T.F. Torrance on Universalism and Limited Atonement (as Dual Heresies)

I’ve been reading the newly released collection of essays by T.F. Torrance, Divine Interpretation: Studies in Mediaeval and Modern HermeneuticsWipf & Stock Publishers were kind enough to send me a review copy, and when I finish reading the book I will be posting my final thoughts here. But I wanted to share an important quote from the book before then.

I was excited to discover that this collection reprints an important essay Torrance wrote, which prior to this book was only available in the costly out of print study, Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical TheologianThis essay is entitled “Karl Barth and the Latin Heresy”, and includes some profoundly important remarks about how Torrance places Barth within the western tradition.

Especially insightful, however, is how Torrance explains the “dual heresy” of universalism on one side and limited atonement on the other. I’ll let Torrance explain more himself in this insightful quote. Comments in between quotations are my own, and bold text is also mo own emphasis. Enjoy!

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”18″]”If in Jesus Christ the Word of God, by whom all things are made and in whom they have their creaturely being, became incarnate, died on the Cross and rose again, then we must think of the whole creation as having been redeemed. If in Jesus Chris the Creator himself became a human creature, without of course ceasing to be Creator, and if in him divine nature and human natures are not separable, as Nestorian heresy would have it, then we must think of the being of every man, whether he believes or not, as grounded in Christ and ontologically bound to his humanity. It is precisely in Jesus, as St Paul taught, that every human being (and indeed the whole creation) consists.” 1[/perfectpullquote]

This naturally raises the question, what about universalism? First Torrance explains the error of postulating a “logico-causal connection” between universalism/limited atonement and the extent of salvation:

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”18″]”Behind the charge of universalism against Barth there lies a controlling frame of thought which operates with a notion of external logico-causal connections. If Christ died for all men, then, it is argued, all men must be saved, whether they believe or not; but if all men are not saved, and some, as seems very evident, do go to hell, then Christ did not die for all men. Behind both of these alternatives, however, there are two very serious mistakes.” 2[/perfectpullquote]

Torrance thinks these two mistakes are a direct derivation from what he calls the “latin heresy”:

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”18″]”Let me repeat, the problem of universalism versus limited atonement is itself a manifestation of the ‘latin heresy’ at work within Protestant and Evangelical thought. If Karl Barth is still misunderstood or criticised over his approach to the efficacious nature and range of redemption, it must be through mistaken opposition to his faithfulness in thinking out as far as possible the implications of the oneness of the Person and Work of Christ, or of the inseparability of the incarnation and atonement.” 3[/perfectpullquote]

Those who still operate with a form of the latin heresy in their thinking, which by thinking external-relationally separates the incarnation from the atonement, build a logical construction or casual relation between the extent of the atonement necessitating either universalism or limited atonement. Torrance explains further:

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”18″]”It is a logico-causalism of this kind, with Augustinian-Thomist, Protestant scholastics and Newtonian roots, that appears to supply the deterministic paradigm within which there arise the twin errors of limited atonement and universalism both of which, although in different ways, are rationalistic constructions of the saving act of God incarnate in the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.” 4[/perfectpullquote]

The important point Torrance is making here is that the western tendency in theology is to “externalize” the inner workings of the gospel, thereby creating a rationalistic construction out of the atonement in which we mistakenly inject our own logic into the grace of God. This is, in a sense, our attempt to master or control the atonement by reducing it to our own logical connections. Or, in other words, creating an atonement in our own image!

We imagine that A + B must = C, and since we assume C is true, then B must re-interpret the nature of A.

In this case, “A” is the atonement and “C” is the dual heresies of limited atonement and universalism, which makes “B” the logical connection we mistakenly interject into God’s grace, which is in fact foreign to it. There is no logical = between A and C, and only when we inject B into the equation do we result in its necessity.

But the atonement is not under our logical control, it is God’s free work of grace. We wrongly inject human logic into God’s grace, morphing it into a monstrosity of logical deduction that limits God’s freedom and ultimately results in the dual heresy of limited atonement or universalism. This, Torrance brilliantly deduces, is the crucial error both heresies make.

Torrance continues in this line of thought:

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”18″]”It is because atoning reconciliation falls within the incarnate constitution of Christ’s Person as Mediator, that it is atoning reconciliation which embraces all mankind and is freely available to all in the unconditional grace of God’s Self-giving. Why some people believe and why others do not believe we cannot explain, any more than we can explain why evil came into the world. The Gospel does not offer us a logical or causal explanation of the origin or presence of evil, or of precisely how it is vanquished in the Cross of Christ. But it does tell us what the Lord God has done to deal with evil. It tells us that in his unlimited love God himself, incarnate in Jesus Christ, has entered into the dark and fearful depths of our depraved and lost existence subjected to death and judgement, in order to make our sin and guilt, our wickedness and shame, our misery and fate, our godlessness and violence, his own, thereby substituting himself for us, and making atonement for sin, so that he might redeem us from our alienation and restore us to fellowship with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The saving act of God in the blood of Christ is an unfathomable mystery before which the angels veil their faces and into which we dare not and cannot intrude, but before which our minds bow in wonder, worship and praise.5[/perfectpullquote]

Western Christianity has a tremendously low tolerance for mystery, and this is perhaps the best reason why we often run into this issue of deterministic logic, i.e., necessitating in our thinking either universalism or limited atonement. I simply love the way Torrance reminds us, in the midst of our reductionistic tendencies, to stand in awe and wonder before Christ’s work of atonement! It is not a work we can master or logically control, even though our western “atonement theories” make it sound like we can do exactly that, but it is something we above all else must be thankful for and praise God for.

Torrance concludes with the certainty we have even in this mystery:

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”18″]”However, of this we can be perfectly certain: the blood of Christ, the incarnate Son of God who is perfectly and inseparably one in being and act with God the Father, means that God will never act toward any one in mercy and judgement at any time or in any other way than he has already acted in the Lord Jesus. There is no God behind the back of Jesus Christ, and no God but he who has shown us his face in the face of Jesus Christ, for Jesus Christ and the Father are one. What the Father is and does, Jesus Christ is and does; what Jesus Christ is and does the Father is and does.6[/perfectpullquote]

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  1. 63-4
  2. 64
  3. 65-6
  4. 65
  5. 66
  6. ibid.

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