For the Bible Tells Me So? A response to Andrew Wilson’s review of From Heaven He Came
I am very grateful to Andrew Wilson for his generous and lively review of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her. Its gracious style invites a genuine conversation, so what follows is meant to be similarly spirited and hopefully productive all round.
Andrew engages the book on two levels. First, the standard reviewer’s approach of evaluating conclusions drawn and answers given but secondly, and much more interestingly, he asks whether the book is even asking the right questions, so much so that the matter of how we do theology is up for grabs. This is delightful to read as an editor of the volume, for we intended the first chapter in the book to be precisely an essay in theological method and to raise exactly the kind of questions about questions which Andrew is asking. He even wonders if he is offering a “normal review” (although any review which concludes by summarising four sections of the book is still offering an overall perspective), but I certainly think it’s this kind of review which is potentially fruitful whether we reach agreement or not.
This means a tussle over individual texts may be less than helpful here. Rather, I am going to suggest Andrew’s review shows that he is not penetrating deeply enough the very issues about text vs framework which he is probing, and that it is his own explicit framework which prevents him doing so.
It is an interesting irony that Andrew begins by raising the issue of asking the right questions, and then brackets the rest of the review by telling us he had his own question in mind before he came to the book which he expected it to answer: “Is definite atonement, the belief that Christ’s death was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone, taught by any biblical writers?”
For Andrew, the questions the contributors have in mind make them certain kinds of readers of biblical texts; let me try and show what kind of reader his own question has made him. I have two points which are closely connected.
1. His question has made him a hasty reviewer.
Since, at least as I understand it, only about thirty pages of this seven hundred page book were actually addressing the question I expected it to answer—namely, “Is definite atonement, the belief that Christ’s death was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone, taught by any biblical writers?”—I will end up skimming very quickly over much of it.
I know that here Andrew is not saying he skim-read the book, only that he is going to skim over much of it in his review. But he is saying his review is going to tell us how effective the book is in answering the question he had before he picked it up.
The effects of this can be teased out a little with—you guessed it—some questions. Is it a fair way to review a book by skimming over about six hundred and seventy of its pages because they do not seem to address the question the reviewer had in mind before he opened it? Would not a reviewer really be on to something if he claims that six hundred and seventy pages of the book do not address the questions the book itself is asking? What other questions might those superfluous pages be asking? On page 45 we ask at least four questions of just one section of the book but, because they are not the reviewer’s questions, his decision is that his readers do not need to worry about them either. This tells the reader rather a lot about the reviewer and less than a lot about the book.
An unfortunate result of Andrew’s question driving his review is inaccurate representation. Let me give some examples.
He cites Jonathan Gibson’s second chapter, where Jonathan states that definite atonement properly understood “is not a biblical doctrine per se” (332). Presented like that, it shows well how the book fails to answer Andrew’s question. At least those Calvinists are admitting it is framework all the way!
But Andrew does not cite what Jonathan goes on to say next within the very same sentence: “rather, definite atonement is a biblico-systematic doctrine” (332). This follows the methodological route we lay out in the Introduction, where we state explicitly that the approach needs to be “biblical, not biblicist” (38), on which more below. Andrew disagrees, of course, with the book’s claim that the doctrine is biblical, but it is unfair to present only part of a key sentence just because it serves the overall theme of the review.
Andrew discounts Michael Haykin implying any precedents to definite atonement in Clement’s phrase “our Lord Jesus gave his blood for us”, which is easy to do without quoting the preceding sentence where Clement is talking about “the elect of God” (60). The basis for the implication Haykin perceives seems unfounded enough to deserve an exclamation mark, but in fact it’s just not quoted.
In his summary of the book’s theological section, Andrew fails to include the essay which I think should be of greatest interest to non-Reformed-Reformedish-evangelical thinkers—Garry Williams’ argument for the intrinsic relationship between penal substitution and definite atonement—and Daniel Strange’s chapter is not about the evangelistic invitation, as Andrew suggests.
More significantly, however, Andrew states:
Based on From Heaven He Came, I can find only three biblical authors—Matthew, John and Paul—who are believed to teach definite atonement, and the texts in which they are believed to teach it receive only two, two and five pages respectively (275-277, 277-279, 291-295).
This is too hasty. Why “only” three? If one biblical author taught the doctrine we might suggest that its importance should be kept in proportion; however, it would still be a biblical doctrine to believe. Indeed, Andrew himself defends the doctrine of the Trinity as based on a series of propositions clearly found “in at least Paul and John.” Here two authors are sufficient for a cardinal doctrine; but we had “only three” for definite atonement.
The main reason why Andrew’s comment is too hasty is because it does not represent the book’s exegesis accurately. I don’t know what to make of his claim that Alec Motyer’s chapter on Isaiah 53 (a close reading of the Hebrew text) can be excluded from his exegetical tally because in its original setting it was so obviously about Israel as a nation. Does anyone say it wasn’t? Motyer’s presentation of what kind of atonement Isaiah presents, and thus the implications for its extent, are entirely bypassed in light of Andrew’s resolute focus on identifying its beneficiaries. Andrew is counting the biblical authors who teach definite atonement, but Sinclair Ferguson explicitly suggests that Jesus taught the doctrine. If we can grant that Isaiah 53 formed part of Jesus’ self-understanding and shaped his conception of his ministry, and if Motyer is right about what that text means, then perhaps our jigsaw has more pieces in it than Andrew allows.
In his first chapter, Garry Williams provides six pages of Hebrew exegesis to argue that “Levitical atonement was definite atonement” (479). Stephen Wellum explores Christ’s high priestly ministry in Hebrews and elsewhere to make the case for one part of the doctrine. Several pages of the essays by Henri Blocher, John Piper, and parts of Sinclair Ferguson’s interact sensitively with biblical material. Lee Gatiss treats the Synod of Dort’s annotations on a Dutch translation of the Bible by considering four of the key texts in the atonement debate. Raymond Blacketer’s chapter shows the biblical interpretation of Theodore Beza, and Paul Helm’s chapter is actually about Calvin as a reader of the Bible. It is fair to say not only the texts but also the hermeneutics which are believed to teach definite atonement receive far more attention in the book than Andrew credits. What does it say about the book that the use of the Bible features significantly in the historical, theological, and pastoral sections? What does it say about the review that you don’t learn this?
The fact the material I have just mentioned does not appear in Andrew’s list is not, I suspect, due to the fact he didn’t actually read those parts of the book. It is because he is reading both this book and the Bible in a particular kind of way.
2. His question has made him a biblicist reader.
I want to be as clear as I can that Andrew’s pre-reading question is a right one to have in mind, but it raises another: why only one? He had a question he expected the book to answer; the book itself makes clear it was written to answer several that the doctrine demands:
How should we use the Bible in doctrinal construction? What kind of doctrine is definite atonement? What, in fact, would count as definite atonement being “taught” by a biblical writer, and why is that form of it counting the right kind to expect? How do we know that? And are there other doctrines which impinge on this doctrine? Why and how?
I suggest Andrew’s right question is not being asked in the right way, for he gives the strong impression that he would only be satisfied with a biblicist answer—chapter and verse which say “Jesus died for his people alone.” I can’t really think of any other reason to explain, for example, the selective way Andrew tallies up pages of exegesis within the Pauline chapters. This is not how doctrinal construction works, and Andrew knows it. Let me try and show this with two examples and one final comment.
(i) Definite atonement and the Trinity
Andrew recognises a possible parallel between the doctrine of the Trinity and definite atonement, in that both might be unbiblical names (better, extra-biblical) given to a right synthesis of biblical ideas. We argue for something like this in our Introduction (38). Andrew dismisses the parallel, and he does so with sleight of hand.
But there is a crucial difference between the Trinity and definite atonement: the Trinity is the unbiblical name we give to a way of synthesising a series of propositions (there is one God; the Father is divine; the Son is divine; the Spirit is divine) which are clearly found in at least Paul and John, whereas definite atonement is the unbiblical name we give to a single proposition (that Christ died to save God’s people alone) that is not clearly found in any biblical writer.
So a contrast is established here between a series of biblical propositions which can be synthesised, and a single proposition which is not biblical.
Observe, however: “there is one God” can easily be identified as a biblical proposition (1 Tim. 2:5), but “the Spirit is divine” is an interpretive judgment. Which text in Paul or John states: “the Spirit is divine”? Andrew and I will agree that in several places his interpretation sits so close to the surface of the text as to be almost self-evidently true, and yet of course not all readers of the Bible agree, as per Jehovah Witnesses, Unitarians, and Christadelphians, who would nevertheless agree “there is one God” precisely because the Bible says so.
Assuming we are right and they are wrong, Andrew would be more accurate to admit that the doctrine of the Trinity synthesises straight biblical propositions with a range of interpretations of a variety of biblical texts. Indeed, the doctrine of the Trinity synthesises not just those texts which seem to speak so obviously for it, but has to cope with those texts which add to its complexity (“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself”, John 5:26; “the Father is greater than I”, John 14:28) and with those which seem to speak against it (Christ is “the firstborn over all creation”, Col. 1:15). As we read all those texts together to form interpretive judgments and yield didactic propositions, we recognise there is no such thing as presupposition-less propositions. Andrew’s propositions could ground modalism as much as trinitarianism, and yet I do not read him that way because I share his presuppositions and read his point in context to be simply methodological. My point: the doctrine can be simply stated even as its complete biblical articulation is intricate.
So it is with definite atonement. It is rather misleading to use our book’s definition of the doctrine (Christ died to save God’s people alone) as a summary of the way our book reads the Bible to define the doctrine. It is not even the sum total of our definition of definite atonement, other constituent parts of which clearly contain biblical propositions (33).
The fact is that at numerous points, in several ways, many of the book’s writers contend for something like this: definite atonement is the name given to a way of synthesising a series of biblical claims, some of which are explicit biblical propositions—“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”; “Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for our sins only but also for the sins of the whole world”; “Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all”—and some of which are other kinds of biblical language, such as metaphors or images—Christ as King, Husband, Head, Master, Firstborn, Last Adam. These claims are then further synthesised with a wide range of exegetical and theological material related to them (for instance, the nature of representation, substitution, priesthood, covenant and punishment), so that the best way to represent the overall synthesis is to say “Christ died to save God’s people alone.”
Andrew is entitled, of course, to disagree with this attempt. But I hope he will concede that it simply is not fair to the book to give the impression the doctrine is based on a single unbiblical proposition. To put it another way, a text like 1 John 2:2 is actually an important part of my understanding of definite atonement, not a text which has to sit separate from it, much the same way that John 5:26; 14:28 and Colossians 1:15 belong within my doctrine of the Trinity, not outside it.
(ii) Definite atonement and the word “alone”
The problem of biblicism can be sharpened if we come even closer to Andrew’s own question and consider the word “alone.” It’s an important word for his case that the doctrine is unsupported by any specific text, because no biblical text states that Christ died for his people alone.
Andrew’s answer to “is this doctrine taught by any biblical writers?” is no, but then he wonders if that even matters. If he thinks the Reformed might be able to say it does not matter and still hold the doctrine, then, on the contrary, let me say it is essential that the answer should be yes. But what are the possible ways in which the Bible might teach that Christ died for his people alone?
Take the great Reformation solas, and the doctrine of justification through faith alone. Is this doctrine taught by any biblical writers? Does the phrase “faith alone” occur in any biblical writers? Have we just asked the same question twice, or two different ones? The phrase “faith alone” occurs in one place only, James 2:24, where he states, “we are not justified by faith alone”. Where does Andrew’s approach leave us with an issue like this?
The very controversy with Rome over justification was the use of the word “alone”—for all agree we are justified through faith—and the only biblical text which uses it, at face value, says the exact opposite of the Reformation doctrine. Yet Protestants argue that the word “alone” emerges as a valid theological conclusion when each relevant text is interpreted in its right context and, more than this, the word emerges as utterly essential to the doctrine even in the face of its only occurrence being seemingly to state its opposite, so much so there is a sense in which we are not justified by faith alone (as the words of James 2:24 actually say) and there is a sense in which we are justified by faith alone (as the words of no chapter and verse actually say). I would argue this is because a biblical-theological-systematic approach to the doctrine best accounts for all the data and shows a level of integration with other doctrines far superior to anything biblicism produces. On the other hand, maybe it’s just because we Protestants engage in the sort of exegesis that can swallow any amount of evidence and still come up smiling.
All of this leads to a final comment. Andrew is able to tell that both Arminians and Calvinists ask the wrong questions of certain scriptural texts. But the reason, historically, both sides have asked the questions they have is precisely because they have grappled with more aspects of Andrew’s very own question than he has. It is very clear that it is the phrase “God’s people alone” in his question which really interests him. But Andrew’s wrestling with that issue is short-circuited by not engaging at all with the exegetical and theological claims made in our book about other parts or words of his question, like “death”, “intended”, “win” or “salvation.”
These words raise questions about the intent and nature of Christ’s atoning work but they are ignored by one-track minds. Whose intention, shared by whom, and how do we see it stated? What are the implications for Trinitarian theology? What does substitution actually mean? What makes it moral? What kind of priestly offering is Christ’s death? How does Christ save us? What conception of punishment do the biblical writers share?
These do not squash exegesis in the book but rather cast the exegetical net far wider than Andrew seems to care about—again, see Garry Williams’ suggestive exegesis about punishment as a fitting answer returned to sin (501-506). This does not show biblical writers “teaching definite atonement” in a way which text-tallying biblicism demands. Might it be the Bible teaching definite atonement in a way which biblical reading requires, that is, teaching one strand of its component parts? Andrew ends up thinking not much of the book is actually about his particular question when, in fact, that’s all it’s about from start to finish. It’s just not about it in the way Andrew wanted it to be.
So I think the conversation can really get going when, to give just two examples, a critical reviewer engages exegetically with Henri Blocher’s arguments that penal substitutionary atonement requires a definite class to be in view lest the morality of the doctrine be impugned, or with Garry Williams’ treatment of biblical metaphors in articulating a theological ethic of divine punishment.
Methodologically, we present the volume as a map (charting historical, biblical, theological and pastoral territories) and a web (synthesising a wide range of texts, propositions and theological judgments), but Andrew is only interested in selective trails and individual strands.
Why is that?