Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Atonement, Incarnation, & Israel’s Rejection of the Word of God: T.F. Torrance & N.T. Wright In Dialogue

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February 6, 2014 by Lawrence Garcia

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Categories: The Atonement

Jesus-on-the-cross-1[1]Now, I am either a self-loathing Calvinist who loves N.T. Wright’s brand of NPP or I am a self-loathing Wrightian who adores T.F. Torrance’s scientific-theological approach to Scripture or both; either way, I have no way of offering a satisfactory account with how to bridge their approaches to Scripture accept to say that it must be dynamically dialogical. On the one hand, we must make some sense of the history, culture, and context of these texts; while on the other hand, they must be read in light of God’s personal self-revelation in the person and work of Christ.
And though their works are markedly different in method, occasionally, their work overlaps, and the varying angles by which they approach Scripture shed light upon each other’s conclusions. One in particular, is their understanding of evil being heightened within Israel so that God could deal decisively with it there in the crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.
Wright’s entry into this element of the atonement is Romans 5:20 as it is elucidated by the personified Israel in Romans 7:7-25. The passage reads:

 But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.[1]
 Now, Wright is certainly correct to see this passage as an allusion to the intensification of the powers of evil within Israel because of the reception of the Torah. Wright emphasizes the “there” as an essentially a locative term, in other words, the place “where” the Torah was given was Israel following the Exodus. God, then, intentionally gives Israel the Torah to gather evil in its uttermost form within one place so that her royal representative, the Messiah, could drag it off in his own person at the cross—“where sin abounds (Israel), grace “superabounds (the Messiah’s death).” Wright states:

But the point Paul is making is that when the Torah, the law, arrived in Israel, so far from marking the start of a new type of humanity, it merely intensified the problem of the old type. ‘The law came in alongside, so that the trespass might be filled out’ (verse 19). It will take Paul half of chapter 7 to explain what he means, but we can sum it up in advance like this, drawing on 5:13–14 as well as the present passage. Sin, in the sense of ordinary human wrongdoing, is by itself like a small colour slide, a photograph or piece of film which by itself you can barely see with the naked eye. What the law does is to put this tiny thing into a projector with a bright light behind it and a big screen in front of it. The law draws attention to sin, but by itself is powerless to do anything about stopping it.[2]
Now that sin/evil had been magnified and gathered to a singular point (i.e. Israel) the Messiah as the nation’s righteous representative deals it a death blow by bringing it down into the grave with his own person at his crucifixion. Wright says elsewhere:

Grace has superabounded where sin abounded—that is, Israel itself, where the full effects of Torah’s magnification of Adam’s sin were felt. This superabundance of grace in Israel is presumably a further reference to the messianic work, and particularly the messianic death, in which Jesus offered to Israel’s God the faithful obedience that Israel had not.[3]
We might, then, view this aspect of the atonement in primarily federal or purely forensic terms (or even purely an instrumental one), but Torrance reminds us that there is a deeper ontological way this atonement is occurring with the intensification of trespass within Israel. For Torrance, there is what I would describe as a ‘symmetrical’ reality at play between Jesus’ ontological mode of existence (the hypostatic union of Jesus’ divine and human natures) in that he is overcoming his vicarious-fallen nature through his continual acts of faithfulness and thus atonement is the result of the person and work of Christ. Jesus, thus, defeats the power of evil within himself by virtue of overcoming his fallen nature from the incarnation to the crucifixion.
But, the heightening of evil within Israel, for Torrance, is connected through the long inner-struggle Israel had with being the covenant partners of YHWH who were the agents of revelation/salvation for the world. The resistance against God’s Word throughout the Old Testament is brought to its intended climax with the actual embodied presence of the Word itself in the person of Jesus. The rejection of the Word itself in bodily form throughout his ministry, leading to their cry of crucifixion before Pilate, is where sin ultimately abounded, only for the Word to draw the final refusal of humanity through Israel’s immediate rejection of the Word incarnate while personally present among them down into death; thus, overcoming it in his own person, the person and place where “grace superabounded.” Torrance states:

That is the way in which we are surely to interpret the Incarnation, in which God has drawn so near to man and drawn so near to himself in Jesus that they are perfectly at one. In Jesus the problematic presence of God to Israel, the distance of his nearness and the nearness of his distance, which so deeply troubled the soul for the psalmists and prophets alike, was brought to its resolution. In Jesus, as the angel announced to the Virgin Mary, there was born none other than Emmanuel, ‘God with us’, that is, the mediator between God and man, who is both God and man in one incarnate Person, in whom divine reconciliation is finally accomplished. In this Jesus, however, the Jew in whom the Creator Word and man the creature, the God of the covenant and man the covenanted partner, are brought together, all the interaction of God with Israel throughout history, and all the intensifying interaction of God with Israel, and Israel with God, are brought to a supreme culmination…[4]
Torrance would tip a nod to Wright by pointing out that Israel’s resistance to Torah was the way God the Father had always intended to deal in finality with sin/evil through Jesus the Messiah. But Torrance wouldn’t stop there. He would add that the tension created by the nearness of God’s word as embodied in Torah would reach a culmination and tipping point with the actual presence of the Word incarnate in and among Israel itself in the person and work of Christ. The rise in evil begun by the presence of God in the Torah and the Temple only began the process that would find its telos in the actual rejection of the Word incarnate so that that rejection itself would be the very means by which God dealt a death blow to sin and evil and death!
Thus, the Triune God in all of its wisdom initiated a process of reconciliation whereby the problem—humanity’s rejection of God’s nearness—became the very means by which God would overcome it and bring reconciliation. This process was initiated by the bestowal of the Torah upon Israel—“contender with God”—and brought its climax in Israel’s final rejection of God’s Word and presence incarnate in the person of Christ. “Where sin was found to have abounded (Israel’s rejection of Torah and Christ), grace was there superabounding (Christ’s person and work at Calvary).”


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[1] Romans 5:20, NRSV.

[2] N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1: Chapters 1-8. (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), pg. 95.

[3] N.T. Wright, Romans, in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A commentary In Twelve Volumes (Nashville: Abigdon Press, 2002), pg. 530.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1992), pg. 29.

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