In good Thomistic fashion, Thomas Joseph White’s The Incarnate Lord is orthodox, precise, and deep. One of White’s key strengths is the analytical precision of his Christological arguments; one of White’s chief concerns appears to be upholding the council of Chalcedon Thomistically, maintaining the purity of God’s nature and cutting away the dangerous imprecision of much recent Christological thought. White therefore seeks to reclaim Jesus as the incarnate God-man who atones for humanity by living and substituting an obedient and meritorious life of love before the Father. This paper will proceed by first examining White’s account of Christ’s person, then by explicating his theory of the atonement, and finally by articulating the important convergences with and divergences from 20th Century Reformed theology, particularly that of T.F. Torrance.
Following St. Thomas Aquinas, and therefore Chalcedon, White believes that Christ is God incarnate. Jesus is fully God and fully man; he possesses two natures, but he is one subject. White ascribes “all properties and actions of both the divine and human natures of Christ to their one and only concrete subject, who is the incarnate Son of God” (White, 283). Thus, everything predicated of either the divine nature or the human nature is predicated of the person Jesus Christ. The natures are distinct, but they do not divide Christ in two: “The concrete subject is that one who is truly God, who is this obedient man, etc.” (283).
Crucially, however, although the human and divine natures coexist equally within the single person of Jesus, in practice White holds that Jesus’s divine nature conditions his human nature in important ways. A particularly instructive example of this occurs when White examines whether Jesus’s final cry in Mark’s gospel—“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”—indicates that Jesus experienced the alienation from the Father which properly belongs to the damned. White argues against Calvin, who wrote that Jesus “‘experienced the dread of damnation’” which was humanity’s due (308). In other words, Calvin argues that Jesus took on the subjective state of the damned–he experienced what it is to be damned. White argues, by contrast, that Jesus neither experienced alienation from God on the cross nor the wrath of God against human sin (313, 318).
For White, such an experience is simply impossible for two reasons. First, Jesus’s divine nature conditions his humanity such that, because he “in his human intellect possessed direct, intuitive knowledge of his own divine identity and will at all times,” Jesus could not undergo any alienation from the divine wisdom and will (310). This would also appear to preclude the possibility of Jesus experiencing a host of other human states—uncertainty, for example, or the full subjective experience of temptation. The question which challenges White’s position, and which will become important later when engaging Torrance’s position, is this: in what sense can Jesus be said to be fully human, indeed, one who “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin,” if his divine nature so conditions his human (Hebrews 4:15)?
Second, Jesus cannot have been said to experience alienation from God on the cross because damnation entails the pain of “definitive privation of the grace, knowledge and vision of God” arising from “a personal aversion to the will of God” (313). Because Jesus is God, he could not have been averse to the will of God (i.e. his own will) and so could not have experienced damnation, even in a purely subjective manner. At all times, he was in perfect harmony with the Father, and at all times he felt himself to be in perfect harmony. Thus, the divine nature of Jesus qualifies and circumscribes the possibilities open to Jesus’s human nature. Unrelated, but of note, is the fact that White simply defines damnation such that it precludes the possibility of Christ experiencing it; White makes no argument for said definition, and one wonders whether there might be more merit to Calvin’s case than White allows if a different definition of damnation were employed.
Having examined White’s vision of the person of Christ, and the possible problems attending it, attention should be focused on his conception of the atonement. Perhaps surprisingly, White conceives of the atonement in substitutionary terms, only, for White, Jesus substitutes his merits for human merits rather than his life for the life of all humans. Jesus saves humanity by “substituting his obedience and love for our injustice, lovelessness and disobedience, so as to render us just” (349). In other words, Christ’s merits are substituted for human lack of merits. This substitution is possible precisely because Jesus is God and man: “only because [Jesus] is a man like us” can his merits justly be substituted for other humans, and these merits are only of infinite worth—i.e. able to cover all humanity—because Jesus is God (349). Both the human and the divine nature, therefore, operate in distinct but complementary ways to save humans. White does not articulate precisely how the fact that the merits are God’s makes them of infinite worth (simply because God is infinite?), but he asserts that this is the case.
White differs from 20th Century Reformed thinkers, and T.F. Torrance implicitly, in a couple of important ways. First, as was hinted at above, because Jesus’s divine nature conditions the human, White does not think it possible or even desirable for God to “introduce” into his deity “suffering, death, non-being, and separation from God” (351). For White, such an introduction would not cleanse humanity; it would merely taint God. Indeed, a God possessing such characteristics would not be able to save humanity from them precisely because they now existed as fixed features within the divine nature. This would appear to rule out, for White, the possibility of Torrance’s claim that Jesus “made his own that estranged and disobedient condition of our human being” (Torrance 79). For White, Jesus made pristine (or “pure”) human nature his own, but he could not make fallen nature his own without introducing into the single subject of the incarnate God characteristics which are definitively excluded by God’s nature (White 167).
On White’s model, Torrance’s claims about how Jesus achieves redemption are ruled out. Where Torrance claims that Jesus “really took upon himself our sin and guilt,” White counters that redemption occurs by the substitution of merits (Torrance 63). Torrance does not precisely define in what sense he means his claim that God took fallen humanity into himself in the person of Christ, leaving himself open to the claims of incoherence White levels at 20th Century Christological reflection. Did God really take sin into Himself? Surely not. But if not, what does Torrance mean?
Against the Reformed tradition, White explicitly rejects penal substitution as an accurate model of how atonement is accomplished. Citing Aquinas positively, White writes that the penal substitutionary model does not make sense: “It is impossible for an innocent man to submit to a penal substitution for the guilt due another, as if he were to assume the sins of another” (318). White does not consider the possibility of a cultic model of substitution. This is unfortunate, but also particularly striking given that Thomas himself argues that Christ “assumes” sin. Such assumption of sins occurs precisely in the cultic ritual of scapegoating detailed in the Leviticus 16, in which a goat was burdened with (i.e. in which a goat assumed) Israel’s sins and was sent into the wilderness, effectively separating the people from their sins. White does not consider that Christ’s atonement should or could be understood on the substitutionary model of Yom Kippur.
For White, then, in sum, Jesus is the incarnate God who effects salvation by substituting his infinite merits for humanity’s utter lack of merit. Jesus is able to do this because he is both man, and so his work may stand in for man’s, and also because he is God, granting his merits infinite value. It is the work of Christ which is substituted on behalf of humanity, not Christ’s person. This contrasts sharply with Torrance’s vision of atonement, in which Jesus as God substitutes himself for sinners, takes into himself human wickedness and sin, and destroys it. Furthermore, White’s healthy and important desire safeguard divine perfection leads him to condition the possibilities of Jesus’s humanity in crucial ways, to the effect that White’s Jesus is not, in the final analysis, like us. His is a superhuman nature, untouched by feelings of alienation from God or by the possibility of real temptation. Still, if it is hard to see how White’s Jesus could be “like his brethren in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17), it is hard to see how Torrance’s view that Jesus assumed fallen humanity does not do violence to the nature of God.