Prooftexts for Limited Atonement and the Negative Inference Fallacy

I’ve written several articles critiquing the interpretation and logic of those who advocate limited atonement, the contention that Christ died only for the elect.  I’ll now discuss their use of verses that they think give a positive case for limited atonement.

Intellectually honest Calvinists will admit that no text in Scripture explicitly teaches limited atonement: There is no verse that says that Christ died for the elect only or at least explicitly denies that Christ died for everyone.  However, many Calvinists will argue that this is no big deal.  There is no verse, after all, that explicitly spells out the Trinity or Incarnation, yet those are considered not only clear scriptural teachings but central doctrines of the faith.  The reason that the Incarnation is certain, for example, is that there are texts that teach that Christ was a man and others that teach that he was God.  It takes only a small step of logic to put them together and conclude that Christ was both fully God and fully man.  Likewise, all it takes, according to Calvinists, is a small logical step from certain passages to reach limited atonement.

The texts they typically use are passages that teach that Christ died for a select group of people.  Here are a few examples:

John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”

Acts 20:28: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”

Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her…”

Other verses can be offered, but these are enough to get the picture.  While none of these verses state that Christ died for the elect only, Calvinists argue that it is nonetheless reasonable to make this conclusion.

The Negative Inference Fallacy

While there is not space to go through each of these verses and their contexts in detail, the citations of these verses all fail for the same reason: The negative inference fallacy.

The negative inference fallacy points out an invalid step in logic: A positive assertion about something does not by itself logically lead to a negative inference about something else.  Consider this example:

  1. All Koreans are Asians.
  2. Bob is not a Korean.
  3. Therefore, Bob is not an Asian.

This is obviously invalid; Bob could be a different kind of Asian, such as Chinese.  There is a host of examples that follow this basic error, and this is the mistake Calvinists are making.  Essentially, they are arguing this:

  1. Jesus died for the elect.
  2. Bob is not elect.
  3. Therefore, Jesus did not die for Bob.

However, the conclusion simply does not follow.  It turns out they still need a premise that states that Jesus died only for the elect, or they would need a premise that states that Jesus did not die for the non-elect to couple with the teaching that Jesus died for the elect. But again, neither major premise they need is taught in Scripture.

Thus, it is very misleading for Calvinists to teach that limited atonement is a simple logical step akin to the Incarnation or Trinity.  For the latter two, anyone can see how the logic follows easily.  Take the Incarnation:

  1. Jesus is God (G).
  2. Jesus is a man (M).
  3. Therefore, G & M (conjunction, 1, 2).

We may not be able to fully explain this doctrine, but so long as the premises are clearly taught in Scripture, then the conclusion straightforwardly follows, no matter how mysterious the details are.  This is manifestly not the case for limited atonement.

Implication from Exegesis?

It would be surprising for any informed Calvinist to deny that arguments that look like the above commit an obvious fallacy.  However, they may argue that exegesis of some of these texts lead to the implication that Christ died only for the elect because when given the opportunity, they do not affirm that he died for anyone else.  Again, there is not space to exegete each passage fully, but I think there is another similar fallacy they are making when they try to make this argument.

Consider how many Calvinists take John 10: They argue that it states that Jesus lays down his life for his sheep, not other sheep.  Why wouldn’t it also say that, they ask?  Because either Jesus died for his sheep or he died for other sheep, but it states that he dies for his sheep.  Granting their interpretation that “sheep” = “believing elect” (which many disagree with), I’ll try to spell out the argument:

  1. Jesus lays down his life for his sheep (S) or Jesus lays down his life for other sheep (S*) [S or S*].
  2. S
  3. Therefore, ~S*.

For anyone who has taken logic, this is obviously invalid and still commits something like the negative inference fallacy (in this case, the formal fallacy is known as Affirming the Disjunct).  While a negation of one of the disjuncts would lead to a valid affirmation of the other disjunct (a move called disjunctive syllogism), a positive assertion of one disjunct can lead to no conclusion about the other one.  That’s because disjunctions in logic are not exclusionary; the entire disjunction is true if one or both of the disjuncts are true.  And since conditionals can be converted to disjunctions and vice versa, there is no hope here for Calvinists who try to use conditional statements (such as “If someone is elect, then Jesus died for him”) to get to limited atonement without committing the fallacies of either Affirming the Consequent or Denying the Antecedent.

Inductive method

Probably the best way for Calvinists to affirm limited atonement biblically is in an inductive manner.  Forced to concede that Scripture does not clearly teach limited atonement, they could argue that A) Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus died for his church and B) Scripture is silent about Jesus dying for anyone else.  Sure, these propositions do not prove limited atonement, but that by itself doesn’t prove unlimited atonement either, and it turns out that no scriptural texts support unlimited atonement.  Therefore, the most reasonable conclusion is to only affirm that Jesus died for his church.  In fact, I make a similar argument in favor of sola scriptura in response to Catholics.  One could quibble that this is an argument from silence, but arguments from silence can have some inductive value if used carefully.

However, this requires a case that Scripture does not in fact say anything about whether or not Jesus died for everyone, and here Calvinists fail badly.  A host of texts can be brought up that support Christ dying for everyone, some of them covered on this blog such as 1 John 2:2.  In fact, a prima facie case can be given against limited atonement here because the face-value meanings of many texts have to be contorted to fit it, while those who hold to unlimited atonement have no problem reading a passage like Ephesians 5 as simply stating that Christ died for his church.  This is because if Christ died for everyone, then he, naturally enough, also died for his church.  However, due to their adherence to limited atonement, Calvinists cannot allow passages such as 1 John 2:2 to say that Jesus died for everyone, so they have to interpret “whole world” to mean something like “scattered elect among the nations” by drawing a parallel with John 11, a move that simply ignores John’s usage of “world” or “whole world” and the context of 1 John.

Thus, Calvinists have a long way to go to show that Scripture is silent on Jesus’ death for everyone, and their path does not look promising.  One side seems to interpret all the biblical texts in a more straightforward manner, while the other is forced to do a lot of work to convince us that these texts do not mean what they seem to mean.  Now of course, many biblical texts are deeper than they initially seem, and one may come out with a different interpretation on closer inspection.  Also, most debates are characterized by all sides dealing with texts that are difficult for them.  However, when one side has a lot of problem texts that straightforwardly seem to disprove its position while the other doesn’t, it’s fair to ask if its proponents are trying too hard to avoid a conclusion they don’t like.

Conclusion

The texts given by Calvinists as a positive case for limited atonement don’t amount to much, as all of their treatments depend on fallacious reasoning.  Even if this is admitted and they go for an inductive path, their case is weak because they have to dodge so many texts that teach against their position while the other side can simply read the prooftexts of Calvinists at face value.

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2 thoughts on “Prooftexts for Limited Atonement and the Negative Inference Fallacy

  1. Thanks you for this article!
    You distinguished “intellectually honest” Calvinists. I think it is increasingly recognized that a certain percentage of Calvinists are not intellectually honest. Can you identify any noted Calvinists whom you do consider intellectually honest? Thanks! :-]

    • Hey br.d:

      I would say that most notable Calvinists try to be intellectually honest; I don’t get the sense that the likes of Piper, Carson, Chandler, Keller, Ware, or Schreiner are trying to pull fast ones. However, I think sometimes some of them can make careless comments about how allegedly obvious Calvinism is, and there are some far bolder ones that have the attitude that limited atonement is obvious and clear scriptural teaching (possibly James White).

      Now if you want to talk about “not notable” Calvinists, like many lay Calvinists or Calvinist pastors, then yes, there are several who aren’t very intellectually honest or as learned as they think they are.

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