July 1, 2005

The Design of The Atonement: Dealing with a Popular False Dilemma

Here is another internet exchange that I had recently. The questioner's writing is in blue and in quotations below.
"Is it more biblical to say that Christ’s atoning work on the cross saved those the father gave him or that Christ atoning work made salvation possible for everyone, but didn’t actually save any one in particular?"
The above question poses an either/or dilemma. Either 1) Christ's atoning work on the cross saved those the Father gave him or 2) Christ's atoning work made salvation possible for everyone, but did not actually save anyone in particular.

This is the usual way the question is put by those adhering to divine sovereignty today. This kind of language and dilemma comes from John Owen, whose views are constantly regurgitated in popular literature dealing with the atonement and divine sovereignty. It's actually a false dilemma. There is another alternative. Before I expound the third view that I believe to be correct, let me first describe the problems with the first two views above.

Problems with Position #1

1) Christ's atoning work on the cross saved those the Father gave him.

There are some hidden assumptions in this statement that need to be brought out into the open and examined. There is the idea that the cross of Christ saves us when he died. Then there is the ambiguity over the idea of being given to Christ. Let me start off by saying that the death of Christ does not by itself save anyone. Salvation is the result of a sinner's personal trust in his satisfaction. No one is saved by the mere fact of Christ's death. We should not think of his death in a pecuniary or commercial payment sense. This is why I quoted Charles Hodge earlier. He makes a VERY important distinction between a penal satisfaction and a pecuniary payment. There are commercial metaphors used in the bible, but they should not be pushed beyond their analogical purpose into something literal. If Christ's death was a paying of a debt in a literal sense, then nothing else is required of those whose debt is paid. There can be no conditions in any sense whatsoever. Further, there is no necessary grace in the acceptance of this payment. If one pays for the commercial debt of another, then the debtor is free. Hodge expounds on this:
"The moment the debt is paid the debtor is free, and that completely. No delay can be admitted, and no conditions can be attached to his deliverance. But in the case of a criminal, as he has no claim to have a substitute take his place, if one be provided, the terms on which the benefits of his substitution shall accrue to the principal, are matters of agreement, or covenant between the substitute and the magistrate who represents justice. The deliverance of the offender may be immediate, unconditional, and complete; or, it may be deferred, suspended on certain conditions, and its benefits gradually bestowed."
And again, Hodge says:
"4. 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 that covenant. It does not ipso facto liberate. The people of God are not justified from eternity. They do not come into the world in a justified state They remain (if adults) in a state of condemnation until they believe. And even the benefits of redemption are granted gradually. The believer received more and more of them in this life, but the full plenitude of blessings is reserved for the life to come. All these are facts of Scripture and of experience, and they are all explained by the nature of the satisfaction rendered. It is not the payment of a debt, but a matter of agreement or covenant. It seemed good to the parties to the covenant of redemption that matters should be so arranged."
We are not saved by the mere fact and accomplishment of Christ's death because it is not a literal payment in the pecuniary sense. The Godhead has covenanted to accept the penal satisfaction of Christ in the place of sinners upon certain conditions. The condition for the acceptance of Christ's death in the place of any sinner is faith in him. Apart from the fulfillment of that condition, no one is saved.

With respect to the ambiguity of being "given," I know you mean given in eternity in the eternal covenant of redemption. However, the giving is actual in time and not in eternity. In eternity, the Father promises and determines to give, but does not actually give because the people are not yet created. We are ACTUALLY given to the Son in time when we exist and believe in him. We are given to him when our hearts are united to him by the Spirit in history.

We are not saved in eternity, nor are we saved at the time of the cross. We are saved and properly given to the Son when we trust him as our only righteousness and penal substitute. We are saved when we meet the conditions that God requires in the covenant.

The Owenist makes several mistakes. They tend to emphasize eternity over time, and thus virtually make the 'not-yet' an 'already'. They tend to make actual salvation occur at the time of the cross by the language of their arguments. They would deny that they are doing this, but this is the effect of their argument. It entails justification or salvation when Christ died. They also misemploy the commercial language in the bible to the extent that Christ's death becomes a pound for pound commercial/pecuniary payment. Christ is said to undergo the same "weight and pressure" (this is actual Owenic language) of suffering that the elect deserved. There are other mistakes and overreactions in an Owenic paradigm, but these two are major. They resurface in almost all of the popular limited atonement arguments in books or lectures today due to a purely decretalistic hermeneutic. This is another problem. There is a virtual denial of the preceptive will of God as being a true intentionality or will. Therefore, there is the tendency to argue in the either/or fashion so as to pit the decretive or secret will aspect against the preceptive or revealed will aspect. This Owenic view is even imposed on Calvin as if he held to it. That's completely false. Calvin was working with a totally different conceptual framework. It's just hard for the Owenists to see any other alternative between their view and Arminianism. For this reason, they pose false either/or dilemmas in argumentation. That brings us to problems in the next view.

Problems with Position #2

2) Christ's atoning work made salvation possible for everyone, but did not actually save anyone in particular.

Here there can be an equivocation on the term "possible." The assumption is that anyone who says that the atonement makes it possible for everyone to be saved has free will notions undergirding their statement. The sense is that "possible" means the sinner has the equal moral capacity or libertarian freedom to either accept or reject the satisfaction. God has done all that he can, now it is up to the sinner who has free will to actualize the merely possible satisfaction by an act of libertarian choice. This view is associated with those who say that God's intention was singular. God is thought to desire the salvation of every man with the same force of will. God equally wishes all men to be saved and thus gave his Son, but it is up to them now to render the possible to be actual by an act of free choice.

This view is associated with Arminianism. The Owenist wants to pose this dilemma. Either one looks at Christ's satisfaction with the singular intention (the decretive/secret will alone) to save the elect alone in actual fact when Christ died, or one must look at Christ's satisfaction as merely making possible (in the above free will sense of "possible") the salvation of all men, so that no one in particular is definitely saved or desired to be saved by God more than any other (the preceptive emphasis to the exclusion or negation of the decretive). This is the way that the Owenist can say that either their strictly limited view is the case, or Armianism is the case. The Owenist works with their own commercialistic assumptions, and they say that Pure Universalism must follow if Christ in fact "paid" (commercialism again) for the sins of all men. They narrow down the options further by saying either a strictly limited atonement, or Pure Universalism. They are not epistemologically self-aware of their own assumptions coming into play in the arguments. False dilemmas abound, and fallacious arguments are legion. This does not mean that the Arminian view is true. It does not mean that Pure Universalism is the case either. There is another alternative that has been buried underneath all of the recent Owenic propoganda, namely the dualistic position.

The Dualistic Option: Position #3

3) Christ died for all men, but especially for those who believe (the elect).

This view seeks to thoroughly affirm the decretive/secret will aspect in conjunction with the preceptive/revealed will aspect of the atonement. In other words, there is a sense in which God desires all men to be saved, and there is another sense in which he has a special desire that the elect be saved. God wants all men to comply with his commandment to believe on Christ Jesus, and therefore sends his Son to make a universally sufficient provision to ground his indiscriminate and well-meant offer of salvation in the gospel call. This corresponds to God's preceptive will.

The secret will aspect is seen in the efficacious application by means of the Holy Spirit. The limitation is in the effectual call and application to the elect alone through the granting of faith, but there is no limitation in the death that Christ died intrinsically. The death of Christ is a universal and intentional provision by God for all men, but the condition for the obtaining of the provision is through faith, and only the elect are granted faith by the Spirit. This accords with God's ultimate purpose. God loves all men, but especially the elect that he has purposed to saved in the everlasting decree. Nevertheless, God also desires that all men repent and believe, and he proves this by sending his Son to die a death sufficient for any man's sins. Believers can preach the gospel with a full heart, knowing that God is with them when they plead with all men to trust Christ. There is a sense in which the church can say that Christ died for any lost person, since he is the sufficient savior for all men. One can say that the death of Christ can "possibly" save any man in this sense. This is not the same sense of "possible" in position #2.

Look at it this way: God is sincere in what he commands. This means that he desires compliance to what he has commanded. If he did not desire compliance, then he would be hypocritical in his commands. God has commanded all men everywhere to repent and believe through the gospel call given by the church. We plead with men because God pleads with the lost through us. God would not be sincere in asking the non-elect to repent if there was nothing in the cross for them. On the contrary, if the non-elect were to believe, they would find that Christ's death is more than adequate to save them. Judas could have "possibly" been saved had he repented. Christ could have really and actually been his instead of being a mere provision for him.

The dualist argues for a two-fold intentionality or design in the atonement. The one aspect corresponds to God's decretive/secret will, while the other aspect corresponds to the preceptive/revealed will. The High and Hyper-Calvinists do not like to deal with tension in their theological system, so they maintain a singular design or intention, i.e. the decretive. The Arminian, in grasping some of the truth of the preceptive will teachings of the bible, wrongly explains away a special intention in the case of the elect. They use the preceptive teaching to undermine the decretive, while the High and Hyper-Calvinists tend to do the opposite. Both the High and Hyper-Calvinists argue for a strictly limited atonement, and posit the dilemma of either a strict design or universalism. This does not do justice to the biblical teaching, or to the complex positions taken on this issue throughout church history.

There is a dualistic tradition going back to Augustine and Prosper, as well as to the early Reformers like Calvin and Musculus. The later scholastics like Beza, Turretin, Owen and such men went higher in their views. One should know that Calvinistic views on the atonement are not monolithic. Even some at the Synod of Dort were dualists. The English delegates were dualists and signed Dort. Later Reformed thinkers like Charles Hodge, R. L. Dabney and W. G. T. Shedd have held this view. Dr. Curt Daniel, an authority on the history and theology of Calvinism, holds to a version of dualism. Not all dualists are alike. There is room for diversity within this camp, just as there is diversity in other camps.

For more information on this subject from a dualistic perspective, read and listen to the teaching of the above mentioned persons, and also get Norman F. Douty's book Did Christ Die Only for the Elect? G. Michael Thomas' book The Extent of the Atonement is also a good resource. Go to The Theological Research Exchange Network (TREN) and download the $15 dollar e-doc version of Neil Chambers critique of John Owen's The Death of Death. Listen to Curt Daniel's lectures on the atonement and related issues. He covers some of the arguments, and why there have been diverse positions among the Calvinists in history. R. B. Kuyper's book For Whom Did Chirst Die? also argues for a form of dualism. Richard Baxter and William Twisse were dualists. Edward Polhill (a contemporary of Owen and well respected by all) and Thomas Boston are names to look into as well. Get Owen Thomas' book The Atonement Controversy by Banner of Truth. And last but not least, read John Calvin for yourself. Don't start with secondary sources, but read Calvin's sermons and commentaries first hand. You will find that he held a very broad view of the atonement that is incompatible with the popular Owen paradigm and grid. All of these resources should be helpful for you.


Anonymous said...

Neil was my Systematic Theology lecturer at Bible College a few years ago.
We had conversations that were great. I was a new Christian and he was writing a Thesis against Owen at the time.
He also diagnosed a health problem I was suffering from. One which caused me to fall asleep in his lectures!!
Anyway, he was a self admitted 4 point Calvinist and last I heard he was moving to an Owenist position.
I told him he would way back then.

Sydney, Australia

Tony Byrne said...

Well, it's frequently the case that those who reject an Owenist or strictly limited atonement view (Tartanarmy's strict view) are characterized as not accepting the L in TULIP. What they really reject is the placing of a limitation in the death itself rather than the limit being in the special decree to apply the redemption through the grant of faith. One can adhere to Dort without buying into the strictly limited view. Davenant and the other English delegates were of this sort. It's more accurate to consider such people dualists. It's not the L that the dualists reject, but a certain understanding of the L. They would like to add the further biblical point that Christ "suffered sufficiently for all." This refers to the universal aspect. Chambers knows that there is a special decree to apply the satisfaction of Christ to the elect alone via regeneration and faith. He does not use the universal aspect to overthrow any special aspect in the case of the elect as free will systems do. It's not the L that is rejected in the case of the dualists, but they say an additional point needs to be added. TULUIP with the second U standing for unlimited sufficiency. This is what the early Reformers like Calvin and Musculus taught, as well as the English delegates to the Synod of Dort. Owenists tend to misrepresent Amyraldians and other dualistic forms as not holding to Limited Atonement. It's not true. They just reject an Owenist version of the controversial point.

Tony Byrne said...

"The advocates of limited atonement love to pose the dilemma: does the work of Christ merely make salvation "possible", without making certain the "salvation" of anyone, or does it effectually "guarantee" the salvation of the elect, for whom alone Christ died? Calvin's position is well summarised by the retort of Professor James Torrence: our salvation is made certain, not merely possible, by the combined work of Father, Son "and" Holy Spirit (ie, not by the cross alone, taken in isolation)."

Tony Lane, "The Quest for the Historical Calvin," Evangelical Quarterly, 55 (1983) p., 100.

"In the 17th C, in the zeal to refute non-strict Limited atonement folk, the Reformed located a sort of certainty in the expiation itself. There is no scriptural warrant for it, but its now such a solid tradition that shaking it is very hard. The only reason that new idea was created was to refute others. The only reason it was created was to present a sort of modus tolens argument. Its a plain false-dilemma fallacy that needs to be discarded as a whole. Its not a simple either/or like that."

David Ponter

Tony Byrne said...

In Chamber's critique of Owen's Death of Death, he says this:

"The second is his desire to refuse to acknowledge 'salvability' as an intentional outcome of the cross. But if the elect are not saved at the cross, then they at least must, on a temporal, historical plain, be regarded as salvable, having been made able to be saved, and this according to the intention of God." page 236.

Tony Byrne said...

Charles Hodge says this in his Systematic Theology:

"all mankind were placed under the same constitution or covenant. What was demanded for the salvation of one was demanded for the salvation of all. Every man is required to satisfy the demands of the law. No man is required to do either more or less. If those demands are satisfied by a representative or substitute, his work is equally available for all. The secret purpose of God in providing such a substitute for man, has nothing to do with the nature of his work, or with its appropriateness. The righteousness of Christ being of infintie value or merit, and being in its nature precisely what all men need, may be offered to all men. It is thus offered to the elect and to the non-elect; and it is offered to both classes conditionally. That condition is a cordial acceptance of it as the only ground of justification. If any of the elect (being adults) fail thus to accept of it, they perish. If any of the non-elect should believe, the would be saved. What more does any Anti-Augustinian scheme provide? The advocates of such schemes say, that the design of the work of Christ was to render the salvation of all men possible. All they can mean by this is, that if any man (elect or non-elect) believes, he shall, on the ground of what Christ has done, be certainly saved. But Augustinians say the same thing."