January 18, 2007

Alan Clifford on John Owen’s Triple Choice

“Under the influence of Aristotle’s teleology and the commercial theory of the atonement, Owen proposes a ‘dilemma to our universalists’ in a powerful piece of reasoning. After stating that there was a qualitative and quantitative ‘sameness’ in the sufferings of Christ and the eternal punishment threatening those for whom he died, Owen affirms, ‘God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some of the sins of all men’. This is Owen’s famous ‘triple choice’ position, which, in his view, conclusively settles the controversy in favour of a limited atonement. The last choice is quickly ruled out: if the atonement fails to deal with all sins, then the sinner has something to answer for. The first choice invites Owen’s question, ‘Why, then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins?’ He therefore concludes that the second choice alone fits the case; the atonement is exclusively related to ‘all the sins of some men’.

Owen anticipates the universalist objection that men are only lost through an unbelieving rejection of the atonement. He asks:
But this unbelief, is it a sin or not: If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not. If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death?. If he did not, then did he not die for all the sins.
For all its apparent cogency, this compelling argument raises some important problems. It is clear that unbelievers are guilty of rejecting nothing if Christ was not given for them; unbelief surely involves the rejection of a definite provision of grace. It also makes nonsense of the means of grace, depriving general exhortations to believe of all significance.

A further objection arises from an unexpected quarter. In Owen’s view the sufferings of Christ not only deal with the guilt of the believer’s pre-conversion unbelief, they are causally related to the removal of unbelief. But Owen’s pastoral experience taught him that even true believers – or those who have grounds to regard themselves as elect – continue to be plagued with unbelief. Should this be the case if Christ had died to purchase faith for them, or are they perhaps deceived? Owen certainly denies that lapses of unbelief in the elect are not sinful if Christ has paid the penalty for them. Neither would he question the fact that doubting believers fail to participate fully in the subjective blessings Christ’s death has purchased for them. In other words, his argument applies as much to supposed believers as it does to unbelievers, with interesting consequences. For if partial unbelief in a Christian hinders him from enjoying the fullness of those blessings Christ has died to purchase for him, this is no different in principle from saying that total unbelief in a non-Christian hinders him from ‘partaking of the fruit’ Christ’s death makes available for him too.

Basic to Owen’s argument is his theory of the nature of the atonement, which will be discussed in the next chapter. Suffice it to say that making the sufferings of Christ commensurate with the sins of the elect in a quantitative, commercialistic sense explains and reinforces his teleology of the atonement. This was the consideration which led him to modify the sufficiency-efficency distinction. His apparent acceptance of it is really little more than lip-service; his deliberate redefinition of it means that the atonement is only sufficient for those for whom it is efficient. In other words, if the atonement is strictly limited, then the ‘credit facilities’ of the gospel are only available to the elect.

This prevented Owen from seeing that there was an alternative way of dealing with his ‘triple choice’ challenge. For earlier generations of Calvinists the solution was a simple one. Viewing the sufficiency of the atonement in terms of a universal provision of grace, they would embrace the first choice (all the sins of all men) with respect to the atonement’s sufficiency, and the second (all the sins of some men) with respect to its efficiency. As an earlier chapter has demonstrated, the sixteenth-century Reformers taught – both in their writings and in their confessions of the faith – that the atonement was relevant and applicable to all, though it was applied only to the elect. This much is clear: Calvin and his companions believed that the sufferings of Christ were related to the sins of the whole world; men are lost, not for lack of atonement, but for not believing. Unlike Owen, the Reformers had little difficulty in establishing the basis of human guilt. While guilt is undoubtedly defined in terms of transgressing the law, a very significant component of it arises from ungrateful neglect of the gospel remedy. But on Owen’s account, if the atonement relates only to the sins of the elect, then it is doubtful justice to condemn anyone for rejecting what was never applicable to them.

Owen’s acceptance of common grace is surely in conflict with his view of the atonement’s sufficiency, for it implies a broader view than his narrower theory will allow. As a corollary, his acceptance of the ‘free offer’ of the gospel is embarrassed by his strict commercialist position. He does indeed assert that the gospel is to be preached to ‘every creature’ because ‘the way of salvation which it declares is wide enough for all to walk in’. But how can this be if the atonement is really only sufficient for the elect? Calvin and his colleagues had no difficulty in speaking like this, but Owen cannot consistently do so. Not surprisingly, Gill and his fellow hypercalvinists employed the very kind of commercialism espoused by Owen, but did so to deny the validity of universal offers of grace.”
Alan C. Clifford, Atonement and Justification (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 111-113.

For more on this subject with extensive quotes from Reformed/Calvinistic men, see my post on Double Jeopardy?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hey Tony,

Could you elaborate a bit on the paragraph dealing with the purchasing of faith by Christ? I feel like what he is saying there is somewhat confusing, but I would really like to understand his point.