Spare Me the Flowers and Hold the Fish image

Spare Me the Flowers and Hold the Fish

I wanted to respond to Andrew’s response to my post about Limited Atonement, but have been somewhat cautious about doing so. When we discuss the atonement we are treading on the holiest of holy ground, but this is a debate that can quickly degenerate into theological point scoring. The reality is that Andrew (despite his pretensions to pacifism!) and I both love a good fight and I am nervous of that impulse when we are discussing the shed blood of Christ and the eternal destinies of men and women.

There is also the question of the mode of response. Andrew asked some direct questions, as well as raising a number of red herrings (“fishy tulips” indeed!) but working up responses to these wouldn’t necessarily make a satisfactory post. So I have decided simply to reproduce Andrew’s post in its entirety, and make comments on it as we go.
This is holy ground and mustn’t become simply ‘how many angels on the head of a pin’ arguments. However, I do think it has significant gospel implications.
So here goes…

Yesterday, Matt Hosier made the case that if we could just disentangle five point Calvinism from the TULIP acronym, and get back to the essence of what the Canons of Dordt were saying, we’d find it much easier to accept it. It won’t be a surprise to those who were there, and probably many other readers of this blog, that I’m not so sure. (I’m also not sure that “much of the debate” at the THINK conference centred on Limited Atonement; by my recollection, it was discussed for about ten minutes out of a six hour day, but that’s by the by).

In my defence, much of the debate at THINK centred on Limited Atonement in the same way that our depravity is “total” – that is, it wasn’t the whole conversation, but the whole conversation was flavoured by it!

As someone who believes the scriptures teach both unconditional election and the preservation of the saints, yet still finds five point Calvinism as a system problematic in various ways, I thought I might explain why.
Matt’s main contention is that the TULIP acronym has caused many problems, and led to many misunderstandings, that the Canons of Dordt did not, particularly with respect to Limited Atonement. (Are there any others? I doubt Matt would rush to distance himself from Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Irresistible Grace or the Perseverance of the Saints).

Actually, I would! These phrases simply do not represent Calvinism in the way it should be represented, which is why you will find that even those Calvinists who defend the TULIP invariably modify it. So, for example, we have the likes of R.C. Sproul saying things like,

Perhaps “radical corruption” is a better term to describe our fallen condition than “total depravity.” I am using the word “radical” not so much to mean “extreme,” but to lean more heavily on its original meaning. “Radical” comes from the Latin word for “root” or “core.” Our problem with sin is that it is rooted in the core of our being. It permeates our hearts.

As this kind of modification and qualification goes on all the time I would rather just compost the TULIP.

Quite rightly, Matt goes back to Dordt to see what the original source of the doctrine of Limited Atonement was:
“Who make use of the distinction between obtaining and applying in order to instill in the unwary and inexperienced the opinion that God, as far as he is concerned, wished to bestow equally upon all people the benefits which are gained by Christ’s death; but that the distinction by which some rather than others come to share in the forgiveness of sins and eternal life depends on their own free choice (which applies itself to the grace offered indiscriminately) but does not depend on the unique gift of mercy which effectively works in them, so that they, rather than others, apply that grace to themselves. For, while pretending to set forth this distinction in an acceptable sense, they attempt to give the people the deadly poison of Pelagianism.”

Matt’s point, which is well made, is that this citation says nothing at all about any “limitations” to the atonement. He’s right: it doesn’t. It simply says that the difference between those who believe and those who don’t is not “free choice” but a “unique gift of mercy” – which is effectively a restatement of Unconditional Election. The question to be asked here, then, is: why five points at all? Matt believes in five point Calvinism, but if he is to take the wording of the Canons of Dordt as his only launchpad for it, he should properly be a four point Calvinist on the basis of the above text: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints. TUIP might not be as catchy, but on his reading (and mine) it would be truer to what the relevant paragraph actually said.

So why five points at all? The reason for the fifth point is probably that Dordt made this statement in response to the second Article of Remonstrance, and in doing so, implied a correction to the Arminians’ statement:
“That, agreeably thereto, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption, and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer.”

From reading Matt’s article, I’m not sure whether he believes (a) the Remonstrants were wrong that Christ died for all men, and needed correction, or (b) the Remonstrants were right, and they didn’t. So my question for him is: is the Remonstrants’ statement above - that Christ died for all but only believers enjoy the benefits of it - true, or false? If he says it is true, then I am with him all the way, and simply express my puzzlement that he sees the need for a fifth point of Calvinism at all. If he says it is false, because Christ’s death is not actually for all people, then I submit that the label “Limited Atonement”, even though not expressed in the Canons of Dordt, fits him like a glove, whether he likes the language or not. (The five-point Calvinist, on top of saying that “unique mercy” is required to believe, typically makes the additional claim that the death of Christ is not for everyone, thus shifting the ground from the predestining work of the Father (U) and the regenerating work of the Spirit (I) to the atoning work of the Son (L). For my part, I simply cannot find any scriptural text anywhere that indicates this is true, or that indicates the Second Article of Remonstrance requires any correction whatsoever.)

“So why five points at all?” Precisely because there were five articles of Remonstrance, and the Canons of Dordt correspond numerically to these (although the order in which we discuss them doesn’t always follow the order they were written in – as is the case with TULIP). You seem to be arguing that the second point of Dordt which deals with the nature of the atonement is so similar to the first point that deals with divine election that we are really only left with four points; but I disagree and think this is a key point of its own, as did the Synod of Dordt.
You ask whether I consider this statement of the Remonstrance to be true or false. To which I say that its emphasis is false, placing as it does salvation in the hands of those who are dead in their sins rather than in the hands of God who alone can bring the dead to life. To which I guess you would respond, “Stop squirming – I submit that the label “Limited Atonement”, even though not expressed in the Canons of Dordt, fits [you] like a glove, whether [you] like the language or not.” To which I say, that is a slightly silly argument!

Look at it this way… you spend your time writing books that seek to tell the gospel story in language that is as attractive, generous and contextualized as can be. If you didn’t believe that the language we use and the way in which we use it is important I imagine you wouldn’t write these books but would simply distribute tracts with the summary statement, “Turn or burn!” After all, you can dress your apologetic arguments up all you like, but that is what you really mean – it fits you like a glove. So to borrow your favourite one-word put down, all I can say to this particular argument is, “Bunk!”

Limited Atonement is not a helpful phrase and one I choose not to use. Whereas I am very happy to say along with Spurgeon, “Nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross.” And with Dordt, “All who genuinely believe and are delivered and saved by Christ’s death from their sins and from destruction receive this favor solely from God’s grace – which he owes to no one – given to them in Christ from eternity.” And with the Westminster Confession, “The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, has fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for those whom the Father has given unto Him…To all those for whom Christ has purchased redemption, He does certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; making intercession for them, and revealing unto them, in and by the word, the mysteries of salvation; effectually persuading them by His Spirit to believe and obey, and governing their hearts by His word and Spirit; overcoming all their enemies by His almighty power and wisdom, in such manner, and ways, as are most consonant to His wonderful and unsearchable dispensation.”

Moreover, I’m not sure that TULIP is as unfair a representation of five-point Calvinism as Matt implies. Leading Calvinists today frequently express Calvinism in those terms, and when asked to defend the L, use exactly the same blend of logical inference and texts-that-don’t-really-say-that (John 10:11 et al) as we heard at THINK (mentioning no names!).

I think I’ve already dealt with this to some degree, but your point that leading Calvinists today “frequently express Calvinism” in terms of the TULIP and the implication that that means I have to as well is a logical fallacy. Why should I feel so compelled? The reality is that there are a number of contemporary Calvinist authors who are deliberately shunning the TULIP, for reasons similar to mine; while those who still stick to it invariable qualify it, and besides, the great historical Calvinists from Calvin, to the Synod of Dordrecht, to the divines of the Westminster Assembly, to B.B. Warfield never used it. So if you want to play ‘Celebrity Theologian Top Trumps’ with that one I am going to win every time!

What of those texts that support particular redemption? You seem to have a particular bugbear about John 10:11 (“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”) but I don’t see why. In the context of Jesus’s audience no one would have thought to ask, “Does this mean only his sheep, or all sheep?” since an Israelite shepherd would have known his sheep – by name! – it would have only made sense for Jesus to be speaking of specific sheep. (If that weren’t the case the parable of the lost sheep would make no sense either.) The charge that Calvinists use “logical inference and texts-that-don’t-really-say-that” isn’t really on. Multiple scriptures (E.g., John 6:35-40; 17:1-11, 20, 24-26; Eph 1:3-10; 5:25-27; 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 2:24) point us in the direction of particular redemption. And you well know that when it comes to the “logical inference” charge the JWs would say that your views of the Trinity are merely inference and liberal theologians would say the same thing about your sexual ethics, so you need to be careful here.

It is worth pointing out, again, what the Canons of Dordt actually say about the universality of the atonement, that the,

Death of God’s Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.

But the Canons go on to state that the atonement is not for all by rejecting those,

Who make use of the distinction between obtaining and applying in order to instill in the unwary and inexperienced the opinion that God, as far as he is concerned, wished to bestow equally upon all people the benefits which are gained by Christ’s death.

What we see here is that the primary concern of Calvinism is not to say, “Christ didn’t die for you,” but that the Christian can say, “Christ died for me!” This is another reason why the phrase Limited Atonement is unhelpful – it takes what is a positive teaching and makes it sound wholly negative.

Not only that, but Matt’s article quotes Carl Trueman’s robust defence of Limited Atonement, which includes the L-word in its noun form, and Matt strongly implies he agrees with it. All of which is to say that, when Matt objects to the term “Limited Atonement”, I can’t tell whether that is because he doesn’t agree with the doctrine (as implied by his insistence that the Canons of Dordt don’t teach it), or because he agrees with it but doesn’t think it sounds very nice (as implied by his apparent affirmation of Carl Trueman). Humph.

Well we’re going over the same ground here. See above!

One final point to raise: Trueman’s defence of Limited Atonement, which Matt quotes in support, is (with the greatest respect to two of my favourite bloggers), very weak. He says:

“The claim is that Amyraldian [= four point Calvinist] views of atonement allow the evangelist or the pastor to say to the people in an unequivocal way that then undergirds both evangelism and assurance, “Christ died for you!” Anyone who understands the Amyraldian scheme, however, is not going to be impressed by such an answer; what they will really want to know is whether Christ is interceding for them. The problem of limitation has simply been shifted from Calvary to the right hand of God the Father.”

The reason I say this is weak is that the “problem of limitation” is shifted from Calvary to the right hand of the Father, not by Amyraldians, but by Scripture itself. The idea that Jesus died for everyone, but intercedes for the elect only, comes from the Bible, not from four-point Calvinists. The two biblical passages that speak directly of the intercession of Christ make it clear that believers, rather than all people, are the focus of his prayers (Rom 8:33-34; Heb 7:25). The death of Christ, however, is regularly said to be for “all”, and nowhere limited to the elect. So when Trueman says that Amyraldians believe Christ died for every person but aren’t sure if he is praying for every person, I happily concede the point. But from what I can tell, Paul and Hebrews would agree. (It’s also worth saying that, when I tell unbelievers that Jesus died for them, they never sound unimpressed because they aren’t sure if Jesus is interceding for them. Believing in Limited Atonement does, I think, make preaching the gospel harder than Limited Intercession would). So: either we say that Christ died for all, and become four-point Calvinists (like Calvin), or we say that he only died for some, and face the fact that Limited Atonement is a good description of what we actually believe (like Trueman). But I’m not sure we have the option of retaining the five points, and binning the acronym because we don’t like the sound of it. A TULIP by any other name would smell as fishy.

While lightly passing over your anachronistic statement about Calvin being a 4-pointer, I think you’re simply missing the point here (even though you are one of my favourite bloggers too!). The problem of limitation is a problem for us all, for 4-pointers and Arminians as much as it is for 5-pointers – it’s just where you place it. To say that Christ died for all (truly, specifically, everyone) but then only intercedes for some gives you as much of a problem of limitation as recognizing particular redemption. I think it leaves you, in effect, having to say something like, “Jesus died for you – Yes, you! Specifically! But it might be that you are not among the elect, in which case that death that atoned for you didn’t really atone for you at all.” This is why the best alternative to 5-pointism is not some variant of Arminianism but universalism. (Although, it was of course the easy progression from Arminianism to universalism that concerned the Synod of Dordt.)

I’m also not sure about the “preaching gets harder” argument. As I stated in my first post I understand that – practically – this is where we often stumble over the idea of particular redemption, but perhaps we need to rethink how we preach the gospel anyway. In the two most famous ‘gospel sermons’ from the book of Acts we find Peter saying to the Jews, “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38), and Paul saying to the Greeks, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). A belief in particular redemption in no way prevents me from saying those things either.

Of course, the bigger question behind all this is whether Christ died for “everyone” or “someone.” “Everyone” sounds preferable to us – nicer, kinder, more tolerant – but actually offers us no hope at all. If Christ’s death wasn’t specifically for me how can I know that it is efficacious for me? It is like the difference between me saying, “I love children,” and “I love my children.” A general love of children doesn’t mean anything. It has no impact at all. It changes no one’s life. Whereas the love I have for my children is very specific, and very tangible – it makes things happen. And this is the kind of love with which I know Christ loves me. So a nervousness about claiming the specificity of Christ’s sacrifice in order to be able to offer an apparently more generous universal sacrifice in the end means that nothing is offered – it makes Jesus no more than an inspiring example of personal sacrifice, rather than the saviour of his chosen people.
So no fish, and no TULIP, but five points made by the Synod of Dordt that more adequately express the hope of the gospel than do the five points of the Remonstrance.

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