A Word of Wisdom from Bruce L. McCormack: On Universalism and Limited Atonement

Universal atonement (and Universalism), and Limited Atonement have been part of the ongoing theological (soteriological) struggle between classical Calvinists and Arminians since at least Dort (but prior to Dort, which kbaewould be the logical/chronological coordinate and presupposition of Dort). The battle, on this particular patch of turf, has to do (if you don’t know) with whether Jesus died for all, and thus all are saved; or, if He died for a limited particular elect group of people, and thus this limited group of people are eschatologically ‘saved’. This has been where a major tussle has been (and is being) had over the years between these two disparate attempts to read the Apostle Paul, in particular, theologically/soteriologically.

Bruce McCormack offers a word of wisdom for these two groups, and it is a word (really) that finds corollary with Thomas Torrance as well; although McCormack has his own Barthian way of providing denouement — in one sense, for McCormack, it is not to provide any resolution, but instead to let the two disparate and apparently mutually exclusive poles stay so, but dialectically (and as the occasion for a fruitful way forward beyond this impasse, through a Barth[ian] escapade of constructive vigilance). It is this kind of dialectic resonance that McCormack suggests, and indeed prescribes for these two classically trained brawlers (i.e. classical Calvinism and Arminianism). Here is McCormack’s word of knowledge:

[I] would suggest that there is a better way of dealing with this, the most profound and important of the tensions found in the New Testament. I am certainly conservative enough in my understanding of biblical inspiration to believe that if something appears in the New Testament, it is there because God wanted it there. So if a tension exists, there must be a reason for it. And if I had to guess, I would say that the reason has to do with the fact that those awakened to faith in Jesus Christ in this world are still sinners. If God told us the answer to the problem in advance of the eschaton, we would harm ourselves on the one side or the other. If Hew were to tell us that a universal salvation will be the final outcome, we would very likely become lax, antinomian even. The sense of urgency that is pervasive in Paul’s Christian existentialism would be lost. If, on the other hand, God told us that limited atonement is the true resolution of the tension, we would very likely despair of our salvation. How could anyone be certain that the atoning death of Christ was really intended for him or her? And so I would venture to guess that the tension I have described is divinely intended — in order to protect us from ourselves.

In short, I think it was a mistake for the Westminster Assembly to seek to resolve this question on the side of limited atonement in advance of the return of Christ in glory — just as I think that it would be a mistake for any church today to teach universalism. Again, these are simply the logical possibilities that arise on the soil of the Reformed understanding of the relation of grace and faith. As such, they constitute the walls within which we are to live in this world. All of us will tilt more to one side than the other. And if individual theologians wish to conclude to one or the other — for the sake of exploring implications and relationships among the various Christian doctrines, they should be allowed to do so. That belongs to their unique calling. But churches need to be responsible for all the faithful. And for that reason, I would say, neither limited atonement nor universalism should ever be made church dogma.

We are now in a position to appreciate Karl Barth’s position on the problem of universalism. [Bruce L. McCormack, So That He May Be Merciful to All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism, 240-41 in, Karl Barth And American Evangelicalism, edited by Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson.]

This is a good word, and provides the proper levity and gravitas that should attend this usually hard chargin’ discussion and theological debate. There are enough passages of Scripture on either side of this to make a half-baked argument for either position (i.e. universalism and/or particularism vis-à-vis limited atonement). The desire to find and then prescribe resolution between either of these teachings is only driven by a chosen prolegomena, or theological methodology that front-loads on the side of precision, absolute coherence, and mathematical execution (e.g. scholasticism Reformed).

What professor McCormack is calling for (as we leave him here, prior to his discussion of Barth on such things), is, if anything, that we approach these issues with chastened attitudes, instead of riled up egos that has to have the answer to everything; and everything in the sense set out and required by a certain a priori commitment to a theological methodology, and even material schema that requires a riled up method of rationalist certitude and precision. McCormack is recognizing that Scripture’s disclosure is a fully loaded one that does not cater to specialized meanderings of whatever our pet and chosen theological paradigms might be. And if this is the case, then we need to let the force of this reality impose itself on us, allow it to create the categories through which we think about God (and subsequent things), and understand that our position as Christians, and theologians, is one that is always in an open-ended provisional stance of learning and reforming accordingly; according to the force and power of God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ.

We ought to heed McCormack’s wisdom. And then listen to Barth ;-).

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17 comments

  1. This is an answer that only a Reformed theologian could give. Most of us who read the Bible, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, do not find a doctrine of limited atonement in it–hence there is no tension to maintain or respect, at least not at this point. But perhaps most importantly, as James Daane observed many years ago, the doctrine of limited atonement is simply unpreachable as gospel (see his *The Freedom of God: A Study of Election and Pulpit*).

    Interestingly, McCormack’s suggestion that “If God told us the answer to the problem in advance of the eschaton, we would harm ourselves on the one side or the other” is similar to the position of Origen: the truth of apocatastasis must be hidden from the masses, lest they give themselves over to sin and abandon Christ.
    Only fear of perdition, apparently, keeps us attached to God.

    For a different approach, see my blog series on St Isaac the Syrian: http://goo.gl/eDDQt. I know that St Isaac is too Arminian for Reformed tastes; but he does present an interesting contrast to Barth.

    Thanks for this article on McCormack and Barth.

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  2. Fr Kimel,

    Yes, McCormack is a Reformed theologian, as was Barth, as was Torrance; and I am Reformed and not Orthodox as well. Certainly there is more to McCormack’s essay, and he leans more one way than the other thru Barth; which is what this point in the quote “And if individual theologians wish to conclude to one or the other — for the sake of exploring implications and relationships among the various Christian doctrines, they should be allowed to do so. That belongs to their unique calling.” should have alerted you to.

    No, I see nothing similar to what Origen does in what McCormack is doing. I see McCormack in a leading kind of way, problematizing things—trying to allow for space to work—and then moving in as a theologian and working (and doing so through Barth, of course). I take McCormack’s point to be a pastoral/praxis one, and thus rather concrete; in the sense that he is noticing what might become a real problem if universalism was the known reality—just as limited atonement and its internalization has produced the same kind of real life problems on the other side of things (i.e. assurance in the Puritan England and America).

    I will read your post when I get the chance; I have read you in the past Fr Kimel, and you are much too Arminian for my tastes; just being honest.

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  3. “I have read you in the past Fr Kimel, and you are much too Arminian for my tastes; just being honest.”

    Not to worry, Bobby. Some of my best friends are Reformed. 😉 And God knows that at one time of my life I voraciously devoured Torrance, corresponded with him on multiple occasions (he graciously answered every letter I wrote him) and met with him twice. I still love his *The Trinitarian Faith* and *The Mediation of Christ*, in particular. He was a wonderful Christian man. But in the end it was Robert Jenson rather than TFT who influenced me more deeply on justification, which is probably why I find the Reformed/Arminian conflict virtually irrelevant when it comes to the preaching of the gospel. Cheers!

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  4. It occurred to me a little while ago that you may have taken offense at my first comment, Bobby. I assure you no offense was intended; it was intended purely humorously. I probably should have put a smiley after it. However, that said, I find the notion of limited atonement unacceptable and of no evangelical use. I can’t imagine ever invoking it in the pulpit for any purpose. I think the Torrances would agree with me.

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  5. Fr Kimel,

    I find the Calvinist/Arminian conflict virtually irrelevant as well when I preach the Gospel:

    “God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” ~T. F. Torrance, “The Mediation of Christ”, 94.

    I think the Torrances would agree too; I likewise reject limited atonement. But as you should know, Torrance as a Reformed guy, still works through Reformed categories, even if like Barth, that almost has no corollary with classical Calvinism or Arminianism other than the language.

    You are a lucky guy, Fr Kimel. You must be pretty old too ;-).

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  6. I actually discovered James Torrance before I discovered Tom. It was 1978 and I was in seminary (now that dates me, doesn’t it?) James published an article in a now defunct journal called Theological Renewal, and the title of the article was “The Unconditional Freeness of Grace.” That article really spoke to my heart. I then stumbled upon Tom’s books and essays and started up a correspondence that lasted through the 90s. Tom was exceptionally generous. When I invited him to contribute to my book *Speaking the Christian God*, he immediately accepted, without hesitation.

    I remember having a conversation with a British Anglican evangelical at a conference in the late 80s or early 90s. I discovered that he knew Tom and had heard him preach a on multiple occasions. I asked him to describe Tom’s preaching. He said that while he wrote theologian like a Barthian, he preached like an evangelical.

    Speaking of limited atonement, folks may find of interest James Torrance’s essay on the subject: http://goo.gl/2v12F.

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  7. @Derek,

    Thanks. Sweet, I’ll have to check out your article. I’ve read some Bavinck, Bavinck had some influence on Barth through his point on Deus dixit God speaks. What do you think of Barth, and have you ever read any Thomas Torrance; they might help you become Reformed and not just Reformedish ;-).

    @Fr Kimel,

    It’s funny, I came to Thomas Torrance through Barth, and have found more resonance with Torrance, but I seem to be shifting a little towards Barth. Well that is just really cool that you have had that kind of exposure with JBT and TFT. And I didn’t realize you had a book published, is it still available (I’m going to look it up!)

    Yes, maybe this is why TFT resonates so with me, I am an Evangelical ;-), who also prefers Barth to any other theologians (other than TFT of course).

    Thanks for the link, I’ll check out the JBT article!

    Are you still doing your blog, Fr Kimel? What is the url address again??

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  8. This is where I go for a Christocentric agnosticism. Here, we see Christ did die for all and yet not all are saved. What happened? The blood is to purify all yet not all are woven (or even broken off!) from the ‘Tree’ which is Christ. So I guess I fall back on the fact that, in the end, it is Christ who judges, Christ who calls, Christ who retains. My faith/trust is not in a systemic operation be it a limited atonement decree or semi-pelagian peering into the future for something (merit? faith? contrition?), My trust is in Christ. I know He called me out of the darkness, I trust His judgements.

    That may be inadequate for some, but that’s evangelical. The Gospel is Jesus Christ, not doctrinal systems. If we know Christ, we know orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

    In the Name of the King,
    Cal

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  9. I find it odd (though not inconsistent with BLM’s other commitments) that a Barthian can suggest that the form and content of scripture are dictated by God. This throws the clear critical notion of scripture as human witness re-presenting the Word of God right out the window. It’s one thing to say that God has not seen fit to resolve our confusion on this issue, and so to say that the Westminster Divines were mistaken to do so themselves; it’s quite another to say that God intends and creates confusion on the issue. And to suggest that God does so because telling us the truth one way or another would be harmful? This is a deeply unworthy thought.

    There needs to be a solid work on Barth’s use of universal salvation as a driver of his moral theology, and I might have to write it myself.

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  10. I agree with McCormack’s tension and as a Presbyterian (USA) pastor I appreciate his input into our denomination’s thinking. In fact he was on the committee that put together a new study catechism in 1998 for use by our congregations (though not officially adopted in our Book of Confessions simply recommended for use by our General Assembly). Here’s how the question and answer are put in that Catechism:
    Question 49. Will all human beings be saved?
    No one will be lost who can be saved. The limits to salvation, whatever they may be, are known only to God. Three truths above all are certain. God is a holy God who is not to be trifled with. No one will be saved except by grace alone. And no judge could possibly be more gracious than our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
    You can find the catechism here: http://www.ucc.org/beliefs/study-catechism-1998-of-the.html

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  11. Cal,

    It is all, Jesus, no doubt!

    @Matt,

    It seems to me that BLM is somewhat setting the stage (maybe awkwardly at some level) which he provides more sophistication for as he gets into the rest of his essay on Barth and universalism. Remember who is audience is, it is American Evangelicals (in this essay and book), not seasoned Barthians like yourself.

    @Jason,

    I prefer Torrance’s resolution to things, and then McCormack himself provides his own resolution of sorts, through Barth. But in the sense that he is being sensitive to the broader body of Christ, I think his approach in the quote I provide from him above, is not all bad. He is noticing the two poles that dominate Evangelical churches in America. And yes those statements you provide from him in your comment have definite descriptive force.

    Thanks for the link to the study catechism of 1998, we just started attending a PCUSA church in our area, and so I find this helpful; thanks. Where do you pastor (what State, church)?

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  12. @Bobby, yeah, I’m reminded of the story of his interview at Wheaton. He can pitch inspiration and inerrancy, but only in his own way! And yet he’s still close enough to write things I could not, to the same audience, and be heard. I’ve said of BLM before that, while I cannot do what he does, his logic from his position is always such that it must be respected. Sometimes the only way to do that is to do something different root and branch, if one cannot go from where he begins to where he ends. And, of course, I am a peculiar Barthian in my own right, coming from very different commitments, so I face that choice a lot.

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  13. Matt,

    I understand; and in an interesting way (at least to me 😉 ), I kind of have the same kind of decisions to make as an advocate of Thomas Torrance’s thinking among my own Evangelical tribe. In fact, I am having to make these kinds of decisions internally with myself, at the moment 😉 … I am a true dialectician :-).

    I think why BLM is resonating even more with me (I wasn’t totally sure where he was at on Scripture, etc.), is that he is even more like-minded with me than I thought :-); and even more “Evangelical” than I realized.

    I can’t speak for BLM, but for me it is a strange pull. I am being pulled, theologically, into a very foreign realm for me; but then there is a dispositional part of me that I can’t ever imagine being pulled away tout court from the style of Evangelical that I am (and have been in sentiment). I can kind’ve sense this kind of tension in BLM. But then, I’m not a psychologist ;-). I can speak for me though.

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