The Correct Shape of the Petals in a TUDIP

by Mar 4, 2014Books, Theology1 comment

I personally do not hold to the doctrine of limited atonement as I understand it. I can get there theologically, and the idea doesn’t bother or offend me—but I can’t get there exegetically. I find efforts to get around 1 John 2:2 to be just that. I have not made the doctrine a matter of intense study, however, or at least not for a long while. There are two many doctrines and too few hours. At some point you have to stake your claim and live as if your theology is true even if you feel all too aware of your insufficient grasp of the finer points. That doesn’t mean you aren’t semper reformanda (always reforming, always being “sanctified,” even in your theological knowledge). That doesn’t mean you forget to be humble before people who know more and yet disagree with you—or that you refuse to read their books. It just means that even the most gifted Christian intellectuals can’t keep track of every argument on every theological issue. And what about us normal guys who still have to write theology for the church?

We can’t all be experts, but there are some basics that it’s fair to expect of anyone who engages in theological debate or pretends to the title “theologian.” And a correct definition of limited atonement is one of them. Theological dialogue within the church simply cannot get anywhere if participants refuse to state their opponents’ viewpoints in a way congenial to those opponents. So I found this paragraph at the beginning of the new, definitive (?) work on definite atonement (which I have only skimmed) to be exceptionally helpful and clear:

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 3.09.08 PMDefinite atonement says something essential about Christ’s death, but it does not say everything there is to say. There are many aspects of the atonement which need to be affirmed alongside its definite intent and nature: the sufficiency of Christ’s death for all; the free and indiscriminate proclamation of the gospel to all; God’s love for the non-elect and his salvific stance toward a fallen world…. Definite atonement does not exhaust the meaning of the cross. (34)

It just isn’t fair, it isn’t right, for opponents of TULIP to talk—as they almost always do at the popular level, in my experience (there are responsible exceptions)—as if Calvinists…

  1. …don’t believe Christ’s death was sufficient for all.
  2. …refuse to proclaim the gospel to every person.
  3. …deny that God loves the whole world, including the non-elect.
  4. …deny that God wants the whole world to be saved.

Once Calvinists are allowed to carefully express their viewpoint on these matters, their opponents are permitted to argue that Calvinism leads inexorably toward 1) denial of the sufficiency of Christ’s blood, 2) weakened evangelism, and 3–4) Jefferson-like X-acto knifing of John 3:16 and 1 Tim 2:4. But they may not say that Calvinists purposefully and self-consciously deny, weaken, and excise these things, respectively. If an Arminian can’t see how a Calvinist holds Limited Atonement together with the doctrines in that paragraph above, it’s fair to say so. But he can’t talk as if Calvinists, whether secretly or openly, don’t see it either.

Remember, I haven’t even said what my viewpoint is on T, U, I, and P. Even an ardent zero-pointer should be able to affirm the limited point of this blog post. I invite them to do so.

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1 Comment
  1. Brian Collins

    I’ve started to read this book. I expect to be impressed and challenged as I read on, but I confess to being underwhelmed at this point. I think their initial definition of definite atonement just prior to the paragraph you quoted is flawed. It reads: “The doctrine of the definite atonement states that, in the death of Jesus Christ, the triune God intended to achieve the redemption of every person given to the Son by the Father in eternity past, and to apply the accomplishments of his sacrifice to each of them by the Spirit. The death of Christ was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone” (33). It seems that a person who holds to general atonement could affirm this definition as well. Such a person would add to this statement how the atonement accomplishes the redemption of the cosmos (something affirmed on p. 34 by these authors), how it makes possible common grace (something that these authors may or may not affirm), and how it intends to accomplish but not apply redemption to the non-elect (something these authors would deny).
    I also found Haykin’s chapter wanting. Overall, I think Haykin had a hard assignment in this chapter. The only unambiguous affirmations of definite atonement seemed to have been in Augustine and the early Prosper of Aquitaine. It seemed to me that he stretched to find it elsewhere. Given that, I think he should have given more space to Augustine This isn’t fatal to the book. Finding limited atonement in the early fathers is not necessary for defenders of definite atonement since there is much that all Protestants would say the Fathers needed to improve in their soteriology. It does leave me, however, hoping that the book gets better.