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A Biblico-Systematic Approach to Overcoming the Definite Atonement Impasse

I’m almost finished with From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective. Jonathan Gibson’s chapters (Part II, Definite Atonement in the Bible) were among my favorite. In the first of his two chapters (Chapter 12: For Whom Did Christ Die? Particularism and Universalism in the Pauline Epistles), Gibson argues that Paul’s atonement theology consists of at least four groups of biblical texts: particularistic texts, universalistic texts, “perishing” texts (which concern Christ’s death for those who may finally perish), and “doctrinal loci” texts (which concern doctrines that directly impinge upon the intent and nature of the atonement). Chapter 12 addresses the first three of these groups of texts. In Chapter 13 (The Glorious, Indivisible, Trinitarian Work of God in Christ: Definite Atonement in Paul’s Theology of Salvation) Gibson points out that while robust exegesis of the particularistic, universalistic, and perishing texts are surely important to discussions on the intent and scope of the atonement, employing these texts alone most often results in an impasse in the discussion.

And so, in Chapter 13 Gibson proposes a new way forward – a biblico-systematic approach. I was immediately excited when I read those words – I love biblico-systematic takes. The below is from the introduction of chapter 13. The quote is perhaps longer than typical blog quotes, but it is very, very good.

Definite atonement, carefully and properly understood, is not a biblical doctrine per se, nor even a systematic doctrine per se; rather, definite atonement is a biblico-systematic doctrine. That is to say, the doctrine of definite atonement emerges from holding together various soteriological texts while at the same time synthesizing internally related doctrines, such as es­chatology, election, union with Christ, christology, Trinitarianism, doxology, covenant, ecclesiology, and sacramentology. Definite atonement is a theo­logical conclusion reached on the other side of comprehensive synthesis. When exegesis serves the domain of constructive theology—or put better, when there is a symbiotic relationship between exegesis and constructive theology—one may argue not only that Paul’s theology allows for a definite atonement but that it can point in no other direction. My approach under­stands Paul’s doctrine of the atonement through the lens of his soteriology, that is, through the wider framework of the saving work of God in Christ. As R. A. Morey has rightly commented, “The confusion surrounding this doctrine [of the extent of the atonement] often results from the failure to view it in the light of the whole plan of salvation.”

This is not to impose a “systematic” grid over the universalistic or “perishing” texts, one that “dominates” or “minimizes” the universalistic elements of Paul’s atonement theology while privileging the particularistic texts. An accurate and comprehensive formulation of Paul’s soteriology will include his universalistic and “perishing” texts as significant components in that lens. Nevertheless, these texts are but two of several constituents in Paul’s soteriological framework, and should be neither privileged nor preju­diced as they sit alongside particularistic texts and “doctrinal loci” texts, the latter of which concern various doctrines which directly impinge upon his atonement theology, such as eschatology, election, union with Christ, chris­tology, Trinitarianism, doxology, covenant, ecclesiology, and sacramentol­ogy. It is these latter loci that are often neglected, and the aim of this chapter is to let their voice be heard in the debate over the intent and nature of the atonement. Indeed, I would argue that the doctrinal loci texts may serve a mediating role in the textual quid pro quo: on the one hand, they keep us from bland and reductionistic interpretations of the particularistic texts; on the other hand, they restrain us from naïve and simplistic interpretations of the universalistic and “perishing” texts.


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  1. Book Review – From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective |
  2. A Theology for the Church (Daniel Akin ed.) |
  3. Favorite Books of 2014 |

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