The Backward Hermeneutic of Limited Atonement

Honestly, as much as I strenuously oppose the doctrine of limited atonement on logical and theological grounds, my most confident and compelling reasons are simply Biblical. I don’t think Scripture supports the doctrine in any way, shape, or form, but in fact entirely and completely contradicts it. I think T. F. Torrance was altogether correct in his response to a student prompting the doctrine:

That Christ did not die for all is the worst possible argument for those who claim to believe in verbal inspiration!

And this quote gets at the big problem I have with the way people use Scripture to support limited atonement. It requires a terrible, backward, inverted hermeneutic that does serious violence to the text. Specifically, this is the problem: the doctrine of limited atonement requires that we use human inferences from non-explicit texts to overturn or limit the meaning of explicit, clear texts.

Simple example: Hebrews 2:9, 1 John 2:2, 2 Corinthians 5:5, 19, 1 Timothy 4:10 are all very, very explicit about Christ dying for all men. I mean, in realistic terms, there is no way that the Spirit could have been more clear if He wanted to say that Christ died for all. These verses add up to the strongest possible terms save the rather extreme possibility, “Now beware those who will one day try to tell you that Jesus died only for the elect, because He actually died for every single human who ever lived.”

Nonetheless, apologists for limited atonement always feel the need to find convoluted ways to explain away the explicit meaning of these passages because of its overly rationalized readings of texts like John 6, John 10, or Ephesians 5. They draw out inferences from these texts which are at best tenuous, often don’t even logically follow, and in most cases try to force the atonement into a rigorous system of merely human logic. These inferences go something along the lines of “Jesus died for Christians, therefore Jesus did not die for anyone else,” something which (of course) does not necessarily follow. Other times they will make more complex inferences based on the nature of the atonement, pressing the legal metaphors of Scripture way beyond their bounds to create a double-jeopardy scenario for anyone who denies limited atonement. This again tries to overly rationalize God’s revelation in human limits, and in particular often fails to grasp the analogical and metaphorical nature of New Testament descriptions of the atonement, which in itself is a holy and transcendent mystery.

These human rationalizations and inferences, then, are permitted and in fact forced to overrule and twist the plain meaning of the other atonement texts, the ones which explain very straightforwardly that Jesus has died fully and truly for all people everywhere. This is a backward hermeneutical method. It is the opposite of how we rightly ought to understand Scripture. The clear and explicit testimony about Christ’s death for all men should lead us to hold back on our human inferences from other texts, not the other way around.

In this case, the classical Calvinists fall prey to the same trap they frequently find in others. The hermeneutic behind limited atonement is in principle no more legitimate or less legitimate than that of an Arminian who, applying human reason to the doctrine of God’s justice or love, rules out the possibility that the favorite Calvinist proof-texts could mean unconditional election or irresistible grace.

Basic moral of the story: don’t use human inferences from less explicit texts to block the explicit statements of others. So no limited atonement.

2 Replies to “The Backward Hermeneutic of Limited Atonement”

  1. Brother you claim Calvinist use non explicit texts to overturn explicit texts
    But the texts you cited in their context are not explaining atonement in detail. They seem to be more passing side notes in a bigger argument in the surrounding passages. So your claim is actually a false one and one that makes the debate difficult. I would be wary before saying something like that unless you are willing to deal with those texts more fully and arguments from traditional Calvinist that you would dissect.

    • I would counter that at least some of these texts are explaining atonement in at least some level of detail, the most powerful one being Hebrews 2. The whole argument of Hebrews 2 is that Jesus took on human nature in order to save those who share in that nature. It functions with the logic that Jesus represented in His atoning work all those who He represented in His Incarnation, and in His Incarnation Jesus represented all of those who share in human “flesh and blood.” The atonement in Hebrews 2 is for all who have human flesh and blood, all who were in bondage to the devil by fear of death. No limits are placed or allowed there.

      2 Corinthians 5:15, 19 are also, while not explaining atonement in detail, very relevant. They tie our evangelistic efforts to the extent of the atonement. They tell us that the apostolic preaching in a sense way, “You have been reconciled to God, therefore be reconciled to God!” Paul says that since Christ died for all they were compelled to preach the Gospel to all, so that the world which was reconciled to God on the cross might repent and be reconciled to God personally.

      1 Timothy 4:10 is rather enigmatic and it is hard to tell what it’s role in the context might be, but I don’t think there is any possible reading which supports limited atonement.

      The “whole world” part of 1 John 2:2 also seems abrupt in context, but at the same time it cannot easily be limited. The only argument I’ve seen before is that it simply means, “both Jews and Gentiles,” but to say that “we” refers specifically to Jewish believers is arbitrary and unfounded. No other solution seems readily at hand.

      But of course, overall it should be noted that there really aren’t any texts in the New Testament which discuss atonement in much detail, with the possible exception of Hebrews 2. And the favorite prooftexts for limited atonement, such as John 10 and Ephesians 5, have almost nothing to do with atonement in their larger context and only really connect it in passing.

      Honestly, at the exegetical level I think universalism has more support than limited atonement, even though I must reject both.

So what do you think?