Calvinism’s Closet Heresy? Torrance on Limited Atonement

My name is Caleb, and I used to be a Calvinist. To be honest, I’m still kind of like one, but I’m definitely not a 5-point, TULIP believer. In fact, the center of TULIP theology, the L, is my primary problem, the problem which epitomizes what is wrong with the entire system. If by any chance you don’t know, the L in TULIP stands for “Limited Atonement.” According to the uniquely Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, Jesus did not die for all people, at least in a saving way. For the Calvinist, Jesus only died to save the elect, the limited group of people God unconditionally chose to save from before time.

Limited atonement is the weakest link in the TULIP chain, and in my opinion this doctrine is entirely unbiblical. TULIP’s L cannot be found in Scripture, nor does Scripture allow that possibility. If you want to dispute that, I’d simply say that texts like Lk. 23:34, John 1:29, 2 Cor. 5:14-15, Col. 1:20, 1 Tim. 2:6, Heb. 2:9, 1 Jn. 2:2 are too explicit and drastically outweigh the flimsy proofs that Jesus death was intended only for some people’s salvation.

Of course, as the title says, this post is not about my own arguments against limited atonement but about one by T. F. Torrance. Torrance, a truly brilliant, 20th century Scottish Reformed theologian, writes in his book Atonement on the hidden Nestorianism hidden within this doctrine. If you’re not familiar, Nestorianism was a Christological heresy which said Jesus was basically two Christs, a divine Christ and a human Christ, united in one body with one mind. Instead of a single Jesus who is fully God and fully man as one person, there was a God-Jesus and a human-Jesus stuck together with “duct tape” flesh.

According to Torrance, limited atonement only makes sense if we look at Jesus the way Nestorians do. I’ll quote what he said:

Three basic questions are raised by this [limited atonement].

(i) Whom did Christ represent in his incarnation and in his death? Did he represent all humanity, or only a chosen few?

(ii) What is the relation between the death of Jesus and the Father in heaven? Did God himself condescend to take upon himself man’s judgment, or did he send someone to represent him and do a work which was rewarded with forgiveness as he saw fit?

(iii) What is the nature of the efficacy of the atoning death of Christ?

After asking about what relation, if any, the incarnation has to the atonement, Torrance writes this:

Atonement and incarnation, however, cannot be separated from one another and therefore the range of representation is the same in both. In both, all people are involved. In the incarnation Christ, the eternal Son, took upon himself the nature of man and all who belong to human nature are involved and are represented, all men and women without exception, so that for all and each, Jesus Christ stood in as substitute and advocate in his life and in his death. Because he is the eternal Word or Logos in whom all humanity is assumed by his incarnation; all humanity is bound up with him, he died for all humanity and all humanity died in him.

Moving on to what he says about the relation between the Son’s death and the Father:

The hyper-Calvinist, however, argues in this way, that in Christ’s life and especially in his death on the cross, the deity of Christ was in repose. He suffered only in his humanity. On the cross, Christ merited forgiveness sufficient for all mankind…but it held efficaciously only for those whom the Father had given him…Here we must look at the relation posed here between Christ in his human nature on the cross and God in heaven. If Christ acted only in his human nature on the cross and God remained utterly apart and utterly transcendent, except that he agreed in will with Christ whom he sent to die, then all that Christ does is not necessarily what God does or accepts. In that case the sacrifice of Christ may be accepted as satisfaction only for the number of the elect that God has previously chosen or determined. But if God himself came among us in Christ his beloved Son, and assumed upon himself our whole burden of guilt and judgment, then such an arbitrary view would be impossible. And we must hold the view that it is indeed God himself who bears our sins, God become man and taking man’s place, standing with humanity under the divine judgment, God the judge becoming himself the man judged and bearing his own judgment upon the sin of humanity, so that we cannot divorce the action of Christ from the action of God. The concept of a limited atonement thus rests upon a basic Nestorian heresy.

Besides how can we think of the judgment on the cross as only a partial judgment upon sin, or of a judgment only upon some sinners, for that is what it is if only some sinners are died for and only some are implicated in Christ and the cross? But what would that mean but a destruction of the whole concept of atonement, for it would mean a partial judgment and not a final No of God against sin; it would mean a partial substitution and thus a repudiation of the concept of radical substitution which the atonement involves…Or to put it another way: it would mean that outside of Christ there is still a God of wrath who will judge humanity apart from the cross and who apart from the cross is a wrathful God. But that is to divide God from Christ in the most impossible way and to eliminate the whole teaching of the ‘wrath of the lamb’, namely that God has committed all judgment to the Son.

All above from T. F. Torrance, Atonement, pp. 181-185 (some emphasis mine)

If I were to summarize what Torrance is saying here, the point is that limited atonement can only work if there is a very wrong degree of separation between what Jesus Christ did in his human life and what God Himself does. For the divine Word of God is the image of God in whom all people are created; God is the one in whom we all live and move and have our being. So if God is the one who was acting on the cross, taking His own judgment on sinners, then He would necessarily include all humanity in that action. Only if Jesus died as one mere, although perfect, human among other mere humans could His death be used to save only some humans. This implies Nestorianism, because this only works if Jesus as a human can be separated from Jesus as God.

So limited atonement has a closet heresy. Just when you think a doctrine couldn’t be more unbiblical…

I suppose I’ll close with a passage from Hebrews, one which when given serious thought leaves no room for a limited atonement, because Jesus is God (which the author pounds on in the chapter before this quote) and human.

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him? You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything under them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. He says:

“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again he says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil…For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.

Hebrews 2:10-14,17

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4 Thoughts to “Calvinism’s Closet Heresy? Torrance on Limited Atonement

  1. I wouldn’t call limited atonement a heresy, but It is the doctrine that I find the most difficulty to accept as a beginner calvinist. How do you view atonement and salvation in a way that Christ can die in place of every sinner, and yet not everyone get saved?
    I see it as Christ and the Holy Spirit performing two jobs, where as Christ dies for all sinners, the Holy Spirit applies the death, a seal, to the elect.
    Like in the first passover, it wasn’t enough for the lamb to be killed, a person had to smear it over the door post for God’s judgement to pass over his house hold. Thereby leaving the possibility of a lamb dying for a family, but judgement being able to be executed on that family if they didn’t smear the lamb on the door post as a seal.
    Anyway, this was an interesting read, remind me never to read your posts before church xD I was focused way too much on it, instead of church haha.

    1. I also wouldn’t call limited atonement itself a heresy, but the idea is that it basically relies on the Nestorian heresy to make sense.
      As an ex-Calvinist myself, it was rather uncomfortable to me at the beginning. The last hurdle, as it were. Ultimately, it was never Biblically satisfying, though it was logically satisfying. “Christ died for all” is simply an unavoidable part of Biblical teaching.
      I don’t think the “two jobs” answer works that well either. It seems to rely on more disunity in the Trinity. The Father chooses a small elect, the Son dies for all, and the Spirit applies Jesus’ work to the small elect? It would seem to put the Son is a place of more universal grace than either the Father or the Holy Spirit, which would clearly be unacceptable.
      My suggestion (starting without the Calvinist premise of unconditional individual election) is that Jesus’ death is universal, and the Spirit’s call is universal (or at least as far as the preached Gospel goes). A response of faith is altogether attributable to God through the Spirit from Christ’s vicarious human faith for us, while a response of unbelief is altogether attributable to the mysterious working of sin within fallen human existence. Conversion is “all of Christ” while rejection is “all of man.”

  2. But does “all” really always mean “all” in the Bible, or are you missing something by keeping your cultural blinders on?

    1Tim6:10For the love of money is the root of ALL evil (KJV) / For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.)

    Modern translators understand that the Greek word “pas” is more correctly translated here as “all kinds.” Did King David commit adultery because he loved money?

    Acts2:17In the last days, God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on ALL people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18Even on my servants…”

    Again, “all” means “all kinds”: men and women, young and old; but specifically the people of God…believers…and not “every single person.” (C.f. Titus 2)

    Heb2:9But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for EVERYONE.

    Lots of noncalvinists simply prooftext Heb2:9 – you quote the larger passage but miss the point. What does the context here say?

    10In bringing many SONS to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of THEIR SALVATION perfect through suffering. 11Both the one who makes men holy and THOSE WHO ARE MADE HOLY are of the same FAMILY. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them BROTHERS.

    Again, the context makes it clear that believers are in view here, not “every single person.” And what did Jesus accomplish on the cross?

    Gal3:13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…

    Matt25:41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed…

    If Christ became a curse for unbelievers, why are they still called “cursed” in the final judgment? He laid down His life for His sheep (John10:15), not the goats.

    Probably the clearest verse teaching LA is here:

    Rom8:32He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us ALL—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.

    Will God graciously give unbelievers all things, including justification? Or was Jesus given up in order to save “His people from their sins?” (Matt1:21) The “chosen” in v.33 is of course the same word for “elect” – these promises are only for believers. This verse clearly teaches who Jesus was given up for, and it absolutely is not “every single person.”

    In John17, Jesus prays for believers and also, those “who will believe” v.20 – the future was not a mystery to Him and He could pray for believers in 2015 by name if He chose. But it’s notable in Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer that He refuses (v9) to intercede for the “world” (which does not mean “every single person” but is logically the subset of humanity that will never believe) because He did not sacrifice Himself for them.

    Our point of agreement would be that God “invites” everyone (even though he does not “compel” all (Luke14:23)). We don’t know the future – God does. God can set Paul aside from birth, knowing that his free will choices to persecute the church will be frustrated and ultimately turned around by God’s intention. Paul deserved hardening and judgment but was instead was the recipient of very active mercy, which continues to be our only hope.

    1. If this post was a generic critique of limited atonement, I would probably reply to your arguments here, but this post is particularly about the argument that limited atonement implies a Nestorian Christology. What I’m far more interested in is whether you have a response to that argument.

      (I do, however, want to point out that I think your reading of Hebrews 2 is devestatingly off-target. The point is the solidarity of Christ with the human race. The whole point of mentioning His taking on human nature is that by doing so He identifies Himself with humanity. If this is true His representative/substitutionary role applies to all who share that human nature, not just a chosen few.)

So what do you think?