Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological and Pastoral Perspective
Edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, Crossway, 2013, 703pp
The doctrine of definite atonement has long been a storm centre for theological controversy. Even theologians who agree with most other key aspects of historic Calvinistic teaching baulk at accepting that Christ died solely for the elect. Hence the attempt by Hypothetical Universalists and Amyraldians to have their theological cake in terms of preserving unconditional election, while eating a universalist doctrine of the atonement in which Christ died for all human beings without exception. Perhaps part of the problem is with the label 'limited atonement'. Admittedly, it carries the advantage of putting the 'L' into TULIP, but in almost every other respect it is unhelpful, if not misleading. After all, unless you are an absolute and unqualified universalist and believe that all human beings are going to be saved in the end, your theology of the cross is going to entail certain limits. The question is, 'what limits?' Either Christ died only for the elect and therefore his atoning work was limited in its extent. Or we may take it that he died for all, but not all are saved, and so his death was limited in its saving effectiveness. For that reason the editors are to be congratulated ensuring that 'definite atonement' rather than 'limited atonement' is used consistently throughout the book to describe the view that Christ died definitively and savingly for his people. Bang goes TULIP then, but since when as mnemonic suitability come before theological accuracy?
Whatever it's called, some people may wonder whether this point of doctrine important enough to warrant the reader ploughing though a hefty 700 page multi-author volume. Isn't 'definite atonement' one of those teachings that may well be fascinating to historical theologians, but has a slender biblical base, little constructive theological value and almost no pastoral relevance? Er, no. Biblically, theologically and pastorally definite atonement is of huge import. If the cross of Christ is at the heart of God's way of salvation, then understanding what was accomplished at the cross and the significance of that accomplishment for the life and mission of the church must count for something. The opening chapter on Sacred Theology and the Reading of the Divine Word sets the stage by mapping out a constructive theological approach to the doctrine of definite atonement. The editors argue for an integrative methodology that takes Scripture seriously, is sensitive to the theological heritage of the church, systematically rigorous and pastorally helpful. It is intended that this approach will yield a cumulatively persuasive case for the doctrine of definite atonement. Although polemics cannot be avoided when treating a subject like this, the editors wish to model a firm, yet respectful engagement with critics of the view advocated in this book.
A stellar cast of Reformed luminaries has been assembled to explore definite atonement from almost every angle. The book begins with a study of definite atonement in church history. Fascinating chapters give attention to the presence of the doctrine in the Ancient, Medieval and Reformed Church. It seems that for centuries the definiteness of the atonement was assumed by the great thinkers of the Church, but only became a matter of intense theological argumentation in the light of the Remonstrant controversy. In the face of Arminian pressure the Synod of Dort opted to maintain the doctrine of definite atonement. The historical studies provide the background to the later biblical, theological and pastoral sections. Indeed, the fact that many writers opt to interact with figures mentioned in the historical chapters as biblical and theological dialogue partners means that the book can have a slightly repetitive feel. The deja vu factor, often a failing with multi-author works is unusually pronounced here. Hypothetical Universalism is especially done to death. Perhaps the editors could have been a little more ruthless with their star writers, 'been there, done that, sorry'. That said, it's not just the usual suspects like Moise Amyraut who attract attention. The views of Karl Barth, John McLeod Campbell, J.B and T. F. Torrance, are also carefully critiqued.
However, a tendency to go round in circles aside, it has to be said that there is a wealth of good things in this book. Some of the chapters are simply outstanding. Tempting as it may be, I'm not going to mirco-review every contribution in here. Flagging up some of the highlights will have to suffice. On the Biblical Perspective front, J. Alec Motyer on Isaiah's Suffering Servant is amazingly insightful. Jonathan Gibson's handling of the Pauline material is exegetically cogent and theologically rich. Thomas Shreiner faces some "Problematic Texts" with honesty and persuasiveness. It would be invidious to single out chapters from the Theological Perspective section, so full is it with mind expanding and heart warming theological reflection. Just read it. The same goes for the final section on the pastoral implications of definite atonement.
Taken as a whole, the book left me with a deep sense that the doctrine of definite atonement is rooted in Holy Scripture, is essential for understanding salvation as the united action of the Holy Trinity, and is vital for the life and mission of the Church. Christ's death did not simply make salvation a possibility should anyone have wished to be saved. He came from heaven to seek the people given him by the Father before the world was made. Jesus saved them by his blood. He secured in his atoning work the power of the Spirit to bestow repentance and faith upon the elect that they may receive all the benefits of his atoning work on their behalf. And so we can be confident that a vast multitude that no man can number will be gathered from all nations. Chosen by God, redeemed by Jesus and made new by the Spirit, they will unite their voices in a shout of eternal praise to triune God who saved them.