Planting the Tulip: Atonement

Things got a little heated in the last go around.  This one will be shorter.   The document can be accessed here.   This piece will try to appreciate what he is getting at, yet suggest that the EO model on the atonement does not fully address all biblical concerns.

RA notes:   ” Whereas the Canons of Dort is explicit in its affirmation of limited atonement, surprisingly a careful reading of Calvin’s Institutes does not yield any explicit mention of limited atonement (see Roger Nicole’s article).

This is mostly true.  Here is an interesting linguistic point:  The canons of Dordt do not teach limited atonement because atonement is an English term, not a Dutch one.  I refer you to my friend Steven Wedgeworth, who has done some clear thinking on the issue. (I am undecided on where I stand regarding some of the conclusions, but the historical analysis is very good)   One must ask, though, if absence of evidence is evidence of absence.  The debate on whether Calvin taught LA has gone back and forth.  The current scholarly view is “kind of.”  I think it is best to say that Calvin addressed both concerns depending on which perspective was in play (I’ll explain in a bit below).

RA then gives a list of quotes showing that Christ died for the “world.”  He then rebuts the common Reformed gloss on these texts:

The real challenge for those who appeal to the above passages lies in the semantic tactics used by Calvinists in which they argue that “all” and “the world” are not to be taken literally but as referring to only those predestined for salvation.
My thoughts on the semantic gloss are a bit different from most Reformed. I think the gloss is defensible and the denial of it entails problems for those who hold to unlimited atonement, but I also understand why most people are not satisfied with it.   While using this gloss isn’t my preferred tactic, I must say that he hasn’t fully given all of the semantic thrust that the Reformed use.  For example, when the Pharisees, speaking of Jesus’ popularity, say, “The whole world has gone after him.”  Did they really mean every individual on planet earth?  If not, then can we not at least grant that the Reformed are justified in glossing world to mean not necessarily every individual on planet Earth?
RA then points us to historical theology (I tried to do that last time and I was told to stick to Calvin and the Confessions).
This is where historical theology can help us assess the competing truth claims. The advantage of historical theology is two-fold: (1) it enables us to understand the historical and social forces that shaped Calvinists’ exegesis and (2) it enables us to determine the extent to which Calvin’s theology reflected the mainstream of historic Christianity or to what extent Calvin’s theology became deviant and heretical.
This isn’t a bad set up, but I had to read it several times to see where he was going with it.  I originally thought that he was going to use historical theology to assess Calvin’s view of the atonement, since this paragraph is included in the heading on the atonement, but I think he is actually meaning it to refer to the rest of his essay.  My argument and response can go with either.  He then gives us three quotes (Irenaus, John of the Ladder, and Chrysostom) to show God’s universal love towards humanity.  By doing that he (presumably) intends to show that the early church universal held to ????
This is where it gets kind of confusing.  I am not entirely persuaded that listing the views of three fathers warrants an inductive inference to the patrum consensus (including all the problems that the patrum consensus entails).   I do acknowledge, however, that most of the Fathers probably agree with his claim that God’s love is universal (however, I would point the reader to Gibbon’s comments on Tertullian; it’s funny.  Go find them.).  My difficulty in evaluating it is that it is not simply enough to say that God’s love is universal.  Other questions arise:  is his love the same in quality towards the objects of his love (Jacob have I loved; Esau I hated)?
Refocusing the Reformed View of Atonement
I was surprised that he did not mention Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor model, since many Fathers held to it.  The Reformed simply ask this question, “Did Christ’s death do anything regarding the believer’s relation to sin and guilt?”   The Reformed simply point to the biblical evidence that Christ died for our sins, understanding sin to be a violation of God’s law.  This raises the next question:  if Christ died for everyone’s sin, isn’t everyone saved?
Calvin knew this. He might not have stated it in so many words, but it was common enough knowledge in the middle ages.   The scholastics distinguished between the sufficiency of the atonement and the efficiency of the atonement.  If the question before the house is whether Christ’s death was sufficient for the whole world, then who doesn’t believe in unlimited atonement?  If the question is whether Christ’s death is efficient for the whole world, then even the staunchest Arminian and revivalist semi-Pelagian believes it was limited.
The problem is that when people use the term “atonement” today, they usually mean expiation, in which case we all believe in an unlimited atonement.  If by atonement we mean propitiation, then we believe in an unlimited atonement.
People can complain about legal language all they want, but the fact of the matter is that the Bible is replete with it. “Wages of sin” (Rom. 6), “Certificate of debts” (Eph. 2).  We have no problem with language of Christ’s victory over death or our union with Christ, but I have yet to see an EO apologist incorporate imputation-language and legal-language into their own theories of the atonement.    If we do not have a robust view of legal language and categories, then we must own up to several questions:
Advertisements