Intent and Extent: A Backfiring Argument For Limited Atonement and a Potential Problem for Four-Pointers

This post will be yet another on the subject of limited atonement.  Here, I will address another common argument from Calvinists that comes more from alleged logic than exegesis.

I’ve heard many Calvinists, including combative Calvinist James White, derogatorily say something along the lines of, “You can’t talk about extent without first talking about intent!” when confronted with texts that teach against limited atonement.  The idea here is that if God only intended to save a few by unconditional election of individuals, then that intent of salvation logically leads to the idea that Jesus only died for his elect.  In other words, if that was God’s intent, then the extent of Jesus’ atonement should not be contrary to it, so it too is limited.  Another example of this is John MacArthur here, who, in a roundabout way, argues along similar lines and also brings up the double jeopardy argument.  MacArthur plays way too many word games with “limited” and “unlimited” here that distract from the main point, like many Callvinists do, but I will not focus on the entirety of his sermon but instead deal with this argument of intent to extent.

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander

First of all, let it be pointed out that this is a strictly logical or philosophical argument, not a biblical one.  This is ironic considering how Calvinists like White chide other Christians repeatedly for performing “eisegesis,” a charge that he normally just alleges against interpretations he disagrees with rather than showing how they are wrong.  It is also ironic, as I’ve pointed out before, seeing how many Calvinists respond to difficult arguments against their position, such as the argument from evil or the Fall, with, “That’s a philosophical argument and not a biblical one.”  If you read or listen to MacArthur’s sermon, you may be struck by how little he actually talks about the Bible and by the fact that this is not an expository sermon, which is something that he is known for.  Instead, he strings together a handful of verse references and completely avoids problem texts while talking more about his reasoning.

Now, as I’ve also said before (and as, you know, a graduate student in philosophy), I don’t have a problem with Christians bringing in philosophy into theological discussions.  Not only should that happen, everyone does it whether they realize it or not.  It’s just worth pointing out the irony and inconsistency that so many Calvinists proclaim themselves to be the great defenders of biblical exegesis vs. philosophy but then fall back on philosophy.  Indeed, one of the most common criticisms against limited atonement is that it is a logical conclusion from other Calvinistic ideas rather than something that is supported by clear biblical evidence.  Given the prevalence of the intent –> extent argument, it seems many Calvinists concede the point whether they’d admit that or not.

The Conditional Argument

Perhaps they are right in this: If we were to grant their beliefs, especially unconditional individual election prior to creation, then it may indeed follow that the extent of Christ’s atonement was limited.  Why would Jesus die for those he never intended or wanted to save (ignoring, for the moment, texts like 2 Peter 3:9)?  It is a fair question to ask if one grants Calvinist presuppositions.  So let’s grant that their reasoning is valid and we can say this:

(a) If God unconditionally elects individuals, then Christ died only for those elect individuals.

All good, right?  Except that we aren’t restricted to reasoning this from left to right just because we read from left to right.  If clear biblical exegesis, as I think it must, strikes down limited atonement, do you know what happens with this happy logical link?  It shoots back via modus tollens and falsifies the antecedent.  Let me illustrate that for those who do not know logic.  Let’s say this:

(1) If it rained, then it is wet outside.

This is called a conditional statement.  Without getting into truth tables and what not, all you need to know is that if the antecedent is true, the consequent has to be true, a logical step called modus ponens.  Here it is:

(1) If it rained, then it is wet outside.
(2) It rained.
(3) Therefore, it is wet outside.

Seems obvious, right?  However, an important thing to note is that if you know that the consequent is true, you cannot conclude necessarily that the antecedent is true.  So this reasoning would be false.

(1) If it rained, then it is wet outside.
(2) It is wet outside.
(3) Therefore, it rained.

This is an invalid step.  You can easily understand this by noting that there can be other reasons why it is wet outside, like if the sprinklers have been going off.  That said, one perfectly valid step you can make is that if you know the consequent is false, then you know the antecedent is false.  So this is valid:

(1) If it rained, then it is wet outside.
(2) It is NOT wet outside.
(3) Therefore, it did NOT rain.

Where am I going with this?  Well, if Calvinists are so confident in their logic from intent to extent, and if clear biblical evidence shows the extent to be unlimited, then not only does that contradict limited atonement, it threatens to topple large parts of the Calvinistic system like a house of cards.  In other words, we’d get this:

(1) If God unconditionally elects individuals, then Christ only died for the elect.
(2) Christ did not die only for the elect according to clear biblical teaching.
(3) Therefore, God does not unconditionally elect individuals.

Of course, Calvinists would reject premise 2, but that’s the thing: They cannot just belt out “Intent to extent!” They have to deal with, in detail, all the relevant texts in a contextual and careful manner, something that I have shown they have not done for texts like 1 John 2:2 and John 17:9.  Thus, Calvinists who use this argument like James White show their misunderstanding of logic; we are clearly not required to start with intent, as if the Bible has nothing to say about extent itself and as if that somehow violates logical principles (and as if their conclusions about intent are correct to begin with).  This is why Wayne Grudem, a five-point Calvinist, concedes that the “intent first!” argument is unhelpful in his Systematic Theology.

Four-pointers (Amyraldism)

This is especially significant for those who want to call themselves Calvinists but know full well that the Bible does not support limited atonement, the so-called four-pointers.  If Calvinist reasoning is valid here AND it is clear that limited atonement is false, then four-pointers can’t be four-pointers; they at least have to reject Unconditional Election if not more.  Their only recourse is to swallow limited atonement or reject Calvinist reasoning as invalid, which some have done.  One four-pointer, for example, argued that it is true that God desires all to be saved but that there is a competing desire in God to also show his glory by damning people to Hell.  However, such maneuvers can be fraught with their own problems as well, and many four-pointers may not be comfortable with such competing desires within God.

Conclusion

Avoiding difficult biblical texts with, “You can’t talk about extent without first talking about intent!” is silly because it shows a lack of understanding of logic and because it can potentially backfire on Calvinists when it is shown that limited atonement grates against biblical evidence.  It is especially something that four-pointers need to think long and hard about, because if they are so confident (as I think they should be) to reject limited atonement, they might find one or more of the other points to be on shaky ground.

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