Is Definite Atonement Really Like the Trinity? A Reply to David Gibson
I actually agree with a huge amount of David’s response. No, wait: I already did, in the opening few sentences of my original article, in which I said (1) that the book deserved a full review, but that I was not going to provide it, because (2) I was focused on the question of whether any biblical writer taught this doctrine, and (3) that much of the book wasn’t, so (4) we risked talking at cross-purposes, and therefore (5) I was going to skim quickly over much of it. If (1) and (5) make me “hasty”, and (2), (3) and (4) make me “biblicist” (which, I should say, I don’t think they do), then I can live with that for now. But I was completely up front about that - believing then, as I still do, that most readers of my review are asking one of their four questions (is this taught by any biblical writer?) rather than the other three (is it historically grounded, [theo]logically deductible from other doctrines, and practically relevant?) - and as such, I think significant chunks of David’s review are unfair in their insinuation that I was trying to hide all this from the reader. Every review says something about the reviewer as well as something about the book; I make no apologies for doing this, and would suggest that not doing it is impossible, so I explained what I would and wouldn’t be doing at the start.
That said, I deny misrepresenting Jonathan Gibson; the point I was making was precisely that the authors admitted their doctrine was not “biblical”, even though they did believe it was biblically defensible (using the slightly clunky word “biblico-systematic” for this). This, for me, was an important point to note in the wider conversation - one that is often denied by advocates of definite atonement, including in the apparently contradictory statement David and Jonathan make that their approach should be “biblical, not biblicist” - so I wanted to highlight the importance of the concession. (David’s use of these words is confusing at times; see below). Similarly with Haykin on Clement: my contention is that “Jesus died for us / the sheep / the elect” in no way requires us to affirm “Jesus died only for us / the sheep / the elect”, and as such does not imply definite atonement - which is exactly what I said. To call these “inaccurate representations” is thus rather unfair. I admit that my summary of Dan Strange’s chapter was based on what I found most significant, rather than what he intended to address, for which my apologies to both him and the editors. But the reason I said “only three” writers are believed to teach definite atonement is not because that is somehow insufficient to form a doctrine, but because so much of the book is about writers who, the authors appear to admit, do not teach it. (I would have thought this was obvious). Further, on Isaiah 53, the fact that Yahweh has laid the sins of the whole nation on the servant has nothing to do with whether the servant ended up dying for only some Gentiles - and I find it hard to believe anyone could think it did - which is why I largely ignored that point. And I never said, or implied, that most of the book was not about the Bible; I said it was not about whether the doctrine was taught by any biblical writers. If you read (say) Henri Blocher or Garry Williams’s chapters, you’ll see what I mean.
The disagreement between us, then, concerns how we do theology (the charge of being “biblicist” rather than “biblical”). My assumptions here are twofold: firstly that, if no biblical writer teaches a doctrine, we should not be including it as a necessary part of our theological system, whether or not we should be writing seven hundred page books about it; and secondly, that doing theology is a question of, in Steve Holmes’s words, “imagining what must be the case for everything in the Bible to be true.” If this debate provokes further discussion on how we do theology, I think that would be a very good thing.
At times, in his response, David sounds like he agrees with the first point, and believes the doctrine is taught by one or more biblical writers; at other times, it sounds like he concedes that it isn’t, but thinks that isn’t a necessary requirement for a doctrine to be explicitly taught anyway - a tension that, in my reading, exists in the book as well - citing the divinity of the Spirit (despite 2 Corinthians 3:17 et al) and justification by faith alone (don’t get me started) as examples. But throughout his response, he seems to me (and I hope I’m reading him wrongly here) to set up the only alternatives as (1) a naive biblicism that requires a direct quotation to affirm a doctrine, which is how he (very unfairly) characterises my view, and (2) his view, which I could (equally unfairly) characterise as a highly framework-driven web of extrabiblical (and, in the case of 1 John 2 and 2 Peter 2, antibiblical) logical deductions that allow us to affirm all sorts of things that none of the biblical authors touched with a bargepole. These are not, of course, our only options.
The way I want us to do theology is (3): to give primacy to the truths and doctrines that are clearly affirmed by the biblical writers, synthesising them where necessary (as per Steve Holmes’s remark), and to give primacy to the questions that are clearly asked and answered in Scripture. To describe this approach, my review or my theology in general as “only interested in selective trails and individual strands” is, I think, unduly harsh. The idea that Christ died for the sins of the elect alone, by anyone’s reckoning, is not affirmed in Scripture - as some contributors seem to recognise - and seems in two texts to be explicitly denied (a point on which David has not responded, which is strange since it seems to be at the heart of the discussion). Consequently, I don’t think it should be part of our theological framework.
The fact that this is controversial is remarkable in itself. “Biblicism” is something of a push-button word these days, which people often use when they’re trying to accuse someone of interpretive incompetence; being “biblical”, on the other hand, is the holy grail of evangelical scholarship. But David’s use of “biblicist” to describe my approach is never defined; at times it seems to mean “Andrew is a biblicist (boo, hiss) because he requires the biblical writers to teach a doctrine before including it as part of his theological system.” If that is the charge against me, then I can only hope it sticks. At other times, it means “Andrew is a biblicist because he believes that teaching a doctrine requires actually saying something about it somewhere.” Well: call me old-fashioned, but yes, I do.
David thinks this founders for an interesting reason: definite atonement, in principle, is like the divinity of the Holy Spirit and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It is a doctrine we reach by synthesising propositions which sit below the surface of the text, without requiring them to be explicitly stated.
But the reality is that definite atonement is strikingly unlike the divinity of the Holy Spirit. There are plenty of texts in the scriptures that do not make any sense unless the divinity of the Spirit is affirmed, which is not true of definite atonement. Were someone to deny the divinity of the Spirit, it would cause all sorts of exegetical and theological problems, which is not true of definite atonement. The divinity of the Spirit has to overcome no texts which seem to state the opposite, which is not true of definite atonement. There are biblical writers - Paul is the most obvious - whose theology cannot be understood properly without affirming their belief in the divinity of the Spirit, which is not true of definite atonement. The divinity of the Spirit has therefore been uncontroversial in orthodox Christianity for nearly two millennia, which is not true of definite atonement. The comparison, which David makes to show how defensible his theological method is, I suggest does the opposite.
His example of sola fide is closer to the mark, but again, in a way that makes my point rather than David’s. His argument, as I read it, runs: (i) the idea that Christ died for the elect alone is not clearly stated in Scripture, and seems to be contradicted by one or two texts, and (ii) the same is true for the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but (iii) Protestants have trumpeted the doctrine of justification by faith alone anyway, without having the charge of resembling the Cheshire Cat thrown at them, so (iv) there should be no problem with affirming definite atonement either. QED.
Yeah, but. It should be said than an awful lot of Protestants do deserve to have the Cheshire Cat thrown at them for their exegesis of James 2 (and 2 Peter 2, and Hebrews 6 and 10, and various others). We should also note that “a man is justified by faith alone” is a shorthand, albeit a controversial one, for another expression which appears frequently in Paul - “a man is justified by faith and not by works of the law” (Gal 2:16; cf. 3:2; Rom 3:27-8; 9:32; Eph 2:8-9; etc) - and this is not even remotely true of the statement “Christ died for the elect alone”. And then there is the uncomfortable fact that many Protestants, eager to defend their extrabiblical slogan in the face of both Catholicism and TomWrightism, have produced exegesis of Paul himself, not least in Romans 2, which look like the Cheshire Cat has swallowed Alice and the Queen of Hearts for good measure; Tom Schreiner, to his great credit, is one of those who has been active in talking them down off the ledge. As such, a comparison between definite atonement and sola fide does not lead to the conclusion David is hoping for.
So, from my perspective, three questions for David remain. One: do you think that any biblical writer (or speaker, to make sure we are including Jesus!) taught that Christ died for his people alone, and if so, which one(s), and where? (I’d be happy to do a similar exercise for the divinity of Christ and/or the Holy Spirit, and/or sola fide ...!) Two: which parts of the Bible do you think we would be treating as untrue, if we stopped short of affirming that he did? Three, do you think that any biblical writers (or speakers) were even asking this question (did Christ die for his people alone?) If so, where? If not, why are you?
In the meantime, if anyone has any thoughts on which non-biblical systematic-theological questions are legitimate, and which ones aren’t, I’m all ears!