Robert T. Walker is nephew of the late Thomas F. Torrance. Walker edited Torrance's lecture notes into two books describing Torrance's teachings about the person and work of Jesus Christ. The first is Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (InterVarsity, 2008); the second is Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (InterVarsity, 2009). For a PDF of all three interviews, click here.
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Small group discussion guide
Discussion groups might wish to prepare their own topics, request topics from the group, use the following suggested topics, or mix and match all three.
1. Dr. Walker emphasized the resurrection over the cross. Please share your thoughts on this.
2. Please expand on the concept, “It’s the resurrection that makes us righteous.”
3. The resurrection was linked to forgiveness and the undoing of sin and death. Please comment.
4. “The resurrection is the beginning of a new creation—the beginning of the renewal of all of space and time. How do you understand this?
5. The discussion revealed that our faith cannot be a “work.” How did this impact you?
6. It was stated that theology helps us to know God with our minds, not just our hearts. How?
7. What do you think of the idea that there is no separation between the secular and the spiritual?
8. New creation life was described as looking outward—living for and with others. Why is this important?
A few simple guidelines for leading a discussion: 1) Encourage open discussion. 2) Ask questions relevant to the topic. 3) Listen attentively. 4) Encourage divergent views. 5) Encourage everyone to participate. 6) Summarize and paraphrase. 7) Minimize teaching and preaching.
J. Michael Feazell: As you were working on the project of editing Incarnation and Atonement, what were some of the memorable moments during the process?
Robert Walker: It’s hard to answer that, because I’m not sure there’s any one particular moment. But working on the whole thing, it was deeply moving, and I felt this is precious, this is wonderful stuff. I heard all the lectures, but coming back to it, it just swept over me again. All sorts of things I appreciated struck me with much greater force. It’s been a wonderful experience and very rewarding.
JMF: Do you remember a couple of those that stand out?
RW: For example, this emphasis on the resurrection and the meaning of the resurrection. Normally we think the gospel is the cross, and then the resurrection is kind of an extra. But in many ways, it’s the resurrection… you can’t separate the two. There’s a verse of Paul, “Jesus was put to death for our sins and raised for our justification.” Raised for our justification. It’s the resurrection that makes us righteous. The cross puts away our sins, but it’s the resurrection that makes us righteous.
The resurrection is an almighty event. It’s not just the raising of a body from death, it’s the beginning of a new creation — the beginning of the renewal of all of space and time. For Torrance, it brings out the fact that the resurrection is forgiveness. It’s not just the proof of forgiveness, it is forgiveness, because in the Bible, sin and death are linked. So for God to undo sin, means to undo death. That means the resurrection is God’s undoing sin. It’s raising somebody up who has taken our sin out of the grave, so that is our resurrection.
That’s why Paul says, “If Christ is not raised, we are still in our sins.” Something like that, which we often bypass, it just hit me with renewed force… There are all sorts of nuggets like that in the book.
JMF: It turns everything on its head, doesn’t it? Instead of hoping our sins are forgiven if we repent well enough, it gives us full assurance of salvation because Christ has already done everything. What a joy, what rest, what peace.
RW: Yes. The resurrection of Jesus is our forgiveness in action. They’re identical — God forgiving and God raising Christ, they’re the same thing.
JMF: You mentioned the resurrection as the new creation, as the starting place for everything — there are implications for the universe, for the whole creation. Could you elaborate on that?
RW: The incarnation means that God has taken part of the stuff of the old creation — our body — and in it has died and undone sin, so that when he rose, that was the beginning of the new creation. The early church fathers had an analogy – they said that when a baby is born, the head comes out first, and that’s the hard part. But once the head’s come out, the rest of the body will follow. They used that of Christ — he’s the firstborn, the first fruits, and he’s the head that’s come out first, so the rest of creation will follow in what’s happened to Christ.
That means the renewal of all space and time. The physical creation will be renewed in Christ, reconstituted under him as the new head. That’s the unbelievably cosmic dimension of the New Testament, and that comes out extremely well in Torrance’s writings. The resurrection is not just somebody being raised from the dead, it’s the beginning of the reconstitution of everything — the beginning of heaven on earth.
JMF: That would imply that we don’t know what space and time will be like in the resurrection, once we are immortal. What will that look like — as something not like what we experience now, perhaps?
RW: We can’t say. But we can say that it will be this creation, these bodies of ours. We’ll recognize each other, so there will be continuity. Yet what it will be like when the creation is freed from sin, death, corruption and injustice, we can’t say. It will be far more wonderful and glorious — we can only look forward to it. The Bible says that it does not yet appear — we cannot yet see what we shall be like, but we know that when Christ comes again, we’ll be like him [1 John 3:2]. It speaks of Jesus now having a new and more glorious body, a body which no longer dies.
JMF: After his resurrection he appeared to the disciples several times, including on the seashore, cooking a meal and eating it with them. Yet this was a resurrected body that he was appearing in and he was able to enjoy food and fellowship.
RW: Yes. I like those stories, because dead men don’t rise from the dead, so it’s striking that the first reaction of the disciples is…they don’t believe it. The risen Jesus meets some of the women, and the women tell the disciples he’s risen, and they don’t believe it, and they’re afraid because …is this a ghost? No, it’s real.
The fact that Jesus is raised, he’s the beginning of a new creation. In the 40 days that he was on earth, the new creation was overlapping with the old creation. When he ascended, we can no longer see the new creation that is there in Christ. We know it by faith, we know it because we meet and know Christ through the Spirit. We know the reality of it, and that’s what gives the New Testament its tremendous sense of victory, triumph and looking forward to what we will be. It’s not “pie in the sky” – it’s the renewal of this wonderful creation.
JMF: We’re saved by grace through faith, and the Scriptures tell us even that is not our own. Luther goes to great lengths to explain that we must not look at faith as another work, because we’re not saved by our works, so faith cannot be a work. How do the eyes of faith work? What is faith, and how are we to see this new creation and believe and trust Christ that we’re in it? Where does this faith come from, and how is it not a work?
RW: It’s God’s work, but it’s something that really happens in us. We come to see and understand and believe, but the nature of that is that we know that it’s through God’s work that we came to understand, because this is not something that we could do for ourselves so that we really believe and understand.
Torrance uses the analogy of the virgin birth. Mary did nothing to conceive Jesus. Joseph was set aside. There was no human input, Christ was born, a man. Something happened in Mary and she gave birth. All she did — she was told it would happen, and she said, “Amen.” Faith is a bit like that — that God has become man for us — to believe, to do everything for us — and we say amen to it. Our amen is the way it happens in us. We’ve understood that it’s for us, and we say amen. We live out of what Christ has done for us. Something real happens in us. It’s a real understanding, in that it’s God’s work.
JMF: So our job is to believe what is so. He is, therefore we don’t have to be afraid.
RW: Yes. To believe the gospel, to rejoice in what Christ has done for us — not just as God but as man.
JMF: Your degrees are in philosophy and theology. How does Trinitarian theology bear on philosophy?
RW: I did a degree in philosophy and found that very useful. It gives a conceptual understanding, which isn’t necessary, but it helps to understand theology. I enjoyed my study in philosophy hugely. When I did theology, it was going somewhere. There was a purpose, there was a truth, there was a reality, and the heart of the reality in the Christian faith is the Trinity, God in Christ. That gives us a grasp of reality as it is, so that having that grasp at once deepens and enriches our understanding of the rest of the world — of science, of philosophy, et cetera. The philosophy helps to understand it.
At the same time, the theology enriches philosophy. Trinitarian theology gives a deeper dimension. Theology helps us think in a profound way because in the gospel we know God. In theology we are knowing God not just with our feelings, our hearts, but with our minds. Our minds are inevitably deepened and stretched. So for me, there’s a link between that and the fact that, I think it’s true to say, most of the good philosophers today are Christians, which is a remarkable fact.
JMF: Academic work and working on a major project like this is not all you do – you’re involved in outdoor sports. Can you tell us about that?
RW: I am very fortunate. Edinburgh University has an outdoor center on Loch Tay, that’s a lake in the Highlands — a fabulously beautiful setting. I’ve worked there almost every weekend of the year except for July and August, and four or five months a year to mid-weeks as well. I teach kayaking, canoeing, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, hill walking, sometimes sailing and windsurfing. I love that. It’s out in the open air, it’s exercise, it’s doing what I love and sharing with people. It’s an ideal balance to the academic work, to theology.
JMF: We have just a little bit of time remaining, and in that time I wonder if you would mind sharing some of your personal observations, reflections on your uncle, Thomas F. Torrance.
RW: I got to know him much better at the end of his life, having been asked to edit these lectures of his after his stroke. He was unfortunately in the hospital and in a nursing home for the last few years of his life, and I visited him once or twice a week, so I got to know him very well. Things that come across — he is very personable. He took an intense interest in people. When he died, a number of fellow students wrote or phoned his brother and said that what they remembered about Tom was not his academic learning, although the amount he knew was incredible…what they remembered was his pastoral concern for them as students.
He was a minister. On the pastoral side he was always very strong, so he was a unique combination — a minister, a pastor. He prayed for his students, he prayed for all the family each day, he read the Bible each day. That’s the pastoral side, you’ve got the academic side. His knowledge of field after field of history, of theology, was just amazing. He knew science. He had incredible energy, he worked at great speed, and he held all these things together. He was a unique synthesis of theology and life. His experiences in the war… that would be an adventure book in itself.
I used to try to get him going on some of his war memories, because even though I’d heard them, it was good to hear them again. One time he was out on patrol with the soldiers. He insisted on being with the soldiers whenever he could, and they gave him skis. This was in Italy, in winter. And skiing down, one of his skis came off. It was badly fitting, and it clattered down the hillside. It made a noise and alerted the Germans and they began firing at him. So he had to ski down on one ski to avoid enemy fire.
There are numerous occasions when his life appeared to have been saved by a miracle. They’d be sheltering down in a trench and the person on the left and the right would be killed. Or he’d sleep in his Land Rover at night and then one night he, for some reason, didn’t sleep there, and the next day there was a bullet hole right where he would have been sleeping.
He was a man of tremendous energy. He came back from the war and said, “Mother, I’m not cut out to be an academic. I’m a man of action.” He had this tremendous energy.
JMF: Tell us about your mother. She’s his sister, and I’m curious about how it was to live with someone who came from such a family.
RW: It was an immense privilege. There were six children — three sons and three daughters. They were all given to the Lord before they were born, or dedicated, and the way that worked out was that the three sons all became ministers and the three daughters all married ministers. It was a tremendous privilege to have that theological understanding in the family.
My father was a medic. Going out as a missionary to Africa, he trained as a minister. He was a great sportsman. He played hockey for Scotland and he was good with his hands…and I combine both. I love sport. I like doing do-it-yourself. But in many ways the heart of me is theology — it’s knowing God, understanding the Christian faith, helping communicate it to others.
We were made to use our minds and know God with the whole of ourselves, and most Christians, we tend not to use our minds about God, so we miss out on a lot. But human life is, in all its richness, is about being part of the world, about doing things, so sport for me happens to be my work, but I think it’s important for people to be active in some way, to use their bodies, whether it’s in sport or painting or woodwork, because we’re made to be physical beings, and so to me, it’s good to combine the two.
JMF: If we know who we are in Christ, there’s no separation between secular and spiritual, as it were …
RW: No, there shouldn’t be. That’s part of the meaning of the incarnation — that God has become man. In the Bible, in the Old Testament, the human being is body and soul as a unity. The Old Testament has no concept of a soul apart from the body, so when the body dies, that’s it, we’re dead. In the Old Testament the soul is thought of as a living body, a body with breath in it. That’s why the resurrection in the New Testament is so fundamental, because if we’re not raised, then that’s it.
God loves this physical world – he made it as physical, and he’s come to save it as physical, so he became a physical being, he became man, and he rose in the body. Jesus is forever bodily. We will forever be human. In some religions, we stop being human, we become god, we lose our individuality. But part of the glory of the Christian-Hebrew tradition is that God loves us as we are, men and women, children of flesh and blood, and we will forever be human.
JMF: Did Tom Torrance ever talk about pets? I receive questions frequently, and I know C.S. Lewis had made some statements about it. Did he ever comment on…?
RW: He was a keen horse rider when he grew up in China. He taught the mule to jump. The mule had never done that before. And he skied. He and his family always had several dogs, so they loved their pets and used to take their dogs for a daily walk. When you’d go to the house there’s this furious barking, all the dogs were barking and waiting to welcome you.
JMF: Did he have any feeling on whether there is a reunion with pets in the resurrection?
RW: I never heard him on that, but to me everything that we enjoy in this creation will be somehow renewed over there for us, perhaps in a different form. There’s a lot in the Bible about the renewal of the earth, and the meek will inherit the earth, the new city comes down from above. To me it’s wrong to think of heaven as a separate place “up there.” Heaven is the future state of the earth, which will be so much more wonderful than it is now, because it will be freed from all sin and crying and tears, and just wasting away or death.
JMF: Final question… If God has redeemed or is reconciling everything through himself, “whether things in heaven or things on earth,” as Colossians says, through Christ, or in Christ… I don’t know why people are concerned about the devil and demons, but did Tom Torrance discuss the resolution of the devil and demons in terms of the new creation?
RW: He had a strong and vivid sense, as the New Testament did, of the reality of evil powers, and Christ’s whole life was a battle with evil. He used to say that evil is essentially parasitic. It cannot exist in its own right. It can only exist as an attack on what is good, so that God has made this creation to be wonderful and good. Somehow the mystery of evil is that there’s this force which attacks and tries to destroy it. But Christ has overcome it.
Torrance used to use the analogy of two grindstones rubbing against each other. One is going one way and the other is going the other, and they’re rubbing sparks off each other. One is saying, “I love you” and the other is saying, “No, you don’t,” and that for him was his picture of hell — that God remains love, God has redeemed the whole of creation, and the whole of creation is being renewed. The mystery is that some people, as far as we can, according to the Bible (and the Bible is our only authority and guide), have the freedom to say no, and they will say no. They refuse to enter this reality, and so they’re on the outside, the fringe. He has a good understanding of the nature of evil and the powers of evil.
JMF: The wheels give a great analogy because that’s what happens, is sparks, and it erodes you as you continue to say no to who you are, to your actual identity of who God has made you to be in Christ. Yet it is kind of scary to receive something that you’re unfamiliar with.
RW: That’s right, because it means we’re no longer self-centered, we’re no longer in control, we’re no longer turned in on ourselves. We need to learn to look out, to live for others and with others, and that’s the new life that God holds up for us in Christ. Some people resist – I don’t know why, it’s illogical, it’s daft. Why would we want to persist in death when we can have life?