Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Incongruity of Unlimited Atonement - Part II

If there is an incongruity in the idea of unlimited atonement, it cannot be rooted in a conflict between the members of the Trinity but in an incongruity between election, particular redemption, and the effectual call on the one hand and general love, universal atonement, and the free offer of the gospel on the other. There is no conflict between the members of the Holy Trinity, but an apparent conflict within God's plan.

The conflict exists between two manifestations of God's will: God's will of decree as opposed to God's revealed will. That such a tension exists between God's decretive will and His revealed will is obvious from many passages of scripture. When Jesus taught us to pray "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," he implicitly taught us that God's revealed will does not always come to pass despite God's desire that it should come to pass. Or take the occasion of Jesus' lamentation over Jerusalem. He said, "how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" (Matthew 23:37.) Here Jesus strongly expressed the revealed will of God, which God did not see fit to bring about through His will of decree. I believe the conflict is also seen in Christ's prayer in Gethsemane. (I am unwilling to consign Jesus' cry for deliverance to his human nature only.)

To return to the pressing question for unlimited atonement, how could it be that God could love a sinner -- love him enough to send His only Son to die for that sinner -- and yet consign him to eternal damnation without mercy? One must, of course, appeal to mystery at this point. R. L. Dabney writing on this question urges us to modesty in analyzing the infinite mind:

Let one take this set of facts. Here is a company of sinners; God could convert all by the same powers by which He converts one. He offers His salvation to all and assures them of His general benevolence. He knows perfectly that some will neglect the offer; and yet, so knowing, He intentionally refrains from exerting those powers, to overrule their reluctance, which He is able to exert if He chose. This is but a statement of stubborn facts; it cannot be evaded without impugning the omniscience, or omnipotence of God, or both. Yet, see if the whole difficulty is not involved in it. Every evangelical Christian, therefore, is just as much interested in seeking the solution of this difficulty as the Calvinist. And it is to be sought in the following brief suggestions. God's concern in the transgression and impenitence of those whom He suffers to neglect His warnings and invitations, is only permissive. He merely leaves men to their own sinful choice. His invitations are always impliedly, or explicitly conditional; suspended on the sinner's turning. He has never said that He desires the salvation of a sinner as impenitent; He only says, if the sinner will turn, he is welcome to salvation. And this is always literally true; were it in the line of possibilities that one non-elect should turn, he would find it true in his case. All, therefore, that we have to reconcile is these three facts; that God should see a reason why it is not proper, in certain cases, to put forth His almighty grace to overcome a sinner's reluctance; and yet that He should be able to do it if He chose; and yet should be benevolent and pitiful towards all His creatures. Now God says in His Word that He does compassionate lost sinners. He says that He could save if He pleased. His word and providence both show us that some are permitted to be lost. In a wise and good man, we can easily understand how a power to pardon, a sincere compassion for a guilty criminal, and yet a fixed purpose to punish, could co-exist; the power and compassion being overruled by His wisdom. Why may not something analogous take place in God, according to His immutable nature? Is it said: such an explanation implies a struggle in the breast between competing considerations, inconsistent with God's calm blessedness? I reply, God's revelations of His wrath, love, pity, repentance, &c., are all anthropopathic, and the difficulty is no greater here, than in all these cases. Or is it said, that there can be nothing except a lack of will, or a lack of power to make the sinner both holy and happy? I answer: it is exceeding presumption to suppose that, because we do not see such a cause, none can be known to God!

Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, pages 245-246. The modest position is to allow mystery where scripture speaks clearly and logic fails us.

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The Incongruity of Unlimited Atonement

While I hold to a version of Limited Atonement, I also hold to a version of Unlimited Atonement. As I mentioned in my first blog entry, I hold to unlimited atonement (as defined by W. G. T. Shedd,) and limited atonement (as defined by R. L. Dabney). The difference between these two theologians is partly in their definitions of "atonement." When Dabney used the term, he meant actual reconciliation, while Shedd used the term in the way that most modern Calvinists would. Despite the difference in definition, they both believed that Christ's work was for everyone without distinction. The limitation in the atonement is in the application, which is for the elect alone -- by grace through faith.

So I am a five-point Calvinist of a sort. My previous blog entry, though, was in defense of four-point Calvinism. I mentioned there that four-point Calvinism is not logically inconsistent, B. B. Warfield to the contrary notwithstanding.

There is nothing illogical here provided we keep in mind the distinction between provision on the one hand and application on the other (borrowing Dr. Kevin Bauder's terms [scroll down to find the article entitled "The Logic of Limited Atonement"]). We could better use the terms Dabney and Shedd used. They taught the same concept by distinguishing between expiation and atonement -- as per Dabney -- or between atonement and redemption -- as per Shedd.

There does seem to be something wrong with the scheme, though. Here is the problem: If we understand the eternal counsel of God properly, the Father elected certain ones to be given to the Son as his people. Thus the saving and efficacious love of the Father is bestowed on the elect alone. If we view Christ's work on the cross as being universal, then the Son died for all men, regardless of the particular love of the Father for the elect. So the Father's work in salvation is limited and particular, while the Son's work in salvation is unlimited and general. Though there may be nothing illogical about this in the strict sense, there certainly does seem to be something incongruous about it. Why would the Son do a work of sacrifice that is seemingly so out of step with the particularity of the decree of election?

The incongruity is really only a misunderstanding. If we think of God as having both a general will that all men be saved and a special will that the elect be saved (1Timothy 4:10), then we must think of each member of the Holy Trinity as agreeing with such a purpose and contributing to that purpose.

Thus, the Father loves the world in general and has a special love for the elect (compare Matthew 5:44-45, John 3:16, John 6:32, Romans 2:4, and 1John 4:14 with Ephesians 1:4 and cognates). The Son gave his life for the world and especially those that believe (compare John 3:16, John 12:47, and 1John 2:2, with Ephesians 5:25 and 1Timothy 4:10). The Holy Spirit draws all men generally, and the elect efficaciously (compare Revelation 22:17 with 2Thessalonians 2:13).

Thus there is no conflict between a general work of Christ on the one hand and a particular electing decree of the Father and the effectual call of the Holy Spirit on the other hand. Rather, there is a general love of God for all men and a saving purpose concordant with that love in which every member of the Holy Trinity participates. And there is a particular love of God for His elect people with an efficacious saving purpose concordant with that love in which every member of the Holy Trinity also participates.

More on this in the next blog entry.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Logic, Four Point Calvinism, and Undoing Amyraldianism

We Calvinists consider ourselves to be students of the Bible, of theology, and -- not incidentally -- of logic. If many of us are not students of logic as a formal discipline, we at least find ourselves drawn to logic and resorting to logic in our interpretation of scripture and in our apologetic for the Calvinistic system of theology. And why not? We feel ourselves committed to the stern truths of the Bible even though those truths may be uncomfortable or counterintuitive. We seek to bring our minds in subjection to truth, regardless of the cost. This commitment to truth brings us necessarily into the realm of logic, which is the science of truth and falsity.

Calvinist theologians have historically resorted to logic as an arbiter. I was reminded of this by a comment in an article by John Hendryx at reformationtheology.com. The article is entitled "The Amyraldian View Undone." In that article, Hendryx quotes B. B. Warfield as saying that Amyraut's view is "a logically inconsistent and therefore unstable form of Calvinism."

In his article, Hendryx equates Amyraldianism with four-point Calvinism. From what little I know of Amyraut's theology, I believe this is an inaccurate representation of Amyraut, though the term "Amyraldianism" has come to be associated in the minds of many with four-point Calvinism. Without conceding that particular point, I wish to treat this question: is four point Calvinism logically inconsistent?

In one of the comments posted in response to Hendryx's article, Bob Hayton provided a link to a brief article by Dr. Kevin Bauder. (http://www.centralseminary.edu/publications/20050204.pdf) Bauder points out that all Christians (apart from absolute universalists) agree that the application of Christ's atonement is limited to believers. Four-point Calvinists would agree with their higher Calvinist friends that the application of the atonement is intended only for the elect. But Bauder asks about the provision of salvation, not the application of salvation. Has Christ died to provide salvation for all men, though the application of salvation is limited to the elect? Bauder asserts -- quite correctly -- that if we distinguish between the provision of salvation and the application of salvation, it is perfectly logical to assert that Christ died to provide salvation for all men and to apply salvation only to the elect.

I posed this argument to Hendryx in the comment section of his blog. He responded that he had shown the "inconsistency of the fact that four-point calvinists fail to connect the effectual work of the Holy Spirit to the work of Christ on the cross." Hendryx has simply missed the point. The four-point Calvinist could agree completely that Christ's work on the cross obtains or purchases the work of the Holy Spirit on behalf of the elect. But that is not the question. The simple response to Hendryx's argument is that the effectual work of the Holy Spirit relates to (using Bauder's terms) application, not provision.

Hendryx fails to "undo" Amyraldianism, or even Amyraldianism's illegitimate heir, four-point Calvinism, through a misunderstanding of the logic involved.

Steve

P.S. I hasten to add that the theory that Christ "purchased" or "obtained" the work of the Holy Spirit on behalf of the elect is a highly questionable one in this writer's opinion. I would urge my readers to reconsider this issue. But this relates more to systematic theology than logic, so I'll leave the question for others for the time being. :-)

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

R L Dabney's View - Expiation is Not Limited! - Part II

Dabney distinguished between expiation, which is Christ's work on behalf of sinners, and atonement, which is actual reconciliation -- "at-one-ment".  Here is a quote from Dabney's Systematic Theology apropos to the subject:

It seems plain that the vagueness and ambiguity of the modern term 'atonement,' has very much complicated the debate.  This word, not classical in the Reformed theology, is used sometimes for satisfaction for guilt, sometimes for the reconciliation ensuing thereon; until men on both sides of the debate have forgotten the distinction.  The one is cause; the other effect.  The only New Testament sense the word atonement has is that of katallage, reconciliation.  But expiation is another idea.  Katallage is personal.  Exilasmos is impersonal.  katallage is multiplied, being repeated as often as a sinner comes to the expiatory blood: exilasmos is single, unique, complete; and, in itself considered, has no more relation to one man's sins than another.  As it is applied in effectual calling, it becomes personal, and receives a limitation.  But in itself, limitation is irrelevant to it.  Hence, when men use the word atonement, as they so often do, in the sense of expiation, the phrases, 'limited atonement,' 'particular atonement,' have no meaning.  Redemption is limited, i.e., to true believers, and is particular.  Expiation is not limited."

Page 528.  Sorry about the transliteration of the Greek.  I don't care to figure out how to do Greek fonts for the blog.

Many modern day Calvinists of the Presbyterian and Reformed Baptist variety would balk at this, but Dabney clearly doesn't wish to limit the expiatory work of Christ.  The reconciliation that is the effect of the expiation clearly is limited to believers; but Christ's work itself is not limited.  Here is where the old formula, "sufficient for all, efficient for the elect" seems just right.  The expiation is sufficient for all, intended for all, and offered to all.  Whereas the reconciliation effected by that expiation is efficient only for believers and intended only for believers.  How this interacts with the doctrine of election is the subject for the next blog.

To close, here is Calvin's comment, in part, on 1John 2:2, where he approves the formula "sufficient for all, efficient for the elect":

"Here a question may be raised, how have the sins of the whole world been expiated? I pass by the dotages of the fanatics, who under this pretense extend salvation to all the reprobate, and therefore to Satan himself. Such a monstrous thing deserves no refutation. They who seek to avoid this absurdity, have said that Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect. This solution has commonly prevailed in the schools. Though then I allow that what has been said is true, yet I deny that it is suitable to this passage...."

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

My Agenda

Yes, I have an agenda, and I want you to know it before we go any farther. Here, in bold print, is my agenda. I want my readers to accept that a 5-point Calvinist can say the following things:

God loves all men.
God desires the salvation of all men and offers salvation to all by faith in Christ.
Christ died for all men; he died for you.

The last item on the agenda is particularly important to me as it affects the way I describe Christ’s work to others. Though I am not and have never been the pastor of a church, I have had many opportunities to preach in churches over the past 20 years. Until a couple of years ago, I was perplexed about what to say when preaching the gospel. What do I say about the death of Christ? Do I say nothing? Absurd! Do I say “Christ died for you” if I think that he might not have? Again absurd. Do I say “he died for sinners” when my audience might properly draw the conclusion that since they are sinners, Christ died for them?  Absurd — and dishonest (I make no accusation here — I speak only for myself) if I really am trying to hide from the consequences of belief that Christ did not really die for many in my audience.

To present the gospel freely, I believe we must be able to say "Christ died for you, and if you believe on him, you will be saved." The freedom to say exactly that is a great relief.  And it is perfectly in keeping with historic Calvinism.

That’s basically it.  There are some additional items that might qualify as pet peeves but are only tangentially related to the main topic.  I’ll squeeze them in anyway.  My main pet peeve — which I will address early and often — is the matter of the power of prayer.  Prayer does change things, and I can prove it from the Bible.

So there you go.  That’s the goal, the road map, the telos.  Have fun!

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

R L Dabney's View - Expiation is Not Limited! - Part I

R L Dabney , one of the great American Presbyterian theologians of the 19th century, was certainly no Amyraldian. There are (at least) two sections in his Systematic Theology opposing the doctrine of Amyraut. And yet Dabney makes this rather startling assertion: "Expiation is not limited." (Systematic
Theology, Banner of Truth, 1985, p. 528.)

How can a man who holds to TULIP (as Dabney plainly does) make a statement which seems on the face of it so antithetical to the central point? How exactly does this work? The question is a difficult one and will require us to put aside prejudice and emotion, at least for a time. I propose to make an attempt to explain Dabney’s answer to this question in a series of short essays.

We must start with definitions — especially since Dabney makes such a big deal of them. This is the hard part; but it is critical and will greatly repay the tedious work.

Atonement — Dabney does not like this word as descriptive of Christ’s work. Dabney gives credence to that old saw that "atonement" can be defined as "at-one-ment." (I used to scoff at this notion until Dabney taught me to behave myself.) That is, atonement — for Dabney — has a proper synonym in "reconciliation." (id, p. 503.)

Satisfaction — Instead of "atonement" as a general descriptive term for Christ’s work for sinners, Dabney perefers the word "satisfaction." Dabney prefers the word because it has been commonly used in reformed theology, and because it is general enough to include both Christ’s active and passive obedience. (id.)

Expiation — I shall quote Dabney directly: "Expiation is the sacrificial and satisfactory action, making the offended Judge propitious to the transgressor." (p. 505.) It seems to me — biased observer though I am — that most evangelicals use "atonement" to mean what Dabney means here by "expiation."

More on this tomorrow. I shall end with a quote from John Calvin. This is from his commentary to Romans 5:18: "He makes this favor common to all, because it is propounded to all, and not because it is in reality extended to all; 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."


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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Controversial Calvinism

Calvinism is controversial. Further, the view that I will espouse in this blog will be controversial with many Calvinists. It is primarily those folks I wish to address. Calvinism as it is held in many conservative churches and denominations, is destructive of true doctrine and the Christian faith to a greater or lesser degree. I shall point out the deficiencies (as I perceive them) along the way.

I am a conservative evangelical, and hold to all the doctrines that label implies. I am a Baptist. I also call myself a Calvinist; that is, I hold to the doctrines of grace, as they are called: TULIP — Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. I must make an important qualification: I hold to the doctrine of limited atonement as it is defined by R. L. Dabney; I also hold to the doctrine of unlimited atonement as defined by W. G. T. Shedd. The first sign of life in the Calvinist mind is a willingness to grapple with the distinction made by these great American theologians of the 19th century between the work of Christ on behalf of the world and the application of that work to the individual believer. These men used different definitions for their terms and drew somewhat different conclusions. Wrestling with those definitions and distinctions will bring about a blessing, though one may be permanently afflicted with a limp. Much more on that to come in this space.

How would one label my position? The critic will be tempted to reach for the term “Amyraldian”; the difficulty with that label is that Amyraut’s work is not widely known, but his position has been vaguely equated with “four-point” Calvinism. I don’t know Amyraut’s position well enough to affirm or rebut this, but I doubt it is accurate. I am identifying more closely with Calvin, Shedd, Dabney, and Charles Hodge — would the critic call them Amyraldian?

How about “moderate Calvinism”? Certain authors, who shall remain nameless, have so abused that term as to make it useless. I oppose high Calvinism as held by many Presbyterian and Reformed Baptist theologians. I more strongly oppose the hyper-Calvinism of the Primitive Baptists and the PRC — as well as anything that has the whiff of hyper-Calvinism in it; unfortunately, much that is considered normal Calvinism these days has that malodorous essence. So I guess we’ll go with “historic Calvinism.” I hope to be able to explain and justify that label.

Enough for a brief introduction. We shall take up the cudgels tomorrow. I leave you with a quotation from John Calvin’s commentary on 2 Peter 3:9:

So wonderful is his love towards mankind, that he would have them all to be saved, and is of his own self prepared to bestow salvation on the lost.