February 10, 2012

Stephen Strehle on Martin Luther's View of the Extent of the Atonement

If one has correctly understood the conception of atonement in Luther, his opinions upon the extent of the atonement need not even be inspected, since his system can only lead to one alternative, an unlimited atonement. Nevertheless, Luther makes his position clear, stating that Christ has borne "all the sins of all men,"[1] "the sins of the whole world, from Adam to the very last person,"[2] "not some, but all the sins of the whole world, great or small, few or many."[3] His death would even have sufficed to remove the sins of "many, many worlds."[4] But these conclusions only naturally follow from the mission of Christ in Luther to abrogate the whole law,[5] to swallow up all the enemies of His reign in His deity.[6] If Christ had not borne the sins of the whole world, He would not have completely eliminated within the divine economy the hostile elements, and as a consequence could not be considered as Lord over all things.[7] He could not eschatologically defeat all the devil and his works, throwing them into the lake of fire. Such is the teaching and system of Luther, as well as Scripture itself.[1]

It should be apparent by now that the extent of the atonement question is not to be studied as an isolated doctrine, but is a question which involves methods and systems of theology. One's position upon the extent of the atonement is most often a product of decisions which have been made in other areas of doctrine. For Duns Scotus, a limited conception of Christ's work has already been determined in his theology proper, in his philosophical ordination of all events around their final end. For Luther, his impetus upon the Christus Victor, as just mentioned, leads logically to the exact opposite result, an unlimited atonement. In addition, even to complicate matters further, the import of "extent of atonement" cannot even be univocally applied to both, seeing that "extent" for Duns relates to amount of merit, while for Luther it relates to destruction of enemies. For one, the issue is salvation; for the other, lordship.
1. LW 26,280.
2. WA 46,678.
3. WA 10/1/2,207. cf. LW 26,280-81.
4. WA 20,638: "Totius.' Dicere enim possum: Ego sum et tu pars mundi. Erigit omnium corda. Non relinquit cogitare: Est propiciatio pro peccatis Petri, Pauli, si etiam pro meis esset! 'Pro totius.' In Christo satis est propiciantionis, si etiam mundus adhuc maior, quia sic effudit sanguinem, ut sit tam copiosa, ut sufficeret multis mundis."
5. LW 26,350.
6. Luther,
Works, 2:520-21.
7. WA 45,483;24,24.
1, Eph. 1:10,21: "With a view to an administration suitable to the fulness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in heaven and things upon the earth. In him . . . far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come." cf. Col. 1:20.
Stephen Alan Strehle, The Extent of the Atonement Within the Theological Systems of the Sixteenth and Seventheenth Centuries (ThD diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1980), 71–72.

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