Two Tales of a Doctrine: Reviewing Definite Atonement
Article byJanuary 2014
David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, eds. From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013.
Shelf Life Editor's Note: This week we offer something slightly new. Tom McCall (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) and Aaron Denlinger (Reformation Bible College) each provide their own review of the new edited work by David and Jonathan Gibson. Tom and Aaron hold differing views on the issue but what they offer us is the opportunity to see how they each analyze the concerns and theological commitments that attend the history of definite atonement's development as well as the pastoral sensitivities that are bound up with the doctrine.
Our book review section, Shelf Life, seeks to function as a kind of common room that draws reviewers and readers into a conversation of ideas. In this instance, we see this worked out between two reviewers. I'm delighted Tom and Aaron have accepted the challenge to review such an important - not to mention, large - work. Since the theme of the book finds a more comfortable and welcome home here at Ref21, I've decided to begin with Aaron's review and allow Tom to have the final word.
This multi-authored volume, edited by brothers David and Jonathan Gibson, is a carefully ordered exposition and defense of the teaching that Jesus Christ--in harmony with his Father's intention, the effectual call and regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, and his own High Priestly role as intercessor for believers--secured perfect and full salvation for, and only for, his chosen people by his death upon the cross. It is, in other words, a defense of the doctrine of definite atonement, a.k.a. the doctrine of particular redemption, or less helpfully if more popularly, the doctrine of limited atonement.
The first of four overarching sections in the book examines the historical development of this doctrine. Chapters from Michael Haykin and David Hogg consider patristic and medieval teachings on the extent of the atonement in turn. Certain church fathers are shown to have anticipated aspects of the early modern doctrine of definite atonement, especially in their interpretation of the biblical terms "many," "all," and "the (whole) world"--terms naming the beneficiaries of Christ's redeeming work--as designations of believers. A more thoroughly defined doctrine of definite atonement developed in the Middle Ages, when theologians began to advance a distinction between the sufficiency and the efficiency of Christ's satisfaction, limiting the latter to the elect. Paul Helm navigates the treacherous historiographical waters of John Calvin's teaching on the extent of the atonement, ultimately defending the view that numerous elements of Calvin's theology are consonant with--and only with--the doctrine of definite atonement, even if the reformer never explicitly addressed the exact issue of the atonement's extent.
Raymond Blacketer debunks the myth that Theodore Beza radically departed from Calvin's teaching on this matter by both contextualizing and carefully examining Beza's actual teaching, concluding that "neither Calvin nor Beza provide a fully elaborated doctrine of the extent of Christ's redemption, though they share a discernible tendency towards particularism" (p. 140). Debate over the extent of the atonement at the international synod of Reformed divines at Dordt (1618-1619), when the issue was brought to the foreground by the controversy surrounding Jacob Arminius's teaching, is covered by Lee Gatiss. Amar Djaballah explores the doctrine of Moïse Amyraut, seventeenth-century proponent of an atonement theory--or more precisely, one peculiar version of it--which is generally labelled "hypothetical universalism," and was championed by numerous Reformed divines over against the doctrine of definite atonement held by their peers. Djaballah's chapter is perfectly complemented by Carl Trueman's subsequent treatment of John Owen, arguably the most famous seventeenth-century proponent of definite atonement.
Section Two, titled "Definite Atonement in the Bible," follows a canonical pattern. Paul Williamson and J. Alec Motyer offer Old Testament studies exploring implications of Israel's sacrificial practices and the Servant Songs of Isaiah for questions concerning the scope of the true Lamb of God's atonement. Matthew Harmon's survey of the Synoptic Gospels and Johannine Literature highlights the ultimate purpose (the glory of God) and eventual outcome (the salvation of God's people) of Christ's sacrificial death, arguing from both themes for a definite extent to the atonement. Jonathan Gibson contributes two chapters looking at Paul's writings: the first examines in turn Pauline texts which ascribe a particular reference to Christ's redeeming work and those which appear to ascribe a universal reference to the same; the second explores Pauline concepts (union with Christ, the Trinity, etc.) which necessarily impinge upon the question of the atonement's extent. Thomas Schreiner concludes the section on Scripture by considering "problematic texts" for the doctrine of definite atonement--texts, that is, which seem to assert that Christ died for all persons indiscriminately or even specifically for some who perish--and showing how they might be faithfully interpreted in ways that harmonize with an understanding of definite atonement.
Donald Macleod inaugurates the section titled "Definite Atonement in Theological Perspective" with a thorough and precise taxonomy of positions relating Christ's atonement to God's eternal decree(s), ultimately claiming that definite atonement best reflects the coherence of the Triune God's purpose of salvation and the "organic unity" of that purpose's realization (p. 434). Robert Letham's chapter on the Trinity, incarnation, and the atonement sounds a similar note, arguing somewhat more polemically that views on the atonement by Reformed hypothetical universalists and the Torrance brothers (James and T.F.) impute discord to the divine purpose. Garry Williams supplies two chapters to the cause: the first seeks to demonstrate, by means of a somewhat curious engagement with hypothetical universalists both old and new, that a doctrine of indefinite (universal) atonement ultimately undermines the nature of the atonement as a vicarious, penal substitution per se; the second (and far more compelling, in my judgment) aims to revive the argument that God cannot punish the same sin twice (and therefore cannot condemn one for whom Christ has died) by means of a careful consideration of precisely what the biblical, metaphorical language of sin as debt entails. Stephen Wellum argues for definite atonement on the basis of the consistency of Christ's priestly office: those for whom Christ intercedes as High Priest (believers) are those for whom Christ as High Priest offered himself as a sacrifice for sins. Henri Blocher's chapter, concluding the third section, eventually argues for definite atonement on the basis of Christ's proper humanity and federal headship, but supplies a fair bit of reflection on the nature of systematic theology and dogmatic claims en route to that point, and thus might have been more suitably situated first in the order of theological essays.
The book's final, and briefest, section examines the doctrine of definite atonement in pastoral practice. Daniel Strange reinforces a point made repeatedly throughout the volume, that definite atonement is perfectly compatible with universal proclamation of the gospel. In that process Strange problematizes the claim that universal atonement sits more comfortably with gospel proclamation by considering the theological implications of universal atonement for those who never hear the gospel. Sinclair Ferguson argues that the doctrine of definite atonement actually grounds, rather than destroys, believers' assurance of their eternal salvation. John Piper's chapter revisits a number of theological points developed throughout the volume, culminating in reflection upon the practical benefits of a firm grasp of definite atonement and, thus, the value of preaching the same to one's congregation.
From Heaven He Came and Sought Her has been lauded as "the most impressive defense of definite atonement in over a century" (Michael Horton). I'd be willing to go a bit further and name it as the best defense of definite atonement at least since John Owen's magisterial work The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (1647). Indeed, it may even rival that work. I suspect that both the editors and contributors of this book might baulk at having their collective effort compared to Owen's work as equals. I would, however, defend my claim partially on the basis of certain characteristics of the work which I will shortly identify, and partially on the premise that when standing on the shoulders of theological giants, we--theological midgets that we are--see ever-so-slightly further than they.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, strength of this work I would note is that it is in fact a collective effort. This book provides powerful testimony to what twenty-odd specialists can accomplish when they coordinate their efforts in defense of a clearly identifiable and sustained thesis. The point is worth making even if only to counter the increasingly frequent complaints one hears, especially in academic circles, about the "over-specialization" (and so implied irrelevancy) of scholars, including those working in the divine sciences. Specialization, this book reminds us, can produce tremendous results, particularly when specialists combine their talents to say something definite (pardon the pun). In this vein, it should be noted that the focused and ordered nature of the contributions to this volume set it apart from a world of scholarly, multi-authored volumes which provide an offering of rather loosely if thematically related essays. Credit here belongs to the editors for obviously setting very specific agendas for the contributors. It's difficult to imagine any single-authored volume, even from an early modern "renaissance man" like Owen, that could compete with this work in terms of the knowledge displayed in each of the theological disciplines (historical, biblical, systematic, and practical). Moreover, our present day philosophical climate, for better or worse, renders readers more receptive to an argument advanced by a chorus of theologians than to a single voice. This volume, then, meets the needs of our day in more ways than one.
A second strength lies in the very intentional effort of the editors and contributors to transcend "biblicist" arguments for or against definite atonement. This book is decidedly not a contribution to a proof-text war, accumulating texts that name a particular reference for Christ's sacrificial work in order to counter those which apparently name a universal reference. Indeed, in several ways this book subverts biblicism--the naïve and somewhat vague belief, alive and well in evangelical circles, that biblical texts should be approached without any dogmatic assumptions, as if already having some theological ideas in place when reading a text could only serve to distort the reader's understanding of what is written. It subverts biblicism by its appreciation for biblical theology; that is, by its sensitivity both to the progressive unfolding of redemptive history and to the coherence of redemptive history as it anticipates and finds its fulfillment in Christ, and so awareness of the relevance that, say, Pentateuchal sacrifices have, by virtue of their typological relationship to Christ's sacrifice, to debate over the extent of the atonement. It subverts biblicism even more so by its sensitivity to what Jonathan Gibson calls the "symbiotic relationship between exegesis and constructive theology" (p. 332). The contributors to this volume realize, in other words, that dogmatic convictions necessarily and properly inform exegesis, even while they are continually shaped by the same. Thus, the contributors to this volume recognize the validity of asking not only whether Scripture explicitly says that Jesus died exclusively for the elect, but also whether that dogmatic claim illumines biblical passages which speak not only to the extent but also to the nature of Christ's redeeming work, and to related matters. It's likely that this volume, characterized by such an understanding of how exegesis and systematic theology mutually inform one another, will expose the fundamental methodological disagreement that underlies much evangelical bickering over the doctrine which is its theme.
A third and closely related strength of the book lies in its sensitivity to the nature of systematic theology per se. Proper awareness of the interconnections between theological claims--that is, to the systematic nature of Christian doctrine as such--informs the entire volume, and is part of the reason, I suspect, that the section on definite atonement in theological perspective rivals that on Scripture in length. Critics will very likely find opportunity here to make cheap remarks about the proclivity of Reformed theologians to impose some previously adopted theological grid upon Scripture towards the end of squeezing a pet dogma from specific texts. In reality, the breadth of the systematics section in this book provides testimony to the editors' proper sense for how many doctrines are implicated by one's position on the atonement's extent. When one says something about those for whom Christ died, one is saying something about divine purpose, the Trinity, the nature of the atonement, the priesthood of Christ, the Spirit's work in applying Christ's finished work, and so on. Any book on the extent of the atonement that fails to engage these related doctrines is grossly incomplete.
Having, I hope, made clear my admiration for this volume, I wish to highlight several very minor quibbles I have with it. The first relates to the editors' insistence in the Introduction that "there are many aspects of the atonement which need to be affirmed alongside its definite intent and nature: the sufficiency of Christ's death for all; the free and indiscriminate proclamation of the gospel to all; God's love for the non-elect and his salvific stance toward a fallen world; the atonement's implications for the entire cosmos and not simply the church" (p. 34; emphasis mine). This, it seems to me, is an incredibly important point, and I only wish the editors' insistence on affirming God's universal love and "salvific stance" towards all had informed the chapters of the book with slightly more consistency. To be sure, several of the chapters--most notably, Henri Blocher's--point explicitly and very helpfully to the necessary balance Reformed theologians must strike between affirming the peculiar efficacy of Christ's satisfaction for the elect and maintaining God's universal love and "salvific stance" towards all persons (see pp. 564-65). But elsewhere--albeit rarely--in the volume, the doctrine of definite atonement seems to be pitted somewhat sloppily against notions of a "universal salvific will of God" (p. 73) or "universal grace" (p. 101), as if these latter terms were synonymous with indefinite atonement (which they are not) or that they stand in necessary opposition to the doctrine of definite atonement (which, in Reformed theology, they do not). This, I think, is a case of careless word choice more than anything else. But given the ever-present danger in Reformed circles of persons slipping into some form of hyper-Calvinism (perhaps especially recent Reformed converts with just enough theological understanding to make them dangerous), extreme care and precision is necessary in these matters.
My second quibble with this volume relates to terminology. In the Foreword to the volume J. I. Packer rightly calls for both adherents and critics of Reformed theology to "lay TULIP to rest" (p. 16), raising specific concerns about the value of the central letter ("L") in the well-known mnemonic. His plea is not to abandon the doctrine which has for much recent history been labeled "limited atonement," but to recognize the manifold problems inherent in the use of that term to describe Reformed doctrine. The term serves as an unhelpful synonym for definite atonement (or particular redemption) since it orients our thoughts towards those who are excluded from Christ's efficacious work, when the point of the doctrine is to say something first and foremost about those who are included and what has been accomplished for them. For that matter, the term fails to really distinguish the particularist doctrine from most alternatives, since all but those who affirm universal salvation limit the efficacy of the atonement at some point in the movement from divine intention to the realization of final salvation for believers. The term also misrepresents the Canons of Dordt (upon which confessional text the mnemonic is purportedly based), which embody a doctrine of the atonement carefully constructed to satisfy both Reformed particularists (who deny that Christ made satisfaction in any way for the reprobate) and Reformed hypothetical universalists (who affirm that Christ did make satisfaction in some way for the reprobate). And when TULIP is more broadly identified as "the five points of Calvinism," it--most unfortunate of all--reduces Reformed theology to nothing more than five supposed heads (one of them poorly defined). This acronym also obscures the reality that these particular doctrinal teachings were advanced in the midst of a very specific theological controversy of the early seventeenth century.
I wholeheartedly endorse Packer's suggestion that we abandon the terminology of "TULIP" and/or "five points of Calvinism." It was frustrating then, in light of his plea, to find such terminology featured in a chapter of this book where it needed most to be avoided, Lee Gatiss's essay on Dordt. If Gatiss's point in claiming that hypothetical universalists "may also lay claim, historically speaking, to all five petals of the TULIP" (p. 163) is, as I take it, to say that hypothetical universalism lies within the doctrinal boundaries demarcated by Dordt, then I agree--much recent historical scholarship has made that very point. But the insistence on incorporating the language of "TULIP" at this juncture only confuses the matter. Hypothetical universalists decidedly rejected the notion of limited atonement as typically understood, since they affirmed that Christ's satisfaction had the reprobate as its reference in a very real way (rendering them "savable," and so rendering the invitation to them to believe in Christ as their Savior authentic). But they equally affirmed Dordt's teaching that Christ's satisfaction pertained to the elect in a peculiar way, fully securing their salvation. One could, then, perhaps say that hypothetical universalists, at least the early modern variety, affirmed particular redemption and/or definite atonement, but in no sense can they be said to have affirmed limited atonement. In the end, however, more is to be gained by carefully defining the various viewpoints of early modern Reformed divines than by affixing labels.
My third quibble follows naturally from the last. Blocher very appropriately reminds us in the introduction to his chapter that "we should try hard to hear the other conviction, with its strong points and its underlying concerns" (p. 541). I'm uncertain how well this principle was applied throughout the volume to the doctrine of those hypothetical universalists who, historically at least, stood within the Reformed theological tradition. The editors sound a rather ambivalent note regarding hypothetical universalism in the Introduction, describing it and Amyraldianism (a particular species of hypothetical universalism) as "awkward cousins"--but cousins nonetheless--"in the [Reformed] family." Yet, the editors sanction the adjective "Reformed" as a "way of locating [oneself] within the particularist trajectory," thus effectively denying hypothetical universalists the "Reformed" tag (p. 43, see n. 30). This ambivalence spills over into the entire volume. Most of the authors properly identify early modern hypothetical universalists, even when arguing against them, as persons "in the family," committed to a doctrine that their Reformed particularist peers at least deemed within confessional bounds. Some contributors to this volume, however, seem determined to push hypothetical universalism out of bounds, and in that process, I think, have failed "to hear the other conviction," or at least to represent it properly.
Part of the problem may very well be that hypothetical universalism itself comes in several historical varieties, and so requires greater definition than it is given in this volume. (Interested persons should consult Jonathan Moore's essay comparing atonement theories of John Davenant and John Owen in Michael Haykin and Mark Jones, eds., Drawn into Controversie, pp. 124-161). James Ussher's version of hypothetical universalism did affirm a singular, indefinite atonement, limited in its efficacy at the point of application to those elected to faith. Ussher's hypothetical universalism resembles, in this regard, Amyraut's, even if it lacks the speculative element concerning the ordo decretorum. But the bulk of hypothetical universalists--men like John Davenant, Matthias Martinius, and Robert Baron--acknowledged what Jonathan Moore has called a "dual aspect" in the atonement. According to their teaching Christ died for all persons to render them savable (this, indeed, is what to their thinking is meant by language of "the sufficiency" of Christ's death for all). Christ died in a peculiar way for the elect, to "effectually redeem" (Dordt) them--that is, to purchase their eternal salvation and the means (for example, the gift of faith) unto that end.
Given the peculiar efficacy of Christ's atonement for the elect which most hypothetical universalists affirmed, Jonathan Gibson's charge against hypothetical universalism, echoed by Letham, of rendering "the effectiveness of the atonement dependent upon faith" (albeit "God-elected, monergistic faith"), thus leaving "Christ's acquisition of salvation... in suspenso until a human condition is fulfilled," misses its mark (pp. 358, 440). Garry Williams's argument that hypothetical universalism is incompatible with penal substitution applies only to Ussher's doctrine of a singular, indefinite atonement (or modern versions of the same); it too misses the mark of most hypothetical universalists who quite obviously didn't feel the weight of Williams's insistence that "the choice must be made" between universal atonement and "actual punishment"/particular redemption, since they quite simply chose both. Likewise culpable of misrepresenting early modern hypothetical universalism is Gatiss, who describes Matthias Martinius, a Bremenese delegate to Dordt, as "inclined toward Remonstrant views, particularly on the atonement" (p. 155). It's unclear if Gatiss means to distinguish Martinius and his "Arminianizing opinions" from the English hypothetical universalists at Dordt, or if he believes such labels are applicable to all the hypothetical universalists present there. Either way, the labels are uncharitable and false. As attention to Martinius's iudicium on the second head of Dordt would demonstrate, Martinius was in accord with those English delegates who recognized a dual aspect in Christ's atonement and subscribed the final canons of the synod in good conscience (see the 1620 Acta Synoda Nationalis, 2:104-107). And, as those final canons and the historical process involved in reaching them make very clear, it was the corporate decision of Dordt's delegates that hypothetical universalism was not "Arminianizing." Gatiss's assertion that Article ii.8 of the Canons, with its affirmation that Christ effectually redeemed only the elect by his death, "left a back door open for Davenant and others by not technically denying an ultimately ineffectual universal redemption in addition to this" (p. 157) seems to impute a lack of real conviction to Davenant and like-minded divines concerning the peculiar efficacy of Christ's atonement for the elect. Macleod's observation that "Davenant is always more confident discussing the absolute decree to save the elect than he is when discussing the hypothetical decree to save everyone" (p. 426) might be brought to Davenant's defense in this regard.
My intention with these comments is not to defend the doctrine of hypothetical universalism. Several authors in the book demonstrate an excellent understanding of that doctrine, and on the basis of that understanding raise very compelling objections to it (for example, noting the potential disharmony it introduces to divine purpose, the Trinity's works ad extra, and Christ's priestly office). My intention, rather, is to press home the necessity of accurately representing those with whom one disagrees. As I often tell my students (and, even more often, need to remind myself), it's not okay to bear false witness against thy neighbor even if he has been dead for several centuries. In sum, I think that hypothetical universalism, at least in its early modern Reformed variety, is occasionally misunderstood and/or misrepresented in this volume.
Having devoted too much space to this last point, I conclude with one final quibble. It relates to the polemical sections--which are numerous--in this book. I wonder whether the various polemical partners engaged throughout this book--especially hypothetical universalists (both old and new), but also, for example, John McLeod Campbell, Karl Barth, the Torrances, and Bruce McCormack--really warrant the amount of space and argument devoted to them in this particular book. Of course, competing theories of the atonement each warrant engagement in some venue. But in this volume, I wonder if more space shouldn't have been devoted to problematizing and deconstructing what strikes me as the default position of most evangelical Christians on the atonement; namely, that Christ's atonement had the singular purpose of making salvation possible for each and every individual, thereby placing the onus on each and every individual to appropriate Christ's salvific work by the exercise of his or her own free choice.
Of course, the chapters of this book do ultimately problematize and deconstruct that default view, even if at times they seem preoccupied with other (worthier?) atonement theories. They do so by consistently and persuasively setting before the eyes of readers "a Savior who saves, a cross that effectively accomplishes and secures all the gracious promises of the new covenant, and a redemption that does not fail" (p. 539). "The only appropriate response on our part is worship," notes Harmon (p. 288). Indeed. This book elicits just that.
Aaron Denlinger is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College, having previously taught at the University of Aberdeen. He is the editor of a forthcoming collection of essays titled Reformed Orthodoxy in Scotland: Essays on Scottish Theology c.1560-c.1775 (T&T Clark).
The question of the extent of Christ's atoning work has been a source of debate for a very long time. From the advance press and glowing recommendations, one might be tempted to think that the release of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her will bring closure to that debate. But I doubt it; I take it that the release of this book will result in the prolongation and intensification of that debate. The massive and handsome tome is helpfully organized into Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral sections, and these brief observations shall largely follow the organization.
The historical section is, frankly, a mixed bag. Some of it is very good indeed; the essays on Theodore Beza (by Raymond Blacketer), the Synod of Dordt (Lee Gratiss), and John Owen (Carl Trueman) are simply stellar. The essays on patristic (by Michael A. G. Haykin) and medieval (David Hogg) theology, on the other hand, are beset with some real problems. For while they have some good insights and raise some helpful cautions (about over-reading historical texts with the assumption that they all support universal atonement), there are several persistent problems in these essays. The reader is left with questions about selectivity, and it is easy to gain the impression that the authors have done little more than sift through the sources looking for material that is favorable to their perspective. Readers are left with very little clear sense of how, say, Jerome and Augustine (here read as favorable to DA) fit into the broader period - are they truly representative, idiosyncratic, or just what? Moreover, there is no discussion of important theologians who would seem to disagree (e.g., John of Damascus says that anyone who perishes does so only "after God has done all that was possible to save him"). More problematic is the omission of consideration of formal ecclesial statements that deal with this and closely related issues; whatever theological judgments one might make of Arles's (473) outright rejection of DA (or, for that matter, of Orange's (529) anathematization of predestination to evil), surely some mention is warranted. More troubling yet are the deep misunderstandings. Hogg appeals to Lombard's famous distinction between "sufficiency" (for all) and "efficiency" (for the elect) as evidence that "definite atonement was not a minority view in the medieval church" (p. 89). But such a conclusion does not follow at all; indeed the claim is problematic for several reasons. Arminians and Remonstrants can - and did - appeal to this distinction too, for it articulates their position nicely. So apart from the worries about anachronism, this hardly shows that Lombard was committed to (what would become) the Reformed doctrine.
Moreover, as Blacketer (pp. 135-136), Gratiss (pp. 149-152), and Blocher (p. 547 n27) all point out, many Reformed theologians were either ambivalent about or actively opposed to Lombard's formula. So it is hard indeed to see how it might function as proof that Lombard might be enlisted in support of DA. It does nothing to show that DA wasn't a minority view. Far better is the statement of Blacketer (unfortunately relegated by Hogg to a footnote) that the forerunner of DA in patristic and medieval theology is "a minority position and is frequently ambiguous" (p. 75 n1). Historical misunderstandings weaken several essays in other sections as well; for instance, Donald Macleod aggressively criticizes "Arminianism," but he scarcely mentions Arminius (p. 404) and never bothers to cite him directly; he cites him twice from work by Roger Olson - who relies upon an inferior translation (from Latin into English) of an old translation (from Dutch into Latin). This wouldn't be so bad if Macleod were not misunderstanding Arminianism so awfully, but it weakens his polemic substantially (although one must admit that he does better than John Piper, for Piper manages to criticize Arminianism without so much as mentioning an Arminian exegete or theologian). It is too bad that such missteps hurt the book, for such enthusiastic misunderstandings might mislead readers who are not already acquainted with the history, and, on the other hand, they could tempt more informed readers to conclude that work this shoddy simply is not worthy of their time. Either way, this would be a shame.
Discussion of relevant biblical texts (and, refreshingly, how these fit into the canonical sweep of biblical theology) is at the heart of this project. Much of the work done here is defensive - not in tone but in posture, as the authors seek to "play defense" against biblical arguments in favor of universal atonement. Here I judge the arguments in favor of DA to have varying degrees of success. Paul R. Williamson's essay on the Pentateuch faces an uphill climb (as he admits), and while the chapter contains many valuable insights, I can't see how he gets all the way to the top of the hill. J. Alec Motyer's essay on Isaiah's Suffering Servant, on the other hand, makes a plausible case that Isaiah is speaking about a definite group (whether or not this means that no one else might be included is, of course, another matter). Matthew Harmon's essay on the Synoptics and Johannine theology moves rather too quickly (no doubt due to limitations of space) over several crucial passages, but nonetheless contains several provocative and promising observations. The work by Jonathan Gibson and Thomas Schreiner on the theologies of the New Testament is interesting, and here we have illustrations of what I take to be both the successes and limits of this section. For instance, I found Gibson's treatment of Romans 5:12-21 (pp. 295-301) largely compelling and indeed quite helpful, while his appeal to the non-salvific sense of "save" in 1 Tim 4:10 (p. 318) struck me as very quick, exegetically unwarranted, and ad hoc. Interestingly, Schreiner criticizes this interpretation too (pp. 383-385); whether or not Schreiner's own interpretation (that this merely illustrates God's "salvific stance") might fare better on exegetical and theological grounds is an open question.
The theological arguments are also varied in both content and quality. Macleod's essay is quite polemical, but it is beset by ambiguity at several key points. Consequently, his conclusion summarizes his two main arguments, but I couldn't see how these rule out (some) alternative views. Robert Letham's typically learned discussion raises several important concerns and interesting arguments, but some of the arguments (particularly those against the Torrances) move much too quickly and would be much better if tightened. Garry Williams has some excellent insights; because he largely presupposes an overall Reformed account of election, however, his conclusions seem much more pertinent to "Four Point Calvinism" than to other views. Stephen Wellum makes a well-informed and well-reasoned case for DA from covenant theology, and those who share his view of the covenants will need to take his work seriously. Henri Blocher's essay is erudite and penetrating in several ways; it also largely presupposes a broadly traditional Reformed ordo salutis (and thus is less relevant to traditional Arminians and even Barthians) and makes some massive claims about evil and reprobation that are neither explained nor supported by argument.
Turning to pastoral concerns, Daniel Strange raises questions about the relation of the unevangelized to the extent of the atonement, and he concludes that DA avoids the problems engendered by the doctrine of universal atonement. He does not, however, deal at all with several options (e.g., the "transworld damnation" Molinist proposal of William Lane Craig) that are being proposed in the current discussion, and his argument suffers for such omissions. Sinclair Ferguson addresses the question of Christian assurance in the theologically-informed and pastorally-sensitive manner for which he is famous. Unfortunately, the vast majority of his essay is dedicated to criticism of the theology of John McLeod Campbell, and he doesn't do much to address the pressing issue at hand. He does affirm that "Christ's propitiation of the Father's wrath at Calvary (Rom 3:25) ensures that we will not - cannot! - receive God's wrath on the last day" (p. 628), but he does not address the true identity of the "we." But is not this the real concern with assurance? According to the Reformed ordo, of course the elect (for whom Christ died) will persevere and be saved. This isn't really the question. Instead, hungry hearts and desperate souls want to know: am I among the elect, did Christ die for me? John Piper works to address this issue a bit further, and his passionate and forceful concluding essay will do much to inspire those who have been persuaded by the arguments.
This book truly deserves much more engagement than this short review can provide; rather than provide counterarguments, I've only been able to nod toward some issues that deserve much more attention (look for a review essay forthcoming in the Trinity Journal). Many of these essays are very good, and both adherents to DA and opponents of the doctrine stand to benefit from this book. Upon completion, I confess that after working through these hundreds of pages of intelligent argument and valuable insight mixed with some overstatement, misrepresentation, and what strikes me as hasty, forced argumentation as well as internal contradiction, I find myself more incredulous than before. Despite the unevenness, however, overall this book mounts a stout defense of a difficult doctrine, and clearly it is the one with which we should wrestle. I learned a great deal. Perhaps more importantly, over and over I was reminded of the precious common ground that is shared at the foot of the cross.
Thomas H. McCall is Associate Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he is also Director of the Carl F.H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding. He is the author of Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology (Eerdmans, 2010), the coauthor (with Keith D. Stanglin) of Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (Oxford University Press, 2012) and has also, in the same year, published Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters (InterVarsity Academic, 2012)
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