Limited Atonement and Unlimited Polemics: T. F. Torrance on the Atonement, Part 1


T. F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, ed. Robert Walker (Downers Grove, IN: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009) pp.181-192.

Torrance’s Atonement is a large study, transcribed from his dogmatics lectures at New College, Edinburgh. I look forward to reading the whole of this study. I am almost half way through and the material is mostly good. Torrance approaches the Atonement of Christ exegetically. His method synthesizes scriptural data while following the course of Redemptive History and this often in an original way. He also relies on inferences from the nature and purpose of the Incarnation of the Son of God, which is dealt with in the companion text Incarnation. This latter part of Torrance’s method also has a liability which will be addressed below.

Torrance’s discussion of the Extent of the Atonement (section 2 of Chapter 6, “Atonement as Redemption”) disappoints the reader looking for a solid interaction with the historic and confessional Reformed doctrine of limited atonement (or particular redemption). Before addressing the infelicities of his description of the Reformed view, which he rejects, let’s see what Torrance propounds under the subheading “Positive affirmations on the range of the atonement” on page 188 and 189:

We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity – that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact – nothing can undo it. That means that God has taken the great positive decision for man, the decision of love translated into fact. But because the work and person of Christ are one, that finished work is identical with the self-giving of God to all humanity which he extends to everyone in the living Christ. God does not withhold himself from any one, but he gives himself to all whether they will or not – even if they will not have him, he gives himself to them, for he has once and for all given himself, and therefore giving of himself in the cross when opposed by the will of man inevitably opposes that will of man and is its judgement [sic]. As we saw, it is the positive will of God in loving humanity that becomes humanity’s judgement [sic] when they refuse it.

Torrance labels the statement above as the objective aspect of the atonement and goes on to discuss the Baptism of the Spirit as the subjective aspect and “the community of the covenant” (the church) as the middle term (pp. 189-192). By taking the church into account, he argues that there is “a twofold range of the covenant, as universal, and yet as particular reaching out to the universal.”

Torrance’s solution to the universal and particular aspects of the atonement is intriguing and not entirely uncongenial to a Reformed perspective. The purpose here, however, is to look at Torrance’s polemical tactics. In other words, we are discussing how he defines and rejects the Reformed doctrine of limited atonement. He begins by reasoning that the Atonement has the same range as the Incarnation. He also asserts that only way that the Atonement can have a limited representation is if it can be separated from the Incarnation. Evidently, Torrance is referring to conclusions already reached in his lectures on the Incarnation. Even so, the rule that he wants to lay down at this point is highly debatable. Torrance asserts a false dilemma by arguing that you can have limited atonement, or you can have an Atonement united to the Incarnation, but you cannot have both. When we read of the Incarnation in the Gospel of Matthew we are told that the Lord will be named Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). The historic Reformed view argues that there is indeed a universal aspect of the Atonement. Christ received a people from the Father drawn from all the nations of the earth. With His Incarnation and Atonement, Christ fulfills the promise to Abraham and blesses the whole world. This is all true without losing or downplaying the fact that Christ saves humanity by atoning for a new humanity united to Him in the church.

Torrance makes more cumbersome attempts to dismiss the Reformed view besides his argument about supposed separation of the Atonement and Incarnation. He introduces another false dilemma on page 184, this time also launching unhelpful rhetorical devices. Torrance speaks of how the “hyper-Calvinist… argues in this way, that in Christ’s life and especially in his death on the cross, the deity of Christ was in repose. He suffered only in his humanity.” Torrance proceeds to argue that we must say that God the Judge was himself judged in our place. Now, this is true as long as it is understood that Christ bore our sins in the unity of his person, as the God-Man (theanthropos). Nevertheless, it is not true that asserting that Christ suffered in his humanity is Nestorianism (as Torrance does) or some other kind of error. We assert that God purchased His church with His own blood (Acts 20:28). (Note again, incidentally, that the universalism of the atonement is qualified by the eternal purpose to effectually purchase the church!). Yet orthodox Christians assert that Christ suffered and died according to the human nature. If Torrance affirms that the Son of God died according to the divine nature he would deny the immutability of God. Christ, in his Incarnation, acts as a divine-human person, but not all actions are according to both natures. The Lord does not die according to his Divinity.

We can thus rebuff Torrance’s attack upon the Reformed on two counts. First, he wrongly attributes Nestorianism to advocates of limited atonement. Secondly, he fails to nuance or qualify his assertion that Christ acted according to both natures on the cross, thus committing a theological blunder.

On top of both those problems is the unnecessary confusion Torrance adds by using the term “hyper-Calvinist.” It appears that with the straw-man Torrance erects he refutes a distortion of Calvinism but it is in effect his own distortion. Limited atonement is not a distinctive doctrine of hyper-Calvinism but of the historic, confessional Calvinism of the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession.

The more the “hyper-Calvinist” label flies around, the less meaning it has. He will employ it a second time on page 187. It is not only a stick with which people within the Reformed tradition beat each other as in Torrance’s case. Non-Calvinists sometimes describe Calvinism as hyper-Calvinism. One example is a statement of faith held by churches within the Calvary Chapel movement. Among a list of “errors” that are rejected is Five Point Calvinism which the statement describes as, among other things, “hyper-Calvinistic.” “Hyper-Calvinist” is little more than a misleading label if Reformed theologians use it against each other and others outside the Reformed tradition use it to describe Calvinism as it is expressed in the living confessions of the Reformed churches. The term is virtually meaningless used, as it often is, as an abusive ad hominem. Torrance’s use is quite ironic seeing that he stands, nominally, within the Reformed tradition.

To be continued…


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