Thursday, June 02, 2016

Scotus, Anselm, and Owen

Here's a potentially interesting objection to limited atonement:

Three theories of atonement are particularly used. The Acceptilation theory of Duns Scotus, which determines the meaning of the cross from the extrinsic acceptatio of God, is used to ascertain the value of Christ's work from the will or intention of God [e.g. John Owen, Francis Turretin]. The Satisfaction theory of Anselm is employed in asserting that Christ through his death merited "faith, repentance, and the Holy Spirit" for the elect" [e.g. Turretin, J. Heidegger]. The Penal Substitution of Luther is used to decry the "double jeopardy" of unlimited atonement, since the cross, having punished sin and therefore satisfied divine wrath, must save within itself and require no further punishment or satisfaction [e.g. Owen, Turretin, J. Heidegger].  
The difficulty in employing such divergent theories of the atonement can be best illustrated through the oft-repeated phrase that the death of Christ is "sufficient to save all men," but due to the intention of God is "efficient for the elect alone"–a phrase used by proponents of both limited and unlimited atonement. Initially Christ's work is interpreted here through the theory of Anselm, a theory which exults in the intrinsic "sufficiency" of his sacrifice and infinite dignity of his person, but then it is immediately overturned by the extrinsic consideration of the divine will, which according to Duns subjugates the "efficiency" and merit of Christ to the acceptation or ultimate intent of the Father. How can anything be inherently infinite in dignity and then be limited in value before God? Are Christ in his works and the Father in his will opposed? Stephen Strehle, "The Extent of the Atonement and the Synod of Dort." Westminster Theological Journal (1989), 1n1.

How should we assess this objection?

i) Strehle isn't making a case for the Amyraldian alternative. Indeed, he thinks that operates within the same flawed framework–as he explains later on. 

ii) Although he says these are "divergent" theories, he doesn't explain how the satisfaction theory and the penal substitutionary theory contradict each other. Even if these two theories developed independently of each other, they may be conceptually harmonious. 

iii) His specific example is how the acceptation theory allegedly contradicts the satisfaction theory.  

iv) I do think the language of "infinity" is ambiguous. 

v) On the face of it, it's easy to come up with counterexamples in which something that's intrinsically efficacious can be limited in application. Suppose you have an efficacious antidote for snakebite. Yet you are free to selectively administer the antidote to some patients to the exclusion of others. Suppose a member of the Medellín Cartel is envenomated by a Bushmaster. You could save his life by administering antivenon, but because he's responsible for torturing and murdering innocent people, you have no duty to save his life, so you administer a placebo instead. 

Perhaps Strehle would say that's not analogous to the kind of intrinsic/extrinsic distinction he's drawing. If so, his objection, as it stands, is too vague to demonstrate that these are divergent theories of the atonement. 


  1. I can take or leave limited atonement. It makes a lot of sense but I don't find it clearly taught in Scripture (I sometimes wish the Bible did clearly teach it). I wonder how important Limited Atonement is. Five pointers argue its importance for a consistent doctrine of the Trinity, for the consistency of the work of God in salvation, its affirmation of the discriminating and particular nature of grace, its undergirding of the doctrine of irresistible grace and perseverance, its usefulness in undermining Catholic theology etc. But Limited Atonement does all that at the cost of making Calvinism evangelistically unpalatable. Both for non-Christians to become Christians and for non-Calvinistic Christians to become Calvinists.

    Yes, pleasantness or unpleasantness of a doctrine shouldn't factor into whether we accept it or not. We should accept Unconditional Election because it's clearly true (Scripturally) despite the fact that some find it unattractive. However, Limited Atonement isn't as clearly taught in Scripture. So, I don't see its acceptance as pressing and necessary as that of Unconditional Election.

    Arminians believe that both the intent and extent of the atonement is universal. Some 4 point Calvinists agree. Most modern Calvinists believe the intent and extent is particular. However, there is a mediating 4 point Calvinist position that affirms the *intent* of the atonement as particular while the *extent* is universal. I'll whimsically call this mediating position 4.5 Calvinism. I find the position attractive because it seems to more or less have all the pros without any of the cons. And surprisingly many Calvinists of the past held to something like it according to the website Calvin and Calvinism. Much of modern Calvinism seems to be ignorant of this part of their own Calvinistic history. Meaning, 4 or 4.5 Calvinism was much more popular in times past than is nowadays recognized.

    I can understand why Calvinists who reject the doctrine of Common Grace reject any kind of 4 point Calvinism. That's just consistency on their part. However, I don't see why more Calvinists who do affirm Common Grace don't also affirm 4.5 Calvinism. It only makes sense to ask, if there can be both a Common and a Special Grace, then why can't the atonement have both a universalistic and a particularistic aspect to it simultaneously? Wouldn't such a view of the atonement help undergird such a distinction between Common and Special grace?

    1. In the NT, the apostles manage to preach evangelistic sermons without invoking universal atonement.

      Ponter's website is highly biased.

      Putting common grace in the atonement dilutes the atonement. The atonement is about salvation.

  2. I am somewhat bothered by the generally accepted statement that the death of Christ is "sufficient to save all men," but due to the intention of God is "efficient for the elect alone". I am not stating it is not true I have not heard the following sufficiently addressed:

    I tend to believe that Christ’s death accomplished exactly what it was intended to do – to save the elect. It was, and is sufficient because God declared it so, had God intended the cross to save all men He would then have deemed it sufficient for that task, but He did not. While Christ’s death in theory is not only sufficient to save not just all men who have or whoever will live but an infinite number of sinners it is seen by God as a perfect sacrifice without any excess or wasted merit. The work of the cross was not only intrinsically perfect but it also in that it perfectly accomplished exactly what it was intended to do.

    Almost all Christians accept that we are to repent and believe. We cannot believe in that which we have not heard, that we do not know. If a person holds to hypothetical universalism and decisional regeneration he has to address the issue that those who have not heard the gospel have been failed by man and that they who die unrepentant theoretically have a strong case against God for being denied the justification that our Lord attained for them not having been given the opportunity to believe. That is unless he also believes that all who have not heard the gospel would never believe anyway or you hold to a dogma constructed of whole cloth that God waives the requirement to believe for those who have no real opportunity to believe. So much for missions.

    On the other hand those who hold to limited atonement believe that God in His infinite power, knowledge and wisdom will make the gospel known to all for whom Christ died. One may not like it but it is both logical and conforms to scripture.