Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Limited Atonement – I

    One of the most confusing and misunderstood of the "Five Points of Calvinism" is the doctrine of Limited Atonement. The way the question is usually stated is as follows: "For whom did Christ die? For all mankind, or only for the elect?" And presumably the Calvinist answer to the question is, "Christ died only for the elect."    
    The question itself, however, is ambiguous. What do we mean when we say that Christ "died for" someone? And here the Calvinists and Arminians give two entirely different answers. What the Calvinist means is that Christ died in the place of the sinner, and thus effectively paid the price for his sins and freed him from guilt. What the Arminian means is that Christ died for the benefit of sinners, to make salvation available to them, although they may choose to reject the offer. Thus the difference between the two positions is that between a benefit actually realized and a potential benefit merely offered.
Theodore Beza
  Interestingly it is not clear whether or not Calvin himself was actually a "Calvinist" in this sense. The issue did not arise until after his death in 1564. His successor at Geneva, Theodore Beza, found himself increasingly called upon to defend his predecessor's teachings on predestination. As he did so, Beza defined and elaborated on what we know today as the doctrine of Limited Atonement.

    Near the end of his life Beza had as one of his students a young Dutchman named Jacobus Arminius. After he returned home to the Netherlands Arminius was asked to respond to attacks on the Reformed Faith by Roman Catholic theologians. In doing so he himself began to question the idea of predestination. A controversy ensued, which did not end with Arminius' death in 1609. Eventually the Synod of Dort was convened in 1618 to resolve the issue, and it issued a series of "Canons" which outlined the famous "Five Points of Calvinism."
  The Arminians, or "Remonstrants" as they were called, had presented to the Synod a statement of opinions or "Sententiae" in which they said, among other things, that "The price of redemption . . . has been paid for all men and for every man." They then went on to explain that the death of Christ made possible a new covenant of grace under which Christ can offer forgiveness on the condition of faith. The Synod responded by agreeing that the death of Christ was of infinite worth and value, and that God promised to save all who believe. But it went on to stress that the death of Christ actually redeemed the elect, and assured that faith itself was one of the benefits purchased for the elect by Christ. In other words, the death of Christ was a genuine substitution and the genuine payment of a debt.
Jacobus Arminius
 The Synod of Dort, unfortunately, did not end the controversy, not did it answer all the difficult questions surrounding the extent of the atonement. On the Arminian side the problem was that if Christ paid the price of redemption for all men, then why are not all men redeemed? On the Arminian understanding of the atonement, the death of Christ doesn't actually remove the guilt of sin. It simply created a new set of conditions that make it possible for God to forgive sin. Not surprisingly, many Arminians came to adopt what is known as the "Governmental" theory of the atonement. According to this view, the death of Christ was not a literal payment of a debt owed by the sinner, but rather a general display of God's displeasure with sin, which then enables Him to forgive sin without impugning His holiness or justice. This view became popular with certain followers of Jonathan Edwards in New England in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Thus the Arminian view tends to undermine the idea of a vicarious, substitutionary atonement.

    On the Calvinist side there are some serious problems as well. One problem is that it is hard to see how the idea of Limited Atonement can be reconciled with the Free Offer of the Gospel. If God only intended to save the elect, and Christ died only as a substitute for the elect, then how can it be said that God has offered salvation to all mankind? If there is no intention and there is no provision, how can there be a sincere offer? Moreover, the practical difficulty that this entails is the position in which it places the evangelist. How can he off the sinner something that God Himself has not offered?
    A further difficulty arises from the Synod's declaration that faith is a saving grace purchased by the death of Christ. If faith is the result of the atonement, does that mean that a person believes only after his sins have been forgiven? Whereas the Bible clearly states that we are justified by faith. Faith is the instrument of justification.
    Then there is also the exegetical problem. There are a number of passages of scripture which seem to indicate that Christ died, in some sense at least, for the entire world. What do we make of them?


Next: the ongoing controversy

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