Monday, March 2, 2009

Is Jesus Saviour of the World or Saviour of the Elect?

Triggered by a note in another blog I have been doing a little reading and reflecting on the question in the title above. Calvinism's TULIP has blessed us with the idea of 'Limited Atonement' or, probably better expressed, 'Particular Redemption'. If Christ died in our place receiving the punishment for our sins then he did not die for everyone, since then some people would be punished twice for their sins, once on the cross and once in hell. Ergo, Christ died for the sins of the elect and not for the sins of the non-elect.

Silly people like me wonder why the Bible then includes John 3:16 (God so loved the world) and John 4:42 (This is indeed the Saviour of the World), but no doubt if I look harder enough I will find the appropriate Calvinist solution.

The howlers here are fairly obvious and make one book I was alerted to somewhat inglorious! Howler 1 is thinking about the death of Christ and its theological meaning in a human mechanistic manner, including 'punishment' for sins being a 'thing' there can be two helpings of. What is punishment for sins from the perspective of God? Perhaps it looks quite different!

Howler 2 is assuming we have a completely satisfactory grasp of what the 'elect' means. Perhaps 'the elect' means those who are destined to be saved with the logical corollary that the non-elect means those who are destined not to be saved. But what if it does not mean that? If, for example, the elect is not a neat category of people, inexorably linked to predestination in the sense of God's irresistible force which means some must become Christians and others not, then Christ's death is not quite so particular!

Howler 3 is a generally small-minded approach to salvation: it's about numbers of people and measurable dollops of punishment, according to this watertight theory; but everything the Bible says about the grace of God reeks of the mystery of the immeasurable dimensions of God's grace. God in Christ reconciles the whole world to himself; heaven is envisaged as peopled with an unnumbered crowd; Jesus of Nazareth mingles with all shades and shapes of people, and not only with those 'destined' to become his disciples.

Calvinism needs to get a life! If a preoccupation with the penal substitutionary theory of atonement leads to such howlers, perhaps the 'theory' needs revisiting, rather than attacking critics of limited or particular atonement. For what it is worth I find the 'penal' part of the theory unhelpful: it too readily draws into our minds mechanical versions of the consequences of sin such as 'X years in prison' or 'a fine of Y dollars'. The consequences of our sin are more and less than that. For example, one consequence is slavery to the power of sin. On the cross Christ provides the means ('redemption') for release from that slavery: that release is available to all, but not all avail themselves of it.

The book, incidentally, is Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution and written by Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach. Its foreword is by John Piper, noted American preacher and arguably the current doyen of Calvinism in the world today.

Now here is an interesting 'Anglican Down Under' angle on this book and its argument for limited atonement or particular redemption. The three authors are Anglican theologians connected through teaching/study at Oak Hill Theological College, London. But one of the theologians they have a go at because he or she argues against particular redemption is none other than the late Broughton Knox, former Principal of Moore College, Sydney, and the theologian par excellence behind the general theological tenor of the Diocese of Sydney today (pp. 276 - 278).

One of the beauties of Anglicanism, I suggest, is that it distances itself, rather than embraces, the full-blown '-isms' of other modes of being Christian, whether it is Calvinism, Lutheranism, Pentecostalism or Roman Catholism.


Anonymous said...

As a principle of debate, we should always engage the most capable representatives of a view. I don't recall that 'Pierced for our Trangressions' was primarily about predestination (it's a defense of the historical pedigree of PSA), but I think a historical theologican like Michael Ovey (an expert on patristics) could no doubt capably turn his hand to that. And you surely know that the mystery of predestination has preoccupied the church long before Calvin: it is there in Augustine, was a lively topic in the early medieval period (the subject of Pannenberg's Habilitationsschrift, IIRC), and was taken up by RC Archbishop Jansen in his 'Augustinus' (and championed by no less than Psacal). The Anglican 39 Articles have always seemed pretty Calvinist to me, and the leading contemporary Anglican Calvinist is surely J. I. Packer. Dip into 'Knowing God' for his take on this. (Packer also wrote a substantial essay on 'The Logic of Substitutionary Atonement', and traced modern objections to it to Socinianism.) No surprise that contemporary Moore differs from Broughton Knox, any more that they disagree with T. C. Hammond's idealism. So let us not rush to judgment!
I think the philosopher-theologian Paul Helm is the real person to grapple with here - see his blog 'Helm's Deep' for discussions of Calvinism, freewill, predestination etc. I'm not sure, but I think philosopher William Lane Craig is Arminian and he invokes Molinism and middle knowledge (divine knowledge of counter-factuals) in defense of this view. D. A. Carson argues for some kind of 'concursive combatibilism' in Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility'.
There is no simple answer either way! But biblical theology and constructive philosophical theology need each other.

Anonymous said...

Here's a link to Helm's blog, which is linked to many other things he says about Calvinism and reprobation:

On the question of god's love for the world which you raised, Carson's little book 'The Difficult Doctrine of God's Love' is worth perusing.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous
Thanks for the references - Helm is a clear think and able exponent of Calvin.
I agree there are no easy answers here as there are problems with Arminian counter-proposals to predestination.
I agree that a fair amount of Calvinism is in Anglicanism - and have little problem with that ... but glad that we are not tied lock stock and barrel to Calvinism (or Augustinianism).
Incidentally I entirely accept that Christ died as a substitutionary atonement for our sins and bore the consequences of them in our place ... its the word 'penal' which troubles me, not because I do not think God is wrathful but because it buys into too many human agendas re 'crime and punishment'!