Pushing the atonement to the limit?

(What follows is a summary of a paper I’ve been meaning to write for several years now, but never got around to. If anybody is interested enough to comment, I’d be happy to know if it would be worth actually doing…)

The doctrine of limited atonement seems largely forgotten by mainstream academic theology today. Actually, that is wrong – it is not forgotten, it is remembered with shame, derision, and sometimes amusement. Yet once this doctrine was seriously held by the majority of Reformed theologians. Why? They saw a theological advantage: they understood their claim about the atonement to be that it was definite, rather than limited. That is, on their scheme, Christ died to accomplish a certain fixed end, and that end is infallibly accomplished. Their basic reason for their position, however, was straightforwardly exegetical: they believed that there were Scriptures that could not be evaded that taught limited atonement. (And they believed that the Scriptures that seemed to teach universal atonement could be evaded.)

Let us praise them first – rightly, they took their stand on exegesis. But I suspect that they (and their early modern Arminian opponents) gave in too quickly to the insistent demands of logic: there were seemingly-compelling texts on either side of the argument, and Calvinists and Remonstrants alike assumed both could not be right, and so sought to evade the clear teaching of one set of Scriptures.

(Of course, one can believe in an atonement that is both definite and universal by becoming a universalist; this route became popular in many formerly-Calvinist traditions. The issue then becomes the need to evade the Scriptures that seem to teach clearly the reality of an eternal punishment awaiting the impenitent. Again, I suspect that exegesis too quickly surrenders to the claims of logic in these arguments.)

Let me then pause at the level of exegesis: some texts seem clearly to teach that the atonement is limited in intent, and/or definite in application; others to teach that it is universal in intent, and/or indefinite in application. I take it that, for all our sophisticated advances in exegetical practice in the last three centuries, this basic impasse remains. Is there a way through it? Can we try to imagine that in fact both sets of texts are right? I do not want to propose embracing paradox, but I do want to suggest that exegetical responsibility is such that we should linger long, wondering whether the apparent logical either/or cannot be overcome, before we start our theological attempts to evade this or that part of Holy Scripture.

We have learnt in the last couple of generations learnt to embrace simultaneously divergent understandings of the atonement, at least at the level of mechanism. Using language of ‘metaphor’, ‘parable’, or similar, we see differing accounts as complementary rather than competing. This is fine, however, when we are talking about simply different explanatory systems – medicine vs law court vs slave market, say. But in the case of Calvinism vs Arminianism, and particularly in the case of limited vs universal atonement, we are not dealing with incommensurate explanations, but with directly competing claims. A warm and fuzzily inclusive appeal to ‘metaphor’ will not defuse the logical problem with which we are faced.

Thinking about the nature of metaphor might, however. The old story of the three blind men and the elephant springs to mind – each uses a helpful metaphor to describe the part of the truth that he has, quite literally in the case of that story, grasped. Could we begin to imagine an account of the saving work of Jesus which is in one sense universal, and in another particular, in one sense simply given by divine decree, in another made available to human response?

At least on the first of these pairs, it happens that the tradition offers a minority report as to how this might work. A number of late nineteenth-century British evangelical theologians (most famously, James Orr; most interestingly, perhaps, T.R. Birks) offered what Henri Blocher and Stephen Williams have variously described as a ‘fourth view’ on the nature of hell (alongside eternal conscious torment, annihilationism, and universalism). They suggested, one way or another, that all people were affected by the death of Christ – it was in one sense universal – but that not all were saved – it was in another sense particular. The reality of the eternal fate of the unsaved was decisively different, and better, because of what Christ has done, but a binary distinction remains.

This seems to me a fruitful thought, theologically. In fact, I would want to extend it further: there are accounts of the atonement that suggest that the whole of creation should be transformed by the saving act of Christ (I take Anselm’s logic as pushing fairly strongly in this direction); others that seem to suggest that every human life must be transformed (the physicalist accounts of the Greek Fathers); others that there is a transformation that applies sovereignly and without human effort to all those in the church (accounts linking baptism with salvation most obviously); others that there is a genuinely human role in the appropriation of salvation (Abelard). Might it be that all these things are true? That the saving act of Christ, particularly His atoning death, reconfigures the whole of creation in far-reaching and complex ways, with particular intensities of reconfiguration and salvation attaching to the concrete reality of the church, and perhaps to other places too (the heirs to the promise given to Israel?)? Working out a narrative of this saving act would be enormously complex, and would require patient and particular exegesis of texts that too often are lumped together and are assumed to say the same thing, but it should be possible.

(Note: even if it worked spectacularly, this scheme would not, unfortunately, offer any useful purchase on the Calvinist/Arminian (or the Banezian/Molinan) debates; in their interesting forms, Calvinists and Arminians (still more Banez and Molina) are united in believing that, to quote my line above, ‘there is a genuinely human role in the appropriation of salvation’; the interesting debates concern the extent to which genuine human action is possible without specific (rather than general) divine enabling.)


  1. Angela Shier-Jones
    Sep 25, 2009

    Oh boy – is this needed!
    It has the promise of bridging many otherwise contradictory theologies and hence illustrating how pervasive the work of the Spirit has been throughout history as we have had glimpses through a mirror darkly – but lacked the wit or the ability to see more clearly.
    Perhaps more importantly, it provides an opportunity to re-open the question of theodicy, the role of suffering and death, the understanding of what it means to be ‘good’ in such a way that (for me) growth in grace and holiness, the process of sanctification, can be recognized as a part of the atonement process.
    I believe such an approach has the potential to link (without artifice) the concept of ‘once-for-all’ with ‘being and becoming’ in a way that begins to make real sense of what it is to be created good.

    Go Steve Go!

    • Steve H
      Sep 25, 2009

      Why, thank you, Angie; this paper has been catalogued in my head as my ‘rehabilitating the doctrine of limited atonement paper’, so I didn’t expect quite such enthusiasm from a Methodist!

      • Angela Shier-Jones
        Sep 25, 2009

        Christian first, theologian second, Methodist third as the link between one and two … anything that furthers the first two automatically encourages the growth in the the third. (GRIN)

  2. Erick White
    Sep 25, 2009

    Nice post,

    We must be careful when we formulate theological questions, for the biblical authors may have not intended to ever give an answer to them. This does not mean that we cannot answer our theological questions by extracting information from the task of the scriptural authors.

    This of course does not mean that the questions should not be formulated either. It just means when we seek to find answers in the text, we must be careful to note the intention and purpose of the author from which we are deriving the answer from.

    For instance, in John, when Jesus says that God so loved the “world” that He gave His only begotten Son, for the purpose that “whosoever” believes in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life… There is no other way to understand this other than to believe that God has shown His love to the “world” (the general totality of the dying world of human beings) in that He gave His Son to die, for the purpose (important) that whosoever shall believe….(this is precisely where the tension lies) should not perish but have eternal life.

    I believe the “whosoever” helps define “world” as the totality of human existence, giving them the oppurtunity to be saved from death. This is without confusing categories between “oppurtunity” and actual “accomplishment”. These concepts are just not brought together in John 3:16

  3. Terry
    Sep 25, 2009

    I think you should go for it, Steve.

  4. Francis
    Sep 25, 2009

    Put me on the notify list for this book. This is truly much needed. All discussions on this I have ever participated in are linear and always end the same way.

    God bless

  5. Lucy
    Sep 26, 2009

    In his class on the atonement at Princeton, Bruce McCormack tells his students that both definite and universal atonement are defensible from Scripture. He says that individual theologians should be allowed the freedom to develop theologies in either direction, but that the church should not pronounce in one direction or the other. He says the tension between universal and definite atonement is one intended by God to keep us from both complacency and despair. He has also said these things in a public lecture, I believe.

    Seems to be broadly within the trajectory you are aiming for.

  6. Graham Watts
    Sep 30, 2009

    Hi Steve. I am sure there is some mileage in this. I am particluarly intrigued by your thought that the eternal fate of the unsaved is made ‘better’ by the death of Christ. This seems to be pushing in the same sort of direction as a comment you make in your book on tradition, where I recall you stating something along the lines that the concept of hell may be rehabilitated in an interesting way if it is defined christologically.I like the idea, but I’m at a loss to know how that might be developed without ultimately veering towards some form of universalism or even purgatory.Can you help?

  7. Oliver Crisp
    Oct 3, 2009


    Do you know that there is a book planned on Definite Atonement forthcoming from Crossway and edited by David and Jonathan Gibson? Might be worth considering if you do end up writing the paper.


  8. drujohnson
    Oct 3, 2009

    You don’t need to bother. Bill Craig has already worked out the complex narrative for you. It’s called ‘transworld damnation’ (n.b. this is not an airline). ;-1

  9. Bobby Grow
    Oct 5, 2009


    Have you considered the approach taken by John McLeod Campbell, Hugh Binning, Jonathan Fraser of Brea; and thus TF Torrance? If not, you should check out Thomas F Torrance’s book: “Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell.”

    If we ground the atonement in Christ and God’s life; then we most certainly can speak of it in both particular and universal ways, w/o falling prey to a Nestorian christology per the atonement (and the necessitarian framing of God that places a “God behind the back of Jesus,” so to speak).

    Anyway, I see a remedy to the problem your paper proposes.

  10. Adam Nigh
    Oct 7, 2009

    Great stuff, Steve. This debate is what got me into systematic theology in the first place and this is a very helpful discussion of it. I was intrigued by the idea of Christ making the eternal fate of the damned better too. I don’t have it in front of me, but I think I remember T. F. Torrance saying something almost opposite of this in the book, Incarnation. Something like Christ binding himself to all humanity in his death and resurrection becoming the ground of the blessing to the saved and the ground of the curse to the unsaved.

    • Bobby Grow
      Oct 7, 2009


      TFT gets that from guys like I mentioned above, they called it “Gospel Wrath.”

      He does get at this in Incarnation, but explicitly so in his book: Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell. A must read . . .

  11. Big G
    Oct 9, 2009


    I don’t get it – please help me here.

    I understand the ‘God behind the back of Jesus’ stuff (Barth/Torrance?) to be saying that on the traditional understanding, Jesus comes as Saviour of the world in the event of incarnation/atonement but standing behind that is the inscrutable double decree, and so in a sense God remains hidden even in the revelation Christ brings.

    Have I got that right?

    Then you say something like ‘Christ binding himself to all humanity in his death and resurrection becoming the ground of the blessing to the saved and the ground of the curse to the unsaved.’

    But my question then is: is salvation a divine work or a contingent one – contingent on human response? This language here of ‘ground’ seems very vague and unclear to me. What do you mean by it?

    Let me spell it out:

    Let’s say Tim and Jim go to hear Tom Torrance at an evangelistic crusade. Delightful thought. Tim hears the gospel and believes and is saved. Jim hears the gospel and hates it and reamins unsaved. Now, what has happened to discriminate between them? Has God done anything, or have only Tim and Jim done something? Obviously, divine action has occurred in the gospel events they heard about (incarnation/atonement), but has any divine action occurred as they respond? In other words, when Tim hears and believes, is he capable and able to do that by his own volition or has God made him alive? Has God given him new life and faith etc? Has he opened his own eyes or has God? Has he made himself alive or has God?

    Now, Torrance is always clear that his conception of what is happening here – and those within Scottish theology whose cause he is now championing – never resolves into Arminianism. So I would presume Torrance and you guys would say that here salvation is a divine work, the faith is God-given etc?

    If so, then is God not still hidden in some way – why the gift of faith to Tim and not Jim? We don’t know. God does not explain to us why some believe and some do not – and so an aspect of God’s life remains hidden to us. When it really comes down to it, I think your way of putting things wants to avoid God’s hiddenness in the decree but you simply do this by no longer admitting it’s there, not by actually having a doctrine of salvation which removes it. What, really, does your view solve which it criticses in the classical conception?

    When Torrance talks of the ‘hyper-Calvinists’ who rejected the theology of his Socttish forebears, is there any possibilty that they rejected it because they actually saw in it the trajectory of Arminianism?

    What do you think Dr Holmes?


    • Bobby Grow
      Oct 9, 2009

      Hey Big G,

      What are you doing over here? πŸ˜‰

      There is no “double-decree” in Torrance, just the “single-will” of God.

      I believe in election, and that Christ is the center of that. I believe that all of humanity is objectively united to Christ in the incarnation, but that only the “elect” will subjectify this by the Spirit (i.e. experience the reality of their election in Christ). Why the reprobate reject, this is not explainable.

      What I don’t understand, is how the Classically Reformed can speak of a Christ-centred approach to theology and salvation; but have the judgment of the reprobate be “outside” of Christ.

      As far as the faith question. It is a vicarious work. We, by the Spirit echo or speak out of Christ’s faith (i.e. Father into thy hands I commit my spirit). Christ is grace personified, the Holy Spirit subjectifies this in the lives of the elect.

      Gotta run.

      Hey, you used your actual initials here.

  12. Big G
    Oct 9, 2009

    I’m here, I’m there, I’m everywhere – you know that by now from your time in the ring with me. Dancing like a butterfly, stinging like a bee.

    Well, in your second paragraph you use the words ‘not explainable’ and here, I’m afraid, you’re beginning to sound like that all over. You wrote:

    ‘I believe in election, and that Christ is the center of that. I believe that all of humanity is objectively united to Christ in the incarnation, but that only the β€œelect” will subjectify this by the Spirit (i.e. experience the reality of their election in Christ). Why the reprobate reject, this is not explainable.’

    But this is just incoherent – I cannot make sense of it. All humanity is objectively united to Christ in the incarnation (we’ve discussed the enhypostasia on your blog and it ain’t working for you so let’s let that one lie), but only the elect experience this subjectively by the Spirit. Why the reprobate reject you say is inexplicable – but haven’t you just said it’s because they lack the Spirit’s agency? It’s not their own response, purely, which is in play. The elect experience a divine beneficence which the reprobate do not – mais oui? Now if that isn’t a hidden God I don’t know what is.

    Why the Spirit’s work on one and not the other? Answer: we don’t know. But on your own terms you give the answer to why the reprobate reject: they do not have the Spirit. What is not explainable is not why they reject, but that you actually explain why they reject (they do not have the Spirit) and then tell us it is not explainable!!!

    When the Reformed speak of a Christ-centred approach to salvation but then have judgment of the reprobate outside of Christ, isn’t that because er, mmm, well, it’s judgment and not salvation? How is it not Christ-centred if it’s not salvation? But anyway, don’t the Reformed have Christ connected to reprobation in that he is the one bearing the Judge’s rod?

    Don’t worry everyone, Bobby and I are friends!

    Big G

    • Bobby Grow
      Oct 9, 2009

      All I’ve said “G money”,

      is that we cannot understand it, using the decree here doesn’t do anything more for you than create a huerism for your view. But actually is does do more, it uses Aristotelian causation to parse out God’s sovereignty in a way that distorts God’s life in the Incarnation.

      The enhypostasis has caused me no problems that I’m aware of.

      Well I’m Reformed, and I don’t speak of Christ-centred approach the way you do; because your way is not methodologically “Christ-centred.” According to Col. 1, Christ is supreme over death and life, and this is connected to His death in as a result of the Incarnation . . . this is universal in context (i.e. does not fit a particular view of redemption, which you assume).

      Btw, almost all your Federal forebears were Infralapsarian, not that this guts your position; it’s just an interesting corollary.

      We are friends, he’s just a “meany” πŸ˜‰ .

  13. Big G
    Oct 9, 2009

    You’re right that the enhypostasia has caused you no problems ‘cos you don’t understand it.

    Enhypostasia: the only humanity united to Christ hypostatically is his own.

    You: Yes, I affirm that, and all humanity is objectively united to Christ in his incarnation.

    Logic, common-sense, English language, rational discussion based on coherent ideas: what just happened there?

    What you really mean: I like the idea of enhypostasis ‘cos I like using big words, I just choose to redefine it according to what suits me.


    Big G.

    • Bobby Grow
      Oct 9, 2009

      Blah, blah, blah, blah . . .

      If I don’t understand enhypostasis, apparently you don’t understand ‘personhood’.

      I’ve never denied that it is “His person,” I’ve just said that there is more to that, and not less.

      You just don’t like to address my questions on causation because you know it’s your achilles heel.

      Blah, blah, blah, blah . . .

      • Bobby Grow
        Oct 9, 2009


        You continue to reference the enhypostasis w/o its necessary correlate, anhypostasis. The enhypostasis is filled out by the GOD/Man (Deus Incarnantus/Incarnandus). Not only that, this dialectic is primarily descriptive, and you continue to appeal to it with prescriptive force. Even so, your appeal to the enhypostasis sounds very Nestorian, which makes sense given your Mullerite commitments πŸ˜‰ .


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