Pushing the atonement to the limit?

Posted on September 24, 2009


(What follows is a summary of a paper I’ve been meaning to write for several years now, but never got around to. If anybody is interested enough to comment, I’d be happy to know if it would be worth actually doing…)

The doctrine of limited atonement seems largely forgotten by mainstream academic theology today. Actually, that is wrong – it is not forgotten, it is remembered with shame, derision, and sometimes amusement. Yet once this doctrine was seriously held by the majority of Reformed theologians. Why? They saw a theological advantage: they understood their claim about the atonement to be that it was definite, rather than limited. That is, on their scheme, Christ died to accomplish a certain fixed end, and that end is infallibly accomplished. Their basic reason for their position, however, was straightforwardly exegetical: they believed that there were Scriptures that could not be evaded that taught limited atonement. (And they believed that the Scriptures that seemed to teach universal atonement could be evaded.)

Let us praise them first – rightly, they took their stand on exegesis. But I suspect that they (and their early modern Arminian opponents) gave in too quickly to the insistent demands of logic: there were seemingly-compelling texts on either side of the argument, and Calvinists and Remonstrants alike assumed both could not be right, and so sought to evade the clear teaching of one set of Scriptures.

(Of course, one can believe in an atonement that is both definite and universal by becoming a universalist; this route became popular in many formerly-Calvinist traditions. The issue then becomes the need to evade the Scriptures that seem to teach clearly the reality of an eternal punishment awaiting the impenitent. Again, I suspect that exegesis too quickly surrenders to the claims of logic in these arguments.)

Let me then pause at the level of exegesis: some texts seem clearly to teach that the atonement is limited in intent, and/or definite in application; others to teach that it is universal in intent, and/or indefinite in application. I take it that, for all our sophisticated advances in exegetical practice in the last three centuries, this basic impasse remains. Is there a way through it? Can we try to imagine that in fact both sets of texts are right? I do not want to propose embracing paradox, but I do want to suggest that exegetical responsibility is such that we should linger long, wondering whether the apparent logical either/or cannot be overcome, before we start our theological attempts to evade this or that part of Holy Scripture.

We have learnt in the last couple of generations learnt to embrace simultaneously divergent understandings of the atonement, at least at the level of mechanism. Using language of ‘metaphor’, ‘parable’, or similar, we see differing accounts as complementary rather than competing. This is fine, however, when we are talking about simply different explanatory systems – medicine vs law court vs slave market, say. But in the case of Calvinism vs Arminianism, and particularly in the case of limited vs universal atonement, we are not dealing with incommensurate explanations, but with directly competing claims. A warm and fuzzily inclusive appeal to ‘metaphor’ will not defuse the logical problem with which we are faced.

Thinking about the nature of metaphor might, however. The old story of the three blind men and the elephant springs to mind – each uses a helpful metaphor to describe the part of the truth that he has, quite literally in the case of that story, grasped. Could we begin to imagine an account of the saving work of Jesus which is in one sense universal, and in another particular, in one sense simply given by divine decree, in another made available to human response?

At least on the first of these pairs, it happens that the tradition offers a minority report as to how this might work. A number of late nineteenth-century British evangelical theologians (most famously, James Orr; most interestingly, perhaps, T.R. Birks) offered what Henri Blocher and Stephen Williams have variously described as a ‘fourth view’ on the nature of hell (alongside eternal conscious torment, annihilationism, and universalism). They suggested, one way or another, that all people were affected by the death of Christ – it was in one sense universal – but that not all were saved – it was in another sense particular. The reality of the eternal fate of the unsaved was decisively different, and better, because of what Christ has done, but a binary distinction remains.

This seems to me a fruitful thought, theologically. In fact, I would want to extend it further: there are accounts of the atonement that suggest that the whole of creation should be transformed by the saving act of Christ (I take Anselm’s logic as pushing fairly strongly in this direction); others that seem to suggest that every human life must be transformed (the physicalist accounts of the Greek Fathers); others that there is a transformation that applies sovereignly and without human effort to all those in the church (accounts linking baptism with salvation most obviously); others that there is a genuinely human role in the appropriation of salvation (Abelard). Might it be that all these things are true? That the saving act of Christ, particularly His atoning death, reconfigures the whole of creation in far-reaching and complex ways, with particular intensities of reconfiguration and salvation attaching to the concrete reality of the church, and perhaps to other places too (the heirs to the promise given to Israel?)? Working out a narrative of this saving act would be enormously complex, and would require patient and particular exegesis of texts that too often are lumped together and are assumed to say the same thing, but it should be possible.

(Note: even if it worked spectacularly, this scheme would not, unfortunately, offer any useful purchase on the Calvinist/Arminian (or the Banezian/Molinan) debates; in their interesting forms, Calvinists and Arminians (still more Banez and Molina) are united in believing that, to quote my line above, ‘there is a genuinely human role in the appropriation of salvation’; the interesting debates concern the extent to which genuine human action is possible without specific (rather than general) divine enabling.)

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