through the medium of perfect manhood. It comes from the lips of one who Himself had battled with temptation and had conquered in the power of God. Once more, the atonement raises great Christological questions by forcing us to ask how the obedience of Jesus avails for us, the guilty. It has always been a baffling problem: How can the suffering of one person benefit, or savingly embrace and comprehend, any other?…

[I]f Jesus Christ were one more human individual merely, as separate from men as we are from our fellows, the difficulty just noted would be insoluble, alike in logic and in morality. But if with St. Paul and St. John we decline to conceive Christ as one isolated person, and the Christian as another, then the representative act of sacrifice on His part is quite another thing, and the death that He died for all may have the significance which the death of all would itself have. Union, between Christ and men, that is, just because it is a union, has two sides. His self-identification with us implies consequences both for Him and us. As the representative or central person—none the less truly individual, as we shall see —He stands in a momentous kinship to men; and this universality of relation forms one vital condition of His power to make atonement.

It is surely the false step in many theories of atonement that they first abstract the Christian from Christ—severing them as two mutually impervious personalities—and then find it hard, naturally, to put them back into such a oneness that what Christ did and is fundamentally modifies our relation to God…. Not only so; it is precisely as we recognise the true Godhead of Christ that we are able to repel successfully one of the gravest moral difficulties which the doctrine of atonement has created. This is the difficulty men feel when they point to the impossible ideas of “an enraged Father, a victimised Son, the unrighteous punishment of the innocent, the unrighteous reward of the guilty.” As against certain forms of theory we need not question the justice of the charge. But it is at least obvious that the mistake of suggesting a kind of antagonism between the Father and the Son attaches more naturally to a view of Christ which denies, than to one which asserts, His deity. If Christ were but one more good man, there might be reason in the argument that redeeming love originated in man, not in God, and that by the urgency and passion of His sacrifice Christ had induced an otherwise implacable God to show mercy. But this antagonism we cannot suspect if we are sure that in Christ God Himself has bowed down to bless us. If the required atonement has been provided by God, out of His own life, it is meaningless to speak any more of His implacability.

H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 330-333.

“The Disqualification of Human Powers”: The Virgin Birth and Salvation By Faith Alone (T.F. Torrance on the Apostles’ Creed)

Here in Italy, the month of May is dedicated to the veneration of Mary the mother of Jesus. Outside the local Catholic parish, a large banner reads: “Maria, Mamma di Noi Tutti” (Mary, Mama of Us All). In Catholic theology, Mary is held up as the prime example of divine-human cooperation in salvation. Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium (61-62) states:

[Mary] cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Saviour in giving back supernatural life to souls…. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and cultics, until they are led into the happiness of their true home. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix.

I would contend, however, that Catholic teaching has it completely backwards. Far from being the greatest example of human cooperation in salvation (i.e. a synergistic soteriology), Mary constitutes the greatest example — or what T.F. Torrance calls “the great bulwark” — of the historic Reformation emphases on salvation by grace alone through faith alone. According to Torrance, these doctrines are necessitated by and implied in the central affirmations of the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus Christ was “born of the virgin Mary and conceived by the Holy Spirit”. Torrance explains:

The two usual credal statements used for this dogma [of the virgin birth] are, natus ex virgine Maria and conceptus de Spiritu Sancto: Born of the Virgin Mary, and conceived by the Holy Spirit. To the understanding of these we must address ourselves. The “born of the Virgin Mary” means that Jesus, while really and genuinely having a human birth of a human mother, was not born as other men are. The “conceived of the Holy Ghost” means that the secret and origin of Jesus lie wholly with God and in his sovereign gracious will alone…. That is to say under the sovereign act of God, not under the sovereignty or act of an earthly father. In other words, in this act, man and God are not co-equal partners. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth is the great bulwark, or ought to be when rightly understood, against all 1268px-henry_ossawa_tanner_american_active_france_-_the_annunciation_-_google_art_projectsynergistic ideas and all monistic conceptions of faith in God. What took place, took place under the free will of God, in which God alone was Lord and Master, in which the birth of Jesus was grounded in the sovereign creative act of God alone.

But that does not mean that the work is an act on the part of God without man, but on the contrary that “man” plays a great part in it all, for in Jesus the eternal Son of God becomes man, but he becomes man, and the man-side of the act is the predicate side alone. This act of God’s sheer Grace, this advent of God, … means a disqualification of human capabilities and powers as rendering possible an approach of man to God. It is to man that God comes. But in that God comes, in that God acts in an act which is grounded in himself alone, though among men, there is carried in the words “born of the virgin Mary” the disqualification of human powers. Jesus Christ is not in any sense, even in a co-operative sense a product of human conjugal or any other activity. The fact that he is born of the Virgin betokens the downright reality of God’s Grace which begins from and continues in his sovereign initiative. Thus here we have the sentence on human nature to the effect that human nature as such has no capacity, no power, no worth, to beget a Christ, to be the place and ground of divine revelation. Man and God are not equal partners here in the work of Salvation; it is entirely of Grace — “conceived of the Holy Spirit“. How are we to understand that?

First, we are to see that the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ means that he is in no sense the product of the causal-historical process of nature or of the world. God the eternal Son entered into humanity and assumed flesh and took it to be one with himself in the Person of Jesus Christ….

Second, we are to think of the birth of Jesus as a creation on the part of God, a creative act of the Spirit, in Mary. But here we must not think that there was any sort of marriage between Mary and the Spirit — that idea would simply be heathen mythology. Nor are we to think that this creation was creation out of nothing, but rather creation out of our fallen Adamic humanity, ex virgine, out of the Jewess Mary. That is to say the creation of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin presupposes the first creation, and betokens a recreation in the midst of and out of the old. That is a large part of the significance of the Incarnation, that Christ really comes to us, to our flesh and assumes it; that out of our fallen humanity which God has come in Christ to redeem and reconcile fallen sinful human beings to himself, he created and assumed flesh for himself for ever, to be one with it. The humanity of Jesus Christ was a real and not a docetic affair. This indicates, nevertheless, the fact that the origin of Christ was an act of God alone, and therefore an act of sheer Grace.

Third, we are to understand the birth of Jesus as a break in the sinful autonomy of man…. In his own sovereignty or autonomy man is not free for God’s Word. And thus the birth of Jesus takes place apart from any act of human will or assertion, apart from human sovereignty, such as epitomised in the act of the man or the father. God himself, God the Holy Spirit, is the actor here, and he alone, in which the act of human assertion is excluded. Thus Christ is not born as a result of human nature, but of an act of the Spirit; in other words, the Incarnation is an act of pure Grace and not of nature. Here in the Virgin birth man has no say in the matter; he exercises no act of self-will in order even in helping to bring about the act of God.

Fourth, it is here that we may discern very clearly the significance or meaning of the Grace of God in its most pure form; and in a form we may do well to take as a norm for our understanding of all God’s gracious acts, and of all other theological statements. God takes the initiative and approaches Mary, telling her of the choice of God. She has not to do anything in the matter except under the operation of the Spirit. What she does is humbly believe, and is blessed because of that, not because of her virginity. The attitude that the believer must take up towards Christ in Salvation is that very attitude of trust which Mary took up: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord!” It is an act of humble willing obedience and surrender to God. And in her there took place the incomprehensible act of God, the birth of Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God with us!

We must think of our own salvation in Christ in a similar way. In the address or annunciation to us of the Word of Christ himself, we are called to surrender to him in like manner, and there takes place in us the miracle of Christ is us! That is the Christian message. And it is not at all of our active willing. To as many as believe in God, to them gives he the exousia or power to become the sons of God! We are born again, to transpose the metaphor, not of the will of man or of the will of the flesh, but of the will of God…. What happened at the birth of Jesus Christ altogether uniquely, happens on another level in every instance of rebirth in men, women and children in Christ Jesus, or when he enters into our hearts and thereby recreates us. Just as in the birth of Jesus Christ there was no foregoing action on the part of human co-operation between an earthly father and mother, so in our salvation there is no Pelagian or synergistic activity either. It is from first to last salvation by Grace alone, salvation of men and women and children and among men and women and children that is grounded on an immediate act of God himself, and not on both man or woman or child and God.

Christ was conceived immediately by the Spirit — therefore in a Virgin. We are saved by faith, but in faith which is itself ultimately the gift of God, a human act, yes but grounded in God alone…. Faith is here not a creation out of nothing, but is creatively begotten through the Holy Spirit in a human child of God, in the sphere of his/her human choices and decisions, not of his/her human personality, but a creation out of it, and therefore independent of it. Thus in no sense is faith a product of our human capacities, thought or ability or insight…. As Mary welcomes the annunciation of the Word, of the Christ, and receives it, and so conceives: so we receive the Word of God which is engrafted into our souls, and, as it were, ‘conceive Christ’ within our hearts. We simply receive, giving up human capacities and powers. We do not bring the Christ into us, we do not appropriate him or make him real to us and in us. That is the work of the Holy Spirit; our part is humbly and thankfully to yield up all our autonomy and sovereignty, in surrender to the Work of God on and in and for us through the Spirit. [T.F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Jesus Christ (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 118-120.]

No doubt Torrance’s exegesis of these credal statements will be contested by many. I am convinced, however, that he is correct. When we pay careful attention to the biblical narratives in which Jesus’s conception and birth are recounted, it seems clear that the Evangelists stress the absolute sovereignty of grace. It is the Word of God (alone!), communicated by the angel, that takes the initiative. It is the Word of God, enlivened by the Spirit, that works in Mary that which, from a human perspective, is an impossibility. Mary was a virgin, and nothing lay in her power, without a human father, to bring her Savior to conception. It was, in other words, wholly an act of sheer grace. Grace alone. And all that Mary could do in response — that which she did do — was merely accept the Word of God to her and the Work of God within her by faith. By faith alone.

And so it is with all of us as well. We hear the Word of God in the word of the gospel which promises us the work of God in salvation. All we can do is simply respond in simple faith: “May it be to me according to your word”. Thus it is that the Apostles’ Creed teaches salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

Every Thought Captive: Why All Theology Must Conform to Christ (with reference to T.F. Torrance)

As expressed in John 1 and Hebrews 1, Jesus Christ is the ultimate and definitive revelation of God because he himself is the Word to which the prophets and apostles, like John the Baptist, were merely witnesses. Thus, when it comes to interpreting Scripture and formulating theology, we cannot start with an approach that we have developed or adopted from sources or philosophies external to this witness. Rather we must allow the form of our interpretive and theological method (and not just the material content!) to be shaped and determined by Christ who must be the Alpha and the Omega of all our thought and speech about God.

I would argue that this approach to Scripture and theology is necessitated by what we read in John 1:14, 18:

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“In the Beginning” by Makoto Fujimura

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth…. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

In this passage, the apostle John makes clear that the form of God’s definitive self-revelation is inextricably bound up with its content, because “the Word became flesh” was both the message and the medium. Jesus Christ, the Word enfleshed, did not simply reveal God; he himself was also the God whom he revealed. It would be impossible, therefore, to separate what Christ revealed from the way in which he revealed it, for both were bound up with his incarnate person. Additionally, we must remember that Jesus Christ was not merely the Word of God to humanity, but — precisely as that Word become flesh — he was also humanity receiving and responding to God in perfect faith and obedience. It is in Christ alone that we discover not only the perfect revelation of God, but also the perfect apprehension of that revelation by a human mind, heart, and soul.

As a result, those who seek to apprehend this revelation (interpretation) and then to say what needs to be said on its basis (theology) can do so faithfully only insofar as they refuse to separate what God has joined together: both the message and the means of making it known. Only a methodology that respects this union of form and content by adapting itself to the nature of Jesus Christ will yield the true knowledge of God that both reveals and reconciles. Is this not what Paul meant when he stressed the necessity of taking every thought captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5)?

To conclude, here is an eloquent statement of this by “Christo-logian” par excellence Thomas F. Torrance [Theology in Reconstruction (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1996), pp.129-130]:

Christian knowledge of God arises out of the self-revelation of God in and through Jesus Christ, for in him the Word of God has become man in the midst of man’s estrangement from God, committing himself to human understanding and creating communion between man and God. Biblical and dogmatic theology is the careful unfolding and orderly articulation of this knowledge within the sphere of communion with God, i.e. the sphere of reconciliation into which we are drawn by the activity of his Word, and of the obedience of faith in which all our thinking and speaking is brought into conformity to the self-communication of his Word. The way which God has taken in Jesus Christ to reveal himself and to reconcile us to himself is the way which we have to make our own in all true understanding and thinking and speaking of him.

Theology, therefore, involves a knowledge which is determined and controlled in its content by what is given in Jesus Christ, and operates with a mode of rational activity which corresponds to the nature of the object of this knowledge is Jesus Christ. It is the incarnation of the Word which proscribes to dogmatic theology both its matter and its method, so that whether in its activity as a whole or in the formulation of a doctrine in any part, it is the Christological pattern that will be made to appear. That does not mean that all theology can be reduced to Christology, but because there is t-f-torrance-sketchonly one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus, in the orderly presentation of the doctrines of the Christian faith, every doctrine will be expressed in its inner coherence with Christology at its centre, and in its correspondence to the objective reality of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ who is true God and true Man…

We cannot divine between the so-called form and content, between the human word of revelation and revelation itself, any more than we can divide asunder the human and the divine natures which are united in the one Person of Jesus Christ. The inconfuse, immutabiliter, indivise, inseparabiliter of Chalcedonian Christology apply equally to our understanding of revelation. Revelation is not only act from the side of God but also from the side of man, in the form of the Humanity of Christ which is of the very substance of revelation. The divine form and the human form of revelation must neither be confounded nor be separated. The incarnation means that now revelation is determined and shaped by the Humanity of Christ, that we know of no revelation of the Word of God except that which is given through Christ and in the form of Christ. Jesus Christ is the Truth, Truth as God is Truth, and that same Truth in the form of Man, Truth answering itself, Truth assuming its own true form from the side of man and from within man.

The Gospel as Personal Encounter: The Incarnation of Christ and the Mission of the Church (Reformission Monday)

As I continue to explore the theology of T. F. Torrance, I discover more resources for developing a faithful and fruitful understanding of the church’s mission. Contrary to the popular adage that “the message does not change, but methods do”, Torrance is adamant that the church’s message and its methodology are inextricably intertwined, the former being determinative of the latter. As the apostle Paul attested in the beginning verses of 1 Corinthians 2, it is quite possible to communicate the gospel in a way that stands in direct opposition to it. Torrance, likewise, would exhort us to align our practice of mission with the content of the message that we proclaim.

One particularly critical element of this message is the incarnation of the Son of God. To explain the significance of this to the saving work of Christ (and by implication to the disciple-making mission of the church), Torrance retrieves the late patristic concept of anhypostasia and enhypostasia which he describes in the following manner:

In the doctrine of anhypostasia, we state that the Son did not join himself to an independent personality existing on its own as an individual. That is, he so took possession of human nature, as to set aside that which divides us human beings from one another, our independent centres of personality, and to assume that which unites us with one another, the possession of the same or common human nature. 6d6b06a99d0ecb402264eec3143909dbBut apart from the doctrine of enhypostasia in addition to it, anhypostasia could only mean a solidarity between Christ and all mankind which was, so to speak, only ontological and therefore physical and mechanical — a causal and necessitarian solidarity.

The doctrine of enhypostasia insists here that within the anhypostatic solidarity of Christ with our common human nature, he came also as an individual human being in our humanity, seeking in addition a solidarity in terms of the interaction of persons within our human and social life, in personal relations of love, commitment, responsibility, decision, etc. Thus his birth within a human family, his growing up among others, his increasing relations with people, and his public entry into a ministry of vicarious suffering and service as Son of Man, the one man for all mankind, the one man in whom all men and women are encountered in love and met by the person of God — all that ministers enhypostatically to his solidarity with our human life by acutely personal modes of existence, and encounter, and communion.[1]

Despite the technical language, Torrance’s meaning should be fairly simple to understand. Basically, the anhypostasia/enhypostasia terminology holds in balance two important truths: 1) the Son of God became truly human like all of us, and 2) he did so as a specific person. On the basis of and corresponding to this, we must say that 1) Christ carried out his saving work for all people, yet 2) those people must each be personally confronted by and believe in Christ in order to benefit from his work, even as they were during the three years of his public ministry. Athough Christ is no longer physically present on the earth as he was then, he nevertheless continues to personally encounter people as his church preaches his gospel in the power of his Spirit.

Torrance explains this as he exposits the role of John the Baptist in the gospel of John:

Immediately after John the Baptist spoke of Jesus as the Lamb of God who bears away the sin of the world, two of John’s disciples detached themselves from the crowd and went to look for Jesus. Before long they found Him, and He spoke with them. Surely the Evangelist has recorded that to teach us that it is not enough for some preacher like John the Baptist to point us to Jesus as the Lamb of God. There must be a personal encounter with Him, a real meeting between us and Jesus. That is still possible, for Jesus Christ did not only die for us; He rose again and is alive and waits for us to come to Him in order to be forgiven and healed.

Indeed that is the only way we can meet with Jesus Christ. When the Son of God came into the world He became a particular man, the Son of Mary, the cousin of John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth. That is the only way in which He could become Man, by becoming a Man among men. We can only know a man if we are introduced to him and meet him face to face; and we can  only know about him from others who have met him and known him and then spoken to others about him. All knowledge of persons is derived from direct personal contact, and therefore has to be communicated directly from man to man and person to person.

When we know Jesus Christ today our knowledge is not different from that: it derives from direct personal contact with Him and is based on personal witness about Him. We can have personal knowledge about Jesus Christ, but can we have direct personal encounter with Him and know Him personally for ourselves? Yes we can, and that is the perpetual miracle of the knowledge of Jesus Christ. But this direct personal knowledge of Jesus Christ comes when two things happen; when other people communicate to us a knowledge of Christ, and when at the same time He Himself alive comes to us, using their communication about Him as the means to reveal Himself directly and personally to us….

Because God has become man in one particular person in history, we can only know of Him through personal and historical contact with that person—our knowledge of God in Christ must be personally and historically communicated to us through a human chain of witnesses beginning with the recorded witness of the original disciples. But Jesus uses that historical witness to bring us to Him, and to convey Himself to us directly. In this very Gospel, for example, it is John who is speaking and bearing witness to Jesus, and I am expounding what John has said, not simply in the light of what I think he said but in the light of what I have learned together with others in the Church of the meaning of the Gospel. I am influenced in my witness by the witness of others in the history of the Church, so that as we meditate upon this passage and seek to listen to its message, we do that “with all saints,” in the communion of the Spirit. But in that very communion it is Jesus Christ Himself alive, acutely and personally near, who speaks to us, and we hear and know Him face to face, invisibly as Mathis_Gothart_Grünewald_024yet, but nonetheless directly and intimately. That is the perpetual miracle of the Gospel wherever it is preached. It is preached by very fallible human beings, but through their witness and in spite of their mistakes, Christ Himself comes and meets with sinners directly and enters into conversation with them just as He entered into conversation with these disciples at the very beginnning of the Gospel….

This also the Gospel has to tell us, therefore: it is not enough that we should encounter Jesus personally for ourselves, meet and know Him and receive from Him all that He has to offer us; it is imperative that we go and find our brothers, our neighbours and our friends, and introduce them to Jesus as well, so that they may believe not because they have heard us speak about Him but because God uses our witness for His supernatural revelation, and as the means whereby there is direct personal encounter with the living Christ.[2]

For Torrance, the dialectic of universality and particularly inherent, respectively, in the anhypostasia/enhypostasia couplet has significant implications for missiology. The fact that the incarnation means, on the one hand, that the Son of God entered into solidarity with all humanity (anhypostasia) drives the church ever farther and wider to reach the ends of the earth with the gospel. The church can never rest from its mission to evangelize all tribes and tongues and peoples and nations until all have been reached, and this is necessitated not only by Christ’s explicit commandment, but also by the theo-logic of the incarnation itself.

On the other hand, the fact that the Son of God became a particular person in a specific time and place (enhypostasia) requires the church to bring the gospel message to the ends of the earth by means of personal encounter. Missional philosophies and methodologies that are developed according to criteria or considerations arising apart from the gospel (something that, properly understood, does not exclude contextual sensitivity), especially in an age of highly impersonal technologies of communication, can easily cede to the temptation to exchange the relatively “inefficient” and labor-intensive personal encounter for more economical means of mass dissemination (such as Internet, television, literature distribution, etc.).

In other words, technological advances seem to provide more “bang for the buck” in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. It will always be possible to reach greater numbers of people using methods that remove the necessity of a face-to-face encounter. While I do not want to imply that the church should totally eschew such methods (as they no doubt can have a place), the church should always view them as auxiliary and secondary to the primary mode of evangelism imposed on it by the theo-logic of the incarnation. For his definitive self-revelation, God did not simply thunder from heaven as he did at Sinai; rather he came in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, born of the virgin Mary during the reign of Caesar Augustus, and he ministered to specific individuals through personal encounter. He looked at them, spoke to them, touched them, ate with them, wept alongside them, suffered among them, then died as one of them. Certainly Christ could have utilized more “efficient” means of proclaiming the kingdom than by expending energy walking from village to village and spending most of his public ministry in what was considered a back-water corner of the Roman Empire. Yet this is what he did, for this is what his incarnation entailed.

Inasmuch as Christ sent his church into the world as he had been sent by the Father, we should do no less. (This is in no way to say that we somehow extend Christ’s incarnation or engage in “incarnational ministry”; rather it is to let the message that we proclaim shape the way that we proclaim it.) We cannot content ourselves with the missionary progress that we have made so far (for many peoples of the world remain unreached), but neither can we sacrifice the power of personal encounter with those people for the increased efficiency of other, more impersonal means of communication. As Paul urged in Romans 10, they will hear and believe only as others are sent to them. Doubtless evangelism through personal encounter requires greater sacrifices of time, money, and energy — to say nothing of suffering, persecution, and sometimes even martyrdom — yet such is the way imposed on us by the gospel that proclaims the good news of Emmanuel, God with us.

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[1] T. F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 231.

[2] T. F. Torrance, When Christ Comes and Comes Again (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 55-58.