Friday 24 August 2007

T. F. Torrance and heavenly mediation

The recent post on Badiou led to some interesting discussion about the theological idea of mediation – and I admitted that I’m extremely unenthusiastic about T. F. Torrance’s notion of Jesus’ “high-priestly mediation in heaven.” In case anyone wants to continue this discussion, here’s a re-post of one of my comments:

The Letter to the Hebrews interprets Jesus’ saving work typologically via a range of cultic categories. I think we can accept and appreciate all this – but it’s another thing to reify these very categories, so that (as in Torrance’s theology) they are turned into pure mythology.

My own impression is that we can do full justice to the soteriological message of Hebrews, without getting involved in this kind of reification. The writer to the Hebrews uses various cultic and Jewish-Alexandrian categories to articulate the significance of what took place in Jesus. But if we reify these categories, we end up with an inversion of the whole message – i.e., the death and resurrection of Jesus are eclipsed, and the action of God is removed from real history and located instead in some distant Platonic “heaven.”

To my mind, that’s exactly what happens in Torrance’s theology: his mythological portrayal of a “high-priestly mediation in heaven” actually results in the opposite of what the Letter to the Hebrews intends – i.e., it leads away from the sheer eventfulness of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thus, while Torrance believes he is improving on Barth at this point, he is in fact radically undermining the whole impulse of Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation!

I have a lot of admiration for Torrance’s work – but I reckon his conception of a mediation that takes place “in heaven” is a theological dead end.


jedidiah said...

I have not read much of Torrence but did listen to his lectures you posted awhile back, in one of which he mentioned this aspect of his theology.

Perhaps the way out of the dead end that does justice to the proclamation of Hebrews would be to think of how the Event of Jesus makes a Platonic heaven an impossibility. That is, the revelation of redemption (the world of heaven) on earth, the ascension of Jesus Christ from earth to heaven and the subsequent sending of the Spirit of Christ at Pentecost (the abiding heavenly presence on earth) means that we are now caught up in the eternal (seated in the heavenlies) even while on earth.

I'm not sure how/if that affects the doctrine of Christ's mediation in heaven but it may be connected somehow.

Anonymous said...

I really think that you may have misconstrued Torrance at this point. Mediation is not an 'instrumental' function of the Son, but an 'action' grounded in the ontological relation of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. this is why T.F.T. added his chapter on the Atonement and the Trinity in the revised version of The Mediation of Christ. Far from this being a 'Platonic' concept that takes place in an 'ideal' world beyond the temporal 'real' world, the incarnation grounds mediation in the 'event' of both revelation and reconciliation. Thus, mediation is not an existential 'event' (Bultmann) but an historical 'act' (Barth) through and in which the very being of God serves as the ontological basis for mediation. It is not the Son alone who mediates as merely a legal representative, but the trinune God 'mediates' grace with the incarnation the outward form of the act. This is somewhat like Barth's view of creation as the outward (temporal) act of God's (eternal) covenant act. In other words, the act of God is itself the mediation of the being of God. Ray Anderson

W. Travis McMaken said...


I don't think that mediation "in heaven" is the point. Rather, the point is that we have no relationship to God that is not mediated by Jesus Christ (in a very strong sense), and that this will continue even in the eschaton, etc.

Unknown said...

I just came across your blog. Some good people you are working with. I look forward to catching up and commenting.
If your interested I'm at

graham old said...

'...he is in fact radically undermining the whole impulse of Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation!'

Yes! Yes! Yes!

I actually think that's true of Torrance on a number of areas, not just on Christ's heavenly mediation.

Unknown said...


i was too busy plugging my site to read this post. Before I start, way to venture into Badiou and Zizek. Zizek is certainly an engaging read though I found in The Puppet and the Dwarf he was a little too quick to answer millennium old questions, What is the meaning of the book of Job? Well let me tell you . . ..
The figure of priest figured largely in my short lived doctoral stint. I began to notice that most philosophy comes to a head over the issue "presence". How or can we meaningfully communicate or relate to truth and our neighbour? This was the task of the priesthood (as much as we would misunderstand them).
I worked mostly from the Pentateuch but clearly this is Hebrews context. I think one of the biggest misconceptions about "the heavens" was that they were out there or else conceived in a platonic manner. The heavens is the fullness of reality in which God participates. The priesthood of all believers is identifying the appropriate (and inappropriate) crossing of the boundary of the sacred and its affect among us.
Sorry, no commentary on Torrence.
Here is my only significant work on the theology of priesthood.
See "Theology, Sociology and the Priesthood of All Readers" in IndieLit

Unknown said...

Sorry I don't think my attempt to link worked. Click on IndieLit on my main page.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to read your comments about Torrance's "mythological" interpretation of Hebrews. With his understanding of the heavenly mediation of Christ, Torrance stands well within the mainstream of historic Reformed theology. He follows in the line of Calvin, John Owen, Max Thurian and others.

I have found his understanding of this question to be of immense importance in helping to interpret the idea of eucharistic sacrifice. As I try to show in my forthcoming book The Eucharist and Ecumenism (Cambridge University Press, 2008), Torrance sets forth a way that promises to overcome long-standing divisions separating the Reformation from Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

The ascension and heavenly mediation of Christ, as Torrance interprets them, help us to see deep but often overlooked interconnections among the once-for-all, the perpetual, and the daily aspects of Christ's saving significance.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these very interesting comments. When Ray Anderson and George Hunsinger both disagree with me, I'm probably bound to be wrong! And I'll certainly look forward to reading your new book, George.

In any case, my main concern is simply that the action of God needs to be located in real history and not somewhere else. As soon as people start talking about things taking place up "in heaven", I start to feel a bit of Bultmannian scepticism....

Anonymous said...

I'd say Ben Myers has not understood TFT correctly and doesn’t realize that he is saying the same thing as TFT. To be fair, I think he may have been misled by the title, “Mediation of Christ”. “Mediation” is (dare I say) poorly chosen by TFT, a misnomer that suggests almost the exact opposite of the book itself. A mediator suggests the extrinsic, legal relation rather than the intrinsic, ontological relation TFT seeks to emphasize. A mediator is neither the one party nor the other, but a third party who goes between two others. The suggestion is that Jesus Christ is neither humanity nor God, whereas the point is that he is both and so unites both. He doesn’t go between us and God, he IS God coming to us and he IS us coming to God. Indeed, the crux of the other piece you sent, Jonathan, about Jesus assuming our fallen humanity, is that the Person and work of Christ are one and the same. In other words, Myers is right: Jesus IS what happens to us. But TFT would say the same thing!

Mediation also suggests negotiation, and therefore the idea that God does not want to accept us and must be “brought around” by Christ to do so—the exact opposite of TFT’s message that there is nothing of God that is not in Christ. Again, that means Myers is right: Jesus is not the person through whom we know God. He’s the one in whom we know God, because all of God is in Christ.

Mind you, Paul and the author of Hebrews do use the very words (translated) “mediator” and “advocate”. Two things could be said about this. One is that though these are among the metaphors the Bible uses (or analogies? I remember TFT or another Torrance vigorously distinguishing between the two but I forget what the distinction was!), they are not the whole picture. Again, Ben Myers is right: we must not “reify” those, i.e., treat them as if they were identifiable with the reality itself; they reveal an aspect of what Christ does, but no picture can reveal it all.

The other thing that could be said about it is that even when talking about Christ as mediator and advocate, these NT writers defy the terms as such by identifying Christ with humanity (“a high priest like unto us”) and identifying Christ with God. Hebrews shows how Christ is us, but a perfected version of us, and also how he is God, but a self-humbled version of God. He enters the holy of holies as our representative, but he represents us not the way an agent does, i.e., by proxy, instead of us by an arbitrary or extrinsic arrangement, but rather in something like the way a digest represents the whole content (although that doesn't quite do it justice either). He enters as us. But he is also distinct--he can enter because he is without sin (HAVING, over the course of his life and death, been obedient, that is, having purged the fallen nature he assumed rather than giving in to it at any point--and this is the sacrifice he brings in the form of his own person which unites us with it). It is only in this sinlessness that his distinctness from us is crucial. And that’s exactly where Hebrews is careful to distinguish him from us. This is the mystery referred to in the other piece, but it's the same mystery as the Incarnation itself.

And so, in the final analysis, I think part of the problem is just that our concepts (which I, at least, can only barely apprehend) and words cannot capture the reality. Fortunately it is not our christology we trust in but Christ himself!

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

The thing to see is that history is not ultimate reality, because that particular status belongs only to God's eternity. Therefore, it would be false to suppose that we must choose between "real history" and "somewhere else" -- if somewhere else means the divine eternity.

Heaven is a real place, for both Barth and Torrance, and Bultmann merely represents the usual modernist prejudices.

And what do you suppose Bultmann means by "real history" anyway? He's just part of the familiar modernist retreat into inwardness. "Mythological" means for him, as it did for D. F. Strauss, any miraculous intervention in the external world. If you go along with that, you lose not just the Ascension but also the Incarnation, the Atonement and the Resurrection -- not something I think you would wish to do.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right about TFT Ben, although now that Ray Anderson and George Hunsinger have weighed in I am nervous to say it. I think the notion of 'vicarious humanity' gives away his escape from historical reconciliation. My impression is that TFT uses it to shore up the priority of grace
However it occurs to me that the real concern in Christ’s humanity is that he lived the life that we couldn’t live, not instead of us, but in such a way that we were freed from the bondage of sin and enabled to live it also. That is to say, its perfection lies in its touching and perfecting of our humanity. The perfection required is not that which can be transferred vicariously to us but that which actually changes our historical and consequently eternal situation. In other words, we need to begin to understand the causality of the transfer in space and time rather than in some kind of legal transcendence. Our account must include both a dependence on Christ’s life and a mimetic conformity in the Spirit to his life, in a way which doesn’t pit these two aspects against each other. Vicarious humanity seems to affirm dependence to the exclusion of mimetic conformity in the Spirit. Does this make sense?

Anonymous said...

I'm afriaid that Bruce Hamill's rejection of the idea of "vicarious humanity" seems to amount, unfortunately, to a plea for sanctification at the expense of justification.

Don't forget that sin is a matter of humanly irreparable guilt, not just of bondage. Christ died for us by bearing the divine judgment in our stead that we might be spared, and made righteous by a righteousness not our own (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13, etc.). This is what the older Protestantism called his "passive obedience," and it is necessarily vicarious. Christ's passive obedience is at the heart of the Reformation doctrine of justification. (The "new perspective" on Paul is entirely tone deaf at this point.)

But even Christ's active obedience is vicarious. Sanctification therefore depends on our participatio Christi -- as determined and controlled at every point by justification. For even our best works are tainted by sin and need to be justified by grace. All our righteousness, as Luther stressed, is as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6).

I am perplexed by the perception that either vicarious substitution or heavenly mediation should be thought to undermine "historical reconciliation." For historical reconciliation presupposes the former, even as the latter necessarily presupposes the reconciliation that Christ enacted in his active and passive obedience.

Sanctification without participatio Christi and the vicarious element in justification inevitably tends toward a subtle or open form of Pelagianism (as the "new perspective" shows).

By the way, Torrance's idea of Christ's vicarious humanity is anticipated by Barth in CD II/1, pp. 252-53.

Anonymous said...

George, I see why my comments might be construed as a plea for sanctification at the expense of justification but I see them as a plea to hold both together... or perhaps to interpret justification as a historical process in which we 'become' (2Cor 5: 21) the righteousness of God by the grace of the spirit-given impact of the cross-resurrection of Christ. I too claim that we are 'made righteous by a righteousness not of our own' (ie by christ's). I just don't understand what Torrance is saying about the transfer of Christ's righteousness to us by the word 'vicarious' (to suggest that he responds for us makes sense if it is an enabling response, but if it is instead of us, so that we no longer need to respond, then the relationality of reconciliation is drained of content). It seems to me that a Spirit Christology and fuller pneumatology would avoid a sense that the transfer is 'heavenly' in a legal non-historical sense. Surely our participatio Christi is through the Spirit rather than by virtue of a quality in his humanity called its 'vicariousness'.
Im am probably not understanding the concept, but I think that the forgiving of 'filthy rags' (pace Luther) is the cleaning of them that they might shine. The inauguration of such a cleaning process is a declaration of forgiveness but it is not the completion of it which is eschatological. So on my reading both sanctification and justification are participatio christi.
Thanks for struggling with me.

Anonymous said...


Well, these are complicated issues which would require more discussion than I can engage in here. I'm glad you would wish to hold justification and sanctification together, but your idea of justification as a "process" is precisely what the Reformation -- as represented by Luther and Calvin -- set its face against. With them I would affirm that:

1. Justification is a matter of imputation. Just as our sins are not imputed to us (2 Cor. 5:19), so Christ's righteousness is imputed to us (Rom. 4:5) -- and in each case, whole and entire.

2. Justification is an event not a process, not something partim but something totus. In the time between the times, it does not occur in us, as we are in ourselves, but to us, as we are in Christ. Our righteousness, like our life, is hid with Christ in God (Col. 3:3).

3. Christ is not merely the source of our righteousness. He is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). On this point hangs the whole Reformation.

4. Substitution and participation are not alternatives. Christ's vicarious humanity is effectual for us precisely through our participatio Christi, which pariticipatio occurs of course, as Calvin stressed, precisely through the Spirit.

5. You might take a look at Mark Seifrid's book Christ, Our Righteousness.

All the best, --GH

Anonymous said...

Must check out that book. Your point 3 highlights for me the way the reformation hangs on subtle hermeneutical points, and passages that seem to me to to be readable in different ways. I had always read the Col 3:3 phrase as an epistemological point rather than a kind of parallel universe. It seems to me that there are passages that are easier read either way and that the strong reformation way you highlight is not the only way to preserve that absolute dependence on divine grace - which seems to be Paul's motivating drive. On point 5 I just think that participatio Christi by the Spirit is to be enabled to live a different (Christ -formed) life. It seems like the phrase 'Christ's vicarious humanity is effectual for us...' could be replaced without loss by the phrase 'Christ's humanity is effectual for us...'

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