Alan Torrance, Being in Christ

Alan TorranceAlan Torrance earned his doctorate in theology at the University of Erlangen-Nurnberg in Germany. He is professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

How should the work of Christ affect our lives and relationships?

Edited transcript

J. Michael Feazell: Paul wrote to the Colossians that God was in Christ reconciling all things to himself. What are the implications of that for how human beings live together?

Alan Torrance: The word Paul uses is apokatallasso. That is the word for “to reconcile,” and it means, technically, “exchange.” It sum­marizes what you were saying earlier about redemption. You can summarize the whole of redemption and salvation in that verse…God was in Christ bringing about an exchange — taking what is ours, our alienated, sinful, fallen humanity — and healing it and transforming it. God is in Christ taking what is ours in order to give us what is his. What is his? It’s a life of communion characterized by unconditional love and unconditional forgiveness. When we are given by the Spirit to participate in Christ… The phrase “in Christ” appears in Paul 154 times. That’s the heart of Christian life, is being en Christo in Greek, participating in Christ.

To come to your question…what are the implications of this for how we live in society? To be a Christian is to be given the eyes to see and the ears to hear every facet of life in that light. To be a Christian is to think out of Christ in every situation. It’s never possible to bracket our Christian life out as something that happens on Sundays, or concerns our private piety. To be a Christian is to think about science, politics, every facet of our lives in the light of what it is to be en Christo. If we are re-created to be en Christo, if our being is defined by our participation in the body of Christ, then every facet of our lives has to re-thought in that light.

I had the privilege to spend two years in a North American based research group, with Miroslav Wolf, Nicholas Wolterstorff and two others, thinking about the implications, the ramifications, of reconciliation — of this reconciliation — for our political engagement. I think it means this: We shouldn’t advocate anything, not least in politics, that doesn’t reflect what it is to be in Christ. You don’t pray one thing and vote another. There’s got to be integrity and consistence in that. Christians (and this is what it means to be the salt of the earth) should work for reconciliation at the horizontal level everywhere they find themselves.

For example, if you’re a Christian in politics and you’re seeking to engage with terrorists or situations of conflict, you have to allow the truth of that verse to infuse and inform and direct your thinking in every respect. Does reconciliation mean ignoring terrorism or aggression? Emphatically not. But instead of simply enacting revenge or retribution, we should have an eye to thinking what is it that we can do, what is it we can (if we are politicians) inspire in our voters that will lead to genuine reconcili­ation, because that’s what God desires. What can we do that will generate healing and a restoration of good relationships?

To be a human being is to be created in the image of God, in the imago dei, as we often hear. We are to image, to reflect, to correspond, to who God is in all that we are. That’s in the Torah, the Jewish law, the Ten Com­mand­ments: “I am the Lord thy God who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Therefore, as I am unconditionally faithful to you and have been, so must you be faithful to me, have no other gods before me, and be faithful to each other.” That is to image God, to be in the image of God, that’s what the imago dei is talking about. It’s not talking about some innate human capacity. It’s talking about the form of human existence corresponding to God’s relationship to us.

Jesus summed up the law as to love God, and our neighbors as our­selves. He was talking about something that should impact every facet of our existences. To be lights in this world, to be the salt of the earth, is for Christians to have the courage, sometimes against the stream of popular opinion, to work for reconciliation, restoration, healing, and to think radically and creatively as to what is going to bring that about.

If every Christian in the West were to think out of the Christian faith, just imagine the priorities that would be manifest in our political decision making. This is controversial — we like to keep religion and politics separate. I don’t see any Christian endorsement of that. If every politician in the West who was voted into their office by Christians were to seek to enact those insights, the world would be a massively happier place, and the West could be seen as committed to reconciliation, to healing, to being concerned for the poor, for prioritizing, liberating two-thirds of the world from the extreme financial hardship and the disease and so on that causes so much grief. If that was what the eyes of our critics, our enemies saw when they looked to the West, a group of nations committed to making, to creating a reconciled world characterized by mutual care and concern, we’d be far more influential, there would be much more peace in this world.

There’s always going to be evil. We’re still left with situations where there’s always going to be, I’m afraid, terrorism, hostility, and greed, and sometimes (I’m not a pacifist, I’d love to be) we’ve got to take actions to try to ensure the best possible outcome for all concerned (though, as Stanley Hauerwas suggests, we’ve got to respect pacifists, because they have a strong doctrine of divine providence).

In everything we do and however we do it, the aim, the goal, must be shalom. Not just our own peace and well-being, but the peace and well-being of our enemies. The gospel is radical. The incarnation has radical impli­cations. It should impact every facet of the way we live, vote, think, spend our money, and behave. Nothing would be more exciting than if the church had the courage, and it does take courage, to be that radical…

JMF: Christians don’t ever seem to come close in making that happen as a worldwide body. There are so many denominations, sects and splits. They don’t get along with each other; they’re divided against each other. How do we account for such division among Christians when we’re called to such radical living together as the body of Christ?

AT: You’ve put your finger on the tragedy of contemporary Christian existence. It’s a terrible witness that the body of Christ… We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church. That’s an article of faith to believe, that there’s one church, because there’s one body, just as there’s one Christ, there’s one body of Christ. To the extent that we are Christians, we are one, and we must be conceived as being one. Does the world see one body of Christ? One united communion of the body of Christ? I’m afraid it doesn’t. It sees a lot of Christian individuals driven by pride, very often—sometimes at war with each other. Look at the tragedy of events in Northern Ireland; look at what we’ve seen in South Africa. The German Christians—Hitler couldn’t have come to power without the support, I’m afraid, of the Deutche Christians, the German Christians.

You question why things are the way they are? Here’s a one-word answer: sin, or pride (which is the other side of the same coin). Many people want to go for a kind of ecumenism, which means that we form big bodies and we form federations – where the churches talk to each other and they’ve got good relationships with each other. What would our Lord want to see? He’d want to see one body of Christ characterized by radical communion and a coherent collective witness which has real integrity. He’d want to see love and forgiveness and mutual understanding. The church is divided because it doesn’t have the mind of Christ. Christ only has one mind (unless we’re going to delve into dramatic debates). The mind of Christ which is in Christ Jesus should characterize the body of Christ, and therefore to be an evangelical, to be a Christian, is to strive for that.

Look right and left, look at the people who belong to churches with whom you disagree, and you’ve got to say to yourself, “that is a tragedy, and what can we do together to find ways of not just being or possessing the mind of Christ, but embodying it within the world, because the divisions in the church are a terrible witness.” When I was involved in missions (Howard Marshall and I used to run missions together) I went around doors and the continual complaint was, “How can you Christians offer good news to the world? You can’t even agree amongst yourselves.”

JMF: Where we see communion and union in the body of Christ is among individuals and among pastors of various denominations who come together for working together, and they bypass what amounts to the institutionalism, the entrenched structures of churches and so on. They work around that in ways that reflect the body of Christ in individual ways. This is where we see what needs to be seen.

AT: That is what it is to be true to the gospel. It also means that we have to work within our churches to bring about change — so we can find constructive ways forward together with other churches and have high aims. I think denominational division of the kind we have at the moment is a handicap. To be evangelical is to be ecumenical. The sad thing is, ecumenism and evangelicalism have often been polarized.

JMF: They originate at the heads of or in the context of institutionalism, which itself is not Christianity but institutionalism.

AT: Precisely. We’ve got to move, to get beyond institutionalism.

JMF: It happens with people on the ground who are living out their faith…

AT: Usually the problem is establishment religion or civil religion. For example, in Scotland…very often, to be a Scot is to belong to the Church of Scotland, as I do, and to be part of that establishment. Establishment religion is not participation in the body of Christ. I don’t think there’s any place for establishment religion. We’re called beyond that, and we must do all we can to liberate the gospel from those forms of civil religion.

JMF: In the micro context of a family, where perhaps a husband is abusing a wife — this is not uncommon — and sometimes the church tells her that she needs to reconcile with this man who abuses her, and so …do we sometimes confuse the forgiveness and the reconciliation of the spirit with some kind of requirement to go back under the authority of this person who is bound to abuse her again?

AT: We should never advocate in the name of reconciliation a situation of sustained abuse. That is to turn reconciliation on its head, and as I am trying to explain, reconciliation is about being given to participate in what is Christ’s. Abuse within a family context is widespread; it’s a massive problem, not least within the Christian church.

When there’s abuse going on, the church has an absolute obligation (apodictic obligation) to stop that, to put an end to that abuse. How could we possibly give and communicate good news to a woman who is being abused by a husband by telling her to acknowledge his authority or anything of that kind? That is not the gospel. The gospel is to affirm the dignity and humanity of that woman, and do everything in our power to liberate her from the powers that would oppress and exploit, in this case, perhaps a violent or abusive husband.

I often think that the church should be much more outspoken about the problems of abuse within family life. One of the tragedies, sometimes, is this aligning of God’s fatherhood with human fatherhood and suggesting that fathers are somehow superior. Then they talk about the divine wrath! I know one Calvinist theologian who thinks he’s got grounds for what I think is fairly abusive discipline of his children, because he’s got to enact, as the image of the Father, “godly discipline.” He takes the belt from around his trousers and belts his children. That is precisely what Jesus was opposing. Every facet of Jesus’ ministry was opposing that.

Family life and marriages should be contexts of shalom where people should be liberated to be free to be themselves, to know what it is to be loved. A family is not being a family in truth unless it’s being the body of Christ in truth. The body of Christ is a radically inclusive, affirming, liberative communion. We’ve got to take these issues seriously. It is not surprising that feminist thinkers have been so concerned about abuses that have gone on within (let’s face it) often very patriarchal forms of Chris­tianity. These have only emerged because we’ve failed to be true to the gospel, as to Jesus’ clear injunctions. We’ve got to work continually to oppose those forms of sin.

JMF: In the time we have left, would you mind sharing some personal reflections about your father, J.B. Torrance, and your uncle, T.F. Torrance?

AT: I was incredibly privileged. I was brought up in a wonderful home. I remember my father once said to me, “In the light of Matthew 23 (that statement about calling no man father) and in the light of the gospel,” he once said to me, “Alan, biologically I’m your father, but Christianly speaking, you and I are brothers.” As I was growing up, there was discipline, I’d get into trouble and he’d discipline me, but never in a way that it wasn’t – and didn’t make his love for me unambiguously clear.

From my later teens on, my father always treated me like a brother. Because he believed, if we’re going to think out of Christ, en Christo, in Christ, that is who we were. We had the most wonderful relationship. Even when I was 16 or 17, he’d discuss all sorts of family decisions with my sisters and myself — which is quite unusual to do in Scotland, which is a very traditional culture. If we were going to buy a house or the way we’d spend money, we’d all talk about it as a family, and my parents would involve us in major family decisions. It was a radically inclusive relationship. But for dad, what was always transparent was the fact that it was his Christian conviction that was informing every facet of his treatment of us.

There are some remarkable memories. I’ll just take one that stands out, for this is a wonderful incidence. Christmas was always a very formal time in our family because we used to get together, all the aunts and uncles and so on, and we all dressed up in our Sunday best. Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, was fun, very often, because all the same food was there, but then we’d be there together as a family and relaxed, and it was a great fun day. On one particular Boxing Day, we all sat down to lunch and there was a turkey and all the trimmings, and all the remains of the Christmas provision was distributed amongst all the family.

We sat down, and dad had just said prayers, and there was a ring at the front doorbell. I thought, “Who comes to the front door at 1:00 on…” Dad and I went to the front door, he opened the door, and there was a tramp. It was freezing cold out there. He said to my father, “I’m terribly sorry to bother you at this time, but I was wondering if you could provide me with some bread…it’s a difficult time to get food over Christmas.” Do you know what dad did? Ushered him into the house right straight through to the dining room and put him at his place in front of his food. All the Christmas food had been distributed.

Dad went through to the kitchen and got some bean and egg together… that was dad’s lunch. That tramp ate dad’s feast. He made that tramp feel as if he belonged in the family. My dad lived his life, and with that mind which is in Christ Jesus, and my mother was a great partner in that. It was a privilege.

My uncle Tom, T.F. Torrance, is a wonderful, wonderful uncle. I lived with him for a year. When I was at university, my parents moved, thus I lived with uncle Tom. It was a year of enormous intellectual stimulation –  we had fabulous discussions. He had a spectacular sense of humor – we laughed till tears came down. He would pray for me. On one occasion I had broken up with a girlfriend and I was very distraught, and he took me into his study and he prayed with me. So I was very privileged.

These are both men who are theologians, totally committed churchmen that had a vision of what it was to share by the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father. They sought to see every facet of their lives in that light. Earlier, you mentioned ethics. Ethics, like worship, is a gift of participation by the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father. It’s interesting that worship, and worth-ship, ethics, are the same word. There should be no dichotomy between them. In other words, every facet of our human life is a gift by the Spirit of sharing in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father.

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Last modified: Saturday, February 16, 2019, 11:09 PM