Review, part 1: “From Heaven He Came and Sought Her.”

December 9, 2013

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by Dr. David L. Allen
Dean of the School of Theology
Professor of Preaching
Director of the Center for Expository Preaching
George W. Truett Chair of Pastoral Ministry
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

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“Review of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, David Gibson & Jonathan Gibson, eds. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013) – Part 1

As one who is currently completing a manuscript for publication on the subject of the extent of the atonement, I have long awaited the appearance of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her. The book has been touted as the “definitive” scholarly word on definite (limited) atonement. David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson serve as editors of the work which includes 23 chapters written by a cadre of scholars. The book is a lengthy tome of 703 pages, including indices, published by Crossway. Twenty-one authors from a variety of backgrounds (including Presbyterian, Anglican and Baptist) contribute chapters. As with any multi-author volume, the chapters ebb and flow as to content, style, and substance. 

My intention is to give an over-arching, broad-stroke review of the book in three parts which will appear here at SBCToday. This will be followed by a multi-part, in-depth review to be posted seriatim to inaugurate my new webpage, which will debut later this month.

The book’s chief purpose is to defend the notion of definite atonement (limited atonement) by presenting supportive arguments and attempting to answer counter-arguments.

Organizationally, the volume’s four-fold structure: historical, biblical, theological, and pastoral, is probably the best way to approach the subject.[1] The Table of Contents is clear and provides a brief description of the major topic of each chapter. The “Select Bibliography” is only seven pages in length, and is missing some significant works that probably should be listed, even for a select bibliography.

Definite Atonement in Church History

Chapters 2-8 address the subject “Definite Atonement in Church History.”[2] The following major topics are addressed: the Ancient Church, the Medieval Church, Calvin, Beza, Synod of Dort, Amyraldianism, and John Owen.

Michael Haykin surveys seven Church Fathers on the question at hand: Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, Jerome, and briefly Augustine and Prosper of Aquitaine. Haykin finds it necessary to point out that the question of the extent of the atonement was not a controversial issue in the early church. Hence, “what can be gleaned about this doctrine in this era is mostly from implied comments rather than direct assertion” (60). This is an important point to make, because in actual fact, there is no overt assertion of definite atonement by any of the Patristics, though there are several clear statements concerning universal atonement.

Gill and Blacketer, upon whom Haykin depends, confuse Augustine’s statements about God’s predestinarian will for the elect with his view on the actual satisfaction for all sin which Christ accomplished in the atonement. Haykin never says Augustine taught definite atonement, but states some of his comments “imply” it (71). He appeals to Augustine’s statements on John 10:26; 14:2; and 1 John 2:2. As can be easily demonstrated, many Calvinists who affirm an unlimited atonement interpret 1 John 2:2 and similar passages to refer only to the church.[3] Furthermore, Haykin fails to note the fact that it is clear Augustine thought that Jesus atoned for the sins of Judas,[4] not to mention Augustine’s numerous other statements on the extent of the atonement which make transparent he did not advocate definite atonement.

Haykin also wrongly interprets the “early” Prosper of giving “strong hints of a definite atonement in Augustine” (72). Prosper, in response to the objection that Christ “did not suffer for the salvation and redemption of all men,” clearly affirmed Christ’s death for the sins of all men, but also affirmed that only those who believe will benefit from Christ’s saving work: “Accordingly, since our Lord in very truth took upon Himself the one nature and condition which is common to all men, it is right to say that all have been redeemed and that nevertheless not all are actually liberated from the slavery of sin.”[5]

In conclusion, Haykin must be faulted for several issues. First, the chapter is only a very brief survey of seven Church Fathers. Second, he has missed significant counter-factual evidence that shows most of these men held an unlimited satisfaction for sins and thus did not affirm definite atonement. He did not canvass the extant writings of his chosen Church Fathers with a view to engaging in an analytic/synthetic survey. Third, he appears to be heavily dependent upon secondary sources like John Gill and Raymond Blacketer, and fails to interact with other significant secondary sources.

David Hogg’s chapter focuses on Gottschalk, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas in the Medieval period. Hogg affirms that some statements by these men can be viewed as “consistent with,” “preparatory,” and “foundational” for the later Reformation concept of definite atonement.

Hogg’s treatment of the ninth century monk, Gottschalk, is basically sound. Gottschalk, and a few of those associated with him, were the only ones in the Medieval period to clearly assert belief in definite atonement. Both Gottschalk and his extreme predestinarian views were condemned by three French Councils.[6]

With respect to the famous Lombardian formula “sufficient for all; efficient only for the elect,” Hogg errs in that he wrongly interprets the first half of the formula to support definite atonement. Historically, this statement indicated that Christ’s death paid the price for the sins of the world, but that the benefits of the atonement were only applied to the elect (those who believe). This is how the formula was understood until the time of Beza.

With respect to Aquinas, Hogg’s attempt to co-opt him for definite atonement also fails. I know of no Aquinas scholar who asserts Aquinas held to the concept of definite atonement, and the primary source evidence for his adherence to universal atonement is sufficiently clear. Hogg completely fails to interact with this material. Aquinas’ method of treating passages such as 1 John 2:2 is not in the same vein as later high-Calvinists, and Hogg’s treatment of Aquinas’ reading of 1 Tim 2:4 is inadequate as it fails to note that for Aquinas, God antecedently wills the salvation of all men, not just men of all sorts.

Not only did medieval theologians not define a “comprehensive articulation” (95) of definite atonement; with the exception of Gottschalk, they did not assert or hint at definite atonement. Hogg’s chapter would be more historically accurate had he concluded such.

Paul Helm’s chapter attempts to defend the notion that Calvin’s indefinite language is “thoroughly consistent with being committed to definite atonement, and which cannot be used as convincing evidence that he denied it” (97). Helm’s confusing approach to the issue is fraught with problems, most of which will have to wait for my detailed review. For example, Helm writes: “… while Calvin did not commit himself to any version of the doctrine of definite atonement, his thought is consistent with that doctrine; that is, he did not deny it in express terms, but by other things that he most definitely did hold to, he may be said to be committed to that doctrine” (98). This borders on incoherence. The long and short of Helm’s chapter is he simply has misread Calvin’s statements which he thinks stress the particularistic aspect of Christ’s atonement.

Very troubling is Helm’s statement: “In certain circumstances a person, even the person of the Mediator [Christ], may be distracted from the revealed will of God and instead express his immediate aspiration for the salvation of those who may or may not be elected to salvation” (107). More later.

Raymond Blacketer attempts to ward off the challenge that Beza developed Calvin’s theology into what became known as definite atonement. Blacketer believes there is “a clearly identifiable trajectory of thought in Christian tradition that can be described as particularist” and links this with God’s “intention” to save only the elect (125).

Blacketer errs logically when he states that Calvin’s views on election and God’s sovereignty extend this trajectory “and exclude a universal, indefinite satisfaction and redemption obtained in some manner by Christ which would be potentially (not simply hypothetically) available to each human individual” (125). Such a statement forecloses on Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement, something Blacketer has already indicated one cannot and should not do.

Blacketer considers Beza’s analysis of 1 Tim 2:4, where he notes, like Calvin and Augustine before him, Beza interprets this passage to refer to classes of people, “not every individual” (128). He states that Augustine’s “exegetical strategy” with texts using “all” in the context of atonement “means all classes” and “not every individual,” and states this was frequently Calvin’s approach as well (128-29). I will address these erroneous claims in more detail at a later time.

Blacketer appears to suggest that Ursinus, Zanchi, and Musculus, and all held to forms of definite atonement. This is incorrect, as all of these men, regardless of what they believed about the intention of the atonement, actually are clear in their writings that they believed Christ satisfied for the sins of all men, or what can also be termed as “universal redemption” (Musculus’ favorite phrase for it), and were thus Hypothetical Universalists,[7] as was Calvin I might add.

Blacketer states that by the time of Dort, “the majority of Reformed thinkers made increasingly explicit what was latent in the particularist strand of Christian thought, namely, that the divine intention [note carefully Blacketer’s use of this word] in the sacrifice of Christ was to provide satisfaction specifically for the elect (140).” No doubt Blacketer intends by his use of the word “intention” to signify “extent” as well. Since God “intends” to save only the elect, therefore the payment for sins on the cross was likewise only accomplished for the elect, and later only applied to them; hence, definite atonement. But this is a leap in logic that is unfounded, one that is made by virtually every author in this volume.

What Blacketer fails to point out historically is the fact that hypothetical universalism chronologically preceded definite atonement on the Reformed scene. It is clear that for the generality of the first generation Reformed limited satisfaction was not affirmed or articulated, including Calvin.[8]

Lee Gatiss takes us on a tour of the Synod of Dort, and an informative tour it is. Gatiss’ chapter is one of the most important in the book for it demonstrates clearly three truths that have been and continue to be denied by many in the Reformed tradition. First, there were some Calvinists present who clearly affirmed in reference to the extent of the atonement that Christ died for the sins of all men. Second, the final Dortian canons were worded in such a way so as not to exclude this position within orthodox Reformed doctrine. Third, Reformed theology on the question of the extent of the atonement was not monolithic by any stretch of the imagination.

Amar Djaballah’s chapter on Amyraut is also one of the strongest chapters in the book. It is one of the most unbiased summaries of Amyraut’s position one can read. No high-Calvinist who reads this chapter should ever again speak of Amyraut or his position with such disdain and condescension as one sometimes finds among high-Calvinists. Djaballah also rightly points out how Hypothetical Universalism antedates Amyraldianism and that the two, though related, should be distinguished from each other (197). Djaballah is a breath of fresh air since he deals with the primary sources on Amyraut and thus avoids the pitfalls of many who have read Amyraut through the filter of biased secondary sources.

The final chapter in the historical section concerns John Owen’s dependence upon the concept of the Covenant of Redemption in his famous defense of definite atonement. Noted Owenic scholar Carl Trueman does the honors. Trueman plunges us into the deep waters of the debate between Richard Baxter and John Owen over justification and the extent of the atonement. Brush up on your Latin. Trueman carefully guides us through the key points of the debate and then turns our attention to an explication of Owen’s reliance on the Covenant of Redemption.

Sympathetic to Owen, Trueman quotes one of the most important passages in Owen on the nature of the sufficiency of the atonement as reflected in the famous Lombardian formula. Trueman fails to take historical note of the late 16th and early 17th century revision of the Lombardian formula. John Owen was conscious of the fact that he and others were revising Lombard’s formula and preferred to put it in hypothetical terms: “the blood of Christ was sufficient to have been made a price for all” [emphasis mine].[9] This reinterpretation on his part and others was designed to support Owen’s argument for definite atonement. Richard Baxter called Owen’s revision of the Lombardian Formula a “new futile evasion” and he refuted Owen’s position thoroughly.[10] There are many examples of this revision in the writings of high-Calvinists at the time. Note also that Cunningham acknowledged this revision in his well-known Historical Theology.[11]

Trueman explains for us Owen’s trajectory of thinking from the Covenant of Redemption, to his position that the death of Christ secures the “causal basis for all the conditions attached to salvation for the elect,” including the purchase of faith for the elect (220-21). For Owen, there can be no universality of extent and particularity in application (222).

For whatever reason, Trueman offers no biblical justification for the Reformed notion of the Covenant of Redemption, or for the concept of faith as a purchase at the cross. It would have been helpful had he noted the arguments of those within the Reformed tradition, as well as those without, who find no biblical justification for either concept.[12]

In conclusion, there are some helpful chapters here, especially with respect to Dort, Amyraut and Owen. Haykin and Hogg’s chapter reflect inadequate historiography. The historical section ends in mid-17th century. There is no reckoning with the major debates within the Reformed tradition from that time through the end of the 19th century, nor acknowledgment of the many within the Reformed tradition who did not hold to definite atonement, including many Puritans, the Marrow men, the Welsh controversy, Jonathan Edwards, the New Divinity; and the 19th century triumvirate of Hypothetical Universalist systematic theologians Hodge, Dabney, and Shedd. Also glaringly absent is any treatment of the extent of hyper-Calvinism in the 18th and 19th century, or acknowledgment that one cannot become a hyper-Calvinist without an extreme commitment to definite atonement and its corollaries. Finally, the historical section fails to clearly indicate the fact that the Hypothetical Universalist position within Reformed theology antedated both definite atonement and Amyraldianism.

[1] This is how I organized my own chapter “The Extent of the Atonement: Limited or Universal?” in Whosoever Will: a Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010).

[2] I shall address the Preface, Foreword, and Introduction in my final post.

[3] For examples, see my chapter “The Atonement: Limited or Universal,” in Whosoever Will, 61-107.

[4] See Augustine’s “Exposition of Psalm LXIX,” Section 27, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st series, ed. P. Schaff (1888; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 8:309.

[5] Prosper of Aquitaine: Defense of St. Augustine, trans. P. De letter, in Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 32 (New York: Newman Press, 1963), 164.

[6] Although he was also exonerated by three other councils: Paris (849), Sens (853), and Valence (855).

[7] As Richard Muller has documented in his November, 2008 lectures at Mid America Reformed Seminary.

[8] With the possible exception of John Bradford and Martin Bucer, though J. C. Ryle stated Bucer was moderate on the extent of the atonement.

[9] John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, in The Works of John Owen, ed. W. H. Goold (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1852), 10:296.

[10] Richard Baxter, Universal Redemption of Mankind by the Lord Jesus Christ, (London: Printed for John Salusbury at the Rising Sun in Cornhill, 1694), 343–45.

[11] William Cunningham, Historical Theology (Carlisle, PN: Banner of Truth, 1994), 2:332.

[12] As, for example, Neil A. Chambers, “A Critical Analysis of John Owen’s Argument for Limited Atonement in the Death of Death of Christ” (Th.M. Thesis, Reformed Theological Seminary, 1998).

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David R. Brumbelow

Dr. Allen,
Thanks for your review.
You are doing the church a great service.
I look forward to more of your views and publication of your newest book.
David R. Brumbelow

Ronnie W Rogers


Thank you, for this first part of a superb “broad stroke review,” and your knowledge of history and theology are of incalculable benefit to all of us.

Ron F. Hale

Dr. Allen,
Thank you for this review; your extensive study and understanding of the “Atonement” is a gift to the Church and fuels the spread of the Gospel! Blessings!

Johnathan Pritchett

I will be curious to see if, that by the end of this broad review, and the detailed one forthcoming on your personal website, whether or not it will have a more detailed bibliography than the whole book under consideration. :)

Great job!

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