On the Absurdity of Calvinism, part 6 of 7: Theological Unsavoriness

part 5, Evangelical Doublethink.

Few would argue that Calvinism is something of an “acquired taste”. Many Calvinists admit to being put off by the doctrine at first, until they explored it further and became convinced of it. I can’t see how anyone could read the Bible and find Calvinism independently of external theological influence (see part 4). Personally, it’s a flavor I just can’t appreciate, like cilantro. Every time I chew it, the taste it leaves in my mouth in just awful.

Ultimately, it all boils down to limited atonement. Packer states in his essay that Owen’s book, on the surface, appears to be just a defense of this doctrinal point (though he assures the reader it is truly much more than that). And, as we all agree, the simple fact of five-point Calvinism is that all five points are really the same thing (or come from the same root). But, inasmuch as is possible, let’s hone in on this middle one. [15] Limited atonement is disgusting. There’s really no other way for me to put it. I find it unscriptural, offensive to the character of God, antithetical to the open call of the Gospel, and philosophically necessitating other ugly consequences.

Scripture is, as usual, divided on the subject. We can claim plenty of verses to support the concept, like Matthew 26:28 (Jesus’s blood is “poured out for many”, not all!), Mark 10:45 (Jesus’s life is “a ransom for many”, not all!), and Ephesians 5:25 (Jesus gave Himself for the church, not the world!), among others. But we can also see plenty of verses pointing to the openness of atonement, such as John 1:29 (the Lamb of God “takes away the sin of the world”), 2 Corinthians 5:14 (“Christ died for all”, not many!), 1 Timothy 2:6 (Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all”, not many!), and of course 1 John 2:2 (Jesus is the atoning sacrifice “not only for our sins but also for the whole world”). How then can we reconcile these conflicting passages? If we assume limited atonement, the latter verses become rather convoluted to explain away. But if we assume unlimited atonement, the former verses still retain a clear meaning, if we consider them in terms of practical effect. If Jesus died for the sins of everyone, but we know that not everyone will come to salvation through this act, then it is still true that His blood is a ransom for “many”, particularly, the church as the whole of all believers throughout time. Beyond that, the entire semantic discussion of “many” versus “all” is essentially rendered moot by Paul in Romans 5:12-19, in which he uses the two interchangeably. In verse 15, “the many died through the transgression of the one man”, but in verse 18, “condemnation for all people came through one transgression”; in verse 19, “many will be made righteous”, but in verse 18, “righteousness leading to life for all people” has come.

For other scriptural rebuttals, click again back to part 4 and read the paragraphs about believers falling away; if the atonement is limited because it must be effectual, then it would look pretty bad if that atonement were rendered impotent. But for one last Biblical glance, take a look at Hebrews 10:26-27, which states that “if we deliberately keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no further sacrifice for sins is left for us, but only a certain fearful expectation of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume God’s enemies.” The end makes it clear that the author is referring to the prospect of separation from God, yet the discourse is about individuals who give up their faith and their portion in Christ’s sacrifice; there is no further sacrifice for them because the sacrifice of Jesus is the only one necessary. This language makes it seem clear enough that the atonement covers these people, even with the possibility that they will be consumed in God’s fiery fury.

The offensiveness of limited atonement mostly overlaps with things I’ve discussed in previous posts. If God wants everyone to be saved, why would He only provide atonement for some? If the Gospel is to be preached to all people, why is it completely false for a large portion of the population? You can’t tell people Jesus died for their sins unless He really died for everyone’s sins. Furthermore, [16] reprobation, or “double predestination”, is a natural corollary of limited atonement. There is no Lutheran-style cop-out of “single predestination”; it simply doesn’t exist. If you believe that 1) God chose whom He will sovereignly save, and 2) the only two possibilities are salvation and damnation, then it follows that those who are not saved are damned. There is no excuse, no way to dance around that. To say “God has chosen to save some and not to save others” is identical to saying “God has chosen to damn some and not to damn others.” They are the same sentence (in terms of their result, if not their character). What does this say about God? It leads to a piece of mathematical nonsense that I like to call “the divine proportion”. [17] If God is perfect, and He sovereignly chose to save some of humankind and not others for the purpose of glorifying Himself, then there is a “divine proportion” that optimizes the amount of glory God would receive, and He chose exactly this proportion of people to save. Let’s throw out a number: 20% (0.2, for my mathematicians who will remind me that a proportion lies between 0 and 1). If the ultimate purpose of God is God’s glory, and He saved 20% of all humans over all history, then we must believe that it would not have been as glorifying to God for Him to save 25%, or 10%, or (more importantly) 100%. Why wouldn’t God save everyone? Well, it must not be as glorifying. Sure, that makes sense. If everyone is saved, what’s the point? What’s the consequence of sin? What’s the purpose of Christ? And so on. But…why not 99%? Why not any other number? Why does the world exist anyway? The concept collapses from its ridiculousness.

We should be aware that the discussion here is not really about the limitedness of the atonement, since both sides actually believe the atonement in limited in some capacity. Calvinists believe the atonement is limited in scope but not effect; bundled up in the atonement is the complete effectual work of salvation, which must therefore mean it is only for the elect who will be saved by it. Non-Calvinists believe the atonement is limited in effect but not scope; the atonement made salvation possible but did not actually accomplish it, and therefore freely applies to everyone. (To believe that the atonement was unlimited in scope AND effect would result in a flavor of universalism, which is a defensible theory, but I won’t wander down that path here.) Calvinism, ever fixated with depth over breadth, contends that the latter is more offensive to God’s character. I argue that [18] limiting the breadth of the atonement is a far more damaging blow to the power of God than limiting its effectiveness. The truth is, the non-Calvinist position does not limit the power of the atonement. It is still the power of Christ’s death and resurrection that saves sinners.

Let’s use another analogy to help us understand. Imagine a very, very wealthy woman wants to do some good for some less fortunate people. She wants to help underprivileged children get a college education. Here’s two ways she could do that. On the one hand, she could select a handful of high school kids and say “I’m going to make sure you get into college, and I’m going to completely pay for it. Tuition, room, board, books, everything. It’s on me.” That’s really fantastic!…for those kids. On the other hand, this lady could set up a scholarship foundation of sorts open to all, and kids could apply to have their college paid for, and every single person who applied would be accepted – the über-rich woman would totally pay for all their college bills. In the first case, some kids are guaranteed to get the full ride through college, but all the rest are out of luck. In the second case, nobody is guaranteed, but there’s no limit on who could get the full ride – and you have to believe that once word got around, people would start taking her up on the offer.

Which makes more sense? Which is really the more generous, the more merciful, the more powerful view of philanthropy? And surely you can see how the question directly relates to your view of the atonement. Whose “limited” atonement is really more powerful?

Coming from a different direction, it is important to note that there are alternate perspectives of the cross that downplay the entire concept of “satisfactionary atonement”, such as the Christus Victor view. This sees the purpose of the death and resurrection of Christ as bringing victory over the enslaving powers of sin and death, and not simply satisfying the wrath of God. And before you write that off as some  heterodox new-age interpretation, realize that this was the predominant view of the Church for ten centuries, whereas penal substitution was formulated by Anselm in the 11th century and only fully developed during the Protestant Reformation. Scripture has some beautiful verses aligned with Christus Victor, including Colossians 1:13 (God transferred us from the power of darkness to the Kingdom of the Son), Colossians 2:15 (Christ disarmed, disgraced, and triumphed over the rulers and authorities in the cross), Hebrews 2:14 (Christ’s death destroyed the devil who holds the power of death), and 1 John 3:8 (the purpose of Christ was to destroy the works of the devil). Naturally, one could point to several verses affirming the satisfactionary view as well, but at the very least we can agree that this view cannot be the whole story. For a more in-depth exploration and contrast of these views, check out this series of posts which explains things very well. (I may not agree with it 100%, but it still does a wonderful job.) My point is, “limited” versus “unlimited” atonement presupposes the satisfactionary view; [19] if one holds even partially to Christus Victor, the idea of atonement-as-defeat-of-evil-powers being “limited” is nonsense. Did Christ defeat the powers of sin and death only for the elect? Such a statement is meaningless. These powers exist apart from individual people, elect or non-elect, so the scope of salvation has no bearing on their destruction. To believe only Christus Victor and still hold on to limited atonement is impossible; to believe that both penal substitution and Christus Victor are valid and give weight to both views, a Calvinist would have to say the cross defeated the powers of sin and death in the world yet only effectually brought salvation for the elect, which is a strange hybrid of limited and unlimited effect – not impossible, just quite a convoluted blend of ideas.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: On the Absurdity of Calvinism, part 7 of 7: Unanswered Questions « Not By Hands
  2. Trackback: On The Absurdity Of Calvinism, part 1 of 7: Introduction | Not By Hands

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