Five Views on the Extent of the Atonement

Five Views on the Extent of the Atonement June 6, 2020

Johnson, Adam J (ed.).
Five Views on the Extent of the Atonement.
Counterpoints: Bible & Theology, series edited by Stanley N. Gundry.
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019.
Available at Zondervan, Koorong, and Logos.

This volume edited by Adam Johnson deals with the question, ‘For whom did Christ die?’ This is known as the debate over the extent and efficacy of the atonement. Although typically an in-house Protestant dispute, the discussion is noticeable enlarged to include wider perspectives and approaches. The contributors include Andrew Louth (Eastern Orthodox View), Matthew Levering (Roman Catholic View), Michael Horton (Traditional Reformed View), Fred Sanders (Wesleyan View), and Tom Greggs (Christian Universalist View). Each contributor proffers their view at length which is then critiqued by the other respective contributors.

Johnson’s essay elegantly notes that the discussion of the atonement is important because it is shaped by and in turn shapes other doctrines related to God, divine attributes, Christology, and predestination. Andrew Louth’s view is that the question is foreign to the Orthodox world with commitments to cosmic renewal, theosis, and God’s unlimited love render such a question of the atonement’s extent as moot. Louth points out how the arc from fall to redemption is subsumed in a larger arc from creation to deification. Louth resources Vladimir Lossky, Sergii Bulgakov, and Isaac of Nineveh in the articulation of his view. Matthew Levering’s presentation of the Catholic position surveys Catholic magisterial teaching, engages Augustine and Aquinas and draws upon biblical texts in dialogue with Francis de Sales. Levering points out that Catholic tradition is admittedly paradoxically committed to God’s efficacious predestination of certain rational creatures for salvation and God superabundantly loves without constriction every rational creature. Michael Horton provides an exemplary layout of a classical Dortian position on deliberate redemption noting that it is really a recovery of divine grace against any account of a synergistic scheme of salvation. Ultimately the atonement for Horton is a matter for the triune God’s purposes to save the elect. For the Wesleyan view, Fred Sanders majors on atonement accomplished universally and objectively by the Son, but applied particularly and subjectively by the Spirit to those who respond to the gospel. This, he submits, makes better sense of the pattern of Scripture and the universal scope of salvation. Although Sanders concedes that there is indeed a mystery between God’s grace and human freedom. In the end, Sanders is content to affirm that the atonement’s sufficiency is universal, while its efficacy is limited to those who offer salvation through Christ. The final contribution by Tom Greggs covers the (Barthesque) Christian universalist perspective which exposits the idea that the atonement is both universally offered to all human beings and universally effective for all human beings. This is different from pluralistic salvation where the cross is not needed since the particular Christian universalist sees in the cross the universal reconciliation of everything and everyone in creation. Greggs majors on the universal scope of salvation and the omnipotence of divine love exercised in Christ’s cross. The volume closes with something of an epilogue by Adam Johnson outlining questions raised by the various views and the critiques lodged against them as well as offering some helpful suggestions as to what the various traditions could potentially learn from each other.

I thought it was an exciting collection of essays with terrific expositions of the atonement and its efficacy from a multiplicity of perspective. It is a genuinely illuminating book. The interactions between authors were earnest yet polite. While the discussion didn’t establish a new ecumenical consensus on atonement, students of theology will no doubt benefit from a book like this in trying to figure out what the debates are about and who stands where and why. My own sentiment is that the extent of the atonement is really an in-house Protestant debate, Louth and Levering both point out that this topic is not one normally germane to their own respective traditions, it is just not on their radar. In which case, I think I would have preferred then a book on the extent of the atonement featuring the early reformation majoring on Luther, something on Dortian perspectives and its hardening among Protestant scholastics, and finally, a type of Protestant minority report mapping Arminian and Amyraldian reactions to Protestant orthodoxy.


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