Participatio, James B. Torrance, Alan Torrance, Limited Atonement, and Evangelical Calvinism

Participatio is the peer reviewed online theological journal of the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship (I had the honor of being a copy editor and assistant editor for Participatio for a couple volumes), and they just came out with their latest volume. This latest volume is actually an issue dedicated to Thomas Torrance’s brother James B. Torrance, a virtuoso theologian and churchman in his own right. I would like to encourage all of my readers to head over to their website, and give this JBT volume a read. To whet your appetite I would like to offer a quote from the Introductory essay written by James’ son, prof (Dr) Alan Torrance (he is professor of theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland). Not only do I want to offer this quote as something to pique your interest in the whole of the volume, but I also want to use the material in the quote as a bit of a springboard to talk about something that is core to what Myk Habets and I have called Evangelical Calvinism; as you all know by now, Thomas Torrance, and James Torrance (no less) have provided all kind of impetus and trajectory for the shaping of Evangelical Calvinism (in fact Myk and I stole that language from Thomas’ book Scottish Theology).

The following is a quote from Alan Torrance about an experience that his dad, James Torrance had (early on in his career) as he was asked to share the pulpit with two stalwart theologian-pastors of that day, Martin Lloyd Jones (who JBT served as youth pastor for), and James I. Packer; he found himself in a bit of a quagmire as he staunchly disagreed with his two elders on the issue of the extent of the atonement (both Jones and Packer, of course, affirm the classically held Reformed position that Jesus only died for the elect … more commonly understood in popular parlance as ‘limited atonement’). Here is what Alan Torrance writes of that experience:

Third, there was his “black day.” JB was profoundly involved in evangelical circles and he never ceased to regard himself as an evangelical. He was president of the IVF while studying philosophy in Edinburgh and went on to lead the largest mission ever organised by the Christian Union in Scotland. While in London, he worked alongside Martin Lloyd Jones as his youth pastor. All of this culminated in what he described as possibly the most influential (and distressing) experience of his theological development. He was invited to be a keynote speaker at a massive evangelical conference in London alongside James Packer and Martin Lloyd Jones. At this event, the subject of limited atonement came up — a topic that had been little discussed in post-war evangelical circles. My father found himself outnumbered on the platform when he offered an emphatic rejection of limited atonement, insisting that the God who became human loved and forgave his enemies just as he told us to love and forgive our enemies — seventy times seven, that is, unconditionally. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and those who deny Christ “reject the Lord who bought them.” What distressed him most was the fact that Martin Lloyd Jones supported limited atonement. As he once explained to me, it was this event that led him to devote most of the rest of his career to analysing the elements that had led to the emergence of a doctrine that he, like his missionary father, regarded as a heresy — one that tragically misrepresented the character of God, the integrity of the incarnation and the nature of God’s mission to the world in Jesus Christ. It meant that we could no longer tell people that God loved them or that Christ died for them. Indeed, ultimately, on this understanding, no-one could ever be sure, this side of the eschaton, that they were loved by God or that Christ died for them. [read the full volume here, this quote was taken from Alan Torrance’s Introductory essay to this volume]

What a significant insight into James Torrance’s life and theological development! This is one of the distinguishing factors between us (as Evangelical Calvinists) and classically (so called) Reformed proponents. We believe along with James Torrance (and Thomas) that Jesus Christ in his vicarious humanity and as the ontological ground of all of humanity in the Incarnation assumed the humanity of all people in a very particular way as the man from Nazareth. As such it is impossible for the Evangelical Calvinist to ever conceive of the idea that God only loves some people, some of his creation enough to die for them. Indeed, the logic of our position requires that God loves all of humanity as much as he loves himself, for he has chosen to not be God without us as he elected our humanity for himself in his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ. You see the dilemma then: if Jesus in the incarnation truly assumed humanity and serves as the ground the condition upon which all of humanity holds together (by the ‘word’ of his power see Hebrews 1), then it would be utterly impossible to even consider the idea that Jesus only died for just a few out of the mass of humanity; this would lead to the idea that there is some sort of rupture within the life of God (if in fact he truly did assume humanity in the incarnation, and he did so because of who he is as Triune love).

James Torrance is an Evangelical Calvinist par excellence; alongside, of course, his bother Thomas Torrance. I hope this insight from James’ son, Alan, helps to make clearer why he is such an important person and thinker for us Evangelical Calvinists.

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5 comments

  1. Hi Bobby – what an uplifting and encouraging post! I never knew about brother James. I’ve always respected J.I., but have to part company when he discusses limited atonement. Belated happy new year! Eric

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  2. But we end up tying the knot somewhere if we want to avoid a slide into Arminianism, Molinism, or any other ‘fore-seeing’ theologies. If it’s not limiting the number Christ died for, it’s the limitation of how many the Holy Spirit awakens (successfully woos, or convinces, or what have you).

    I do find some articulations of ‘Limited Atonement’ logically contrived, and trying to jam the Bible into a preconceived system and rationalism. This leads to a deeper reflection on method. But as to this, I think we’d make it over the impasse if we can say the atonement is both limited and universal; Christ’s Victory is for Christ, and all who are apart of Him. It is open to all, but (defining universally, catholicly, and, at time, invisibly) there is no salvation outside the Church.

    But how and where the Holy Spirit melts a heart of stone, echoing Jesus’ words “Follow Me”, I will never claim to understand. He is a Wind who blows where He wills!

    Cal

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  3. Cal,

    I don’t think we have to tie the knot though as you say, unless of course we start from a position and framework that says we have to tie that knot — like if we work from below.

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  4. So, are all saved? Even if we hope for such, we tie the possibility off that they won’t on God’s willing or man’s rejection, or both. I’m ok with leaving this in the mystery of Christ, He causes a rising and falling. Speculation is not possible nor necessary. We have Christ, the eternal Gordian Knot, impervious to all our Alexandrian swords.

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