July 15, 2012

Robert Letham (1947–) on the Compromise at Dort

Thirdly, controversy [at Dort] raged over the extent of the atonement. Martinius, one of the Bremen delegation, as well as Davenant and Ward of the English delegation wished to stress the universal significance of Christ's death. Their language proved unacceptable to many and the resultant disagreement threatened to stall the Synod's progress and even to destroy its hopes of success. The English delegation made hasty consultation with the authorities at home. Eventually, they were instrumental in encouraging agreement and effecting an ingenious compromise that did justice to the universal sufficiency of Christ's death in a way calculated to win the support of Martinius, Ward and Davenant, while at the same time safe-guarding the orthodox concern for the particularity and efficacy of the intent of the atonement.13 Consequently, in the second head of doctrine, the Canons devote four sections to the universal significance of Christ's death. It is an atonement abundantly sufficient for the sins of the whole world.14 The value of Christ's death is infinite both because of who he is and what he endured.15 Therefore, the promise of the gospel, as it focuses on Christ and his death, should be proclaimed to all men without exception.16 The unbelief of man is attributable in no way to any supposed defect or limitation in the death of Christ but is fully man's own responsibility.17 Only then do the Canons move on briefly to refer to the intent of the atonement. God intends that the efficacy of Christ's death should be extended to the elect.18 God's purpose will be accomplished and the elect will receive salvation.19 Such a statement is nothing if not eirenic. Its balance leans, if anything, in the opposite direction from popular caricatures of limited atonement. Together with the statements on infralapsarianism, Dort is faced by an extreme hard-line option and firmly rejects it, choosing instead a moderate course acceptable to the bulk of international Reformed opinion.20
13. See Godfrey, pp. 135–269.
14. Canons 2, 3 in Schaff, Creeds, 3:561.
15. Canons 2, 4 in Ibid.
16. Canons 2, 5 in Ibid.
17. Canons 2, 6 in Schaff, Creeds, 3:562.
18. Canons 2, 8 in Ibid.
19. Canons 2, 9, in Ibid.
20. Kendall's characterization of Dort as rubber-stamping Bezan theology is misguided. Beza was a thoroughgoing supralapsarian; Dort is, almost to a man, infralapsarian. Beza disliked the distinction between the universal sufficiency and limited efficacy of the atonement because he thought it weakened the emphasis on the particularity of redemption; Dort stresses the universal scope of the atonement. See Kendall, pp. 175–177.
Robert W. A. Letham, Saving Faith and Assurance in Reformed Theology: Zwingli to the Synod of Dort, 2 vols. (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Aberdeen, 1979), 326–327.

[Note: The pagination of Letham's 1979 edition of Kendall's book (or his D.Phil thesis submitted to Oxford in 1976) is different from my 1997 Paternoster edition. I can see where Kendall on page 210 characterizes Westminster teaching as virtually "rubber-stamping Bezan theology," as Letham calls it (in footnote #20 above), but I don't yet see where Kendall makes that claim about Dort.]

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