Wednesday, January 05, 2005

A brief aside on the limited atonement debate

Throughout my current dialogue with James White, I have been asked by others whether I know of anyone else who might take my 4.5 position on this issue. My good friend, Bill Webster, passed a book reference along to me from Richard Baxter, the seventeenth-century Puritan Calvinist who affirned universal atonement. In his own words, he candidly admits that he (as I) prefers to hold two seemingly conflicting theological truths in tension if the Scriptures affirm them both:
When God telleth us as plain as can be spoken, that Christ died for and tasted death for every man, men will deny it, and to that end subvert the plain sense of the words, merely because they cannot see how this can stand with Christ’s damning men, and with his special Love to his chosen. It is not hard to see the fair and harmonious consistency: But what if you cannot see how two plain Truths of the Gospel should agree? Will you therefore deny one of them when both are plain? Is not that in high pride to prefer your own understandings before the wisdom of the Spirit of God, who indicted the Scriptures? Should not a humble man rather say, doubtless both are true though I cannot reconcile them. So others will deny these plain truths, because they think that all that Christ died for are certainly Justified and Saved: For whomsoever he died and satisfied Justice for, them he procured Faith to Believe in him: God cannot justly punish those whom Christ hath satisfied for, etc. But doth the Scripture speak all these or any of these opinions of theirs, as plainly as it saith that Christ died for all and every man? Doth it say, as plainly any where that he died not for all? Doth it any where except any one man, and say Christ died not for him? Doth it say any where that he died only for his Sheep, or his Elect, and exclude the Non-Elect? There is no such word in all the Bible; Should not then the certain truths and the plain texts be the Standard to the uncertain points, and obscure texts? (Richard Baxter, Universal Redemption of Mankind by the Lord Jesus Christ, London, 1694, 282-283).
Baxter's work on this was published posthumously to avoid the condemnation he knew he would receive from Reformed theologians. Baxter continues:
Now I would know of any man, would you believe that Christ died for all men if the Scripture plainly speak it? If you would, do but tell me, what words can you devise or would you wish more plain for it than are there used? Is it not enough that Christ is called the Saviour of the World? You’ll say, but is it of the whole World? Yes, it saith, He is the propitiation for the sins of the whole World. Will you say, but it is not for All men in the World? Yes it saith he died for All men, as well as for all the World. But will you say, it saith not for every man? Yes it doth say, he tasted death for every man. But you may say, It means all the Elect, if it said so of any Non-Elect I would believe. Yes, it speaks of those that denied the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And yet all this seems nothing to men prejudiced. (Ibid., 286-287).
As a point of interest, Herman Hanko (Professor of Church History and New Testament at the Protestant Reformed Seminary) points out that the Westminster divines debated this very issue (See Link) . He also points out that Schaff, Warfield and others understand the Westminster Confession to have left this an open question. Another who has gone on record explaining how one can affirm the other four points of Calvinism without affirming the fifth is Sir Robert Anderson:
In the early years of my Christian life I was greatly perplexed and distressed by the supposition that the plain and simple words of such Scriptures as John 3:16; 1 John 2:2; 1 Timothy 2:6 were not true, save in a cryptic sense understood only by the initiated. For, I was told, the over-shadowing truth of Divine sovereignty in election barred our taking them literally. But half a century ago a friend of those days—the late Dr. Horatius Bonar—delivered me from this strangely prevalent error. He taught me that truths may seem to us irreconcilable only because our finite minds cannot understand the Infinite; and we must never allow our faulty apprehension of the eternal counsels of God to hinder unquestioning faith in the words of Holy Scripture. (Forgotten Truths. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1980, xi-xii).
I have yet to read Baxter's work (I'll have to get it from the University of Denver library) in its entirety; so I cannot affirm whether Baxter was a strict four-point Calvinist or a 4.5 Calvinist. But if anyone wants a further explanation of this view they can look to that work.