For and Against Calvinism 7

For and Against Calvinism 7 November 4, 2011

Did Jesus Christ die for everyone, from Adam to the last person ever born, or did Christ die only for the elect? Calvinism, or at least most of it, teaches what is called “limited atonement” or “particular redemption.” In other words, the mission of Jesus Christ’s death was to secure an atonement for those who are the elect of the Father. As you may know, we are this series on Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism and Michael Horton’s For Calvinism. I began with Olson’s book before Horton’s arrived so I am catching up.

Horton’s sketch of atonement is, well, not as satisfactory as I’d like but his sketch of particular redemption is clear and accurate for what this Calvinist view affirms.

What do you believe about the atonement? For all or for the elect only? Do you think an atonement that makes possible redemption is less than an atonement that actually saves? (Arminian vs. Calvinist.)

He sketches atonement theories: penal substitution, recapitulation, Christus Victor, satisfaction, moral exemplary theory, and governmental theory. Horton makes it abundantly clear that Calvinism isn’t just the substitutionary theory but includes all the others, but in this his words don’t go as far as his sketch for, by the time he’s done, the only one that really matters is penal substitution (he does give some attention to recapitulation, but it’s not easy to distinguish recapitulation and Christus Victor) and his view of PS is through and through forensic and legal, and therefore it comes down to justification theory. Fair enough; that’s one kind of Reformed theology.

Example: while Anselm grounded atonement in the need for God to be satisfied in his dignity, Reformation theology was grounded in God’s justice. (That’s a justification theory driving atonement theory.)

He observes that many today prefer subjective theories of the atonement — Abelard, Grotius (and I’m not sure this view is given enough attention here or, to be honest, anywhere; I know in my book, A Community called Atonement, I didn’t give it attention), J. Denny Weaver, and he seems to have avoided Girard, whose theory I would suggest is gaining ground.

He pleas for an integrated theory, but in this sketch he tips his hat to Christus Victor, gives some attention to recapitulation, but then says at the bottom of each is the legal/justification dimension of penal substitution.

On the extent of atonement, Horton says there are three options:

1. Universalism
2. His death made salvation possible for everyone
3. He actually redeemed all of the elect.

Horton gives a brief, but good, defense of particular redemption (#3).

1. This view maintains that Christ’s death actually saves; #2 says it made salvation possible. [I just don’t buy this stuff; there is too much contingency of redemption on belief, and a good example is Acts 2:38: repent, believe and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Peter doesn’t doubt Jesus’ death is the ground of redemption but for it to be effective one must believe, etc. To say this is saying it is only “possible” compares two unequals, as I illustrated with electricity and turning on the switch. God’s work in Christ is the whole thing; but it becomes effective for an individual only upon the conditions established by God himself in Scripture.]

2. This view emphasizes the Trinity, and I’m glad he brings this out: not all Calvinists sound this Trinitarian, and not all evangelicals sound this Trinitarian, but Horton shows that atonement is Trinitarian.
3. This view places the focus on Christ rather than on the believer. OK, I can hear him but frankly my reading of this chp is that there’s much more emphasis on divine justice and justification theory, and not enough (for me at least) on Jesus Christ. [And, of course, more on union with Christ.]

I’m pushing back only in moderate and expected ways.

But everything in this chp is dependent upon one category that shapes the whole discussion: Horton defines sin almost entirely as a legal condition: we offend the holy God, we offend the lawgiver, we offend God’s justice, and this puts us in a position of legal guilt. The issue here, and I have seen this often in discussions of atonement, is to ask how the Bible defines sin: is it so one-sidedly a law and forensic condition? I say No, what say you?

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