Dr. Allen responds to commentors

August 5, 2013

by David L. Allen
Dean, School of Theology
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

I appreciate all those who commented on my 3-part post — titled “On the Insufficiency of the Notion of Sufficiency Among Some Calvinists” —  both with respect to content and, for the most part, with respect to tone as well. My intention here is to respond only to the salient questions or disagreements voiced in the comments. I will follow this with a brief conclusion.

(Read Parts ONETWO, and  THREE.)

Rhutchin made multiple comments on all three posts from the high-Calvinist perspective. While I appreciate Rhutchin’s interaction, I believe he has committed a number of errors in his assessment. These become apparent in his first comment on Part 1.

First, he refers to “the Calvinist position” with respect to the extent of the atonement. Actually there are multiple positions on the extent of the atonement in Reformed history, such as limited atonement, Amyraldianism, the broader positions of hypothetical universalism, as well as the unlimited atonement/limited redemption distinction as found in many 19th century American Presbyterians. This is a major point as it illustrates the fact that so many who are adamant about limited atonement operate as if there is no other position now or in the past within the orbit of Reformed Orthodoxy.

Rhutchin’s second error is that of conflating the intent of the atonement with its extent. Notice his use of the word “intent.”

The third error is a logical mistake. Rhutchin stated: “As none but the elect . . . the atonement of Christ was intended to save the elect only and thereby is limited.” Three propositions are asserted here. The first and second proposition accurately reflects Reformed theology. The third proposition is problematic: “ . . . and thereby is limited.” It does not logically follow that if God “intends” only to save the elect, he did not provide an atonement for the non-elect. There may have been multiple intentions in the atonement as many Calvinists have argued since the beginning of Reformed theology.

Rhutchin’s fourth error is a methodological/logical mistake in assuming the Reformed understanding of unconditional election to be accurate, thus begging the question. But assuming for the sake of argument that it is accurate, there is no logical necessity that states that unconditional election necessitates that Christ did not die for the sins of the non-elect. All unconditional election does is necessitate an atonement provided for the elect.

I believe Rhutchin continues this error in his second comment when confusing “intent” with “extent,” assuming that the two must be coextensive. The conclusions drawn among total depravity, unconditional election, and the extent of the atonement in this and other comments are simply non-sequiturs.

In Part 2, Rhutchin attempts to suggest that bringing up the Lombardian Formula “goes off on a tangent that accomplishes nothing.” As I have shown, it is the revision of the Lombardian formula by later high-Calvinists that creates the historically inaccurate picture that many Calvinists hold today with respect to the question of the sufficiency of the atonement. Thus, the necessity of revisiting the Lombardian formula. Additionally, I am merely mentioning the same issue that many Calvinists past and present have with respect to the Lombardian formula and their disagreement with John Owen on limited atonement.

Apparently, Rhutchin assumes the validity of Owen’s commercialistic view of the atonement and employs Owen’s double payment argument against a universal satisfaction for sins. The problems with Owen’s commercial view of the atonement and the fallacies of the double payment argument have been addressed in numerous places, including my chapter on the extent of the atonement in Whosoever Will. I regret that in this limited format I could not tease out the discussion of Owen further as Rhutchin would have liked. For now, to stay with his metaphor, I will have to remain the theological Grinch who left no presents under the tree.

Next, Rhutchin appeals to the doctrine of election from Romans 9. Many capable exegetes reject the notion of personal salvific election in Romans 9. It is not at all clear from Romans 9 and its broader context of Romans 9-11 that salvific election is in view. But again, let’s grant the point for the sake of discussion. Even here, Romans 9 does not necessitate a limited atonement.

Rhutchin opines that total depravity entails total inability. I have argued elsewhere that it does not. Total depravity does indeed entail God’s grace reaching out to the unsaved before it is possible one can be regenerated. No one comes to the Father of his own initiative apart from God’s drawing him. This is not in question. But again, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that total depravity entails total inability. How does that establish limited atonement? It does not. Remember, all moderate Calvinists believe in total inability, but they also believe in unlimited atonement with respect to its extent.

Also in Part 2, and in a related vein, I appreciate Mary S (13:20) commenting on the subject. Mary S suggested that my assumption that total depravity does not entail total inability is unacceptable. She states on the basis of John 6:44; 65, that Jesus himself taught total inability. This personal interpretation of these two verses is in fact an assumption and represents our disagreement on whether John 6:44; 65 teaches the notion of total inability. One can reasonably conclude total inability as a possible interpretation here, but one cannot reasonably conclude that another interpretation that does not entail total inability is not possible. This is not simply a matter of whether one chooses to believe Jesus or Allen. We believe Jesus. We just interpret the passages differently.

Likewise in Part 2, I appreciate Dr. James Willingham’s interaction and question. His attempt to connect limited atonement with the restricted mission of Jesus a la Matthew 15:21-28, the account of Naaman the Syrian, and Jonah and the Ninevites amounts to special pleading. I cannot see any connection to the issue of the extent of the atonement. I’m not sure how eschatology plays into the equation either. Dr. Willingham is correct that Owen’s work is considered to be the best defense of limited atonement by many Calvinists, but he seems unaware of the many critiques of that work by Calvinists themselves, beginning with Richard Baxter, who rejected Owen’s understanding of limited atonement. Finally, Dr. Willingham references both Andrew Fuller and Jonathan Edwards, not to mention William Carey and Luther Rice, but fails to note that Fuller came to reject limited atonement and thus revised that section of his Gospel Worthy when the 2nd edition was published in 1801, and Edwards himself affirmed unlimited atonement as can be demonstrated from his own writings. From what Carey wrote, it sounds very much like he did not affirm limited atonement and the same goes for Luther Rice. The fact that men like Fuller and Edwards taught a limited intent to save only the elect does not contradict their view that God equally intended to provide an unlimited atonement for sin with respect to extent. Finally, the modern missions movement was spawned by Calvinists like Fuller and Carey, but Dr. Willingham fails to indicate that these men were not like the TULIP proponents of today with respect to limited atonement.

In another comment Dr. Willingham states that “many” does not mean “all without exception” in Mark 10:45. Actually, Calvin very clearly says it does. Note carefully his comments on the “many” in this text as well as in Romans 5:15 and Isaiah 53 (both his commentary and sermons). Calvin says with respect to “many,” “Paul is not talking of a part of mankind, but the whole human race.”

Shane Dodson also weighed in on Part 2, urging me to repent of my position and my “distortion” of the Gospel. Shane appears to have missed my point that it is the atonement of Christ which is the ground for the gospel and its preaching. It is not unbelief in the atonement but a failure to believe the gospel on the part of those who hear the gospel; a gospel which itself is good news because Christ has paid the price for sins, all sins, on the cross. Actually, might one not suggest it is limited atonement which is a distortion of the Gospel?

To all who read and/or commented on the three posts, thank you. In conclusion, I mention two things briefly. First, the dialogue at the end of the comment thread in Part 1 between James Willingham and David Ponter is quite instructive. Both men are Calvinists who differ over the question of the extent of the atonement. This exchange illustrates how easy it is to read one’s own theology and presuppositions into the text of Scripture.

Second, I must admit my surprise that not one commenter who disagrees with my point addressed the specific issue I raised. I have observed this evasion consistently in comments by those who disagree with my posts at SBCToday. High-Calvinists rarely engage the substance of my posts but often pursue non-germane tangents. Lay aside for the moment all the debatable issues surrounding the other points of Calvinism. My question remains, “What is the high-Calvinist response to the question of the atonement’s sufficiency from the platform of limited atonement?”

(Ed’s. note: Dr. Allen’s statement in the paragraph immediately above: “High-Calvinists rarely engage the substance of my posts but often pursue non-germane tangents” harks to a comment by former Calvinist, and author, Pastor Ronnie Rogers, who read all three of Dr. Allen’s posts and noted: “…[T]his kind of obfuscatory rhetoric on the part of some Calvinist continues the unhelpful beclouding of what Calvinism actually believes, which is a massive barrier to having meaningful discussions about the merits, or lack thereof, of Calvinism.”

While the editor has his opinion of why some “rarely engage the substance” of Dr. Allen’s posts, “but often pursue non-germane tangents,” the editor asks two questions:

1. How will we have a discussion on these matters (per T5) if such behaviors continue?

2. “What is the high-Calvinist response to the question of the atonement’s sufficiency from the platform of limited atonement?”