Athanasius and T.F. Torrance Contra Mundum, Against the World of classical Calvinist Forensic Conception of the Atonement

Here’s a post I originally wrote in 2011. It illustrates how evangelical Calvinists, following T.F. Torrance and Athanasius are at odds with classical Calvinist or Federal theology. In this post I use Michael Horton as the representative of the Covenantal/Forensic approach. The focus is on what has happened in the atonement, and, indeed, in salvation generally.

I often speak of T. F. Torrance’s view of the atonement as the ontological view, which is inextricably related, for Torrance to the Incarnation (which is why his most recent posthumously athanasiuspublished books Incarnation & Atonement came in the order that they did— there is a theo-logical and even, dare I say it, necessary relation between the two). Well I just wanted to quote Athanasius directly, so that folks won’t think that Torrance fabricated such things out of whole cloth. Here’s Athanasius discussing the apparent dilemma God has set before Him given the reality of the “Fall” (and the non-existence or non-being that it brought humanity separated from Him), and the fact that not just a “legal” kind of relation had been violated between God and man through the “Fall;” but in fact an actual corruption of man Himself and the loss of grace as an intricate aspect of man’s relation to God had occurred —man’s very “nature” and even “heart” had been broken to the point of death (non-being and separation from God). Athanasius is sketching the only way the only dénouement possible for God to remain consistent with Himself as the Creator of man in His image; he says:

Yet, true though this is, it is not the whole matter. As we have already noted, it was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not falsify Himself; what, then, was God to do? Was He to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case. What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.[1]

Rich stuff. Now if you’re into the “kind” of Covenantal/Reformed/Federal Theology that Michael Horton & co. articulates, then you might as well throw Athanasius’ insights, just quoted, in the burn pile. Here’s why. Horton style Covenant theology offers a “Juridically-Forensically” based view of the atonement—the kind that would actually fit into the “repentance-only” model that Athanasius says or NO to—that frames what takes place on the cross as a Divine transaction between the Son and the Father. The “Law” (eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil cf. Hos. 6.7) has been broken (Covenant of Works), and the Father-Son agree to a pact (Pactum Salutis or Covenant of Redemption) wherein the Son will become a man, die on the cross for particular people (elect), “pay” their penalty (or fee), and give them back to God (Covenant of Grace). On the face that might sound good, but let’s think with Athanasius. All that has occurred in the Hortonian view of salvation is essentially to deal with an “external” issue and payment (which is akin to Athanansius’ point on repentance). The fundamental problem with this approach, as Athanasius so keenly points out, is that the issue isn’t primarily an external issue wherein a legal repentance will do; the issue is an issue of nature. Man’s nature was thoroughly corrupted and even lost. The only remedy is for the image of the Father (the Son) to literally become humanity; penetrate into the depths of our sinful souls through His redemptive grace; take that corrupted nature/heart from the manger to the cross to the grave; and resurrect/recreate it into the image of the Father which can only be realized as we are vicarious participants in Christ. The issue is not primarily an issue of a broken “Law;” the issue is that we have broken “Hearts,” and only God’s grace in Christ in the Incarnation can reach down into those depths and recreate us in Him. Horton’s approach to salvation does not allow for such thinking. It doesn’t deal with the heart, and thus we are left in our sins non-being.



[1] Athanasius, On The Incarnation, §7, 32.


6 thoughts on “Athanasius and T.F. Torrance Contra Mundum, Against the World of classical Calvinist Forensic Conception of the Atonement

  1. I have concerns about some facebook links to friends who embrace grace perspective in how they read the bible. Universal salvation for all in T.F. Torrances world view only applied objectively saying God’s will is that all may be saved. People are now saying all are saved and it is finished. We have been perfect, complete and whole since the cross and all have been raised a new creation. They simply say you are your true identity redeemed by Christ at the cross and the false identity no longer exists. All humanity is one body in Christ, there is one Kingdom, one Lord and one world. They don’t look upon this present evil age as a world that will be replaced by the coming of Jesus Christ to bring the fullness of the Kingdom. They say it is all now and all here in full and there is no second coming. I am wondering if you might shed some light on the matter by sharing your insight? thanks.


  2. I would just say they aren’t reading their Bibles. They don’t understand Torrance who explicitly repudiates that type of nonsense. They need to go read and study Thessalonians. There’s all kinds of weird stuff out there, and what you describe is heretical non-orthodox mumbo jumbo. I mean sure people can have whatever views they want, but who cares if it’s not coordinate with orthodox and biblically critical thinking.


  3. Anthony,

    Sorry if my thoughts weren’t as developed as you may have liked. But honestly there’s not much to say to what you describe other than what I just did. It’s not worth engaging with, other than the fact that stuff like this is deceiving the gullible. Anyone, though, who has a basic biblical knowledge and any kind of discernment should hopefully be able to see through what you describe. Torrance himself calls universalism heresy (along with limited atonement … I agree with him — although there are some iterations of Christian universalism I’d rather more softly label as heterodox rather than heresy).


  4. Bobby, why not both/and instead of either/or? Plenty of reformed types hold to both/and (Lloyd-Jones for one – though he does like a forensic emphasis) and I’m sure that Horton would agree with what Athanasius says but classify it as a benefit of the atonement. If I’m right about what Horton might say, is there really a problem?


  5. Sure, yes, there’s a problem Steve. I never said we shouldn’t hold to a multivalent theory—if you’d read our book you’d know that—instead the problem is with how things get framed and by what metaphysic. That’s the problem which I tease out further in my most recent post.


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