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Incarnation: the “amazing act of gracious condescension”

By May 1, 2009 No Comments

I cannot help but envy the multitude of students who from 1952 to 1978 heard this material presented in person by Thomas F. Torrance in his Christian Dogmatics course at New College, Edinburgh. Nonetheless, I am grateful for the next best thing, this artfully edited volume of lectures, whose well-organized structure and straightfor ward style gave me the satisfied impression of having just audited a course with this outstanding twentieth- century Reformed theologian. I eagerly anticipate reading the second volume in the series, Atonement, due to be released later this year.

One of the book’s many strengths is its editor, Robert T. Walker, who as both a student and a nephew of Torrance’s brings his firsthand experience to the editing process, resulting in a very readable presentation that retains the integrity of Torrance’s thought.

Moreover, because English is the original language, the reader does not have to wonder about what might have been lost in translation. Add to this a helpful glossary of theological terms, and Torrance’s frequent explanation of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin phrases and historical figures, and you end up with a volume that is extremely accessible and useful. I believe Incarnation will benefit scholars, teachers, preachers, and inquisitive laypeople alike. It provides a thorough theological exploration of the person and life of Christ, covering a wide range of subtopics such as the virgin birth and its relation to the resurrection, the continuity between Israel’s election and the eternal election manifest in the person of Christ, the nuances of the hypostatic union of Christ’s divine and human natures and how they allow Christ to begin effecting reconciliation through his very identity, and so on.

Torrance was born in Chengdu, China to missionary parents and lived there until their return to Scotland in his teen years. The evangelist in him, no doubt shaped by life in a missionary family, persists and shines through his work as a pastor and scholar. This is significant, I think, and not to be taken for granted. It is clear in reading Incarnation that this theological study was no mere philosophical or epistemological enterprise for Torrance. Instead, the meaning of our very life and death subsists in the person and work of Christ, bringing a visceral urgency to the way in which God confronts us in the beauty and mystery of the one who leaves the majesty of the godhead and takes on the scope of human chaos. Thus, although it is woven throughout with histor y, theology, and biblical interpretation, the book reads less like a heavy doctrinal treatise and more like a heartfelt, comprehensive confession of faith. In that sense, it struck me as an inspiring example of what Reformed theology ought to consist of and accomplish. Jesus Christ as the incarnation of the eternal Son of God is presented not as a rigid doctrine to which we must assent but as precisely the compassionate, dynamic living Word whose identity contains all the ingredients needed to fulfill a once-and-for-all reconciliation between God and humanity. Torrance illuminates the sovereign and unifying nature of God’s activity and links it thoroughly to the radical love of God in Christ, leaving the reader with a renewed sense of how God’s justice and mercy both play out fully in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This, for example, allowed me to work through Torrance’s assertion that “the very wrath of God is a sign of hope, not of utter destruction” (249) with a sense of humble reverence rather than a furrowed brow.

I can’t recall the last time I read a rich theological text that also inspired me to such greater devotion. Torrance not only provides a refresher on the scope of Christological heresies (Ebionism! Nestorianism! Monotheletism!) and the continuities and contrasts between Patristic and Reformed views of Christ, but also effectively demonstrates why things like the Chalcedonian attributes matter for my faith, for my preaching, for my quest to know this unique shepherd and king more and more fully. Torrance deftly covers the historical trends which at times denigrated either Christ’s divinity or humanity, and emerges with a Christology that, I believe, deser vedly elevates the significance of the historical Jesus and the salvific character of his true bodily life on earth while also upholding the absolute necessity of foundational, creedal, scriptural assertions about the eternal, divine, and Triune character of the incarnation. He repeatedly brings up the anhypostatic and enhypostatic nature of the incarnation, polishing up these other wise confusing terms and emphasizing why it matters for us and for our salvation that Christ’s two natures are unified in one person who would have had no historical or human existence apart from the Word becoming f lesh and bringing the earthly Jesus Christ to life. Torrance sets forth a clearer understanding of this person, fully God and fully human, as the one who, having access to all the properties of the godhead, voluntarily accessed the universality of fallen human nature by living on earth as a particular, finite, creaturely individual. Further, the incarnation does not bring just a glimpse of God to earth but the fullness of God; in the living, dynamic event of incarnation there is the fullness of God’s self-communication. As Torrance puts it: ” There is no gap between a realm of truth and a realm of event here” (107).

The value of the book far transcends the way in which it adds to the archives of Torrance’s published works. It feels very much like a timely, contemporary work capable of aiding many who search for a theological framework for comprehending who Jesus of Nazareth really was. In an age where so many are unfamiliar, confused, or misled when it comes to where Jesus fits into history and what it means to worship him as God’s own Son, I think this book can help Christian teachers and seekers to discover the astounding uniqueness of Christ and, in turn, the compelling, grace-filled, earth-dwelling uniqueness of Christianity.

I was not an unbiased reader when I picked up this book. My personal and vocational life have been significantly impacted in the past few years by Iain Torrance, T.F.’s son, who currently serves as president of Princeton Theological Seminary. And then there’s the fact that, ever since I joined Facebook two years ago, I’ve had “the doctrine of the incarnation” listed as one of my interests, particularly because in my experience as a hospital chaplain I grew to find immense comfort and hope–the sort that I could share with others who were tired of clichés and platitudes–in knowing that I belong to a God who freely chose to experience the depth of human suffering, pain, and mortality right alongside us. I trust, however, that my biases alone did not produce my enthusiasm for this book, and that many others will be edified in their faith by its thoroughly convicted and thoroughly Reformed understanding of the person and life of Christ.

Jessica Bratt is executive coordinator for the general secretary of the Reformed Church in America.