Review: Incarnation, The Person and Life of Christ

Click to Order
Click to Order

I would like to thank IVP-Academic for this review copy of Thomas F. Torrance’s work on the Incarnation, which is comprised primarily of lectures given over the course of his tenure, as compiled and edited by Robert T. Walker (who is in a rare position as an editor, he is also Torrance’s nephew).

  • Hardcover: 371 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (November 30, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0830828915
  • ISBN-13: 978-0830828913
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.2 x 1.6 inches

The book was completed posthumously by the author’s nephew, but includes an Author’s Introduction, perhaps Torrance’s last written word to the world. In it, he describes in humble language his resume, but it is noticeable, however, his closeness to his mentor, Karl Barth.

The editor gives a forward, an outline of the book, and an introduction in which he gives you general topics, focusing on Torrance’s theology and methods. In describing Torrance’s view of the importance of the deity of Christ, Walker writes,

Because Jesus Christ is God, he not only makes God known but what he does is the word of God. his word and deed is the word and deed of God. His love and compassion is the love and compassion of the Father. When he forgives that is the very forgiveness of God. This is likewise a point on which Torrance lays immense stress, the identity between the act of Jesus and the act of the Father. What he does is what God does. Torrance would often say, ‘There is no God behind the back of Jesus.’ In other words, there is no other God than the we see in Jesus and no act of God other than the act of Jesus. The word and act of Jesus and of the Father are identical. The deity of Jesus is therefore the guarantee that the reconciliation we see and receive in him is the reconciliation of God himself.

This is the premise of Torrance’s work, the summary of his lecture. For Torrance, everything must start and end with this first precept. It is how the Gospels begin and end, and for him, the point of it all. The editor does a masterful job of summarizing the outline of Torrance’s work, finishing his introduction with a brief note on his adaptation of the author’s lectures and handouts to book form.

Moving into the first chapter, we encounter Torrance through his own words, and with little imagination, we are able to hear him as he speaks to his students a generation ago. His delivery style is less that ivory tower scholar, more so pastor, preacher, teacher and believer. He is not harsh, but determined to enforce that it is only through Christ that we can start to examine the Scriptures. Torrance is deeply respectful of the subject, speaking not just to students of the ministry, but to the lay person who has a rich love of the doctrine of the Incarnation – of course, if you do not already have the love of the Incarnation, it is quite possible that you will after reading this book.) It is lectures, as I mentioned, and hand outs given to students:

Faith would be better described then as the kind of perception appropriate to perceiving a divine act in history, an eternal act in time. So that faith is appropriate both to the true perception of historical facts, and also to the true perception of God’s action in history. Nor is it the perception of history by itself, divorced from revelation, but it is the way we are given within history to perceive God’s acts in History, and that means that faith is the obedience of our minds to the mystery of Christ, who is God and man in the historical Jesus. What is clearly of paramount importance here is the holding together of the historical and the theological in our relation to Christ.

In making his introduction (the first chapter is entitled, Introduction to Christology), he rarely quotes from others, but focuses instead on Scripture, first, and the logic of theology, second. Accompanied by brief footnotes and solid end notes, Torrance does not deviate from his goal of introducing his students, and us, to Christology as the primary goal of his theology. It is in the end notes, however, in which we see the teacher in Torrance give away to the professor, moving from an insistence on the holiness of the witnesses to allowing for certain improvements of collective memory. It is also in the end notes that Torrance mentions his opponents, including von Harnack, Weiss, A. Schweitzer, and Bultmann. These end notes move the generality of the lectures to the specialist tongue. Even in the end notes, however, as Torrance confronts various 2oth century views of criticism, meeting them, and offering criticism of his own – approaching it scientifically instead of theologically, he is able to maintain a satisfactory hold on the central story of the New Testament.

Reading through the book, one must notice the near absence of secondary suppor of his positions. He doesn’t appeal to the Fathers nor the Reformers, nor does he do exegesis of the original text. To be sure, he does quote from various people, and explain central words from the original languages, but that is the extent of his specialization. He presents a clear and concise, a biblical expounding of the biblical doctrine of the Incarnation, relying on the text and the witnesses through that text, itself.

In chapter 2, the author handles the most important doctrine of the Christian faith, that of the Incarnation, with a ‘scientific dogmatic’ style which found it’s genesis among the Reformers. It does the same with the Virgin Birth in chapter 3. In both chapters, he doesn’t out of hand dismiss arguments against them, but shows that a purely scientific approach to these doctrines, especially the latter, does a violent injustice to them. As a new explorer of Reformed theology, I found his drive to connect Israel and the Incarnation as one which does justice to the Incarnation in ways few have achieved. In chapter 3, while explaining both the Election of Christ and that of Mary, Torrance finds a way to face head on the doctrine of eternal pre-destination, not by great scriptural exegesis, but through the examples of Christ  and Mary.

In the fourth chapter, Torrance examines masterfully the continuous union in the historical life and obedience of Jesus. He speaks/writes about the mediatorship, and the eternal election of Christ to this position, dealing only slightly with the substitutory atoning work of the Cross. (He will, I assume, bring about a full examination of the doctrine of Atonement in his second and final volume.) The author then moves to discuss both the life and faithfulness of the Son towards the father and towards humanity. In closing this chapter, he focuses on bringing, methodically, the kingdom and the atonement through the violence of the Apostles and thus the Church. Here, Torrance leaves the dry field of biblical studies and theology to take the adventurous path to the Church through grand and powerful story (re)telling.

In chapter 5, Torrance meets head-on the mystery of the union of God and man in the person of Christ. He does make room, throughout this book, that Christ was not always seen as the Son of God, even by the Gospel Witnesses. Torrance writes,

Jesus himself kept his messianic secret as God and man until the very end, unfolding it only in his actions as he advanced to the completion of his mission from the Father, but once his actions were complete, the Spirit was given in fullness and through him all that he had hitherto declared in a form necessarily veiled, shone out in its unveiled significance.

He then spends much of the chapter speaking about mysterion, prothesis, and koinonia explaining them as revealed in doctrine by New Testament standards.

In chapter 6, after discussing the hypostatic union, Torrance moves on the Patristic Doctrine of Christ (to be followed by the Doctrine of Christ as found in the Reformers). Here, he provides fodder for his Patristic readers as he discusses the differing strands of theology found among the early church. He is not fearful to criticize Tradition, finding faults and stating the solution. It is also here that we find the reason for his two-volume work,

But whenever incarnation (this work) and atonement (his next volume) are not properly and fully related, there is an inevitable tendency toward a conception of the two natures of Christ in which the two natures are not seen in their unity in the one mediator.

He does offer a critique of Chalcedon which (re)places the emphasis of that Council on the birth of Christ with the biblical emphasis on the entire Incarnation. He finishes this section continuing the critique of the Council in 451, ending with a very critical statement on the logos Christianity, began by Justin and formulated and practiced until the Reformation, which removes the emphasis on the historical Jesus. He sites and credits, Irenaeus, Melito, Athanasius and Cyril as keeping, at least somewhat, emphasis on the historical Jesus. He then moves to a brief description of how it was safeguarded for future generations.

In the third part of this chapter, Torrance states, and then qualifies that statement, that the Reformers turned past the medieval, scholastic, understanding and formulation of the Godhead and the words used to describe it, to a more early Patristic understanding. He writes/speaks,

With the Reformation there took place a decided change in the whole doctrine of God, in a move away from the Latin stoic conception of God as deus sive natura to the living God of the biblical revelation, who actively intervenes in history, who confronts us directly in Jesus Christ through his Word and Spirit, and who acts upon us personally.

He spends the rest of the section discussing the differences between the Lutherans and the Calvinists during the Reformation, showing the weaknesses and strengths of both positions.

In chapter 7, Torrance spends a brief time on the human situation as revealed by Christ through the Incarnation. This chapter, as recommended by the Editor, must stand as a completion of sorts to chapter 4. In this chapter, he examines the entrenchment and confrontation of Evil.

As an addendum, the Editor gives us a work from early in Torrance’s career dealing  exclusively with Eschatology. He notes that it is often coarse and harsh, and a bit more technical that the preceding lectures, but one which the editor felt would fit well with the end notes.

I have to wonder why this book did not make more of an impact among the Reformed in the blogosphere. I am not Reformed, but find such a measure of the strength of truth in Torrance’s words that I wonder why people – or perhaps Americans – have either not discovered or forgotten altogether, this Reformed author’s work.

You Might Also Like

6 Replies to “Review: Incarnation, The Person and Life of Christ”

  1. I am not really that surprised myself that Torrance has not done that well with the bloggers. He was always mostly in the academy of and in the Church. And not many Americans have really gotten hold of T.F. for the most part. I hope this changes however?
    Fr. R.

Leave a Reply, Please!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.