Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Limited Atonement or Intentional Atonement? The Ongoing Dialogue

James White has offered his comments in response to my last entry on this. Here are my thoughts:

I do not know about Dr. Svendsen's schedule, but I begin teaching a Jan term class for GGBTS next week, so I know that the 1000 words-->3,300 words-->6,700 words-->12,000 words-->something certain verbose RC apologists would start to notice routine won't work for me.
Well, it will work for me for exactly three more days. As many of you have noticed, I have been posting a barrage (comparatively speaking) of blog entries over the past couple of weeks. I almost never have the time to do those kinds of things outside of my (supposed) vacation time. Yes, I’m officially on vacation until the end of this week, at which time my life will again be reduced to multiple red circles on monthly calendars. That should explain why I was able to put up a response to Dr. White’s last entry so quickly—and why this one is almost as quick. That won’t happen once we hit the New Year. (Rest easy James : )

In any case, I will need to break this response into two pieces. Dr. White has made quite a few noteworthy comments in his blog entry, but he has also asked that I interact specifically with his work on this issue in The Potter’s Freedom. I’ll devote this blog entry to responding to the points on his own blog, and the next one to the task of critiquing the arguments in TPF.
I honestly have not encountered Dr. Svendsen's position before, at least not as he is defining it. Hence, while my position is a known element, I cannot assume anything regarding his. That means I run the danger of speculation, which is poison to any meaningful discussion.
I truly can appreciate Dr. White’s predicament here. He is dealing with a position he has not before encountered (that’s no wonder since I know of no published work representing my position on this either). That makes his task difficult because he must evaluate my position afresh, and do so without assuming that I hold to the same tenets of other positions he may have encountered in the past (such as four point Calvinism, or Geisler’s “Modified Calvinism”). I think recognizing this point will go a long way toward a constructive dialogue. So while I will respond to Dr. White’s specific question regarding TPF (in the next blog entry), I think I need to bring clarification to a few points he raised in the blog itself. In response to my statement that there is no necessary dependence between the category of men God elects and draws to himself and the category of men whose sins were included in the atonement, Dr. White wrote:
This caught my attention more than anything else. In essence, I do not see how there is consistency of purpose in the viewpoint being expressed here. I see a very strong connection and dependence between the intention of the Trinity in the salvation of the elect and the work of the High Priest in behalf of His people. This is one of the major issues, as I see it, for I believe we could examine the Hebrews texts and establish that the perfect High Priest will not fail to do as the old high priests did in offering before the throne the blood of the same sacrifice offered upon the altar:
With this much I can agree (putting aside the question of consistency of purpose). But I think Dr. White draws an unnecessary conclusion from this, to wit:

that is, the scope of intercession and that of offering were the same for the high priest of old.
I fail to see how this point hangs together with the previous point; that the extent of the atonement is somehow to be equated to the extent of Christ’s intercession. Just how does affirming that Christ will not fail to offer his blood (his sacrificial death) in the holy of holies in intercession for his elect somehow necessitate that Christ’s atonement is limited to those for whom he intercedes? In my view, the former (those included in the atonement) is simply a larger category than the latter (those included in intercession). This point is particularly pertinent because my view distinguishes extent from intent. If I purchase a newspaper so that I can read how the Nuggets performed against the Suns, I don’t purchase the sports page alone; I buy the whole newspaper. However, at the same time I have absolutely no intent of reading the rest of the paper. In other words, my intent was to procure the sports page only, but in the process, I purchased the entire paper (extent). But once I obtain that purchase, it is mine to do with as I please. In this case, I am going to read the sports page only, and toss the rest of the paper into the trash, or let it gather dust on the fireplace mantle, or place it in the timber box for kindling my next fire. Now, can it justly be said that my purpose in buying that paper has somehow been thwarted—or that I somehow did not accomplish the purpose for which I set out—merely because I bought the entire paper but chose ultimately not to “save” most of it?

I view the atonement in a very similar way. All of mankind is in Adam and are heirs of his sin—but this is a package. In order to atone for the sins of some (intent), one must atone for the sins of all (extent). Christ did not take the form of the elect; he took the form of man. His death can’t help but atone for the sins of all those whose nature he shares—all those “in Adam.” And so, Christ’s death atones for the sins of everyone (extent); but he intercedes for and saves only those whom he has elected, called and justified.
How can the perfect High Priest offer a substitutionary sacrifice that "incidentally" pays the sins of the non-elect and then not offer that same blood which paid the penalty of their sin before the altar (intercession)?
That sacrifice is offered—but it isn’t offered piecemeal, as though Christ has “chopped up” his sacrifice into little bits and apportioned one piece of his sacrifice for me, one piece for another of the elect, and so on, but withholds and does not offer the one piece that was apportioned to non-elect Joe Schmoe. That, in my view, is not the way to view the sacrifice of Christ.

Moreover, it is not the sacrifice or the atonement that pleads in intercession—it is Christ. The sacrifice and atonement are merely the basis for that plea, and Christ can intercede for those he foreknew and choose not to intercede for those he didn’t foreknow (John 17:9). Returning to the newspaper analogy, my purchase of the entire newspaper provides for me the basis for reading the sports page. If I tell my wife, “I want to show you these box scores and the standings of the Western Conference” (“pleading” with her, in a sense), no one is going to say, “Wait a minute! You bought the whole newspaper. Therefore, you are obligated to show your wife the entire paper, not just the sports page!” I am at liberty to call special attention to (plead for) the sports page to my wife based on the fact that I purchased the newspaper—it’s mine to do with as I please, and that purchase acts as the basis for my prerogative (had I not purchased the paper, I’d have a hard time reading it to my wife). But I am not thereby obligated to read the entire paper to her.
This speaks to the issue at hand: I honestly do not understand, and have honestly never seen in my reading, the use of the term "incidentally" in regards to the payment of the sin debt.
As I mentioned on my blog, I am still in the “thinking through” stage of this, and have been for over fifteen years. The term “incidental” is strictly a functional term used to differentiate between Christ’s intent in his death toward his elect to “save to the utmost,” and the actual results of that death toward the entire race of those in Adam.
So my first question basically is, "How does one bring about forgiveness of sins without substitution?"
One doesn’t. I don’t think that question is even in view here.
I would assume Eric would not say the non-elect are joined to Christ in any way. So, if atonement involves substitution, and the non-elect are not joined to Christ, then how are their sins "incidentally" paid for by Christ's death?
No indeed, the non-elect are not joined to Christ. But I think it is a mistake to equate the raw act of atonement to union with Christ in his death. Only of the elect can it be said that “I was crucified with Christ. . . . who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.” In other words, on the one hand we’re getting right back to the distinction I’m making between intent and extent. Since Christ’s intent in his death was to save the elect, union with Christ is rightly applied only to them. Yet, even with that caveat I do not see any evidence in the New Testament that union with Christ in his death is applied before the point of justification. Hence, Paul’s words in Gal 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ,” is not separated from “and it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.” That is not a statement that can be made of the elect before justification. Similarly, we are told by Paul that our identification with Christ’s death occurs at the point of justification (Gal 2:16-20) and is signified in baptism (Rom 6:3-5). Hence, atonement and substitution are flip sides of the same coin; but they are flip sides nevertheless. The former occurs once in time and for all, while the latter is the application of the former to the elect at the point of justification.
Now, Dr. Svendsen speaks of the "virtue of the immeasurable and eternal value" of the death of Christ as the reason why all men thereby have the penalty of their sins paid. But recognition of unlimited value does not necessitate the conclusion that the non-elect's sins have been paid.
Absolutely right; and I did not claim otherwise. I was not starting with that point as a launching pad and moving toward universal atonement. Quite the opposite. I started with the passages that speak of the universality of the atonement and made the present point to explain how Christ can intend to atone for the sins of the elect and in the process atone for the sins of the entire world.

Likewise, recognition that the benefits of that atonement are experienced in time by the elect does not mean that they were not truly and specifically and personally united with Christ in His death:
Yes, but when? Certainly not when Christ died, for most of the elect at that time were still in unbelief (or not yet born) and therefore considered to be “children of wrath.” Hence, it is in that act of believing unto justification that these things are applied. Since the non-elect never reach the point of belief and justification, then it can never be said of them that they have been united with Christ.
the certainty of the application is beyond question due to the cross: we simply experience that application in time. [emphasis mine]
Here I think is our most fundamental disagreement. I think this statement assumes something like “the death of Christ is effectual”—which is the very question in debate, and so the cross (the death of Christ) itself does not make application “beyond question.” Indeed, that is the question. I reject the notion that the death of Christ is the “power” that draws the elect. It is rather the calling of God based on his gracious choice that draws them. The death of Christ provides the necessary grounds for forgiveness, but it is not the forgiveness itself. If it were, and if particular redemption were true, then I do not see how the proponent of that view could escape the theological ramifications that lead to positing eternal justification. On that view, Christ died; he died only for the elect; his death is effectual and he accomplished perfect redemption on the cross. Therefore, all the elect have already been forgiven, and there is no need for belief as the means of justification. On what basis could it be otherwise?

Dr. White insists that it’s not applied till the point of belief; but if it were not for passages like Eph 2:1-3 I seriously doubt that any proponent of limited atonement would come to that conclusion. Theologically speaking, if Christ’s death and the forgiveness of sins are inextricably bound together, and if in fact Christ’s death accomplished forgiveness for all those for whom he died—and it did so in time—and if the atonement is to be equated with forgiveness, then I can see no reason, no need, to “apply” Christ’s death to the elect in time other than the collective application to the elect at the cross “once for all time.” After all, forgiveness—being inextricably and automatically bound to the atonement—would presumably be doled out in the very same “once for all time” manner that the sacrifice itself was offered—unless, of course, there is some distinction to be made between the atonement of Christ and the forgiveness of sins.

Since both Dr. White and I acknowledge the distinction between the once-for-all-time-ness of Christ’s sacrifice, and the many applications to individuals over the course of history, I suggest we proceed from that understanding rather than get bogged down in arguments that could equally be leveled against each view from the other side, and would be equally devastating to either view if the other side decided to press it.
It was not God's intention that the non-elect experience the redemptive, substitutionary benefits of the death of Christ, incidentally or otherwise, and this is why their trespasses can be held against them (2 Cor. 5:19).
If the fact that the trespasses of the non-elect are still held against them constitutes “proof” that Christ did not pay for their sins, then passages like Eph 2:3 would likewise “prove” Christ didn’t pay for the sins of the elect—for they are still “children of wrath” even after Christ died. This is why I think this kind of argumentation is fruitless. It can be applied equally by either side against the other position. Again, unless Dr. White wants to join the eternal justification camp, I suggest we each frankly recognize that both positions make a distinction between Christ’s sacrifice and the application of that sacrifice to each individual, and move on from there. Passages such as 2 Cor 5:19 and Gal 2:3 really only prove my point that there is a distinction to be made between Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and the forgiveness of sins—the canceling out of the debt—that is based on that sacrifice but requires belief unto justification to attain. The elect will unfailingly reach that point; the non-elect will just as certainly not reach it.

Now to Dr. White’s two specific questions:
So in essence, since this seems to be the main difference between us, I would ask Dr. Svendsen to look at my presentation on the issue of atonement/intercession as works of the High Priest in The Potter's Freedom, pp. 241ff, and in particular, the comments on the text of Hebrews offered there, and explain where I have erred to believe that the scope of the High Priest's intercession is identical to the scope of His sacrificial offering.
I took the liberty of re-reading Dr. White’s treatment of this during the Christmas weekend. In fact, I re-read 10 additional pages (pp. 231ff) just to get the full picture. The short answer to Dr. White’s question above is, in spite of the fact that he rightly distinguishes between the scope, the effect and the intent of the atonement (231), I believe he then proceeds to ignore these distinctions in his treatment of the issue in Rom 8:31-34 and Hebrews 7—10. In short, I believe both writers are thinking of intent in these passages, not extent. But, if Dr. White wishes, I will elaborate on this point in another blog entry. Dr. White has asked that I interact with his specific treatment of this issue in TPF. After this exchange, I wonder if that is still necessary. I will wait for Dr. White's signal on this one. If he still wants that interaction, I will attempt to post it shortly.
Secondly, I would like to know how, in light of the fact that Dr. Svendsen accepts the concept of substitutionary atonement, the non-elect can be considered to have been united with Christ in His death.
They can’t. As I explained above, union with Christ and identification with his death in the New Testament occur at the point of justification (Gal 2:16-20), and is signified at baptism (Rom 6). Since the non-elect never reach this point, they are never united with Christ in his death. Again, I do not believe the death of Christ is chopped up and apportioned out in piecemeal fashion. His death, in terms of extent, atoned for the sins of the world collectively—included here are all those “in Adam”—although it is certainly applied individually (“I have been crucified with Christ”).

Finally, I want to stress that I appreciate Dr. White’s willingness to dialogue on this issue, especially since he has no specific body of work to examine before offering his responses. I recognize the difficult position that creates for him (there are always bits of exegetical insight that an “unannounced” position can spring on the unsuspecting but conflicting position), and I want to be sensitive to that. There are many who are observing this dialogue (both friend and foe), and we’ve already had many on the “friends” side offer commendation on how the dialogue is being conducted. The last thing I want is for either of us to turn the element of surprise into a “gotcha” weapon and proclaim, “see, you really haven’t thought through these issues very carefully after all, have you?” That will be steadfastly avoided, I trust, by both of us.