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 would 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 ;-).