A Special Word on the Atonement

Here T. F. Torrance (uber-Evangelical Calvinist) is commenting on John Knox’s understanding of the atonement. You’ll notice that the Federal grunewald_crucifixion_phixr-2.jpg(*forensic*) understanding is being implicitly critiqued throughout the unfolding of the comment:

. . . Several comments on this understanding of Christ’s sacrifice may be in place. While traditional forensic language is used, the atoning sacrifice is not to be understood as fulfilled by Christ merely as man (which would imply a Nestorian Christology), but of Christ as the one Mediator between God and man who is himself God and man in one Person. This means that ‘the joyful atonement made between God and man by Christ Jesus, by his death, resurrection and ascension’, is not to be understood in any sense as the act of the man Jesus placating God the Father, but as a propitiatory sacrifice in which God himself through the death of his dear Son draws near to man and draws man near to himself. It is along these lines also that we must interpret the statement of the Scots Confession that Christ ‘suffered in body and soul to make the full satisfication for the sins of the people’, for in the Cross God accepts the sacrifice made by Christ, whom he did not spare but delievered him up for us all, as satisfication, thereby acknowledging his own bearing of the world’s sin guilt and judgment as the atonement. As Calvin pointed out in a very important passage, God does not love us because of what Christ has done, but it is because he first loved us that he came in Christ in order through atoning sacrifice in which God himself does not hold himself aloof but suffers in and with Christ to reconcile us to himself. Nor is there any suggestion that this atoning sacrifice was offered only for some people and not for all, for that would imply that he who became incarnate was not God the Creator in whom all men and women live and move and have their being, and that Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour was not God and man in the one Person, but only an instrument in the hands of the Father for the salvation of a chosen few. In other words, a notion of limited atonement implies a Nestorian heresy in which Jesus Christ is not really God and man united in one Person. It must be added that the perfect response offered by Jesus Christ in life and death to God in our place and on our behalf, contains and is the pledge of our response. Just as the union of God and man in Christ holds good in spite of all the contradiction of our sin under divine judgment, so his vicarious response holds good for us in spite of our unworthiness: ‘not I but Christ’. . . . [T. F. Torrance: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell,” 18-19]

Lots going on here, primary of which is a robust, trinitarian Doctrine of God. Indeed, I would suggest that this is the key from whence Federal and Scottish Theology (or “Evangelical Calvinism”) depart, one from the other.

One of the subsequent points of departure between Federal and Evangelical Calvinism is how the “atonement” is framed. The former frames it forensically, per the covenant of works/grace (as shaped by the ‘decree’); while the latter frames the shape of the atonement ontologically (per the one ‘covenant of grace’ as shaped within the free predeterminations in the life of God).

There is more to be said. I will try and come back later and provide more reflection, especially for those of you for whom this is new (even “strange teaching”).

2 thoughts on “A Special Word on the Atonement”

  1. Hi Bill, thanks. I just signed up for Medium, but don’t really understand how it works … I’ll try to figure it out. I have over 200 followers here, so I am not sure I want to move anywhere.


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