From Heaven He Came And Sought Her
So I don’t feel able to provide the sort of review I originally hoped to write. My presuppositions are too different from those of some of the writers, especially those in the second half of the volume, to make meaningful engagement helpful in a context like this; it would simply feel like we were talking at cross-purposes. What I can do, though, is to summarise the book, explain what I liked, and critique what I see as the two key sections of the book. That may not sound too different to a normal book review; I’m not sure. But 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.
The strengths of the book are easy to see. It is large and comprehensive, leaving few issues untouched, and combining exegetical, historical, theological and pastoral perspectives. It is written by a group of heavyweight Calvinist scholars. It is irenic rather than polemic in tone and approach, which is immensely commendable. It is well edited and sensibly structured. It also contains a couple of stand-out historical essays. Frankly, as a result of all this, it is likely to be the volume people turn to on this subject for the next few decades or so.
The first section of the book is the strongest, and focuses on definite atonement in historical perspective. Despite finding some implications in texts that are not there (“our Lord Jesus Christ gave his blood for us”, in 1 Clement, is taken to imply definite atonement!), Michael Haykin’s survey of the church fathers is helpful, and shows that while Prosper of Aquitaine taught definite atonement, and Augustine strongly hinted at it, the rest of the fathers made no clear statements in support of it. David Hogg gives a good overview of medieval theology, in which Gottschalk, Thomas Aquinas and Peter Lombard are shown to hold ideas which are compatible with, although not explicitly arguing for, definite atonement. Paul Helm pushes back against the idea that Calvin himself believed in an unlimited atonement, Raymond Blacketer explains why we cannot blame everything on poor, black-hat-wearing Theodore Beza, and Lee Gatiss gives a super overview of the Synod of Dort, which cleared up a lot of things for at least this reader. The highlight of the whole volume, for me, was Amar Djaballah’s translation and discussion of Moise Amyraut’s Brief Traitté de la Predestination: a masterful summary of a conceptually difficult work which has never been translated and summarised in English. Carl Trueman then wraps up the historical section with a good piece on John Owen’s disagreement with Richard Baxter over the type of payment implied in atonement language.
The second section focuses on the biblical material. Paul Williamson finds all sorts of hints in the Pentateuch that atonement might be definite, but provides no clear examples, and (to his credit) concedes that his arguments will likely only convince the already convinced. Alec Motyer takes Isaiah 53 as his text, but spends only two out of twenty pages looking at the intended recipients of salvation (the “many”), and asks rhetorical questions where arguments are needed (“Could any whose iniquities the Lord laid on his Servant fail to be saved? Could that laying-on prove ineffectual? Were any iniquities laid on the Servant save with the divine purpose of eternal salvation?” These, of course, are precisely the questions in dispute). Matthew Harmon looks at the gospels and Johannine literature, and shows that Jesus both died for his people and for the world, but (perhaps understandably, in the context of this volume) reads the latter texts through the lens of the former, rather than vice versa. Jonathan Gibson does a decent job with some unpromising Pauline material: like many of the contributors, he believes that “Christ died for me/us/the church” does indicate definite atonement, while “Christ died for all/the many/the world” doesn’t indicate universal atonement (a pair of convictions which, to my mind at least, do not seem even-handed, but nonetheless present a formidable obstacle to any possible exegetical counterarguments!) His chapter on Paul’s Trinitarian view of salvation begins with an important qualification – “definite atonement, carefully and properly understood, is not a biblical doctrine per se” – and seeks to prove that the definite atonement advocate’s trump card, namely the claim that the Son must have died for those whom the Father elects and the Spirit calls, lest there be division within the Trinity, is found within Paul (I do not think he is successful here, because the systematic-theological tail seems so clearly to be wagging the exegetical dog, but it is certainly a chapter worth wrestling with). Tom Schreiner then responds to the “Problematic Texts” in the pastoral and general epistles, of which more below.
It was in the third and fourth sections that I found myself realising that, however Calvinist I may be (though I am increasingly preferring Derek Rishmawy’s word “Reformedish”), I simply cannot get next to the way that many five-pointers do theology, irrespective of the conclusions they reach. The third section is the longest in the book, and focuses on “theological arguments”: the intention of the divine decree (Donald Macleod), the indivisibility of the triune God (Robert Letham), the “punishment God cannot inflict twice” argument (Garry Williams), the priestly work of Christ (Stephen Wellum), and a systematic theology of the atonement (Henri Blocher, overlapping substantially with some of the others). The fourth focuses on application: for the evangelistic invitation (Dan Strange), assurance (Sinclair Ferguson) and the glory of God (John Piper). These are the sections to which my earlier comments about cross-purposes mainly apply - I found myself thinking, again and again, that the scriptures simply do not answer the questions that five-pointers, both Arminian and Calvinist, want them to answer - and which I will not therefore treat in any detail. Paul and John, for example, teach that Christ’s death was for the whole world, and yet at the same time it only saves those who believe. Five-pointers, both Calvinist and Arminian, want to go further, and consequently ask questions of texts that they are simply not written to answer, distorting them in the process - like Alan Partridge, when he is told that his interviewee “felt like a pawn in the political chess game”, and immediately asks, “who were the bishops?”
I said above that only about thirty pages in From Heaven He Came were addressed to the question I thought the book would be about: “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 many, this might seem to be the wrong question; after all, as I am often reminded, the Trinity is not explicitly taught (in so many words) by any biblical writers. 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. 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). The three texts most cited on the unlimited atonement side, namely 1 John 2:2, 2 Peter 2:1 and 1 Timothy 4:10, fare rather better, receiving two, four and twelve pages respectively (284-285, 315-319, 380-386, 387-392), but even when combined together, the exegesis of the key texts comprises just twenty-seven out of nearly seven hundred pages. (I am deliberately excluding Isaiah 53:4-6 here, because in its original setting it was so clearly about Israel as a nation.)
Not only that, but these sections of exegesis produce extremely flimsy support for definite atonement. Yes, Matthew says Jesus gave up his life for “many” rather than “all”, but within Matthew’s narrative that surely means “an awful lot of people” rather than “only the elect”. Yes, John says Jesus gave up his life “for the sheep”, but he does not say he gave up his life for some and not for others. (A footnote dismisses this objection on the grounds of the “larger matrix of ideas in this passage”, but this larger matrix does not include the exclusivity of redemption either). The section on Paul’s specific language (“us”, “me”, “a people”, “the church”, and so on) is freely admitted not to require definite atonement, and the only arguments presented in support here are (i) the obvious but surely irrelevant point that they do not require unlimited atonement either, (ii) the observation that Paul never makes unlimited atonement explicit by using a “no, not one” formula, and (iii) the strange claim that such specific language would be of no benefit if Paul believed in universal atonement, a claim which entirely overlooks the rhetorical purpose of specific texts (Eph 5:25 is a classic example). As such, it appears to me both that the case for definite atonement is unsupported by any specific text, and that the writers of the relevant chapters largely acknowledge this.
The responses to the three key universal atonement texts are variable. Schreiner and Gibson do a good job advocating two different readings of 1 Timothy 4:10, and it is to the editors’ credit that they have included diversity on a point like this; the fact that the subject of the verse is “God”, rather than “Jesus”, means that we can hardly see it as a universal atonement text no matter how we read it. Harmon’s exegesis of 1 John 2:2, by contrast, involves the highly implausible judgment that the distinction between “ours” and “the whole world” is not between “Christians” and “everyone else”, but between “a group that sets itself up as intrinsically superior” and “all sorts of people” (based in part on the comparison with John 11:52); this is hardly the meaning the first person plural has in chapter 1 – would the writer include himself within it, if it were? – and although Carson and Calvin are quoted in support, critical scholarship in general does not support this reading. And Schreiner’s explanation of 2 Peter 2:1 is one, surely, that no interpreter would produce unless already committed to five-point Calvinism: he argues that Peter is speaking phenomenologically, so “it appeared as if the Lord had purchased the false teachers with his blood (v1), though they actually did not belong to the Lord.” As Tom Wright said in another context, that sort of exegesis can swallow any amount of evidence and still come up smiling, but as with the Cheshire Cat, it may be that the smile is all there is to it.
All things considered, one might summarise the four sections of From Heaven He Came as follows. (1) Historically, quite a few people were open to definite atonement in the first fifteen centuries of the church, and the idea that it popped up out of nowhere in Beza is completely unwarranted. (2) Exegetically, definite atonement is not clearly taught by any biblical writer, but flows logically from systematic-theological considerations, particularly around the unity of the Trinity. (3) Theologically, it coheres well with a Calvinist framework. (4) Practically, it has several big implications. From my reading, the answer to my question – is this doctrine taught by any biblical writer? – is no, but then that may not matter. Much of the book is not about that particular question, and unlimited atonement may not be taught in scripture either.
Even more briefly: before reading From Heaven He Came, I regarded definite atonement as an incoherent answer to a biblical question. I now regard it as a coherent answer to an unbiblical question. Whether that means it should be judged a success or not, I am not sure.