Saturday, May 28, 2016

Owen's dilemma

The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either:
  1. All the sins of all men.
  2. All the sins of some men, or
  3. Some of the sins of all men.
In which case it may be said:
  1. That if the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so, none are saved.
  2. That if the second be true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth.
  3. But if the first be the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins?
You answer, "Because of unbelief."
I ask, Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it be, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not, He did not die for all their sins!"

– John Owen

i) Is Owen's dilemma sound? Critics object that Owen makes too much of the debt metaphor in Scripture. By the same token, they say he operates with a "commercial" or quantitative model of the atonement: Jesus atones for specific sins. 

Critics counter this with a qualitative or categorical model of atonement. As one 4-point Calvinist put it: "the way federal headship works is not by imputing specific sins, but by imputing guilt. Jesus paid the penalty for human guilt, which means that his atonement is applicable to any human being in principle."

ii) I don't think the conventional objections to Owen's dilemma succeed. Whether he operates with a commercial theory of the atonement had been disputed. 

iii) More to the point, his dilemma doesn't rely on Owen's theory of the atonement, but the theory of his opponents. So long as his opponents subscribe to penal substitution, the argument goes through. 

iv) Historically, many Arminians reject penal substitution because they concede Owen's dilemma. They admit that if you combine penal substitution with universal atonement, that entails universal salvation. The way to relieve the dilemma is to ditch penal substitution. So the argument does not depend on Owen's theory of the atonement (whatever that may be).

v) I don't see how framing the issue in terms of a qualitative atonement salvages the Arminian/Amyraldin position. It's trivially easy to recast Owen's dilemma in those terms. Is  refusal to believe in Jesus culpable? That's a premise that Arminians and Amyraldians typically grant. Indeed, that's a premise they deploy in attempting to argue for unlimited atonement: how can refusal to believe in Jesus blameworthy if Christ never died for the reprobate?

If, however, Jesus died to make atonement for generic guilt, for human guilt in general, then culpable unbelief is covered by the atonement. So I don't see how a qualitative paradigm circumvents the force of Owen's dilemma. If refusing to believe in Jesus is culpable, and Jesus paid the penalty for human guilt, then culpable unbelief is included in the atonement. The category of guilt includes all instances thereof. 

vi) Speaking for myself, I doubt human guilt is a conglomerate entity that's separable from the specific sins of specific sinners. I don't think Christ atones for guilt in that sense, as if guilt can be detached from guilty agents, to become a free-floating mass of guilt. Guilt is personal. Jesus didn't die for an abstraction. Rather, Jesus died for sinners. He makes atonement for particular sinners. The sinner is prior to the sin. Guilt is just a property of sinners.

The qualitative paradigm reminds me of the treasury of merit, where the supererogatory deeds of the saints produce so many pints of merit, which go into a general reservoir of merit. The pope plunges a big dipper into the reservoir when he needs to dole out so many gallons of merit. I don't think of merit and demerit in such anonymous terms. I don't view one sinner's guilt and another sinner's guilt blending into a generic human guilt, like adding drops of water to a bucket.

1 comment:

  1. I don't have the link handy, but by far the best lecture I have ever heard (and I listen to many) on this subject (so far as parsing out the right questions) is by Michael Lynch, Early Modern Hypothetical Universalim. It is a gem. Give it a listen.