Reforming Calvinism, pt. 10.2: Limited Atonement (Critique)

In the second half of this tenth entry in my series on Reforming Calvinism, I continue my critique of the traditional understanding of the third element of TULIP, the
doctrine of ‘limited atonement’. In the first half of my critique, I observed that the classic view Limited-Atonement-AVATARoften presupposes a logico-deductive framework within which it interprets the biblical material. Given the assumption that not all will ultimately be saved, it reasons backward from this ‘effect’ and logically deduces that the atonement, as the ‘efficient cause’, must be in some way ‘limited’ in terms of its extent in order to ensure its full power to not only make possible but also to actually actualize the salvation of those for whom it was intended. This, in my opinion, is what accounts for fact that classic Calvinists frequently redefine terms such as ‘all’ or ‘world’ in biblical texts that speak of the atonement, for they must find a way to limit the scope of these passages to the elect alone in keeping with their methodological approach and philosophical presuppositions.

There is more to be critiqued, however, than merely the logico-deductive schema that can distort the ‘plain meaning’ of Scripture. Let’s return to R.C. Sproul’s articulation of the Reformed position (which can be accessed in its entirety here):

This doctrine is chiefly concerned about the original purpose, plan, or design of God in sending Christ into the world to die on the cross…God the Father designed the work of redemption specifically with a view to providing salvation for the elect, and that Christ died for His sheep and laid down His life for those the Father had given to Him…

This does not mean that a limit is placed on the value or the merit of the atonement of Jesus Christ. It’s traditional to say that the atoning work of Christ is sufficient for all. That is, its meritorious value is sufficient to cover the sins of all people, and certainly anyone who puts his or her trust in Jesus Christ will receive the full measure of the benefits of that atonement. It is also important to understand that the gospel is to be preached universally. This is another controversial point, because on the one hand the gospel is offered universally to all who are within earshot of the preaching of it, but it’s not universally offered in the sense that it’s offered to anyone without any conditions. It’s offered to anyone who believes. It’s offered to anyone who repents. Obviously the merit of the atonement of Christ is given to all who believe and to all who repent of their sins.

The problem here has to do with what Sproul says regarding the Father’s intention in designing the atonement vis-à-vis its universal sufficiency and proclamation. This problem is actually quite serious in that it threatens to compromise the deepest Christian convictions concerning an orthodox understanding of the Trinity. Stephen Strehle provides a glimpse into the intellectual history behind this view and then diagnoses the problem in the following way:

[T]he work of Christ is…said to be subject to the secret intent of the divine will and derives its worth and merit from the purpose for which God designs it. In the Franciscan [or nominalist] doctrine of the middle ages, merit in general is said to be rewarded by God, not in accordance with strict justice or absolute standards, as if truly worthy of its reward, but in accordance with his “acceptation” (acceptatio) or “most free will” (liberissima voluntas)….In the later Franciscan theory of atonement it is the will of God and its most free acceptation that assign to the work of Christ its meaning, above and beyond whatever value it might possess in its own right. As all submits to divine acceptation, this work could even have been eliminated, or, in accordance with Duns Scotus, an angel, a pure man, or even Adam himself could have been used as a substitute. All, even Christ’s work, is assigned its place and value from above. It brings salvation to the elect, not in what was merited in its own right as if laying a claim on God, but in the ultimate, supralapsarian intent for which the Father has designed it.

In Calvinism this is translated to mean that Christ’s work, regardless of its true and sufficient value, is subject to the intendment and acceptance of the divine will; in particular, its more abundant worth – being sufficient to cleanse the sins of the whole world – is said to be devalued by the intent of the divine will and becomes limited in its scope to the salvation of an elected few…[T]he work that Christ offered to the Father, while allegedly sufficient in value to cleanse the sins of the whole world, does not really suffice to propitiate the Father in this regard but is immediately limited in value to the purposes for which the Father accepts and intends it, i.e., the salvation of the elect. In the end it is the Father who actually imposes his will upon the cross and is in no wise affected by it.

This discrepancy between the work of the Father and the work of the Son leads quite naturally to…the antithesis between the revealed (voluntas signi) and the hidden will (voluntas beneplaciti) of God. While Christ in the excellent words of Calvin is purported to be the “mirror of predestination,” too often…he becomes a subordinate means, subjected to the Father’s higher elective purposes. Perhaps the most fundamental presupposition from which such a subordinate, if not secondary, position of the Son could be developed…is the belief that some unknown God of absolute power actually lurks behind the work that he has ordered in creation and redemption. This god, it is believed, could do almost anything according to the Scotistic and Nominalistic doctrine, even the opposite of that which he eventually enacted, as long as he did not, of course, contradict Aristotle and his inviolable law of contradiction. The real god is thus the great unmoved mover, enraptured above the world that he created, hidden in potency behind the paucity of his activity in revelation. Wilhelm Ockham, the most important exponent of this god, produced an exhaustive “what if” theology, speculating over what is indeed possible for this unknown god. After all the real god is not so much the God of revelation but the god of all these possibilities, and theology must explore the why and the wherefore behind his decision to act in Christ.

The Calvinists continue this tradition of searching out the God of absolute power and his many possibilities, although to be sure in a less scholastic manner. They certainly do not participate in the ultraists of Nominalism as they limit speculation over divine possibilities, interject more righteousness into his options, and make the work of Christ absolutely necessary for the expiation of sin. And yet, the real god is still for them the hidden god (deus absconditus), the one who decided to act in Christ and not the revealed God (deus revelatus) himself.

This is seen from the very outset of their of their theology in the doctrine of an eternal covenant between the Father and the Son, where the role that the Son will assume in time is already depicted as subsumed under the Father’s wishes. In this covenant the Father asks the Son to provide redemption for those lost in sin and promises to reward him if he chooses to do so. The Son is conceived here not so much as the one and only answer to man’s plight, antecedently in himself, but as elected by the Father to assume a role in time from simple ordination or covenant. This role does not so much unveil his true self. It could in fact be otherwise. It becomes such only through the decision of the most free and arbitrary will of God to act thusly.[1]

Strehle exposes the heterodoxy implicit in the traditional view of limited atonement inasmuch as it derives from distinctions drawn by medieval nominalists between different kinds of power and willing in God. This logically entails a theology in which God is divided between who he reveals himself to be in Christ and through the preaching of the gospel (i.e. his ordained power and revealed will) and who he is antecedently and eternally in himself (i.e. his absolute power and hidden will). This can be seen in the fact that according to limited atonement, the Father sends Christ to die sufficiently for all and ordains that the gospel be preached to all, but he nevertheless wills that only a limited number actually benefit from Christ’s atoning work by believing in the message they hear. In this view, the atonement, although inherently universal in value, is subject and subordinate to the higher authority of the will of the Father, and consequently Christ and his atoning work are ‘instrumentalized’, becoming a mere means to the end of fulfilling the Father’s secret will. As such, Christ in his gospel does not constitute a full revelation of the Father’s being and will to humanity inasmuch as what appears to be the universal value of his atoning work is actually limited in its scope to an unknown group of humanity by the ‘secret’ and ‘hidden’ decree of the Father. What Christ reveals is not coextensive with who God is eternally in himself.

This rupture between the inherent universal sufficiency of Christ’s work and the limited efficacy predetermined by the Father runs completely counter to the central affirmation of Christian orthodoxy, namely the Nicene declaration that Christ is homoousion (of one being/substance) with the Father, a key term adopted in the fourth century precisely to safeguard, against the ‘Arian’ heresies, the absolute and total continuity between the being and act of Christ in history and the being and act of the Father in eternity. As T.F. Torrance explains:

As the epitomised expression of this truth, the homoousion is the ontological and epistemological linchpin of Christian theology. It gives expression to the truth with which everything hangs together, and without which everything ultimately falls apart…[I]n formulating the homoousion of Christ in connection with both his creative and redemptive activity, Nicene theology laid the axe to the epistemological dualism latent in Greek philosophy and religion that threatened the very heart of the Gospel; and as such it gave powerful expression to the indissoluble connection in Act and Being between the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity…which secured the Church in its belief that in the Lord Jesus Christ and his Gospel they had to do directly with the ultimate Presence and downright Reality of God himself. Jesus Christ the incarnate Son is one in Being and Act with God the Father. What Jesus Christ does for us and to us, and what the Holy Spirit does in us, is what God himself does for us, to us and in us.[3]

If what Torrance says here is true, then limited atonement, insofar as it introduces a rupture between Christ’s work and the secret will of the Father in eternity, actually implies either a Christ who is not fully divine or a Trinity that is not fully conjoined in activity and will. As Augustine would say, this contradicts the very essence of the ‘catholic faith’ that asserts: “as [the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit] are indivisible, so [they] work indivisibly”.[2] Thus, while not overtly heretical, the traditional understanding of ‘limited atonement’ implies a doctrine of God that falls outside the boundaries drawn by the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. For this reason, it must be reformed.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post and directing me to Strehle.

[1] Strehle, S., 1995. The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation. Leiden: Brill. pp.118-119, 121-123.

[2] Augustine of Hippo, 1887. On the Trinity. In P. Schaff, ed. St. Augustin: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, p. 20.

[3] Torrance, T.F., 1996. The Christian doctrine of God, one being three persons, Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark. p.95.