10 December 2014 A.D. Rev.Dr. Lee Gatiss—Interview (Pt. 2) on Definite Atonement.
An interview (Part 2) with
For Us and For Our Salvation:
‘Limited Atonement’ in the Bible, Doctrine, History, and Ministry
The Latimer Trust, 2012
129 pp., paperback
Today we continue our interview with Dr. Lee Gatiss about his brief yet outstanding book, For Us and For Our Salvation: ‘Limited Atonement’ in the Bible, Doctrine, History, and Ministry. If you missed the first part of this interview you can catch up here.
Books At a Glance:
Okay, how then do people differ in their interpretations of alleged “universal atonement” passages, such as 1 John 2:2?
Once we get down to the nitty-gritty of interpreting passages of scripture, there are a great variety of approaches. Even the Reformed who come to the same overall conclusions about this question, may differ on their understanding of individual verses. Some people have used 1 John 2:2 as a “knock-down verse” on this subject. It says Christ died “not for our sins only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” Therefore, limited atonement, definite atonement, particular redemption (whatever you call it) must be wrong!
I think this is a somewhat cavalier approach, which rather assumes (without much argument) that the apostle John in the first century was addressing precisely the same theological question as, say, the Synod of Dort, which classically defined the “five points of Calvinism.” I think the background to John’s letter and the context of that verse is a little different to seventeenth-century Western European church politics, so we probably have to work a bit harder than that at the Bible (and Dort was more complex than this stereotype too!).
In general, I think texts like 1 John 2:2 and 1 Timothy 2:6 (where Christ is said to be “a ransom for all”) are catalysts and stimulants which force us to meditate more deeply on these issues, in connection with places that say Christ died for his sheep, his bride, his people. Scripture deliberately forces us to ask questions, and to relate its variously taught truths together more carefully than we might otherwise do (see James 2:24!). Systematic theology should arise from pondering the words of God and trying to grasp their meaning as part of a coherent worldview.
I’m not convinced by every Reformed attempt to exegete the “universal” verses. By no means! But I’m not persuaded by those on the other side who simply state that “all must mean ALL (without exception)” or “world must mean the whole world and everybody in it.” Careful analysis of how these words are actually used in the Bible shows that they have a range of meanings which doesn’t always fit into a preconceived framework devised or assumed by English speakers two millennia later. Sometimes statements of scripture are pressed too far and made to speak into our modern debates when they themselves have a different agenda. I use lots of examples in the book and try to examine all the key passages carefully.
Books At a Glance:
Most would agree that Scripture warrants a well-meant offer of the gospel to all people without exception. How is this related to the question of the extent of the atonement? Or is it?
As the Synod of Dort said, “the promise of the gospel is that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life. This promise ought to be declared and published promiscuously and without distinction, to all nations and people.” Even if we say that in the end only those God chose beforehand in eternity will be saved, we still have no idea who those people are. Christ died for them, and the gospel will get to them as the ordinary means and instrument of their salvation. We can be sure of that, because the all-wise God has a plan, and he is working out all things in conformity to it.
But we don’t know precisely whom the Father has given to the Son, and he isn’t going to tell us in advance. So we must preach and proclaim the good news to everyone without distinction or exception, and leave the Spirit to do his work of applying the death of Christ to those he came to save. We tell people that Christ died for sins, and that they need to repent of them before he comes back to judge the world. Whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life. He is able to save completely those who come to God through him. He has done everything necessary to save sinners like us.
But I don’t think we can say “Christ died for you” to non-Christians. At least, I can’t remember any of the Apostles using that phrase in their evangelistic speeches in Acts. It is presumptuous, on the Reformed account of the atonement, and confuses people (as an unbelieving friend once said to me, “If Christ was punished for my sin already, then I won’t be punished for it, even if I don’t become a Christian!”). Some people do seem irretrievably wedded to that particular formula for evangelistic appeals: “Christ died for you – so give your life to him!” But I wonder sometimes if that approach isn’t simply an application of the old Moral Influence theory of the atonement, and a tad emotionally manipulative. It might work sometimes, but it’s always a good idea to re-evaluate our pragmatic human traditions in the light of scripture, isn’t it?
Books At a Glance:
When in the history of the church has this question been the point of discussion and/or controversy? Is this a uniquely post-Reformation issue?
It would be odd if we were the first generation to ponder the relationship between predestination and the cross. And of course we aren’t. Each generation has its own issues of major importance to deal with, but during the Pelagian controversies of the fourth century various church fathers wrestled with the issue. Ambrose, for example, said that Christ suffered especially for the church, and people like Augustine, Jerome, and Prosper laid the exegetical groundwork for much later theological reflection. There was a particular revival of interest in these things in the ninth century: Gottschalk of Orbais, Florus of Lyon, Remigius of Lyon, Prudentius of Troyes, or Lupus Ferrieres all sound very much like “Calvinists” on the subject!
As Protestants sought to defend the doctrines of grace from increasingly sophisticated Roman Catholic or Radical attacks, they delved again into the depths of these issues and wrote on them. So there is another revival of interest from the late sixteenth century onwards. That came to a head when Arminians in Cambridge attacked the Reformed Anglican establishment in some searing sermons, and then Arminians in Holland sought to undermine the Dutch Reformed church and amend its constitution. An international synod of Reformed churches held at the Dutch city of Dort (or Dordt or Dordrecht) in 1618-1619 made some classic statements on the five issues that the Pelagians in the ninth century and the Arminians in the seventeenth century particularly focused on. One of these was the atonement question. The Canons of Dort, very ably put together by the best Reformed theologians and exegetes in Europe at the time, are considered a classic confessional statement on the issues at stake. They are far more sophisticated and careful and nuanced than one might imagine from the impression given by some modern “Five Pointers”!
Since then, there have been various spats. Wesley preached incessantly on the supposedly “universal” texts as part of a campaign against Whitefield’s Reformed Anglican doctrine during the evangelical revival of the 1740s. And “evangelicals” have often disagreed on it ever since.
Books At a Glance:
Several have argued that Calvin did not hold to what we today call particular redemption, an opinion with which you take issue. We would encourage our readers to find the fuller answer in your book, but can you summarize this matter for us? Why is this point even in dispute? Is Calvin unclear? Or is it a merely question of semantics or terminology? Is there a simple explanation?
People have tried to enlist Calvin on either side of the debate, because he is such a major and influential figure in the Reformed tradition. Some of the emphasis on Calvin is unhelpful because Reformed theology is so much more than the brainchild of just one man (and so much more than just five points, or even this one). He went to glory over fifty years before the Synod of Dort met, so we will never know what he might have said there. (If only we had a TARDIS!) Calvin doesn’t have a section on the subject in his majestic Institutes of the Christian Religion, and he doesn’t appear to have directly addressed the question in detail anywhere. So we have to piece together what he might have thought.
His commentary on 1 John 2:2 seems clear to me that he didn’t think Christ died for the reprobate (a view he labels a fanatical dream and monstrous absurdity). I examine various other passages in his scattered writings too. He certainly doesn’t sound like an Arminian, and when commenting on the classic texts he makes no conspicuous attempt to gloss them in a hypothetical universalist direction either, as far as I can see.
I’m pretty sure Calvin knew about the issue and thought about it, so it seems that he deliberately avoided an extended discussion of it. That may have been wise, because I can testify from experience that it is a thorny and slippery subject that can easily lead to misunderstandings and upsets! After Calvin, however, when attacks on basic Reformation doctrine became more advanced and detailed and the intent of the atonement was more in the firing line, it became vitally important for the Reformed to look at it more closely and join some of the dots.
Books At a Glance:
Thanks so much for your good work and for taking the time to speak to our readers.