July 27, 2012

W. Lindsay Alexander's (1808–1884) Criticism of Owenism

While I don't agree with everything Alexander says in his chapter (XVI) dealing with the atonement, I think he is on the right path in his following criticisms of Owenism:
If Owen is right in restricting the atonement to the idea of purchase, his reasoning appears to me quite unanswerable. It is here, however, that he and his party err. Whilst it is true that the salvation of believers is a redemption, a purchasing of them from sin and misery that they may be restored to God, it is not in accordance with the representations of Scripture or the facts of the case to make this the only or even the essential idea of the atonement. The objections to this are many, and apparently conclusive. You will find them stated by Dr. Wardlaw in his Theology, vol. ii. Lect. xxiv., and by Dr. Payne in his Lectures on Divine Sovereignty, Atonement, etc., Lect. ix. The weightiest are — (a) that this view is really incompatible with a belief in the infinite value of the Saviour's propitiatory work, seeing it necessarily limits that to an equivalency with the guilt of the elect. (b) That on this view it is impossible to take, in their fair and proper sense, those passages of Scripture which state that Christ was a propitiation for the sins of the world, and that He was sent "that whosoever believeth in Him might not perish." (c) That on this view the salvation of the non-elect becomes a natural impossibility, just as much so as it is for those to see for whom no eyes have been provided, or those to understand from whom God has withheld the gifts of intellect. (d) On this supposition the general invitations and promises of the gospel are without an adequate basis, and seem like a mere mockery, an offer, in short, of what has not been provided.

It will not do to say, in reply to this, that as these invitations are actually given we are entitled on the authority of God's word to urge them and justified in accepting them; for this is mere evasion. The question is not as to whether they are to be regarded as sincere and valid, but on what ground can they be so regarded? Had God merely placed in Scripture these invitations and promises without making known to us anything regarding the work of Christ on which they are based, our wisdom would have been to accept the invitation and rely on the promise without further inquiry. But seeing it is not so; seeing God has rested His invitation and His promise on the work of Christ as made known to us in His word, we are not only entitled, but bound to inquire into the relation in which the two stand to each other, that we may see how the superstructure really rests on the basis. If a skilled architect tells me that a certain building is secure I may take his word for it and inquire no further; but if he insists on showing me the foundation, and how, resting on such a foundation, the building is secure, I am bound to examine and satisfy myself that it is really so. When, therefore, God is pleased not only to give us gracious invitations and promises, but to show us the foundation on which these rest, we are bound to examine this and see whether it is broad enough to sustain the superstructure that is erected upon it. And if on inquiry we find that the basis, according to our view of it, is not broad enough for what is erected on it, the fair conclusion seems to be that we have made a mistake in our survey, and that the basis is not such as we assumed it to be, but must be broader. Accordingly, when we find that the doctrine of a limited atonement, an atonement on the principle of a quid pro quo, does not afford a basis broad enough to sustain the unlimited offers of the gospel, it is surely a perfectly fair conclusion that the doctrine is erroneous, and cannot be the doctrine of Scripture. Finally, on this view the actual salvation of the elect ceases to be of grace, and becomes as much a matter of right on their part and of simple equity on the part of God as the release of a debtor whose debt has been paid by another is a matter of right and equity. If I am unable to satisfy the law, and the sovereign remits the penalty on some grounds of general jurisprudence or governmental righteousness which left Him free to give or withhold the blessing according to his sovereign good pleasure, then the reception of the benefit by me is purely of grace, and I am made thereby a debtor to grace. But if the debt which I owed has been paid, if every special claim which the law had on me has been met and satisfied, then my release is a simple matter of justice, the ruler is bound in equity to set me free, and no room is left for grace to enter.
W. Lindsay Alexander, A System of Biblical Theology, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1888), 2:110–112.

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