Saturday, September 29, 2007

W. G. T. Shedd on 1John 2:2

In this series of articles on the theology of 1John 2:2, I am attempting to show that there is a substantial minority report among Calvinistic and reformed theologians on the meaning of "the whole world" in that passage. In my previous blog entry on this topic, I gave W. G. T. Shedd’s view of limited atonement: "Atonement is unlimited, and redemption is limited." Because Shedd had that view, he was at liberty to see universal aspects of Christ’s atonement in those passages of scripture that speak of the atonement as universal.

In describing the effect produced on the conscience of believers by the reconciliation of God and man, Shedd does not hesitate to say that Christ died for the whole world:

The human conscience is the mirror and index of the divine attribute of justice. The two are correlated. What therefore God's justice demands, man's conscience demands. "Nothing," says Matthew Henry, "can pacify an offended conscience but that which satisfied an offended God." The peace which the believer in Christ’s atonement enjoys, and which is promised by the Redeemer to the believer, is the subjective experience in man that corresponds to the objective reconciliation in God. The pacification of the human conscience is the consequence of the satisfaction of divine justice. God’s justice is completely satisfied for the sin of man by the death of Christ. This is an accomplished fact: "Jesus Christ the righteous is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:2). The instant any individual man of this world of mankind believes that divine justice is thus satisfied, his conscience is at rest. The belief is not needed in order to establish the fact. Whether a sinner believes Christ died for sin or not will make no difference with the fact, though it will make a vast difference with him: "If we believe not, yet he abides faithful: he cannot deny himself" (2 Tim. 2:13). Unbelief cannot destroy a fact. Should not a soul henceforth believe on the Son of God, it would nevertheless be a fact that he died an atoning death on Calvary and that this death is an ample oblation for the sin of the world. But it must be remembered that the kind of belief by which a man obtains a personal benefit from the fact of Christ’s death is experimental, not historical or hearsay. * * * And a sinful man may have no skeptical doubt that the death of Christ on Mount Calvary has completely expiated human guilt and may even construct a strong argument in proof of the fact and still have all the miserable experience of an unforgiven sinner, may still have remorse and the fear of death and the damnation of hell.

W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3d. edition, pages 708-9, emphasis added.

One need not be puzzled by Shedd’s statements; he simply saw two aspects to the work of Christ: the universal expiation and the particular application. Part III from Shedd will follow in a few days.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

W. G. T. Shedd on Unlimited Atonement and Limited Redemption

I plan to post four essays on W. G. T. Shedd's understanding of 1John 2:2. I originally wrote these essays for another blog, but I have wanted to post this material on Shedd here for some time. Since I am currently busy reading RT Kendall (I'm nearly done), I thought I would take this opportunity to brush up this material and post it here.

I hope to show that the "reformed" understanding of 1John 2:2 is not monolithic. There is a minority report, which offers a sensible alternative to the interpretation offered by many modern reformed theologians.

W. G. T. Shedd

W. G. T. Shedd, a Presbyterian Pastor and theologian of the 19th century, wrote a 3-volume work entitled Dogmatic Theology. In this work, Shedd affirms a species of limited atonement, though he quarrels with the ambiguous use of certain terms associated with the dispute, and thus affirms, to be precise, limited redemption. I quote from the third edition (a much improved one-volume edition of Shedd's work, issued by P&R Publishing in 2003).

Since redemption implies the application of Christ’s atonement, universal or unlimited redemption cannot logically be affirmed by any who hold that faith is wholly the gift of God and that saving grace is bestowed solely by election. The use of the term redemption, consequently, is attended with less ambiguity than that of "atonement," and it is the term most commonly employed in controversial theology. Atonement is unlimited, and redemption is limited. This statement includes all the scriptural texts: those which assert that Christ died for all men, and those which assert that he died for his people. He who asserts unlimited atonement and limited redemption cannot well be misconceived. He is understood to hold that the sacrifice of Christ is unlimited in value, sufficiency, and publication, but limited in its effectual application.

Page 743 (emphasis added). Thus, for Shedd, there are both universal and particular aspects of Christ's work, and that helps us to understand the texts that speak universally. (My readers might find it interesting to compare R. L. Dabney's distinction between "atonement" and "reconciliation").

As Calvinists we ought not to overstate our case or take alarm at the idea that Christ died for all. More to come from Shedd soon.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A word about the blog

My apologies to the thousands of you :-) who read my blog regularly. I have been working on a response to Roger Nicole's handling of R. T. Kendall, and found that it required more background preparation on my part than I had anticipated. I have decided to read Kendall's book in full, and I'm working on that now.

Let me just say that the Kendall thesis looks pretty good to me, and I will have an interesting article or two for you in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future. I should also say that Kendall's thesis is far more radical than it has been given credit for.

Be sure to check out today's entry on a comparison of John Flavel's universalistic and particularistic statements.

Comparison of the Universalistic and Particularistic John Flavel

Some Christian doctrine is difficult. It challenges our self-image by bringing us face to face with the limits of the finite. To put it plainly, we don't know everything, and God sometimes tells us things that would require more knowledge than we possess to properly understand.

(That doesn't mean, of course, that we ought to reject the truth or succumb to skepticism.)

Calvin's universalism and particularism

Calvin's doctrine of the atonement is one of those doctrines that we find it difficult to believe. There is no dispute that Calvin believed in predestination. There ought to be no dispute, on the other hand, that he also taught that Christ died for all men. Many who read Calvin, including eminent scholars, find Calvin's doctrine of predestination irreconcilable with the idea of universal atonement. And so they reject Calvin's plainly universalistic statements. He must have taught limited atonement, or else he could not have held to predestination. (See Paul Helm, for example.)

John Flavel's universalism and particularism

But not all theologians who followed in the Calvinistic tradition had such skeptical reactions. John Flavel is a good example.

My friend Tony Byrne has posted several quotations from John Flavel on his blog lately. Consider this strongly universalistic statement from Flavel that Tony posted on his blog on September 3rd:

[T]he first motions of mercy and salvation to you freely arise out of his grace and good pleasure. God entreats you to be reconciled. 2 Cor. 5 : 20. The blessed Lord Jesus, whose blood thy sins have shed, now freely offers that blood for thy reconciliation, justification, and salvation, if thou wilt but sincerely accept him ere it be too late.

Here is Flavel speaking of Christ's blood having been shed for the sins of all sinners. Very much in the vein of Calvin's thought.

On the other hand, here is Flavel with a strongly particularistic statement. Flavel speaks here of Isaiah 53:12:

In this verse we have, 1. His work. * * * His work, which was indeed a hard work, to pour out his soul unto death, aggravated by the companions, with whom, being numbered with transgressors; the capacity in which, bearing all the sins of the elect, "he bare the sins of many"....

So which is it?

Did Christ die for all — or did he die for the elect?

The answer, of course, is, "both." Christ died for all men in some senses (which include redemptive and gracious purposes) though these senses do not necessarily reach to actual application of the eternal salvation purchased by Christ. From Flavel's universalistic and particularistic statements, I conclude that he held to some sort of dual aspect to the atonement, probably along lines similar to Calvin.

How does one reconcile universalism with particularism? Well, there are ways —there is always a way— though these ways may seem artificial or speculative. But we must accept the plain statements of scripture, though we may find them difficult —or impossible— to reconcile. To paraphrase R. L. Dabney, it would be exceeding presumption to suppose that because we do not see a reconciliation to the problem, none can be known to God.