Incarnation: the “amazing act of gracious condescension”

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.
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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.