On classically Reformed Limited Atonement, and an Evangelical Calvinist Response

Since my new friend, Jonathan Kleis, is going to write some posts on an evangelical Calvinist understanding of the atonement, I thought I would repost this as something that will dovetail with whatever he ends up writing at his blog.

I continue to slowly read that behemoth of a book on defending limited atonement edited by David and Jonathan Gibson, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her. When they released the book, part of Crossway’s marketing strategy was to make the claim that this book is the definitive one on this particular topic—i.e. definite atonement. I have only made into chapter 10, and so I have 11 chapters to go; thus far I would definitenot agree that this book is the definitive book on the topic. It might serve well as a one place shopping market for various ways into this doctrine (i.e. historical, biblical, theological, pastoral), but if you have spent any time at all researching this area, most of the arguments that I have read (and at this point I am not planning on being surprised by the rest of the volume), are not new at all. That said, the book is worth your while, if you are interested in this stuff; and I have found most of the essays to be well written, and obviously current with the most recent literature available. But this is not what I really want to talk about in this post, per se. Instead I want to use a quote from chapter 10 (which is the biblical section of the volume), and constructively demonstrate how an Evangelical Calvinist would say ‘yes’, and then ‘no.’

Chapter 10 is written by Old Testament scholar J. Alec Motyer, and his chapter is entitled: “Stricken for the Transgression of My People”: The Atoning Work of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. Besides the fact that now he, and the last author (in chapter 9), Paul R. Williamson, who did his study on limited atonement in the Pentateuch, have engaged in the classical logical-deductive (Ramist) mode of interrogating the text through a locus methodology (i.e. taking a previously conceived theological point, and using that point to exegete a particular section of Scripture in such a way that that point has regulative and conclusive force upon the practitioner’s exegetical conclusions); what I want to briefly, identify, as I have already alluded to, is why and how these guys (the classical guys) are really missing the boat. In a book that claims to offer a critique of the Barthian heritage, especially in regard to this topic, it is seriously hard to appreciate when over and again what they demonstrate is a failure to understand the theological categories through which someone like Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and/or us Evangelical Calvinists think through; and how the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ serves as regulative (like a reification of the regula fidei) for the way we think about all of this. And thus why we can say yes and no to limited atonement, even if we (or I) don’t agree with the way these classical folk are entering the text to begin with (i.e. locus methodology).

Motyer, in his chapter is detailing an argument for limited atonement (I don’t like the way this book is trying to reframe this topic by calling it definite atonement, I think it is better to stick with limited atonement, the grammar people are familiar with), as his chapter title suggests, from the book of Isaiah, and in particular, by looking at the ‘Suffering Servant’ motif. Here is what he has written about limited atonement, the Suffering Servant, and the extent and intent of the atonement:

Clearly, personal conversion has taken place, yet nothing is said about hearing and responding to the truth; there is no reference to personal decision, commitment, or faith. It is totally a story of needy sinners in the hand of God. It is the secret history of every conversion, the real story, the OT counterpart of “you did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). It is also the death knell to any open-ended understanding of the atonement, which seeks to posit a disjunction between redemption accomplished and applied. It matters not how the question is asked. Could any whose iniquities the Lord laid on his Servant fail to be saved? Could that laying-on prove ineffectual? Were any iniquities laid on the Servant save with the divine purpose of eternal salvation? Since universalism is ruled out by Isaiah’s insistence on “the many” (see below), 53:4–6 commits the unprejudiced interpreter to an effective, particularistic understanding of the atonement. The heart of the matter is boldly put: the “we” of these crucial verses were locked into a failure to grasp what the Servant was all about, but our iniquities were laid by Yahweh on his Servant; and this is what led to our “seeing.” The theological implications are profound: the atonement itself, and not something outside of the atonement, is the cause for any conversion. The resources for conversion are found in the Servant’s death; they flow from it. Thus, it is the atonement that activates conversion, not vice versa (cf. Titus 3:3–5). (pg. 261-62)

Now I have many examples from Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth, Myk Habets, our edited book, and other people or places where I can draw from to illustrate how we as Evangelical Calvinists would modify Moyter’s point about the death knell, in a way that agrees with him in principle (de jure), but disagrees with him in fact (de facto). So what I am going to share just happens to be the first thing I found that I thought was pertinent as I scanned my archives on this. There is no death knell, even granting that Moyter’s exegesis is legitimate to begin with. Someone, like us Evangelical Calvinists, can affirm universal atonement, and at the same time affirm, with just as much force, its particularity and definiteness. We do so by viewing election and thus the atonement through a Christ conditioned or Christ concentrated lens, or by focusing on a particular understanding of the vicarious humanity of Christ such that Christ is understood, in his humanity for us, as what real humanity does, or would do under the conditions of the ‘Fall’. Christ in his real (arche) humanity circumscribes what it means to be human, such that he is the mediator between God and man for us. And as real humanity who penetrates the depths of what it means to be human for all of humanity (not just an elect lump out of the mass), the atonement, at an ontological level, is fully accomplished and terminates in the one for whom it was intended in our stead, Jesus Christ in his elect humanity for us. Here is how Karl Barth thinks about the vicarious humanity:

[T]he answer is that we ourselves are directly summoned, that we are lifted up, that we are awakened to our own truest being as life and act, that we are set in motion by the fact that in that one man God has made Himself our peacemaker and the giver and gift of our salvation. By it we are made free fro Him. By it we are put in the place which comes to us where our salvation (really ours) can come to us from Him (really from Him). This actualisation of His redemptive will by Himself opens up to us the one true possibility of our own being. Indeed, what remains to us of life and activity in the face of this actualisation of His redemptive will by Himself can only be one thing. This one thing does not mean the extinguishing of our humanity, but its establishment. It is not a small thing, but the greatest of all. It is not for us a passive presence as spectators, but our true and highest activation—the magnifying of His grace which has its highest and most profound greatness in the fact that God has made Himself man with us, to make our cause His own, and as His own to save it from disaster and to carry it through to success. The genuine being of man as life and activity, the “We with God,” is to affirm this, to admit that God is right, to be thankful for it, to accept the promise and the command which it contains, to exist as the community, and responsibly in the community, of those who know that this is all that remains to us, but that it does remain to us and that for all men everything depends upon its coming to pass. And it is this “We with God” that is meant by the Christian message in its central “God with us,” when it proclaims that God Himself has taken our place, that He Himself has made peace between Himself and us, that by Himself he has accomplished our salvation, I.e., our participation in His being. [Karl Barth CD IV/I, p. 12]

And here is how George Hunsinger parses Barth on such things:

[…] To say that Jesus Christ is the “pioneer of faith” (Heb. 12:2), Barth suggests, is not to say that his faith is merely the exemplar of ours, but that it is the vicarious ground and source of our faith. “There is vicarious faith,” writes Barth, “… only in the form of the faith which Jesus Christ established for us all as the archegos tes pisteos (Heb. 12:2), who empowers us for our own faith, and summons us to it, even as he stands there in our stead with his faith. Through his faith, we are not only moved but liberated to believe for ourselves” (IV/4, 186). Our faith may be said to exist “as a predicate” of his in the sense that whatever is real and true “in this Subject” is the foundation for whatever is correspondingly real and true in us (cf. II/2, 539). In short, our subjective apprehension of God does not exist independently, but only insofar as its source, mediation, and ground are found in the humanity of Jesus Christ. [George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 96, Nook.]

If Christ is understood to be the elect human for all of humanity, then this dualistic and abstractive process of focusing on particular individuals as elect and reprobate will loose its teeth. Indeed, the volume I am reading on definite atonement would be a book on Christology, more than what it is, a book on Soteriology prior to Christology (as its dogmatic starting point). It is wrong for the editors and authors of this volume to suggest and argue that Barth, Torrance[s], et al. are hypothetical universalists; in fact just the opposite is the case. We believe that the atonement is even more definite than they do, because we see it fully realized and accomplished not in individually elect people, part of a realm of pure nature that is at competition with God; instead we see it accomplished (atonement) in Christ, and we think from there into the atonement, into humanity, and into everything else.