Karl Barth vs. T.F. Torrance: the Assumption of (Fallen?) Human Nature

There is a common song that is sung in modern theology, a song with two main themes: (1) that Christ assumed a fallen human nature, and (2) Karl Barth is in large part to blame (or thank) for this. This song has become something of an orthodoxy in contemporary theology and has largely gone unquestioned. Torrance picked up this theme and ran with it, citing Gregory’s famous ‘the unassumed is the unhealed’ maxim every chance he got. I want to suggest in this post, however, that Barth did not, in fact argue that Christ assumed a fallen human nature (FHN), and that this fact placed on more coherent (as well as orthodox) grounds than Torrance as far as christology goes.

Torrance argued that in his person and work, Christ assumed FHN. Not an abstract, neutral, unfallen nature, but real, concrete flesh-and-blood human nature – human nature as we have it. It was this assumption that allowed human nature to be healed, since sin had worked its way into the very depths of human nature. To save space, I’ll refer you to my review of Kevin Chiarot’s excellent book on the subject, but the main point here is that as far as Torrance was concerned, Gregory’s maxim meant that it was FHN, and nothing else, that was assumed by Christ. As Chiarot points out, however, there is a serious difficulty with this (Chiarot notes a number of difficulties, but for my money, this is what seals the deal):

Since no person, or personal center of consciousness, is assumed, this means, in Torrance’s words, that the incarnation sets aside what divides us, namely our sinful human personalities. Thus Christ, while assuming what unites us (our common natures: anhypostasia), does not assume our fallen human persons. This is devastating for the non-assumptus. It means that no concrete personal instance of fallen humanity is assumed, only fallen human “nature” – whatever that is – dissociated from fallen human persons. Surely, this humanity is, to use Torrance’s description of “neutral” humanity, one of which we know nothing. So we have a split in the non-assumptus: fallen human nature is assumed, fallen human persons set aside.’ (Kevin Chiarot, The Unassumed is the Unhealed, p. 162)

Thus, Torrance cuts his own feet out from under him: if FHN is assumed, then fallen human persons aren’t healed. I don’t really see a way that this conclusion, if we keep to Torrance’s terms, can be avoided. Other objections (which I’m quickly summarizing here) include a difficulty with keeping Christ sinless, a serious problem of coherency with regard to the will(s) of Jesus: ‘…it is perfectly obedient, perpetually condemned, progressively sanctified, and increasingly resistant.’ (p. 226), and an ambiguous status of the fallen humanity after the virgin birth. Chiarot argues that each of these problems is a direct result of Torrance’s doctrine of the assumption of FHN, and that the only way to avoid these problems is by taking atonement theology in a more forensic (and so less ‘ontological’) direction. Now, that may or may not be true, but I think there’s a way to keep the ‘ontological’ aspect that Torrance was so keen on while avoiding the problems he runs into.

Now, I noted above that Barth is the usual suspect when it comes to the idea of Christ assuming FHN. This is rarely challenged, which is somewhat curious, for two reasons: (1) Barth never actually says that Christ assumes FHN, and (2) he actually says the exact opposite, that Christ’s human nature was sinless – and yet, Barth is able to say that Christ heals fallen persons in a way that Torrance struggled to do coherently. The trick here, as Shao Kai Tseng notes in Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology, is that Barth distinguishes very carefully here between human nature as created by God, which is good, and human being, which is in the condition of fallen-ness. This is primarily due to Barth’s own concept of sin as nothingness – something which can’t be a positive part of human nature:

He insists that human kind “has not lost – not even in part – the good nature which was created by God, to acquire instead another and evil nature.” He is worried that such a view of human fallenness will lead to a kind of dualism whereby sin is given some sort of an ontological status as human nature.

To be sure, sinful corruption lies at the “very core of his [humanity’s] being – the heart, as the Bible puts it. Yet this radical and total corruption of the human being is not as such any part of human nature. (p. 260)

He finds it idolatrous to speak of sinful human nature. God created human nature to be good, and it remains good despite humanity’s fall into corruption. Whatever is corrupt and sinful about the human being does not pertain and can never be a part of the good human nature that God created. (p. 284)

It’s clear that Barth’s distinction between nature and being go a long way towards alleviating the difficulties that arise on Torrance’s view of Christ simply assuming a FHN. But another important area where Barth is clearer than Torrance is the distinction between flesh, being, and nature. Barth calls  this unfallen nature ‘the nature of man as he comes from the fall,’ (CD IV/1, p. 258) and distinguishes this carefully from ‘flesh’:

In a brief exegesis of John 1:14 (“the Word became flesh…”) Barth comments that ‘”flesh’ is the concrete form of human nature and the being of man in his world under the sign of the fall of Adam – the being of man as corrupted and therefore destroyed, as unreconciled with God and therefore lost.” That is to say, “flesh” denotes human nature, which is in and of itself God’s good creation, under the sign of Adam’s fall that is alien to his nature. Recall that for Barth the human being is in the condition of corruption, but human nature as created by God in Christ remains good. (Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology, p. 273)

Torrance, by contrast doesn’t appear to distinguish as carefully here:

But are we to think of this flesh which he became as our flesh? Are we to think of it as describing some neutral human nature and existence, or as describing our actual human nature and existence in the bondage and estrangement of humanity fallen from God and under the divine judgment? (T.F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, p. 61)


And, finally, as I said above, the ‘ontological’ force of Christ’s taking on both human nature and the condition of human being:

When Barth says that Christ took on human nature, then, it could not have been sinful nature. As I pointed out earlier, Christ assumed human nature that is in and of itself sinless, but in the very meantime, by taking on human nature he participates in the corrupted condition of Adamic history. The sin of all humankind is, to use Barth’s own language adopted in CD II/2, transferred to Christ by means of participatio.

Barth is then able to affirm everything Torrance wanted to affirm – the full reality of Christ’s assumption of human nature and corruption – without the problems of coherency that arise if Christ simply assumes FHN. To summarize:

Human nature is good, not fallen. Christ assumed human nature, which is good, and participates in Adamic history, which is the sinful condition. Christ is the sinless and guiltless bearer of the sins and guilt of others. Sin is alien to human nature because of its non-created-ness and so can never be a part of human nature – so there can’t be a fallen human nature -, but it is not alien to the human being. Christ took on our nature ‘as we come from the fall’. Corruption is, as noted above, the historical condition of Adam. The incarnation is the history of God entering into the history of fallen man – the way of the Son into the far country. Barth argues that Jesus assumes human nature – which itself is not fallen – and since he adds his own historicist/actualist spin on things, he can say that Jesus assumes our fallen condition, keeping these two distinct but inseparable.





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