Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Limited Atonement Debate in Historical Perspective

I’d like to add an historical perspective to the discussion at this point. I have been greatly enlightened over the past few weeks by a number of friends and acquaintances who have pointed out to me something I had not considered before. It now seems clear to me that the issue of the extent of the atonement was hotly debated among the Reformed writers of the earliest centuries after the Reformation. John Owen took the limited atonement view; but his view was opposed by other Reformed writers like Richard Baxter, whose opposition to limited atonement was later followed by nineteenth-century Reformed writers like William Shedd, R. L. Dabney, A. A. Hodge, and Charles Hodge. All of these men held to the fact that the atonement applies to both the elect and to the non-elect, but in different ways. Indeed, Calvin himself seems to have held to the later views of Baxter et al. Below are only some of the relevant excepts from the writings of these men, but they are (I think) sufficient to illustrate the point.

One important point before I proceed with this. I do not cite these sources because I think it proves my view. Only the Scriptures can do that. Rather I cite them to show that my view of this issue is not unique, or unusual, or anti-Reformed. In fact, my view on this issue was firmly held by writers whose Reformed credentials I do not think anyone can question. I say this to ward off potential suspicion from those who hold to limited atonement and think any other view constitutes a departure from Reformed soteriology—or who may suspect that modifying the “L” in TULIP somehow “weakens” or “softens” one’s view of all the other points. Neither charge has merit.

John Calvin

"I approve of the ordinary reading, that he alone bore the punishment of many, because on him was laid the guilt of the whole world. It is evident from other passages, and especially from the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, that 'many' sometimes denotes 'all.'"(On Isa 53:12)"

"For though Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and is offered through God's benignity indiscriminately to all, yet all do not receive him." (On Rom. 5:18).

“And again, has not our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed men’s souls: true it is that the effect of his death comes not to the whole world: Nevertheless for as much as it is not in us too discern between the righteous and the sinners that go to destruction, but that Jesus Christ has suffered his death and passion as well for them as for us: therefore it behooves us to labour to bring every man to salvation that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ made be available to them.” (Sermons on Job, p., 454).

“Therefore when we see any man do amiss, let us learn that it is no love nor charity to cloak his evil doings, so as we should dissemble them and make no countenance at all of them: but that if we have a care of him that is so fallen, we must turn him away. If a man be in the mire, we will reach him our hand to help him out: and if we pass by him and will not seem to see him, shall he not say it is too shameful an unkindness? Even so is it when we suffer a man to fall asleep in his sins: for by that means he is sunk down to the bottom of perdition. Then is it too great a traitorousness, if we do wittingly suffer a man to undo himself utterly and therewithal we show also that there is no zeal of God in us. For if he be our father, ought it not at leastwise to grieve us and make us sorry, when we see wrong and injury offered unto him? So then, if the souls which our Lord Jesus Christ hath bought so dearly be precious unto us, or if we set so much by God?s honor as it deserveth: it is certain that we will not so bear with men’s faults, but that we will endeavor to amend them.” (Sermon 36, Gal 6:1-2).

“If the faith of one individual were in danger of being overturned, (for we are speaking of the perdition of a single soul redeemed by the blood of Christ) the pastor should immediately gird himself for the combat; how much less tolerable is it to see whole houses overturned?” (Commentary, Tit 1:11).

“For the faithless have no profit at all by the death and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, but rather are so much the more damnable, because they reject the mean that God had ordained: and their unthankfulness shall be so much the more grievously punished, because they have trodden under foot the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was the ransom for their souls.” (Sermons on Galatians, 1:3-5).

“And he employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance to life.” (On John 3:16).

Richard Baxter (17th Century Puritan)

“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).

“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).

R. L. Dabney

Nor would we attach any force to the argument, that if Christ made penal satisfaction for the sins of all, justice would forbid any to be punished. To urge this argument surrenders virtually the very ground on which the first Socinian objection was refuted, and is incompatible with the facts that God chastises justified believers, and holds elect unbelievers subject to wrath till they believe. Christ's satisfaction is not a pecuniary equivalent, but only such a one as enables the Father, consistently with His attributes, to pardon, if in His mercy He sees fit. The whole avails of the satisfaction to a given man is suspended on His belief. There would be no injustice to the man, if he remaining an unbeliever, his guilt were punished twice over, first in his Savior, and then in Him. See Hodge on Atonement, page 369.” (Lectures on Systematic Theology, p., 521).

Charles Hodge

“The satisfaction of Christ being a matter of covenant between the Father and the Son, the distribution of its benefits is determined by the terms of the covenant. It does not ipso facto liberate. The people of God are not justified from eternity. They do not come into this world in a justified state. They remain (if adults) in a state of condemnation until they believe.” (Systematic Theology, Vol 2., p., 472).

What is sufficient for one is sufficient for all. Nothing less than the light and heat of the sun is sufficient for any one plant or animal. But what is absolutely necessary for each is abundantly sufficient for the infinite number and variety of plants and animals which fill the earth. All that Christ did and suffered would have been the necessary had only one human soul been the object of redemption; and nothing different and nothing more would have been required had every child of Adam been saved through his blood” (Ibid., pp. 544-545)

“Augustinians readily admit that the death of Christ had a relation to man, to the whole human family, which it had not to fallen angels. It is the ground on which salvation is offered to every creature under heaven who hears the gospel; but it gives no authority for a like offer to apostate angels. It moreover secures to the whole race at large, and to all classes of men, innumerable blessings, both providential and religious. It was, of course, designed to produce those effects; and therefore, He died to secure them. In view of the effects which the death of Christ produces on the relation of all mankind to God, it has in all ages been customary with Augustinian to say that Christ died ‘sufficienter pro omnibus, efficaciter pro elcetis’; sufficiently for all, efficiently only for the elect. There is a sense, therefore, in which He died for all, and there is a sense in which He died for the elect alone” (Ibid., pp. 545-546).

“The doctrines of foreordination, sovereignty, effectual providential control, go hand in hand with those of the liberty and responsibility of rational creatures. Those of freedom from the law, of salvation by faith without works, and of the absolute necessity of holy living stand side by side. On the same page we find the assurance of God’s love to sinners, and declarations that He would that all men should come unto Him and live, with explicit assertions that He has determined to leave multitudes to perish in their sins. In like manner, the express declarations that it was the incomprehensible and peculiar love of God for His own people , which induced Him to send His Son for their redemption, that Christ came into the world for that specific object; that He died for His sheep; that He gave Himself for his Church; and that the salvation of all for whom He thus offered Himself is rendered certain by the gift of the Spirit to bring them to faith and repentance, are intermingled with declarations of good will to all mankind, with offers of salvation to everyone who will believe in the Son of God, and denunciations of wrath against those who reject these overtures of mercy. All we have to do is not to ignore or deny either of these modes of representation, but to open our minds wide enough to receive them both, and reconcile them as best we can. Both are true, in all cases above referred to, whether we can see their consistency or not” (Ibid., p. 561).

William G. T. Shedd

“Christ's death as it relates to the claims of the law upon all mankind, cancels those claims wholly. 'It is an infinite propitiation for the sins of the whole world,' 1 Jn 2:2. But the relation of an impenitent person to this atonement, what the atonement has effected objectively in reference to the attribute of divine justice, is not effected subjectively in the conscience of the individual. There is an infinite satisfaction that naturally and necessarily cancels legal claims, but unbelief derives no benefit from the fact (Dogmatic Theology, vol 2, 437).

“This one offering expiated ‘the sins of the whole world,’ and justice is completely satisfied in reference to them. The death of the God-man naturally and necessarily cancelled all legal claims. When a particular person trusts in this infinite atonement, and it is imputed to him by God, it then becomes his atonement for judicial purposes as really as if he had made it himself." (Ibid., p. 438).

"Vicarious atonement without faith in it is powerless to save.” (Ibid., p 440).”

"The mere fact that Jesus Christ made satisfaction for human sin, alone and of itself, will save no soul. Christ, conceivably, might have died precisely as he did, and his death have been just as valuable for expiatory purposes as it is, but if his death had not been followed with the work of the Holy Ghost and the act of faith on the part of the individual men, he would have died in vain. Unless his objective work is subjectively appropriated, it is useless, as for as personal salvation is concerned. Christ's suffering is sufficient to cancel the guilt of all men, and in its own nature completely satisfies the broken law.” (Ibid., pp 440-1).

In summary, I’d like to call attention to the following points:

1. I believe the limited-atonement proponent confuses the predestination of our union with Christ in his death with the act of that union itself. Yet he does not confuse the predestination of any other similar act with the act itself, such as the justification and glorification of the elect, our “burial” with Christ, or our “being raised up with him.” In those cases, he seems to make a proper distinction between, say, our being predestined to justification and the actual act of justification itself; such that he does not conclude we are eternally justified in the same way that he seems to conclude we are eternally united with Christ in his death. I think this is inconsistent. In short, I believe that view places our union with Christ in his death in the same category as foreknowledge and predestination, when that union should instead be placed in the same category as our justification, our “burial” with Christ, and our being “raised together with him.”

2. This dialogue has allowed me to clarify my own thinking on this issue, particularly with regard to the purpose of Christ in the atonement; and for that I’m thankful to Dr. White who’s forced me to think more closely about this issue than I’ve had to in the past. As a result, I am abandoning my former phrase “incidental atonement” in referring to how the atonement applies to the non-elect. I no longer believe anything about the atonement is incidental. Rather, I’m convinced that Christ had a dual purpose in the atonement: one for the elect, and another for the non-elect. In the case of the elect, the atonement provides the necessary ground for redemption. In the case of the non-elect, the atonement provides the necessary ground for condemnation in the rejection of the gospel. Further, I think the limited atonement view so focuses on the former that it neglects the latter, and in so doing unwittingly renders groundless the condemnation of the non-elect in their rejection of the gospel. At the very least, I don’t think the limited atonement camp can any longer make the charge that every other view except five-point Calvinism posits some sort of “unfulfilled purpose” of Christ in his death and atonement.

3. I do not believe the TULIP model represents the classic Reformed position. Indeed, I’m now convinced the acrostic is little more than the later outworking of one school of Reformed thought, albeit the school that eventually became dominate. The sixteenth-century Reformers affirmed both particular atonement (at least in intent) and universal atonement (at least in extent), and the seventeenth-century Reformed debated these point. Some notable Reformed writers of the past agree with me on the universality of the atonement (listed above), not least of which is Calvin himself. Whether classic Calvinism is best represented by referring to it as 4.5 point Calvinism (which recognizes “particular atonement” of the elect as the “drive” which compelled Christ to go to the cross, while equally recognizing that if Christ atones for the sins of only one in the stock of Adam, he also by necessity atones for the sins of all), or 6-point Calvinism (which recognizes two intents and purposes in the atonement: the one [particular atonement] to provide the necessary ground for redeeming the elect, and the other [universal atonement] to provide the necessary ground for binding the non-elect in an obligation to respond to the gospel), I do not know. What I do know is this: if some in the limited atonement camp are still not fully convinced by the evidence I have presented here, I think at the very least they must allow for the possibility of my view, both biblically and historically.

In any event, I hope to have put to rest the notion that unless one unconditionally accepts the “L” in TULIP he cannot be fully Reformed in his soteriology, or he must be “weak” in his view of the other points.