Previous article in this series: April 15, 2017, p. 317.
Asking the readers’ forbearance, we have decided to devote one more editorial to Kenneth Stewart’s book, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011).
We do this first of all because Stewart’s book has received good reviews in various Reformed Journals (a review by Alan Strange in the Mid-America Journal of Theology, vol. 22, 2011, pp. 223-28 is a case in point). This is troubling because, as we stated in our April 15 editorial, what is clear from Stewart’s book is that he wants to retain the right to be called a ‘Calvinist’ while calling into question the very doctrines that were central to Calvin himself—in fact, doctrines that are fundamental to any theology that has the right to call itself ‘historically Reformed.’ In particular, the doctrines that have to do with sovereign predestination, God’s particular, irresistible grace, and especially the scope of Christ’s atonement.
This we fear is becoming the ‘Calvinism’ of our day, and this as the 400th anniversary of the Canons of Dordt approaches. It is our judgment that if Stewart’s perspective prevails among those being introduced to Calvinism and the Reformed faith, the very clarity of the Canons themselves as regards the doctrines of grace and their sharp rejection of Arminian errors will be ‘nuanced’ into uncertainty and obscurity.
Secondly, we have decided on one more article in response to Stewart’s book and suggested redefinition of historic Calvinism because we are convinced, on reflection, that something must be said about Calvinism and the doctrine of “limited atonement.”
If there is one doctrine that even many with a reputation for being Calvinists would uproot and discard it is limited atonement. The reality is, uproot this part of the flower of truth and the whole of the Reformed truth embodied in TULIP withers with it.
As you may recall, Stewart’s book is divided into two sections; the first labeled: “Four Myths Calvinists Should Not Be Circulating (But Are)”; the second labeled: “Six Myths Non-Calvinists Should Not Be Circulating (But Are).” As previously stated, our focus is on Stewart’s first section, the “Four Myths Calvinists Should Not Be Circulating (But Are).”
In our last article we offered a brief critique of what Stewart labels as the third issue Calvinists should treat as a myth, namely, that “TULIP is the Yardstick of the Truly Reformed.” Having responded (due to space constraints) only to Stewart’s criticism of the adjective “total” as applied to fallen man’s depravity, and the word “irresistible” when describing God’s saving grace, we turn to Stewart’s objection to the word “limited” as applied to the atoning work of Christ.
We judge Stewart’s objection not only to be without merit, but worse, in the end, to be an attempt to make allowances for the very unbiblical views about Christ’s atoning work that the Canons were written to refute, namely, a Christ dying for everyone in some sense of the word and yet failing to secure their salvation. And this in turn is exactly what would become the emphasis (marrow?) of the preaching when it comes to the call of the gospel. To all and sundry the proclamation, “Christ is dead for you!”
What else does Stewart imagine the Arminians were preaching prior to Dordt?
Stewart’s aversion to the word “limited” as applied to Christ’s atoning death is simple to explain. It would mean Christ died representing only the elect, to save them and no others.
Stewart writes with approval of some who “show a heightened awareness that the doctrines summarized under the rubric of TULIP are capable of being grossly misunderstood” (77). Then having listed “limited atonement” as one of the “items most often admitted to be problematic,” Stewart goes on to say:
The Calvinistic writers I term apologetic [and approve of] are ready both to restate the doctrines summarized in TULIP and to alter that acronym, as necessary, to more effectively communicate what they consider to be the actual meaning of the points (77).
What meaning Stewart himself would apply to Christ’s atonement becomes plain.
While asserting that he can live with the words “definite” and “particular” when applied to Christ’s atonement (evidently because at least they are not the word “limited”) the phrase Stewart commends for the readers’ approval is that of a certain Anglican theologian by the name of Thomas Scott, who “like the Anglican delegates to Dordt, preferred [the phrase] ‘general redemption’” (83).
And that in the name of Calvinism and the Reformed confession of Dordt, which document was written precisely to distinguish itself from and to refute Arminianism, to keep that deadly virus from infecting Reformed preaching. And since the heart of preaching focuses on the cross of Christ and those sinners for whom He died, preaching a general atonement (Christ dying on behalf of far more than are actually saved) Calvinistic preaching is going to be distinct from Arminian preaching how?
Allow for preaching the atonement in that fashion and, as the saying goes, “You have given away the store,” that is, you have given the pulpit back to Arminianism.
What Stewart pleads for are Calvinistic writers who “show [a] generous [!] interest in defining and articulating their Calvinism” (89).
Why? Because such a noble, broad-hearted spirit will allow for “room at the cross” (89).
Room for whom?
Evidently, for those whose theology has little use for unconditional election and limited atonement. Stewart has praise for “older writers” who in his estimation “often took pains to spell out the senses in which there were universal [emphasis Stewart’s] benefits in that particular redemption won by Christ” (89).
“Universal” in the sense of Christ dying in some sense for everyone of the human race.
Where does Stewart get the notion that this can be labeled “Reformed”? Supposedly from the Canons of Dordt itself as he interprets Head II, Article 3!
This universal atonement notion Stewart posits is “…in keeping with Dordt’s original insistence that, as to the sheer value of Christ’s dying, his death was ‘abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world’” (89).
The old canard repeated by so many ‘Calvinists-who-cannot-shake-their-Arminian-sentiments’ dug up once again. As if, when the astute fathers of Dordt spoke (in the Second Head) of Christ’s sacrifice as being of “infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world,” they were not really focused on its value (in response to Arminian charges that the Reformed limited the value of Christ’s blood), but were actually conceding that, yes, there was a sense in which Christ did die for more than the elect given Him of the Father, and that this should be proclaimed from their pulpits to the world.
So, a gracious atonement made for all men after all, though it was precisely to refute this teaching troubling their Reformed churches that men like Gomarus and Bogerman sought a General Synod in the Netherlands to begin with.
Article 3 of the Second Head (having to do with Christ’s redemption) is written simply to make plain that Calvinism’s ‘limiting’ of Christ’s atonement to the elect had nothing to do with its limiting of the value of Christ’s death. The atonement of the Son of God was valuable enough to save this world and ten thousand worlds besides, if that had been God’s will.
The point is, that was not the issue. The issue was, who was it that Christ represented (and whose guilt He carried) when He suffered God’s wrath for sin and sinners? All mankind in general, or only the elect of all mankind?
To which issue the truly Reformed Synod gave answer in the Canons:
For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect [!]for the bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation; that is, it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language all those, and those only [!] who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father… (II, 8, emphasis added).
The extent of Christ’s atonement, those on whose behalf Christ sacrificed Himself, is, according to the Canons, limited to the elect. And this means that all those for whom Christ gave Himself are surely, infallibly saved.
A general atonement means that for the majority of those for whom He died, Christ ended up securing nothing. The majority of those whom God in the cross yearned to save, perish anyway.
Not such good news, however generous sounding, after all.
The Calvinistic delegates of the Synod of Dordt did not write the Canons to show the Arminians how much they had in common when it came to the gospel of grace. “There is room at the cross for your interpretation of it, and of ours. Let’s make allowances for each other’s views, shall we?” The Canons are of the sharpest polemical spirit. To the fathers of Dordt the doctrine of a universal redemption was unscriptural and destructive of the gospel.
J. I Packer in his magisterial “Introductory Essay” to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ has it precisely right when he states,
These five points are conveniently denoted by the mnemonic TULIP…. The difference between them [Calvinism and Arminianism] is not primarily one of emphasis, but of content. One proclaims a God who saves; the other speaks of a God Who enables man to save himself.1
In other words, what is at stake is the apostolic gospel itself.
We do well to consider that where true-hearted Calvinism has ruled there has been no aversion to confessing and promoting limited atonement.
J. I. Packer in his better days, prior to his “Evangelical and Catholics Together” compromise, summarized well the seventeenth-century theologian John Owen’s defense of Calvinism as the gospel in Owen’s book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. (In the following quotation the emphases are ours.)
If we listen to him [Owen], he will teach us both how to believe the Scripture gospel and how to preach it. For the first: he will lead us to bow down before a sovereign Savior Who really saves, and to praise Him for a redeeming death which made it certain that all for whom He died will come to glory. It cannot be over-emphasized that we have not seen the full meaning of the Cross till we have seen it as the divines of Dort display it as the centre of the gospel, flanked on the one hand by total inability and unconditional election, and on the other by irresistible grace and final preservation. [That spells TULIP—kk]. For the full meaning of the Cross only appears when the atonement is defined in terms of these four truths. Christ died to save a certain company of helpless sinners upon whom God had set His free saving love. Christ’s death ensured the calling and keeping—the present and final salvation—of all whose sins He bore.2
But there have been more such Calvinists.
Abraham Kuyper, in his book Particular Grace, written to reintroduce confessional Calvinism to his apostatizing Reformed church in the nineteenth-century Netherlands, provides a list of quotes from Reformed fathers who tied Christ’s atoning death to election, which is to say, limiting its scope to the elect. One of the theologians quoted was Dr. Trelcatius Sr., a stalwart who taught at Leiden prior to Dordt. Writes Trelcatius:
Christ did not die for all, but only for the elect, for if one should ask “For whom did Christ die?” then this pertains to those in whom the death of Christ hath effected its purpose, and this can only include all and every believer.3
This is an important quote, establishing that what is known as limited atonement was not a doctrine Dordt newly coined and invented, but was one already well established and which Dordt’s synod was convened exactly to defend.
And then Kuyper turns to a quote from what he calls “the well-known Synopsis” which “for almost a century remained the standard text of our theology” (but fell out of favor as Arminianism returned and modernism took hold):
The objects of grace are only the elect and true believers, both from the Old and New Testaments. For although the satisfaction of Christ, when viewed from the perspective of its scope, value, and sufficiency, could be extended to all men, yet it has been ordained specifically for those only whom the Father chose and granted to the Son.4
Again, the atonement of Christ could have been extended to all men, if that had been God’s will (because the value of the ‘shed blood’ is of infinite value); but it was not, because as Scripture makes plain, Christ’s death was ordained for a specific segment of the human race, the chosen, or elect, limiting its scope.
We could quote more such Calvinists. A. W. Pink comes to mind, in his book The Sovereignty of God. Limited atonement as effectual atonement looms large in Pink (read chapter 4).
Let no one be mistaken. It is Stewart’s contention that those who have and do hold to the doctrines of God’s sovereign saving grace as being properly described by what TULIP represent “…a Calvinism on the margins, rather than…the Protestant tradition as a whole…” (89). That is the real myth.
It is what is in line with the decisive Calvinism of the Canons of Dordt that represents the biblically faithful Protestant tradition. Nothing less.
What Stewart is proposing is nothing less than a departure from the time-honored tradition and a corruption of the gospel.
1 Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999, 4.
2 Packer, “Introductory Essay,” 15.
3 Abraham Kuyper, Particular Grace: A Defense of God’s Sovereignty in Salvation, translated by Marvin Kamps, (Grandville, MI: RFPA, 2001), 7.
4 Kuyper, 8 (emphasis added).