Miscellanies: On the Extent of the Atonement, ‘From Heaven He Came and Sought Her’, The Power of Dogmatic, and Galatians 3:16

I am still reading David Gibson’s and Johnathan Gibson’s just recently released book on ‘Definite Atonement’ (aka Limited AtonementFrom Heaven He Came and Sought Her. I am at chapter 8, but skipped ahead and brownjesusskimmed Jonny Gibson’s first (of two) chapter, which attempts to deal with the particularistic texts as well as the universalistic texts offered by Scripture. I am not going to review what he has written, yet (because I haven’t finished his chapters in full, yet). I will say, though, that my general impression is (and unsurprisingly) that Gibson’s theological assumptions are largely framing his way into his exegesis of said passages, and thus his exegetical conclusions—although to be fair he takes a less triumphalistic approach, and simply argues from a more minimalist (and easier) thesis, which is that even if he can’t definitively prove that definite atonement is present in the universalistic passages, that at least in a complementary way, these passages can be read together with the particularistic passages in a way that, at least, demonstrates that they are open to the more definitive particularistic passages (which is where Gibson’s theology comes in again; i.e. his privileging of ‘definite atonement’ theology, which becomes the frame for him).

Anyway, this is as far as I am going to get into commenting on his chapter at this point. In lieu of further commentary on the aforementioned book, and to make this post even more disjointed (even if thematically it is coherent); let me share something I posted on my Facebook wall last night off the top (as a quick reflection on the topic of limited atonement as it related to my Scripture reading last night, and in particular involving Galatians 3:16). Here is what I wrote:

Limited atonement/particular redemption/definite atonement; my view in summary:

“Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed, He does not say, And to seeds, as referring to many, but rather to one, And to your seed, that is, Christ.” Galatians 3:16

Atonement is limited to Christ’s life, not to the many. Atonement, the resurrection life that is produced by dying, going into the ground, and rising up as the first fruits of the harvest, the firstborn from the dead is the One particular Person who reconciles all into the Father by His shed blood. Atonement is definitely limited to Christ alone, and Christ is for all without exception, or He is for none. The Father’s choice was limited to His Son, and His Son’s choice was for humanity; His assumed, and in His assumed, ours.

My way into this discussion, then, in contrast to Jonny Gibson’s way in, is going to start with Christ as the ‘analogy of faith’ by which I order and regulate my reading of Scripture. Some might argue that this is a dogmatic/systematic theological imposition and thus eisogetical approach toward engagement with the text of Scripture. But I would counter by agreeing that, indeed, it is a kind of dogmatic or confessional engagement with the Text, but then, so is everyone’s engagement with the Text. And for my money, if engagement with the Text of Scripture is necessarily Dogmatic (as it is, indeed: even reading Scripture as Scripture admits and presupposes that we are starting from a necessarily Dogmatic or Confessional frame with a our respective doctrines of Scripture), then it is best to be intentional about that, and to be as Christianly Dogmatic about such things—while honoring the integrity and contours of the Text—as we can. It seems better to me, then, to start things out (when approaching Scripture), with a doctrine of God, which leads to and from (dialectically) a doctrine of Christ, which leads then to a doctrine of creation, which leads then to a doctrine of theo-anthropology, which leads then to a doctrine of Scripture, etc. In other words, lets be very up front about what informs our Confessionalism (and Gibson is, really), and proceed from there. It just happens, then, that if we follow the theology of Jonny Gibson’s Dogmatic theology out to its conclusion, that there is a major flaw (one that Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth never tire of calling out); viz. (for Gibson’s approach) that creation predicates God’s grace instead of vice versa (I would have to argue for this later, and have done so suggestively in other posts ad infinitum).

So I digressed. What I put up on Facebook was simply to note that God’s choice in election (to use the classical language), has to do with His choice of His Son, and both of their choice for the Son to elect humanity for Himself. This is where the “tension” of Scripture finds repose and resonance, and this is where this discussion ought to stay; in Christ. I’ll leave this here for now.


Definite Atonement and Assurance Compared: From Heaven He Came and Sought Her Style with Evangelical Calvinist Style

I am continuing to engage with David Gibson’s and Jonathan Gibson’s just released book From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective. At the Urgent, Prayer Request!end of their introductory chapter which they co-wrote, they close with a summary of what is offered in the ‘pastoral’ section of their volume; in it, they describe how ‘definite atonement’ (i.e. ‘limited atonement’) is actually a pastoral strength and not an ostensible weakness.

It is often alleged that in the pastoral domain the weaknesses of definite atonement become most acute. This is not so. We contend that, precisely because it is a definite atonement that gives greatest glory to God, so it is this understanding of the atonement that affords church and world the greatest good. The drama of the Son-King who was promised the nations as his inheritance (Ps. 2:8) adds motivation for the evangelization of the peoples of the world. The Lamb has purchased people for God (Rev. 5:9–11). Conversely, the “unevangelized” become an uncomfortable “stone in the shoe” for advocates of a universal atonement: Christ has provided a de jure salvation for all but which de facto is not accessible to all and, inadvertently, ends up in reality limited in its scope. Definite atonement ensures that what is offered in the proclamation of the gospel is the actual accomplishment of redemption. To herald the gospel is to herald a Savior who has by his blood established the covenant of grace which all are called to join. Proponents of a general, universal atonement cannot in fact, if being consistent, maintain a belief in the sincere offer of salvation for every person. All that can be offered is the opportunity or the possibility of salvation—and that not even to all in reality.

An atonement symbolized by the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep provides pastoral riches of motivation, joyful obedience, and perseverance for pastor and people alike. Atonement which radiates from the union of Christ with his people and which is set within the wider paradigm of the triune operations cannot but give assurance to the believer. If God—Father, Son, and Spirit—has worked indivisibly for us in Christ, who then can be against us? Models of the atonement that make salvation merely possible fail to provide this robust assurance and comfort. Assurance of salvation necessarily becomes detached from the secure source of what Christ has done and lodges itself in the unstable realm of our response. Atonement has been made, yes—but knowledge of it sufficient to calm our fears and assure us of our adoption is grounded in human action, not divine. We are salvation’s decisive donors.[1]

They fear a few things: 1) Universal atonement, 2) That salvation is could only be possible and not actual thus undercutting God’s sovereign action in salvation, 3) That human agents (given the prior two fears) become determinative in the actualization of the salvation process (thus undercutting, again, the sovereign action of God), and 4) That assurance of salvation will always be elusive of universal atonement is affirmed, because salvation will always only be possible and not actual if left to the ‘decisive donor[ship]’ of human agents.

Their fears might well be founded if the only alternative scheme for universal atonement was what appears to be their target; Arminianism. But Arminianism is not the only alternative. Evangelical Calvinism affirms a universal atonement, but not a universal salvation; and we do so by, ironically, limiting the atonement to Christ’s particular humanity, which is universal and for all in its reality. Here is the alternative way we as Evangelical Calvinists would counter what the Gibson’s are offering through their Westminsterized understanding of definite atonement, and the attendant view of assurance of salvation they think they can offer (which I do not think they actually can without inventing some sort of mechanism to provide assurance—i.e. practical syllogism). What I am sharing is thesis 7 from Myk Habets’ and my edited book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (2012). I will share this, to simply identify the contrast, and an alternative that eludes the critique of the Gibson’s in regard to universal atonement and the attendant view of assurance of salvation. I will share this, and leave off with it (since this will make this post rather lengthy). Here it is:

Thesis Seven.Assurance is of the essence of faith.

Coordinate with theses 2 and 3, Evangelical Calvinism understands assurance of salvation to be inseparably linked with union with Christ. Salvation is not understood as “our” salvation so that our subjectivity over-rides the objective ground in Christ; instead it is of upmost importance that we see both the objective and subjective sides of salvation rooted in the person of Jesus Christ. The basis for assurance of salvation, then, flows from the faith that is founded in Christ’s vicarious faith/fullness for us; so the subjective side of Christ’s faith becomes ours as we are united to Christ “spiritually” by the Holy Spirit’s inveterate movement of gracious action, co-extending from the once for all faith realized in the person of Jesus Christ. Commensurate with this understanding, John Calvin framed “assurance” through similar foci; as Charles Partee points out:

The conviction that salvation is not conditional but certain is an almost forgotten mark of the Protestant Reformation. According to Calvin, doubting the certainty of one’s salvation is sinful. We do not understand the goodness of God apart from full assurance (III.2.16). “[F]aith is not content with a doubtful and changeable opinion . . . but requires full and fixed certainty” (III.2.15). If salvation were not certainly known to believers, election “would have been a doctrine not only lacking in warmth, but completely lifeless.” In summary, Calvin insists, “Our faith is nothing, unless we are persuaded for certain that Christ is ours, and that the Father is propitious to us in Him. There is, therefore, no more pernicious or destructive conception than the scholastic dogma of the uncertainty of salvation” (Com. Rom. 8:33, 34). . . . Union with Christ is exactly the direction Calvin’s theology moves. For Calvin certainty is not to be found in a principle or a book but a person. That is, in union with Jesus Christ. Our task is “to establish with certainty in our hearts that all those who, by the kindness of God the Father, through the working of the Holy Spirit, have entered into fellowship with Christ, are set apart as God’s property and personal possession” (IV. 1. 3). . . .[2]

With Calvin and early Reformed thought generally, assurance teaches us we are elect. Tony Lane clearly shows how Calvin considered assurance to be of the essence of faith and how this was coordinated with various other aspects of this theology, notably with the doctrine of election.[3] Salvation is not salvation if one is unsure of possessing it. That, at least, was Calvin’s argument when he wrote:

Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.[4]

As it is for Calvin at this point, so it is for the Evangelical Calvinist. The root of assurance is found in Christ himself, and Christ’s faith and faithfulness is mediated to us through our union with him by the personal work of the Holy Spirit, a work which brings humanity into the effervescent and indestructible life of God’s eternal Logos.

[2] Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 205–6.

[3] Lane, “Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance Revisited,” Tributes to John Calvin: A Celebration of His Quincentenary, 270–313.

[4] Calvin, Inst., 3.2.7.

[1] David Gibson and Johnathan Gibson, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013), 51-2.