I noted in a recent post that there is no verse that straightforwardly confirms limited atonement, the belief that Jesus died only for the elect. On the flip side, there seems to be plenty of verses that flat out contradict it, which Calvinists have to deal with in order to preserve the L in TULIP. In this post, I want to focus on 1 Timothy 4:10, another problematic text for the Calvinist position.
Here’s the verse: “For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers” (NASB). It is the relative clause that gets the bulk of the attention here, and it is obvious why: On face value, it sounds like God is the Savior of everyone but is the Savior in a special way for believers. This would flow quite nicely with unlimited atonement: Through Christ’s atoning death for everyone, God is the Savior of all, but this atonement is only applied to those who believe.
Such a reading, however, would contradict limited atonement, so Calvinists have proposed several ways of reading this verse. I’ll summarize and evaluate the ones that I am familiar with, and it will be shown that these attempts fail to make a convincing exegetical case and often rely on dubious word studies, faulty reasoning, and de-contextualized readings in order to preserve a dogged allegiance to a system.
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.
A while ago, I wrote about John Owen’s famous trilemma argument in favor of limited atonement and criticized its shortcomings. I noted that it is reliant on a commercialist view of the atonement, which is faulty, and that it diminishes the importance of faith. Philosophical arguments like that one are not out of bounds by nature and can guide interpretation, but it is not nearly strong enough to overturn better interpretations of passages such as 1 John 2:2 that speak against limited atonement.
Now, I want to discuss another problem for Calvinists who advocate the double payment argument. Many of them insist that though there is a sense in which Christ did not die for everyone, there is another sense in which he did. In other words, while Christ’s blood and sacrifice is sufficient for everyone, it is efficient only for the elect. I think this, along with the double payment argument, leads to a contradiction. Even for those few Calvinists who reject Owen’s argument, this distinction is meaningless and confused.
A while ago, I wrote about how it seems that Calvinists cannot consistently claim that God is all-loving in their system, which at least some Calvinists agree with. I posted an online comment from a Calvinist to illustrate this, and also noted in passing that he utilized the author analogy to remove moral responsibility from God: Just like authors aren’t held accountable for writing characters that get raped and murdered, it makes no sense to pin evil on God, who is the author of creation. I have seen this analogy several times, including recently where the poster stated that blaming God for horrific evils that he causes is like blaming Shakespeare for Claudius’ betrayal in Hamlet. Since nobody thinks Shakespeare is guilty for Claudius’ sin even though Shakespeare wrote Claudius in that manner, it is equally silly to think that God is implicated in sin and evil even though he is the cause of it all.
It is important to review why this argument is even necessary: An all-determining and all-causing view of God’s sovereignty is foundational for classical Reformed theology, which leads to the idea that God causes evil. Many Reformed theologians shrink from this and try to say that God only allows evil but doesn’t directly cause it, but as I have argued before, this option is not legitimately available to them and certainly wasn’t an option that Calvin himself thought highly of in his Institutes. Those who are a bit more consistent bite the bullet and say that God indeed unilaterally causes sin and evil, so then this author analogy becomes relevant to them: Because God is the Author of everything, he can do whatever he pleases with his “novel” and that does not impugn his goodness. The “God as Author” analogy is very common among Christians who merely want to affirm that God is the Creator, but here, it is used very specifically as a way to show that God can be the cause of evil but remain blameless.
This seems straightforward, but a little digging shows that this analogy is very inadequate. All analogies break down at some point, as many people often simplistically intone, but that doesn’t mean analogies cannot be evaluated for their usefulness and accuracy, and in my estimation, this one falls way short.
A popular philosophical viewpoint regarding the relationship between God’s knowledge and human free actions is Molinism. I will attempt to keep this simple and non-technical, so Molinism can be roughly defined as the view that God not only knows what people will do in the future but what they would or would not do in any given circumstance. In fact, the former is more or less based on the latter; God knows what every single person would or would not do in any world he could create, and then he decides to create a particular world, of which he then knows all future actions and events (“world” here does not mean the earth but rather a possible “universe” or state of affairs).
The reason this view is popular among Christian philosophers is that it promises to harmonize two common aspects of Christian theology: Human free will and God’s sovereignty/providence. More specifically, it seeks to harmonize human libertarian free will and a meticulous view of God’s providence. Arminians and other non-Calvinists tend to espouse human libertarian freedom, the idea that external causes (such as God) do not determine a human choice because otherwise it would not be free. Many therefore often conceive of sovereignty in more general terms: God is in control, but that does not mean that God decides every little detail of creation. A plethora of Bible verses can be mustered for their position, though of course that does not necessarily mean they are interpreted rightly.
Reformed theologians, on the other hand, have built an entire system based upon an all-causing view of God’s sovereignty; R.C. Sproul famously argued that if God did not directly control every last molecule of the universe, that one molecule could lay waste to creation. They therefore seek to change the typical understanding of free will by advocating compatibilism, the belief that determinism and free will can be compatible if free will is understood a certain way. God ultimately determines human choices, but human beings are still morally responsible for their actions, not God. Needless to say, such a view of freedom gives them decided amounts of trouble in explaining evil, but they too are armed with a host of Bible references (though again, it is up for debate if Reformed people interpret these correctly).
I am a member of an apologetics Facebook group, but I never post there. I simply read the links or discussions that pop up if they are interesting. I recently skimmed through a discussion in that group, and there was a back-and-forth between an atheist and a Calvinist, a Calvinist who I think may even be one of the group’s moderators. I have seen this Calvinist post many times, and he seems like a pretty intelligent guy who is well-read in Reformed theology, at least for a layperson. These two were debating about God and morality, with the atheist claiming that God is genocidal and the Calvinist arguing that God has no moral obligations towards his creation because he is God, the source of morality, and so it is a categorical mistake to think God can’t do to his creation what authors do to characters in their story (such as write characters who get raped, murdered, etc.).
While some responses by the Calvinist were good, others I found problematic, including the oft used author analogy. I’ll pass those by for now to focus on this particular thing that he said to the atheist:
The Bible never claims God is all-loving, so if that’s what your impression of Christianity is then no wonder you are confused. Now, God is all-loving to those that are His own (John 17:9) but not those who are not His own (John 10:26)…
Again,if you were under the impression that God all-loving, then I can see where you find a conflict. However neither I nor the Bible makes that claim.
Not only would this surprise many non-Christians, a great many Christians would be shocked at a comment like this. It didn’t help that the atheist promptly cited Psalm 145:9: “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (NIV). The Calvinist did not immediately respond to this. (edit: By the way, if you’re curious about what is wrong with referencing John 17:9, read here).
If you engage in the debate regarding Calvinism for any length of time, one of the names that will pop up is Michael Servetus. Servetus was a contemporary of John Calvin, a brilliant young man like Calvin… and a guy that was burned at the stake in Geneva for being a heretic. And he was no doubt a heretic for his anti-Trinitarian teachings, so the Catholic Church didn’t like him either. In fact, he was on trial in Lyons for heresy before escaping to Geneva, where he was eventually caught and tried there as well.
Why Servetus comes up is because Calvin’s role in his brutal execution is oft debated. Many critics of Calvinism charge that Calvin had immense power in Geneva and threw around his weight to get Servetus executed. This is further supported by the fact that he seemed to boast about his role in the execution later and never hinted at any remorse over it. These critics then angrily accuse Calvin of being a murderer, and since false prophets will be known by their fruit as it says in Matthew 7, Calvin is shown to be a false teacher. If he’s a false teacher, then this whole system of theology which adopts his name, Calvinism, should be rejected as false theology from a false, murdering teacher.
Comprehensive exams are coming up for me… but let’s talk theology! 🙂
Since I’ve written several times on what I believe to be the errors of limited atonement from biblical, logical, and practical standpoints, I have already addressed the double payment or double jeopardy argument before in passing. I will try to discuss the argument here in more detail and further describe why it fails to be convincing. Essentially, it relies on problematic assumptions while introducing serious problems regarding the importance of faith. Thus, not only does it not suffice to overcome all of the other problems of limited atonement that I’ve talked about before, it’s not even a powerful argument in itself, no matter how straightforward it seems.
John Owen’s Trilemma
Most modern Calvinists hold to a view of limited atonement that is more or less inherited from John Owen. I want to point out that not all 5-point Calvinists think the following argument is a good one (some people claim that neither Calvin nor Edwards held to such a view). However, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that this argument is indicative of the most popular rendering of limited atonement by most these days.
Owen sought to back non-Calvinists in a corner with a trilemma that forced them to concede that limited atonement, the view that Christ only died for the elect, is the only possible view. He gives three options for the Christian. Christ died for:
In the previous post, I discussed why the theological determinist/Calvinist could not rely on Plantinga’s solution to the logical problem of evil due to the fact that the idea of “proper” elimination of evil and the idea of free will in his argument grate against determinism. I first addressed why compatibilism is an inadequate theory of human freedom because it fails to ground moral responsibility in created creatures and transfers that responsibility to God. Now I’ll reproduce another section of my paper, which discusses another problem for the theological determinist: Given a compatibilistic view of freedom, there is no good reason why God would not have created a world without evil.
One of the most common objections to Plantinga’s Free Will Defense is called the “compatibilist objection,” which goes like this: If compatiblism is true, then God could have created free creatures and yet also determine that they always do good without violating their freedom. If so, then God could have had his cake and eaten it too: He could have had free creatures, allegedly a good in itself, as well as free creatures who didn’t choose evil. Thus, there is no good reason why God would allow or cause evil.
Now, as should be clear from the previous post, for a theist who rejects compatibilism, this would not be much of a problem. He would simply disagree that God could have created free creatures and yet determine all of their actions. For the theological determinist, however, this criticism hits home, and is yet another reason why the Free Will Defense is unavailable to them. If compatibilism is true, then God could have preserved human freedom (and angelic freedom) while determining that they do not fall into sin. There would therefore be no evil, but that is clearly not the case in the real world.
Several years ago, I read an article about the increased popularity of Reformed theology among Southern Baptists, and the author was more sympathetic towards Calvinism. While the author did an admirable job getting both sides of the issue, interviewing gentleman such as Al Mohler of Southern and David Allen of Southwestern, he/she (forgot the gender) said something along the lines of, “Calvinists believe that others have not yet realized the systematic splendor of Reformed Theology.” Indeed, this so-called “systematic splendor” is strongly asserted by many Calvinists and is often one of the most attractive aspects of Reformed theology to Christians who want to be more intellectual. The way Calvinism is often presented makes it seem, on the surface, as one big puzzle that is put together in a neat way. What other system can give a summary as efficient as TULIP?
Due to this, Calvinists drill Calvinist theology in their churches, and many Calvinists are well-trained to recite the five points and bring up Scripture references on the fly. They have developed a reputation for being dogged defenders of the “doctrines of grace” and for a “God-centered” theology, as opposed to the “man-centered” theologies of everyone else. Monergism vs. Synergism. Grace vs. works. Glory of God vs. glory of man. The issues are cut and dry if only people would read the Bible properly. Hence, many Calvinists assume that those Christians who are not Calvinists are, at best, not yet educated enough in the Scriptures or, at worst, not really believers or believers who are so immature that they reject obvious teachings in the Bible. If non-Calvinists could only see how everything fits together. Such confidence has produced a haughtiness among many Calvinists that even other Calvinists have noted with great concern.
To be fair to them, I’ve seen many Christians use bad criticisms of Calvinism and fail to use Scriptural arguments against it, further feeding the belief among Reformed people that non-Calvinists are ignorant. However, I’m going to be frank: I have often found this confidence to be amusing, and irritating, because while many critics of Calvinists use bad arguments, there are many Calvinists whose only familiarity with opposite viewpoints are caricatures given by other Calvinists. When they find that the alleged “systematic splendor” doesn’t fit like a perfect puzzle the way they thought, it can be a bit entertaining seeing their reactions, ranging from anger, disbelief, and downright shock.