Andrew David Naselli and Mark A. Snoeberger, ed. Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement: 3 Views. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015. 256 pp. $24.99.
I don’t usually gravitate toward multiview books, but what solidified Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement in my mind as a book I needed to read was a comment made in passing by my friend Lindsay Kennedy about how he always likes to engage with the best arguments of opposing positions. I have been a convinced 5-point Calvinist for a long time, and I’ve read many of the significant tomes defending Reformed soteriology (e.g From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, Salvation by Grace, etc.); but I couldn’t remember ever reading a good academic defense of Arminian soteriology. Because this issue is one of the most controversial intra-Evangelical theological debates and one in which both sides are prone to caricature the other, at the very least Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement helps us see that each of the three views espoused in this book is exegetically and theologically tenable and that this is an in-house, family debate amongst genuine believers who all affirm the essential tenet of penal substitutionary atonement.
Carl Trueman kicks things off with a presentation and defense of definite atonement. He begins with the assertion that “the case for particular redemption, like that for the Trinity, does not depend on the understanding of any single text, nor does any single text explicitly teach it. Instead, it is the result of the cumulative force and implications of a series of strands of biblical teaching” (23). He then mounts his case by first arguing for the particularity of intention in Christ’s saving mission and then contending for the objective efficacy of Christ’s work. Trueman then sets these against the backdrop of the general biblical teaching of intention, efficacy, and atonement as seen in OT typology/prophecy and their NT fulfilment in the work of Christ. Finally, he addresses the common practical objection that espousing definite atonement harms preaching. Especially important is his demonstration that unless one ascribes to universal salvation, all attenuate the love of God in some sense and every system has problems. While Trueman offered many biblical texts in support of definite atonement, he contends that a more constructive approach than the typical proof-texting is “to understand the atonement within the biblical context of the objective efficacy of Christ’s work as mediator” (40).
Tom McCall (though Grant Osborne wrote the essay on the Arminian view, due to health reasons he passed on the baton to McCall to respond to the other views) responds by first taking issue with several aspects of Trueman’s methodology. He notes that Trueman’s reference to his definite atonement view as anti-Pelagian is potentially misleading and argues against the validity of Trueman’s comparison of definite atonement with the doctrine of the Trinity. In regards to specific texts, many of McCall’s responses contend that Trueman makes the texts say more than they actually do. McCall also notes that perhaps Trueman does not understand the “free will defense.” In response to the texts used by Trueman to argue for particularity in the intent of the atonement, Hammett (multiple intentions view) notes how advocates of universal atonement have always responded – “the texts do not say only his people, or sheep, or church” (75 emphasis original). Most of Hammett’s responses are cursory and hint at points he will develop in his own essay, and the concluding remarks of his response summarize his multiple intentions position: “My concern in differentiating my view from definite atonement is not doing more justice to the love of God or providing a sound foundation for preaching. It is doing justice to the texts that seem to point to a universal intention alongside the particular intention. I think both are taught and can be seen as complementary, rather than contradictory” (79).
In Chapter 2 Grant Osborne presents the general atonement view, arguing that “Christ has died sufficiently for all but efficiently for those who find faith in his atoning death” and that this does not entail universalism (81-82). He also claims that most Arminian theologians accept the doctrine of total depravity and that Arminianism is not semi-Pelagian. I think these two claims need careful definition and defense because many Reformed theologians would disagree. What strikes me as odd about this chapter is that Osborne spends about as much time presenting texts that seem to indicate a particular, efficacious atonement (without really arguing against them) as he does on texts that seem to favor a universal atonement. Osborne spends more time explaining definite atonement and quoting scholars who argue for this position than he does refuting it and citing Arminian scholars defending a general atonement. In a multiview book there is no need to “waste” a lot of pages explaining another position, especially when that essay is before yours. I think Osborne’s case would have been much stronger if he had spent more time making a positive case for general atonement.
When he does get to the defense, Osborne focuses on 2 Peter 3:9 and John 1:4, 7, 9 and then flies over around twenty other texts in defense of a general atonement. Again, because of the extremely brief, surface-level treatment of a whole host of texts, the case isn’t very strong. Osborne’s main points from these texts are that 1) universal atonement is the result of God’s love; 2) many for whom Christ died will perish; 3) the gospel must be universally proclaimed; and 4) sinners are presented as unbelievers whose rejection has brought about their damnation. He ends his chapter with an important argument: that a view of universal atonement does not lead to pelagianism or universalism and that Arminianism is not semi-Pelagian because of the doctrine of prevenient grace.
Trueman begins his response by asserting that this discussion can’t be advanced by exchange of prooftexts nor isolated exegesis of texts, but is in actuality a theological matter as much as an exegetical one. He addresses this hermeneutical issue of isolated text versus theological framework in Osborne’s exegesis. Trueman also addresses Osborne’s claim that Arminians believe in total depravity and that the Arminian faith-response is not a work. He furthermore devotes a considerable amount of space to Osborne’s problematic treatment of the heavenly intercession of Christ. Trueman’s main issue with Osborne’s essay is that he did not address “the wider hermeneutical issues relative to soteriology as a whole. Thus, verses are represented as ambiguous or potentially serving either Calvinist or Arminian purposes without the development of the framework necessary to decide which interpretation is most valid. Further, the theological and pastoral implications of the whole Arminian scheme for the intercession of Christ, particularly as they serve to divest John 17 of its meaning, are devastating both to Catholic Christology and to pastoral application” (133-134). Hammett takes issue with Osborne’s statement that some hyper-Calvinists interpret “all” as all kinds of people, not every person. He rightly notes this is a mainstream view among contemporary advocates of definite atonement. Hammett also demonstrates how out of Osborne’s four main points for general atonement (numbered above), only the first two are legitimate arguments to deal with because the latter two pose no problem for proponents of definite atonement.
Finally, John Hammett’s essay argues “that there are three intentions in the atonement: universal, particular, and cosmic. It affirms that the atonement is in some sense universal and in some sense particular, but multiple-intentions best comprehends all of the biblical teaching on the atonement, particularly biblical teaching on the extent of the atonement” (149 emphasis original). The first part of the essay makes a case for a universal intention in the atonement, using many of the same texts and arguments as typical advocates of general atonement. The main difference here is that Hammett believes that the multiple intentions view can respond better to objections from the definite atonement camp than typical formulations of universal atonement. In the second part of his essay, Hammett makes a case for a particular intention in the atonement, again using many of the arguments typically made by the definite atonement camp but with some modifications and noting that the multiple intentions view is not subject to most objections to definite atonement. “By far the most important advantage [of the multiple intentions view] is that it allows for the most natural exegesis both to universal and to particular texts. It also allows for a clear and unmistakable basis for calling all to repentance and faith and for affirming that Christ has secured the salvation of the elect in his atonement. In short, the multiple-intentions view seems to have all the virtues of both traditional positions with few of the problems of either” (183).
In essence McCall agrees with much of what Hammet writes about universal intentionality but is “not entirely sure about how to square what he says about this with what he says about the ‘particular intention’” (195). He’s also not convinced that Hammet’s view enjoys the dual advantage of accounting for both the full scope of God’s love and particular intention in atonement. Notably, McCall also responds briefly to Hammett’s objections about prevenient grace. Trueman, while acknowledging that “definite atonement” is a better designation than “limited atonement”, argues that effective atonement is better yet. “This is the key to the issue of the matter, whether one regards the atonement as actually achieving anything or simply making something possible” (204). Trueman’s critique of Hammett has mainly to do with his theological framework and the failure to set Christ’s death within the context of His mediatory role (similar to his critique of Osborne). Furthermore, “one of the real weaknesses of Hammett’s essay is his failure to set the New Testament death of Christ firmly within the context of the Old Testament. In doing so he both misses the larger redemptive-historical context of Christ’s work and also the critical connection between sacrifice and application” (206). Trueman’s main concern with hypothetical universalism is that “it fails to give a coherent account of the biblical teaching on priesthood and sacrifice, as it flows from Old Testament to New and find sits most elaborate expressions in John 17 and the Christology of the book of Hebrews” (211).
As I mentioned in the introduction to this review, at the very least Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement helps us see that each of the three views espoused in this book is exegetically and theologically tenable and that this is an in-house, family debate amongst genuine believers who all affirm the essential tenet of penal substitutionary atonement. This is very important because of the unfortunate tendency toward caricature and schism due to differing views on the extent of the atonement. Of course this is a great book to read for anyone who hasn’t come to a definitive position on this matter yet. But this is also a very important book for those who hold passionately to their view and haven’t grappled with the best arguments of the other side. As Andrew Naselli notes in the conclusion, he and his coeditor Mark Snoeberger’s major goal for this book “is to help Christians better understand this issue and consequently disagree with their brothers and sisters in Christ in a God-glorifying way who hold different views. We want this book to help correct misperceptions and foster a better understanding of the extent of the atonement” (214). The book ends with 10 ways to create unhealthy schism over the extent of the atonement, which we obviously should avoid (pp. 217-227):
- Uncharitably denigrating other positions.
- Setting up and tearing down straw men.
- Viewing other evangelical views as heresy.
- Insufficiently defining a personal position.
- Claiming that a personal view is the result of exegesis and biblical theology but not systematic theology.
- Overemphasizing the importance of the atonement’s extent.
- Assuming that only non-Calvinists can tell a non-Christian “God loves you” or “Jesus died for you.”
- Requiring that others adhere to a particular view when flexibility is appropriate.
- Giving the impression that complete understanding is possible regarding the extent of the atonement.
- Holding a personal position with sinful pride.
Thanks to B&H Academic for the review copy!