Andrew Wilson and David Gibson Exchange on Limited Atonement

Within the doctrine of “definite atonement” you’ll find a nest of theological topics: doctrine of salvation, doctrine of God, the history of redemption, Christology, ecclesiology…hardly a theological concept remains untouched. The recently released 700+ page volume From Heaven He Came and Sought Her attests to the doctrine’s systemic nature by the depth and breadth of its content and by its size (and its endorsements; check them out at the link). For anyone interested, we interviewed the editors, David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, and Carl Trueman (a contributor) on Reformed Forum here. The Gibson brothers were a pleasure to talk to.

Without rehashing the discussion currently going on at Andrew Wilson and company’s blog (the original reviewGibson’s response, and Wilson’s response; HT: JT), I’ll try to lay out just a few principles and ground rules that may help those who are following the discussion.

Two central questions emerge from the conversation between Wilson and Gibson:

  1. What constitutes biblically warranted theological conclusions, and
  2. Given the answer to (1), is the doctrine of “limited/definite atonement” a biblically warranted conclusion?

In counterintuitive fashion, I’ll take the second question first and use it as an example for answering the first.

“Limited Atonement”

Why do some Reformed historians put those words in quotes? The student of church history will feel torn on this topic. He feels the urge to avoid sounding curmudgeonly, but can’t help but situate the current discussion and terminology of limited atonement within its multi-century history (which From Heaven He Came accomplished in pages 55-224). Like a parent worn out by having constantly to repeat “What did I just say?,” repetition fatigue can set in. A little over a year ago I posted this section [link now defunct] from Richard Muller’s book (again, you should read it because it’s very important, a significant contribution, yada yada) Calvin and the Reformed Tradition (now also available at Logos!). Rather than quoting large blocks I’ll summarize relevant parts below, which means some nuance will be lost, which also means you should read the relevant chapters if you’re looking for further details. Get the book, but you’ll find the chapter on “Calvin on Christ’s Satisfaction and Its Efficacy: The Issue of ‘Limited Atonement’” in PDF form here and the chapter on “A Tale of Two Wills? Calvin and Amyraut on Ezekiel 18:23” in PDF form here. These should function as necessary companions to From Heaven He Came.

Wilson’s desire to be biblical deserves applause, though like every other evangelical claim to be biblical, the question of what biblical means lies in the details. I’m not sure there exists even a small contingent of evangelicals who offer public defense for being unbiblical. Wilson asks multiple times, “Is definite atonement, the belief that Christ’s death was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone, taught by any biblical writers?” Seems like a simple yes or no question, but on closer inspection it is packed with assumptions. It may reflect good assumptions or bad assumptions, but they should be acknowledged.

First, is Wilson expecting that all the essential aspects of a particular doctrine be taught by one biblical writer, presumably in one passage? Here we find a more specific example of our first question above.

Second, is the doctrine of limited atonement summarized by the statement, “Christ’s death was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone?”

We’ll delay answering the first question, but the second question can quickly and emphatically be answered “no.” A few reasons:

1) Terminology matters. Muller reveals the anachronistic, vague, and therefore unhelpful status of the term “limited atonement” (not just because “limited” sounds exclusive; we’ll save the topic of marketing Reformed theology for another day). “Atonement” is an English word that was used after the doctrine was most pointedly debated and established in the period of high orthodoxy. “Satisfaction,” “propitiation,” “expiation,” “oblation,” “sufficiency,” “efficiency,” “impetration,” and “application” were included as key terms in the development of the doctrine. “Atonement” tends to flatten the nuances of those key terms.

2) From Muller:

Note that the statement “Christ died for the elect only,” if understood as referencing the efficacy of his satisfaction, could be confessed equally by Calvin, Beza, Amyraut, and Arminius, while the meaning of statement that his “death was not intended to atone for the sins of all mankind” depends entirely on whether atonement is understood in terms of its objective accomplishment (expiatio, impetratio) or its application (applicatio) and whether the “intention” references an effective divine willing or a revealed, preceptive divine willing. [Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 73n11.]

If Wilson believes that “Christ died for his people alone” is unbiblical, depending on the interpretation of this vague phrase, strictly speaking he not only puts himself beyond Reformed theology, but beyond Amyraldianism and Arminianism. You won’t find good theological company outside those camps. Boiling down the point of discussion to whether “Christ died for his people alone” betrays a lack of understanding of the issue, but also a commitment to a particular take on the doctrine that, to borrow Wilson’s phrase, “seems so clearly to be wagging the exegetical dog.” Wilson doesn’t come to the biblical text as a blank slate, but he reads the passages relevant to this discussion through a hermeneutical lens informed by his particular theological commitments, and those commitments are displayed in his original interaction with the book and his subsequent response to Gibson.

Redemption Accomplished and Applied

The quote above by Muller illustrates the basic, fundamental, and crucial nature of the categories redemption accomplished and redemption applied. Richard Gaffin insists on this point (one of the reasons I promote his work so heavily) and he stands on the shoulders of John Murray, Ridderbos, Vos, and the bulk of the Reformed tradition before them. The Reformed orthodox used the terms expiation/impetration and application to teach the same categories. You may have also heard the terms historia salutis (history of redemption) and ordo/applicatio salutis (order/application of salvation), also rough equivalents.

Decretive Will and Preceptive Will

Muller’s quote helpfully uses the Reformed distinction between God’s decretive will and God’s preceptive will. The debated issue in the 17th century centered around the ultimate cause of redemption applied—the individual’s free choice and God’s foreknowledge of it that follows (Molinism/Arminianism) or God’s decretive will (Reformed). All parties affirmed that it is God’s preceptive will (God’s will that we do what he commands—Ps. 143:10) that all come to Christ, but not his effective, decretive will (Rom. 9:19; Eph 1:11) This distinction would have helped Wilson when interpreting biblical passages that talk about God’s desire for the “world” and “all” to be saved (Ezekiel 18:23; 1 Cor. 15:22; 2 Cor. 5:14, 19; 1 Tim. 2:4-6; 4:10; Titus 2:11; 2 Pet 2:1; 3:9; Heb 2:9; 1 John 2:2). These are not the only passages in Scripture that talk about God’s intentions, his character, his will, Christ’s accomplished work, or the application of redemption (just to name a few theological overlays).

How does all this inform Wilson and Gibson’s discussion? We can rule out a few points that may be worth discussing elsewhere, but less relevant here.

1) Toss aside universal salvation. No orthodox theologian in this discussion believes that all humanity is saved. The most surface skimming of biblical history sufficiently eliminates the universalist option.

2) For the orthodox theologians, the question did not center on whether Christ’s accomplished redemption was applied only to the elect, but how. Was it ultimately because God foreknew what they would do under specific circumstances and then place the elect in those circumstances so they would actualize their freedom by choosing him (Molinism/Arminianism, with historical variations)? Or was it ultimately God’s electing decree that causes the individual’s salvation?

3) The Reformed have typically affirmed the free offer of the gospel. The gospel offer goes out freely to the world, to all men, all nations, to potentially every individual. Jesus did not preach his message only to the elect, and neither do we.

So the historical debates focused not on redemption applied, but on Christ’s accomplished redemption and whether this accomplished redemption was for every individual, elect and non-elect, or for the elect only. Put this way, we can ask more pointed questions:

1) Did Christ accomplish redemption for the non-elect?

2) If so, what is the status of Christ’s accomplished redemption that is not applied to the non-elect? In other words, if that redemption is accomplished but not applied, what kind of redemption is it and what is it redeeming?

Regarding Christ’s accomplished work, it has always struck me as a strange line of thinking to phrase the extent of sin in “amount” language and to do the same with Christ’s propitiation. If, in the whole course of human history, there exists 65 billion sin units, and as a subset in the course of the elect’s human history there exists 7 billion sin units, did Christ’s work cover 7 billion sin units? 65 billion? Some other number? “Amount” language seems wholly unhelpful, though we clearly want to affirm the infinite value of Christ’s accomplished work.

Note also that in this discussion we have not yet raised concerns about what to say to the unbeliever in evangelism or preaching, but are establishing principles from which our evangelism, preaching, and conversations can then be shaped and applied.

Final Thoughts

The distinctions above will not answer Wilson’s question, because he is asking the wrong question. Better, he’s asking a question phrased in a vague, non-specific way that expects “limited/definite atonement” or “unlimited atonement” to be taught by a biblical writer, when the best of Reformed theology does not expect that specific language from any biblical writer in the way Wilson wants. What one sees as biblical support for limited atonement depends quite a bit on what one means by limited atonement, and how it is connected to other linked doctrines.

I want to highlight again Wilson’s admirable, shared goal to be biblical. But the application of that desire through a uni-propositional, tunnel-vision hermeneutic that does not take into account the history of redemption seems less admirable. The Westminster Confession offers a helpful starting point for theological method and what constitutes a biblically warranted conclusion:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture…

Unless we simply quote verses verbatim all day and stop there, we all phrase biblical truths in different ways. What makes all those different iterations “biblical” is whether they are taught from Scripture as a whole, from “the whole counsel of God.” Given Wilson’s concession that “unlimited atonement may not be taught in scripture either,” why all the effort exclusively poured into demonstrating how limited atonement is unbiblical? Surely Scripture says something about Christ’s death and who it involves, so why don’t we see a positive case put forth by Wilson?

At the risk of going down a rabbit trail, I’ll bring another 700+ page book to the discussion, Kingdom Through Covenant (KTC) by Gentry and Wellum. Stephen Wellum contributes a chapter in From Heaven He Came, and he also writes on the extent of the atonement starting on p. 670 of KTC. To Wellum’s credit, he speaks in terminology that reflects an understanding of the redemption accomplished/applied nuance regarding atonement language, referencing John Murray’s work on the topic in a footnote. Also to his credit, Wellum understands that this topic must be connected to an understanding of Christ’s priestly and mediatorial work, a point made by Carl Trueman in his historical chapter on John Owen and the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis). Wellum notes others in Reformed history who understood the intrinsic connection between Christ’s priestly office and the sufficiency/efficiency of his work—Owen, Turretin, Bavinck, and others.

But Wellum’s understanding of covenant stands in the way of his potential consistency on this topic. In his fervor for emphasizing the newness of the new covenant, Wellum argues not just for a new change in redemption accomplished with Christ’s coming, but a new change in how redemption is applied after Christ’s death and resurrection. In other words, he links the changes in covenant administration to changes in individual salvation. He does this as part of the book’s overall program to defend a “progressive covenantalism,” which for present purposes should be understood as a Baptist covenantalism. Jonathan Brack and I address this in an upcoming article for the Westminster Theological Journal. One question to ask Wellum is whether Christ was the mediator for the Old Testament covenants, or if Noah, Abraham, Moses, and others were exclusively and non-typologically the mediators for the salvation of Old Testament saints. In other words, did Christ not die for Old Testament saints? A consistent, worked-out OT soteriology seems to be missing in KTC. Implications will follow for new covenant soteriology and the extent of Christ’s accomplished work.

I bring this up only to demonstrate that one’s understanding of covenant also matters for this discussion. The topic functions systemically throughout theology and, as I hope to argue in my ThM thesis, one’s understanding of the covenant of redemption shapes every facet and topic within theology.

At some point I’d like to pick up two other doctrines relevant to this discussion that have recently surfaced. First, on the Unbelievable podcast (I’m sensing a UK theme in this post), Paul Helm and William Lane Craig discussed the differences between “Calvinism” and Molinism. Second, Derek Rishmawy wrote a thought-provoking piece that defended impassibility, a defense much-needed today. It brought up some thoughts on method within theology proper that I’d like to devote some time and thought to.


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